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📙 On Film by Stephen Mulhall — free pdf


Stephen Mulhall's excellent little book on film is not really a comprehensive account of the nature of film or of film studies (though it does address in important ways a number of issues that are highly relevant to the field of film studies), but a consideration of film from the standpoint of a philosopher and a reflection upon the way in which films carry and explore ideas. The Matrix proved that even in a blockbuster film, ideas can be as important to its ability to captivate and entertain as the action. What made that film work was not just style and special effects, but the fact it played with philosophical and theological concerns -- from free will and skepticism, to the nature of fallenness and of enlightenment. Ideas are so important to the Matrix series that there are several books out now outlining the backdrop to the philosophical questions contained there; and a commentary disk on the new Matrix collection focuses primarily on its philosophical content. What Mulhall does in "On Film" is consider another popular set of science fiction films from the perspective of philosophy. This time, however, the films are deliberately chosen as ones that do not explicitly raise philosophical themes, or advertise themselves as "philosophical," but where (he contends, admirably) making sense of their plot and making sense of the films as a series requires one to think about them as if they were, in their own right, philosophical "texts". As it turns out, there is much to say about these films, both on their own, and as a series, from the perspective of philosophy. For Mulhall, however, this doesn't just mean that one should look to the films (as one does to the Matrix) as illustrations of philosophical themes that have been discussed elsewhere, but that one can look to these films as philosophical in their own right: as raising questions of the type that interest philosophers and presenting evidence that is in its own way compelling for thinking about these questions. It's a great read, and I would strongly disagree with the other reviewer who dismisses the writing as being merely clever but without substance. It is, however, not an easy read, and that may account for the reviewer's concerns: contrary to what might be expected from the title this is not pitched as an introduction to thinking about film. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for someone who doesn't have at least some background in literary or film criticism or philosophy (preferably in hermeneutics or phenomenology or critical theory -- since A.J. Ayer and the like won't be much help here). The main prerequisite is that one be willing, as Mulhall requires, to consider the possibility that philosophy can appear directly in film and literature and art and not only in the form of explicit argumentation. (But one must admit this possibility even to read Plato intelligently). But I guess I would recommend it for a serious fan of the series (or of their directors, whose work beyond the Alien series is also considered), who might not be as worried about the overall thesis of the book about the relation of film and philosophy. Even for such a reader, it offers a very illuminating account of the four films that addresses a number of interesting questions about the series: why the Alien is so horrifying, what about Ripley's character makes her a perfect protagonist for such an antagonist, why the fourth film was composed as it was and why it is not simply a failure, etc. As film criticism, it is pitched more or less at the level of a journal like Cineaste of Film Comment. I found it to be an excellent read, with ideas that I go back to on a regular basis in my own thinking about film and about philosophy.

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