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Plato and Popcorn
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Engaging the experience of viewing narrative cinema with speculative and analytic thought is the explicit aim of Richard A. Gilmore's Doing Philosophy at the Movies. Thinking about film from a philosophical perspective, for Gilmore, bears a direct relation to an individual's intellectual quality of life. Like the prisoner in Plato's cave, to which the author makes repeated reference, the first step towards freedom is to identify one's constraints. For Gilmore, movies entail the potential to provide a unique instructional service by helping viewers identify their own ideological limits; such self-knowledge likewise produces new possibilities for individual agency and freedom. However, the difference between entertainment and enlightenment is not implicit to films themselves, but necessarily owes to the difference between passive and active reception. It is, therefore, a particular kind of active film reception that Gilmore proposes: "What is called for is a re-education in how to go to the movies. The way to go to the movies is to go philosophically." (9)

The title of Gilmore's book begs the question, "Whose philosophy and which movies?" But the ambiguity of the title accurately reflects a text more interested in convincing readers of the benefit of philosophic film viewing than in advocating any particular theoretical perspective or in studying any particular cinematic genre. The individual chapters reveal no definitive philosophical core, with multiple references made to such diverse thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Beauvoir, Horkheimer and Adorno, and ZHizhek, among several others. The choice of films—if in appearance just as arbitrary as the collection of philosophers—at least evidences Gilmore's belief that complex ideas are just as easily located in mass market productions as in independent or art house offerings. Each chapter focuses on one or two films, including The Searchers (US, 1956), The Usual Suspects (US, 1995), Vertigo (US, 1958), Fargo (US, 1996), Crimes and Misdemeanors (US, 1989), The Terminator (US, 1984), 12 Monkeys (US, 1995), Trainspotting (UK, 1996), and Night of the Living Dead (US, 1968).

Assuming a reader new to philosophy and film studies, Gilmore's deft discussion of specific philosophers and epistemic traditions, as well as his energetic and detailed readings of major Hollywood productions, proves to be a lucid and engaging read. The author perhaps embraces an insurmountable task in seeking to introduce readers to complex philosophic works—such as Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Derrida's notion of the pharmakon—in what are most often only a few short paragraphs sprinkled throughout each chapter. However, Gilmore's pairing of specific film scenes with difficult theoretical notions, which seems to take cues from ZHizhek's explication of Lacan via Hitchcock, provides an illustrative if somewhat superficial starting point for the uninitiated reader. The author is undoubtedly at his best and most precise when he engages in a materialist critique of capitalist ideology, particularly in his analysis of the exchange of money as a means of power in Fargo and the substitution of heroin addiction for middle class values in Trainspotting.

There is much in Gilmore's text that may surprise and even confound the serious reader of philosophy, film history, or film theory. His introduction, for example, includes a rather pedestrian discussion of how movies "transport" viewers beyond their daily lives. Furthermore, his stated belief that films can provide life-instruction also results in rather odd comparative judgments. In his conclusion to the second chapter, Gilmore argues that The Usual Suspects lacks "helpful wisdom" in comparison to Vertigo, which Gilmore believes to be more complex and, accordingly, more useful in producing self-knowledge for its viewers. (55) That Gilmore never adequately defines wisdom, besides referring to it as a kind of anomalous form of self-consciousness, is perhaps no more or less problematic than his claim that one film may contain more wisdom than another.

Finally, there is an underlying problem with Gilmore's premise that he never fully addresses. Since it is not the films but rather the viewers who need to change—who need to "learn to learn" from the viewing experience—and since Gilmore's text clearly emphasizes philosophic thinking as the necessary starting point, just how important is film viewing to this process...



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