Brave New Worlds

By Martin WoessnerMay 13, 2015

Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema by Daniel Yacavone

IN 1966 A YOUNG Harvard graduate by the name of Terrence Malick won a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he planned to continue his philosophical studies. Under the supervision of the philosopher Stanley Cavell, Malick had just completed an impressive undergraduate thesis, “The Concept of Horizon in Husserl and Heidegger,” which would serve as the foundation for the academic work he hoped to continue on the other side of the Atlantic. It was not meant to be.

The story goes that Malick arrived at Oxford with the intention of writing a dissertation about the concept of world in the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, only to be told by none other than Gilbert Ryle — perhaps the most famous representative of what was once called “ordinary language philosophy” — that he should consider settling on a more properly “philosophical” topic. Whether or not Malick’s budding scholarly interests really were so summarily dismissed, and in such a quintessentially Oxbridge way, the Rhodes scholar (from Texas by way of Cambridge, Massachusetts) never did finish his dissertation. But what might have been a loss for academic philosophy soon enough became a rather tremendous gain for American filmmaking. After teaching briefly at MIT, where he filled in for Hubert Dreyfus whom he had known from his Harvard days, and after translating some Heidegger into English, Malick moved to Los Angeles, enrolled at the newly created American Film Institute, and began writing scripts.

Malick makes only the most fleeting of appearances in Daniel Yacavone’s Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema — so fleeting, in fact, that he doesn’t even warrant an entry in the book’s index. This is surprising, especially given the fact that Malick, as both a philosopher and a filmmaker, has devoted so much time and attention to the articulation, examination, creation, and understanding of, well, worlds. His undergraduate thesis on Husserl and Heidegger suggested that the best way to approach these thinkers — both so very different from Ryle and ordinary language philosophy, as continental thought generally is from Anglo-analytic thinking — was via their distinct conceptions of “world.” It was Husserl, after all, who coined the term Lebenswelt, or “life-world.” And a whole section of Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time was devoted to what he called “the worldhood of the world.”

The lengthy essay of Heidegger’s that Malick eventually translated into English, The Essence of Reasons (1969), was, as Malick put it in his preface to the book, “largely concerned with the concept of ‘world.’” It was the place where Heidegger, famously making a transitive verb out of an intransitive noun, first introduced the idea of the “worlding” of the world to describe the mysterious way in which worlds of meaning come into, and eventually fall out of, existence. To analytic philosophers who then, like now, were nothing if not precise about language, this was nonsense; that might explain why Malick felt it necessary to explicate the term “worlding” in a lengthy endnote to his translation. Given all this talk of life worlds and worlding and worldhood, however, is it any wonder that the worlds of Malick’s films — natural worlds, historical worlds, theological worlds, existential worlds — would be so compellingly drawn? Is there any other filmmaker to whom the idea of “film worlds” would be more applicable, more relevant, than the director of The New World?

But Film Worlds is not so much a book about filmmakers or their films as it is a book about film theory and the philosophy of film. In this sense the work is, as Yacavone puts it, “metatheoretical,” which is both its strength and perhaps its major limitation — its strength in that it distills a vast amount of philosophy and theory, but its weakness in that it sometimes reads like a distillation of vast amounts of philosophy and theory. Although filmmakers are discussed throughout Film Worlds — including Pasolini, Tarkovsky, and even, on occasion, David Lynch — it is their speculative and theoretical writings more than their films that receive attention. Far more space is given to outright philosophers, such as Nelson Goodman and Mikel Dufrenne, or to film theorists such as Jean Mitry. Nevertheless, far from diminishing the value of Film Worlds as a film studies book, this change of perspective actually enhances it. Unlike so many works that simply adopt a theoretical or philosophical perspective and run with it, applying it willy nilly to any and all available cinematic examples, Yacavone’s work attempts a far more ambitious rethinking of the philosophy of film itself.

