Academic journal article Film Criticism

Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy

Article excerpt

Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy

By Robert B. Pippin

135 pages; Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2012; cloth $24.95

Whether and how much film can be said to do philosophy are questions that have vexed philosophers and film scholars of late. Among the proponents of film-as-philosophy is Robert Pippin of the University of Chicago's philosophy department and interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought. Over the last few years Pippin has contributed two short monographs, both adapted from lecture series, to the film and philosophy debate. His first film book, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (Yale UP, 2010), argued that canonical Westerns contained deep and original insights into the psychological nature of political organization. Hawks and Ford, by richly imagining how citizens welcome or resist political institutionalization, made genuinely novel contributions to political philosophy.

This style of discursive and film-interpretive philosophy continues in Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy. Through careful analysis of Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, and Scarlet Street, Pippin argues that film noirs depict a kind of agency that challenges the standard philosophy of action, which he calls the "reflective model." He lists three criteria for relatively free action in the reflective model. First, an agent must know what he is doing and why in a "noninferential" and "nonobservational" manner: an agent must have privileged access to his own thought processes and intentions and must not only learn about himself through retrospective observation of his actions. Second, an agent must be able to plan out a course of actions based on reasons and should be able to alter the planned course based on new reasons. Third, an agent must be able to bring about events which lead toward the desired end.

Film noirs undermine these canons of agency. The standard assumptions about ideal agents, if they were ever apt, are no longer helpful after the tumults of the early 20th Century. The common wisdom became an assumption of limited agency--curtailment by gender, social class, and, crucially, one's past actions and irrational drives--in spite of which everyone must still eke out a life. Pippin takes well-made film noirs as bellwethers of changing sociocultural attitudes about relative agency and freedom. A specialist in 18th and 19th Century German philosophy whose work bridges analytic and continental concerns, Pippin draws on his influential readings of Hegel to inform his cinematic interpretations of world-historic shifts in agency.

A revised model of the philosophy of action is unlikely to come from analytic philosophy, Pippin contends. The complex and richly textured world required to house a new model of agency will not be found on trolley tracks or in brain-vats. Instead, he turns to cinematic noir diegeses as pre-made test cases for exploring limited action. In line with much film criticism, Pippin's project involves a demonstration that his chosen films are more complex than they initially seem. He consistently argues in Fatalism in American Film Noir for a gap between characters' self-understanding and their actions, which complicates the plots.

In his chapter on The Lady from Shanghai, Pippin explains how the voiceover of Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) may be an unwitting attempt to shield himself from his own past mistakes, such as acting thoughtlessly against his self-interest by pursuing the dangerous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). In turn, Elsa's possessive husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) behaves with such blind malice toward Michael that Arthur risks undermining his own goals. The characters are free to act without physical restraint, but they are not free to determine their compulsive desires and the social situations that condition their spheres of action. …

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