THOMAS E. WARTENBERG
When Jimmy Stewart died, to honor his memory, many television stations broadcast some of his old films. As a fan of his, I watched a number of these films and many of the news reports that featured clips from them. While I was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—Frank Capra’s 1939 film of the travails facing an idealistic young senator in the nation’s capital—I was surprised to see how young and good-looking Stewart was at the time he made that film. Having become used to him in his later years, the memory of his younger self had faded from my memory.
That, after his death, I learned something about Jimmy Stewart by looking at a film that he made is an example of the sort of fact that has led philosophers of film to claim that film puts us in touch with the world in a distinctive manner, one that is very different from paintings, the other art form that so centrally involves looking. Although looking at a painting that portrays Jimmy Stewart as a handsome young man might incline me to believe that he was handsome, I would not simply conclude that he was on the basis of an artist’s rendering of him. So, the question is whether film, like other art forms such as painting, involves the representation of the object it presents to its viewers. Or does it, because of its basis in photography, show us the objects themselves?
No one who loves film can doubt its extraordinary power, especially in the face of death, to preserve the appearance of people at a particular time and place. But whether this power entails that films are realistic in the ontological sense of transparently presenting us with the very objects themselves is a further, and more controversial, issue. The point of my telling you about my reaction to seeing Jimmy Stewart as he appeared at the time of the filming of Mr. Smith is that this seems to support the idea that films allow us to see the world in an unmediated fashion, so that we can directly see objects in the world, such as Jimmy Stewart himself, even though Stewart was dead at the time that I saw him. In these concrete terms, then, the question facing us is: When I saw that Jimmy