This is no mean feat. Like the discipline of philosophy more generally, the philosophy of film is fractured and divided into various camps, making any attempt at delineating a general aesthetics of film a fraught enterprise from the start. The most identifiable dividing line, which Yacavone admirably tries to blur, is one that stretches back to Malick’s student days. On the one side are mostly Anglo-analytic thinkers who stress the “cognitivist,” linguistic, and symbolic registers of filmmaking and viewing. They tend to write works that, were he alive today, Gilbert Ryle would recognize as philosophy. Among them are Noël Carroll, Paisley Livingston, Carl Plantinga, and a host of others. On the other side are thinkers from or inspired by the continental tradition, which is more phenomenological or existential — one might even say more “metaphysical.” They tend to emphasize not so much the cognitive content of cinema but rather the experience of it, and that in and of itself makes it somewhat dubious in the eyes of the cognitivists. Here you can locate the work of D.N. Rodowick, Robert Sinnerbrink, Vivian Sobchack, and many, many more. There are a whole slew of figures in between, too, such as Stanley Cavell, himself an adherent of ordinary language philosophy who nevertheless oversaw Malick’s thesis on Heidegger and later went on to praise the “metaphysical vision of the world” that his former pupil’s second film, Days of Heaven, realized on screen.

If the continental/analytic split is less divisive than it once was, there are many other oppositions still bedeviling the philosophy of film. There is the ongoing debate between film realists and film formalists, for example, or the still unresolved clash between proponents and critics of auteur theory. Confronted with these methodological stand-offs, Yacavone consistently takes the both/and approach rather than the either/or. Like the aesthetic theory of film that it proposes, Film Worlds is a synthetic and holistic work, one that seeks to include rather than exclude as many philosophies of film as possible. Yacavone’s “aesthetics of cinema” turns out to be a rather wide tent, and almost anybody working at the intersection of film and philosophy can find shelter beneath it somewhere.

The ecumenical concept of the “film world” stretches between what Yacavone describes as world-in and world-of analyses of cinema — that is, the worlds within films (the war-torn Guadalcanal of Malick’s The Thin Red Line, for example) and the worlds of film as a larger totality (all of Malick’s other films, or the genre of war films, or even the world in general). If more cognitivist theories help us to appreciate, in a world-in sort of way, the complex inner workings of particular films, especially their use of narrative, framing, and symbolic devices and mechanisms, then more existential (read phenomenological) or interpretive (read hermeneutic) accounts of the filmmaking and viewing experience help us to grasp the fuzzier, more generalizable power of not just a particular film, but the larger world of film itself, in a world-of fashion. As Yacavone puts it, “films not only contain but are worlds.”

After an initial chapter that gets some of this theoretical throat-clearing out of the way, Yacavone proceeds, more or less, from world-in theories to world-of approaches. He is careful not to suggest that the latter are more worthy of our attention than the former, but one nevertheless gets the impression that in this chapter-by-chapter progression from the part to the whole, it is the whole that is more in keeping with the holistic spirit and tenor of the book he has written. Indeed, reading Film Worlds is like passing though the eye of the analytic needle to emerge into the limitless expanse of the continental tradition. It is almost as if, in composing the book, Yacavone wrote himself out of cognitivist film theory and into continental aesthetics: he starts with Noël Carroll but ends with Heidegger.

Yacavone does all this not only by reframing contemporary philosophy of film, but also by rescuing certain overlooked figures in both the analytic and continental traditions of philosophical aesthetics along the way. A chapter on “Symbolization, Meaning, and Art,” puts the American analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman in imaginary dialogue with the German-Jewish neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer to show that the world-making function of cinema typically hinges on its symbolic qualities and characteristics. But even this approach, which leans heavily on linguistics, is insufficient for film, which is so very extra-linguistic in nature, extending as it does into the realm of the senses beyond or before language, such as sight, sound, and mood. The next chapter, building upon the work of the French film theorist Jean Mitry, therefore searches for a “semiotics beyond linguistics.” This path leads Yacavone back to the more immediately recognizable work — for film studies people at least — of Gilles Deleuze, who maintained that cinematic images were “legible as well as visible.” They are both because, as Film Worlds so carefully demonstrates, movies refer not just to the symbolic lexicons of film history, but also to the wealth of real-world phenomena that are utilized in their making. At the same time that they are documents of the real world, films are also aesthetic re-descriptions of it, becoming their own unique worlds in the process.

Yacavone devotes a whole chapter to applying Goodman’s 1978 work of philosophical aesthetics, Ways of Worldmaking, to the cinematic arts. He details some of the ways in which film worlds are fashioned out of the real world by the choices and decisions of filmmakers (though Yacavone is careful to admit that filmmaking these days is largely a collaborative art form, entailing the contributions of “cinematographers, production designers, art directors, costume designers, composers”). Nevertheless, by itself Goodman’s notion of worldmaking is also not enough, for it cannot do justice to the complex and multi-layered dynamics of filmmaking and film-viewing. It is still too “cognitively oriented, ” in other words, to do justice to the full range of the cinematic experience.

