Where is the place for the thinking viewer in the cinema?


Much of the current philosophy of film literature follows Walter Benjamin’s optimistic account and sees film as a vehicle for screening philosophical thought experiments, and offering new perspectives on issues that (may) have relevance to everyday life. If these kinds of films allow for philosophical thinking, then they are like other so-called ‘high’ artworks in that they encourage social, political and economic critique of social norms. Yet, most popular films that are digested in large quantities are not of a high aesthetic or moral quality. Theorists who conceive of cinema as a means of thinking must firstly reply to the objections that most films simply do not encourage active, intelligent, imaginative participation. Prior to the publication of Deleuze’s cinema books, theorists such as T. W. Adorno feared the advent of the Hollywood Studio film as akin to Nazi propaganda. Dismissed as elitist, their concern was that mass produced and distributed artworks portrayed the depicted social norms as immutable reality. If the imagination cannot enter and engage with the messages depicted through the filmic medium, i.e. through montage or similar ‘shock’ techniques, then viewers cannot critique the moral and social status quo screened; instead, they simply receive it, and it is reinforced.

If we consider how passive cinematic viewers are, voyeuristically ensconced in a darkened theatre, we can see the concern here. If only some films allow for critique of social, political and economic norms in society, and these films are attended by those viewers who are already critical viewers, then how is film more generally a tool for thinking?

If we are to honestly discuss the filmic medium, we must acknowledge the Hollywood blockbusters that stifle imaginative engagement with their narratives and often depict stereotypes. I argue that we need to read Adorno alongside Benjamin, in order to acknowledge the positive as well as negative attributes of films. In doing this we see the need to focus on the critical attitude of the viewer, as well as the moral messages of the film, particularly when we consider what the majority of consumers willingly ingest uncritically. Adorno and Benjamin both offer a historical account of art whereby their aesthetics require audience reception and are linked to experience. The way art is tied to human experience and the world of sensory perception is through language. Language allows the communication of ideas or referents which convey meaning via signs that contain some kind of ‘truth’ in the form of a cognitive component that must be interpreted. While there are many different stories being told in contemporary culture, the focus on the critical thinker, the interpreter of the narrative, is vital.


Peer-reviewed, abstract only, aesthetics, film and philosophy, critical viewers, audience response, ethics


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The Author:

Dr Laura D'Olimpio