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  • IntroductionFilm and / as Ethics
  • Robert Sinnerbrink (bio) and Lisa Trahair (bio)

The relationship between film and philosophy, along with the idea of film as philosophy, has attracted widespread interest over the last decade. Film theorists and philosophers of film have explored not only the philosophical questions raised by cinema as an artform, but also the possibility that cinema might contribute to philosophical understanding or even engage in varieties of “cinematic thinking” that intersect with, without being reducible to, philosophical inquiry. Inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell, many theorists are now engaged in what has come to be known as “film-philosophy,” developing philosophical insight out of their close engagement with film, and bringing philosophical concepts to bear on the aesthetic experience cinema affords. Despite the flourishing of this encounter between film and philosophy, there has been as yet comparatively little attention given to the relationship between ethics and cinema (see Choi and Frey, Cine-Ethics; Sinnerbrink, Cinematic Ethics; Terman, “Ethics”).

Prior to the emergence of film-philosophy, questions about cinematic ethics came to the fore in relation to the photographic basis of the medium. André Bazin’s statement that the photograph has an irrational power to “bear away our faith” undoubtedly indicates some qualms about the ethics of the artform (14). And it is unsurprising that the first point of focus on cinematic ethics was the documentary film. The direct cinema and cinéma verité movements emerged in the wake of concerns about the ethics of the medium and its purported objectivity in representing “others,” and such movements were explicitly oriented toward developing more assuredly ethical and political means of telling stories. And there have always been filmmakers whose interest in cinema lay in its capacity to show us realities that were ethically complex. We only need to think of the cinema of Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick to remind ourselves that ethical work has always been among cinema’s enterprises. The ascendancy of Hollywood cinema was made possible in the 1920s and 1930s by illegal and immoral monopolistic and exploitative practices that put national cinemas around the globe out of business, but such practices were actually buttressed by the implementation of the Production Code and a lot of loud talk about [End Page 3] the need for films to be moral. The assurances repeatedly given for Hollywood’s moral rectitude, even while its international ambitions meant that it avidly sought to colonize the cultural spheres of other nations, provide an obvious reason for why film studies has been more interested in unpacking the moral and political dimensions of the industry than in contemplating the ethical inquiry of some of its most revered directors. It is worth remembering that Cavell’s book on the remarriage cycle is a study of a popular film genre’s forays into finding a means to articulate the ethics of relations between men and women. Deleuze identifies ethical concerns in the European films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Roberto Rossellini, and in the work of the Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi; but these by no means delimit the field of the filmmakers of the twentieth century who took up ethical inquiry in the cinematic medium. In the fields of film criticism and film theory, the study of documentary is the most overtly ethical treatment of film but it would be remiss not to point to feminist film theory, psychoanalytic film theory, queer film theory and the study of third cinema as raising questions of ethical importance.

That film has an ethical potential—for exploring moral issues, ethically ambiguous situations, or moral “thought experiments”—is clear from the way in which film theorists have explored cinema from a variety of philosophical perspectives (Mulhall, On Film; Shaw, Morality at the Movies; Wartenberg, Thinking on Screen). More recently, scholars have begun to explore the ways in which cinema can be read alongside philosophical approaches to ethics, or how certain filmmakers can be understood as engaging in ethics through film (Cooper, Selfless Cinema?; Downing and Saxton, Film and Ethics; Stadler, Pulling Focus; Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema). Philosophical film theory has now not only begun to...


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