Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lights Dim on Reality in the Cinema: Part I

A friend sent me a book about movies published in 2005, Movies and the Meaning of Life, edited by Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul Tudico (302 pp., including the Index). After discharging myriad other writing chores, I finally made time to read it, taking a break from my “Islamophobia," with a tentative eye to reviewing it. It is a collection of essays by college professors on the “meaning of life” as they interpret some nineteen recent – that is, modern – movies. All of the movies were produced and released in the 1990’s or later.

Modern movies that purport to dramatize the “meaning of life” – unless it’s a comedy (such as Monty Python and the Meaning of Life) — whether or not the directors or casts have a conscious, fixed idée about it, leave me cold. Many of the movies featured in Blessing’s collection I have seen. Others I have not because their subject matter repelled me or produced body-shaking yawns. Some of them I’d never heard of until now.

The nineteen movies are arranged under such topics as:

What is reality and how can I know it? (Contact, The Truman Show, Waking Life)
How can I find my true identity? (Boys Don’t Cry, Being John Mallkovich, Fight Club, Memento)
What’s the significance of my interactions with others? (Chasing Amy, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadowlands)
How ought I to live my life? (Groundhog Day, Minority Report, Pleasantville, Pulp Fiction, Spider-Man 1 & 2)

In large part, the essays are written from a Critical Theory standpoint, or as Post-Deconstructionist textual jigsaw puzzles. These terms have “traditionally” been applied to examining the printed word in fiction and nonfiction, but branched out into “film theory,” and their presence in these essays demonstrates that they can be applied to cinema, as well. Critical Theory, notes Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School…. Critical Theory when capitalized refers only to the Frankfurt School….

Deconstruction, form of philosophical and literary analysis, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that questions the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or “oppositions,” in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts. In the 1970s the term was applied to work by Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Johnson, among other scholars. In the 1980s it designated more loosely a range of radical theoretical enterprises in diverse areas of the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, psychoanalysis, architecture, anthropology, theology, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, political theory, historiography, and film theory. In polemical discussions about intellectual trends of the late 20th-century, deconstruction was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest nihilism and frivolous skepticism. In popular usage the term has come to mean a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional modes of thought.

PBS discusses deconstructionism as  applied to “postmodernism.”


A term tied very closely to postmodernism, deconstructionism is a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text. Basing itself in language analysis, it seeks to "deconstruct" the ideological biases (gender, racial, economic, political, cultural) and traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious "truths." Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then define, reality has led to various forms of domination - of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc. Like postmodernism, deconstructionism finds concrete experience more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes any attempts to produce a history, or a truth. In other words, the multiplicities and contingencies of human experience necessarily bring knowledge down to the local and specific level, and challenge the tendency to centralize power through the claims of an ultimate truth which must be accepted or obeyed by all. [Bold mine]

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal. [Bold,mine]



 Postmodernism is "post" because it denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characteristic of the so-called "modern" mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself." [Bold,mine]

Enough said, for the purposes of this article. If it’s Marxist – and Marxist interpretations of any realm of art, in the printed word, in the visual arts or sculpture, or in film – it’s automatically suspect because it is root, branch, and twig divorced from an objective, rational perspective. In short, reality is a creation of the mind, and reality can be anything one wishes to make of it, governed by one’s own personal experiences and subjective prejudices. Critical Theory and Deconstruction both work to unplug one’s mind from reality, and lure one into a critic’s universe via the hypnotic appeal of a degree holder’s “authority.”

My own idea of “critical theory” has been limited to showing how filmmakers can alter, falsify, or misrepresent historical fact, by divorcing their productions from reality and recorded history, as in “Amadeus: A Pinnacle of Cultural Corruptionfrom 2010. That essay focuses on the characterization of Mozart, Antonio Salieri, and the chief figures in their lives in the 18th century, and also how the whole period has been reduced to glossy National Enquirer status, discouraging in the viewer any attempt at critical analysis, skepticism, any doubt beyond facile gullibility, or any suggestion that the viewer should question the accuracy concerning the truth. So that article, and others I’ve written in the past (such as “Lawrence of Arabia”: A Reappraisal,” from 2014), are not so much instances of “critical theory” as they are exposés.

In most instances, in Blessing’s Movies, the essayists provide brief teasers of concrete actions in a film, and then extrapolate them into their own exercises in creating (not recreating; art being the selective recreation of reality as defined by Ayn Rand; Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness . . .) the reality of each film’s philosophical or moral meaning. The essayists’ exercises in interpreting the “meaning of life” in any film typically go beyond any definition of rational observation; we are only presented with their unsupportable assertions.

Indeed, the chief aim of Critical Theory and Deconstruction (and of their subsidiary schools) is to inculcate a disbelief in objectivity, in reality, in values. Based essentially on Immanuel Kant’s theory of reality and his denial of man’s capacity to know it, to infect his mind with a tenacious almost religious doubt or denigration of the evidence of his senses. In his 2009 posting, “Kant and the Creation of Reality,”Jeff Carreira writes:

The American Philosophers from the Transcendentalists to the Pragmatists were all following in the footsteps of the great German Idealist Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). This isn’t too surprising because all of Western Philosophy follows in the footsteps of Kant. In 1781 Kant published The Critique of Pure Reason and rocked the world of philosophy. What Kant articulated and what later generations of philosophers picked up on was that reality as we perceive it is not purely objective – it is at least partly subjective….

We can’t know reality directly. We don’t perceive of things in themselves. What we perceive as reality is in part created by our minds. And this creation of reality isn’t only the unconscious work of the mind as a machine, as some before Kant had believed, the creative process that constructs reality as we see it is also influenced by us. Of all of the infinite sensations, physical, emotional and conceptual that we experience at any given time we are only aware of a small percentage. The rest we ignore, but those that we attend to are compiled into reality as we see it….

What Kant did for Western Philosophy was make human beings part of the creative process of reality as we see it. In this he dealt a blow to both religion and science. To religion he insisted that we can’t perceive of God directly because our perception of God will also be partly of our own construction. To science likewise he takes away the ruse of objectivity because everything we observe will always be influenced by us.

So, it’s deuces wild. Reality, or films, can be anything you wish, can mean anything you wish, and the essayists prove their Kantian roots and predilections paragraph after paragraph. If reality can’t be known, then one’s true identity (whatever that might mean) can’t be known, there is no significance in one’s interactions with others, there is no point to one’s life, and one’s life should be lived according to one’s subjective creative process, and if you reach a conclusion, such as identifying a pencil on one’s desk, Kant says you can’t validate it, because even logic is subjective and your senses are naturally haywire and untrustworthy.

I won’t examine each essay or film discussed by the professors in Part I because it would require a book-length treatment. I'll try to sample a few essays in the next post.

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