If this pluralist, synthesizing book is adamant about anything, it is the fact that films are “expressive” works of art, which “exemplify” or participate in the very meaning-making symbolization that they come to represent. Sometimes explicitly, but always at least implicitly, films put the act of filmmaking on display and it is for this reason most of all that they are “rich and complex,” “open-ended” instances of “knotting” and “weaving,” which not only invite, but also often demand (re)interpretation. With its focus on interpretation and contingency, Yacavone’s aesthetic philosophy ultimately points away from cognitivist analytic philosophy and toward phenomenology and hermeneutics. His aesthetics of film worlds emphasizes the multifaceted and ever-changing nature of human experience as a key component of cinematic meaning. Our understanding of film changes as we change, just as films change in relation to our understanding and interpretation of them. The more we know about The Tree of Life the greater our appreciation of it; but the same could be said even for the most recent superhero movie or the latest installment of Mall Cop — well, not exactly.

Here is where Film Worlds really starts to come alive, as it moves away from the cognitive and toward the experiential, interpretive, and evaluative registers of film-as-art analysis. Maintaining that “film worlds are felt as much as they are perceived and known,” Yacavone goes on to explore the idea of “cinematic immersion,” which promotes and reflects “world-feeling.” He insists that we do not lose ourselves entirely in the movie theater, though: cinematic immersion is “not passive but responsive.” As absorbing as any cinematic artwork may be, it still requires our participation to make sense of it — film worlds only mean something when they are held up against other worlds. What’s the point of making a film if nobody is ever going to watch it, experience it, discuss it?

The truest test of any book, like any film, is how much you want to talk about it after experiencing it. By this barometer Film Worlds is a very good book. Its pages contain a great deal of discussion-worthy material, much of it awaiting application to particular film worlds, and to first-person, if not to say phenomenological, experiences of film-world immersion. But to some extent, the concept of film worlds remains slightly ineffable. Can any one description of Mulholland Drive really do justice to the look or sound or feeling of the world Lynch has created? As Yacavone admits at one point, it is only through some “seemingly magical amalgam of intuition, imagination, artistic intelligence, technical skill, and experience on the part of the filmmaker and his or her collaborators” on the one hand and a “viewer’s capacities for feeling” on the other that a movie goes from being just entertaining to meaningful. Just how, when, and why any kind of electricity is generated between these two poles remains unclear, which may very well be Yacavone’s point: investigations into the art of cinema will always remain partly incomplete, requiring further elucidation and renegotiation. They are open to debate and re-description, just as the “truth” of any particular film world is dependent upon our ongoing interaction(s) with it. And it is clear that some films invite such interaction more than others. Mall Cop 2 may be fun, but Citizen Kane it is not.

Leaning heavily upon the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger’s student Hans-Georg Gadamer, the final chapter of Film Worlds suggests that to truly understand any film as a work of art requires seeing it as an event that brings together, in a situated and contingent manner, the cinematic world and the world as we actually encounter it outside of the multiplex. Yacavone argues that a certain interpretive dialectic is at work here. Just as “the filmmaker borrows his or her materials from our worlds of experience in order to fashion a new world apart,” film viewers try to understand these new and strange worlds by finding ways to relate them back to the worlds of their experience — interested moviegoers, he says, “parse out and mentally return these realities-cum-world-making materials to the ‘places’ from which they came.” Here, too, not all movies are the same, artistically speaking. Some films worlds transform our existential worlds, making them “appear new and strange,” while they also at the same time force us to think differently about cinematic tropes and traditions. Other films tell us, often quite literally, what we already know, whether about the world or about movies. How many times have you predicted this or that narrative arc in the latest crop of blockbusters? Still, if movies have not always transformed the real world in a literal fashion, great cinema has certainly forced us to interpret it differently, and even Karl Marx would approve of that.

Yacavone attributes one of the closing insights of Film Worlds to François Truffaut, namely that “a successful film” should “express an idea of the world and idea of cinema” simultaneously. The films that make a place for both existential and cinematic truth, in other words, are the ones we remember, rediscover, and re-watch. They are the ones that, hermeneutically speaking, we interpret over and over again. These films pull us into their worlds at the same time that they push us back into our own with fresh eyes. If all this back-and-forth seems a little dizzying, don’t worry: that’s just the worlding of the world you’re feeling.


Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.

LARB Contributor

Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Terrence Malick and the Examined Life (forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press) and Heidegger in America (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


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