What Makes a Film Philosophical?

17 February 2018

Why are some films philosophically important? People often assume there’s only one answer to that question: because they reveal important truths about life. But that assumption is profoundly and importantly mistaken. Although most of us have been conditioned since early childhood into thinking that all fictions Teach Lessons, Send Messages, and Offer Morals, it turns out that many of the world’s most sophisticated novelists and film-makers often aim at completely different goals.

Large numbers of great artists have made this point. Virginia Woolf said “art is being rid of all preaching”; Caryl Churchill said “the role of the playwright is not to give answers but to ask questions”; Toni Morrison said “I just cannot pass out these little pieces of paper with these messages on them telling people who I respect ‘this is the way it is’”; A. S. Byatt said “I do not have a message to give to the world”; Vladimir Nabokov said “I have no social purpose, no moral message”; Friedrich Schiller said “it is only a bad reader who will enjoy a moving poem as though it were a sermon”; Kaitlyn Greenidge said fiction “is not didactic”; Milan Kundera said “novelistic thinking… does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs”; Imbolo Mbue said “my job is to tell the story and let the reader decide”; Jorge Luis Borges said “many writers from here tell me, ‘We would like to have your message.’ [But] we have no message at all.” Add to that list Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Tom Stoppard, Eugène Ionesco, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Syrian poet Adunis, and any number of others. It’s not that artists haven’t been telling us what they’re trying to do; it’s that we haven’t been listening.

In the world of film, perhaps the most eloquent statement I know comes from Charlie Kaufman, the genius behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “I don’t like the idea of dictating what people ought to think. I can’t stand movies that are about teaching people things, like how to live better or something. First of all, I’m not qualified to do that, and second of all, it’s like, garbage.”

I’m not saying that films never try to teach lessons. But many of them don’t—and they can still be philosophically important even then. Some raise questions to which we, the viewer, have to offer answers. Some provide thought experiments that can spur our thinking. Some help us feel less alone. Some help us to understand ourselves. Some offer access to the inner world of another human being. (Being John Malkovich is really a route to “being Charlie Kaufman.”) Some help us to know what we know, see what we see, and feel what we feel. Some give us practice in using our minds in certain important ways. And some do other things besides.

One of last year’s greatest movies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a brilliant case in point. I won’t give anything away—you should watch this amazing movie for yourself—but suffice to say that it keeps pulling the rug out from under our feet, over and over again. It is constantly destabilizing our judgments, constantly making it impossible for us to say with certainty “this is good and that is bad.” And this kind of destabilization is good for us: while there is clear value in being able to make decisive moral judgments, there is surely also real value in being able to revise our opinions, to question our own beliefs, and to accept the limits of our knowledge.

Disappointingly, if predictably, some viewers and critics reacted with impatience. There’s a valid worry to be raised about the treatment of an African-American character, but concerns about the ending derive from a mistaken understanding of what kind of film this is and, in general, of what film is for. Just look at this emblematic headline: “‘Three Billboards’ backlash flows from debate over its message.” What message? Three Billboards does not have a message; that is the point. A world in which all films are assumed to be message-delivery systems is going to be a world that will never understand movies like Three Billboards.

Milan Kundera said it best: “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.”



Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 17, 2018 -- 11:03 AM

I do not know who Caryl

I do not know who Caryl Churchill is. But, she (he?) said it well. I think: "...not to give answers but to ask questions". This fits pretty squarely with what philosophy does best. It asks questions. And, yes, a certain amount of destabilization is good for us, in exactly the sense you mentioned. Often, we are compelled to revise our opinions and question our own beliefs; to accept the limits of our knowledge. Stagnation is much like death and leads to the cessation of personal growth. Clint Eastwood also said it well in a Dirty Harry movie: a man's got to know his limitations. And so it is, movies and plays may be vehicles for philosophy. Or, they may only be entertainment. Sometimes the intentions are clear. Even when they are not, any destabilization is still instructive. Any votes for philosophical film director of the year? How about Dan Dennett? He could do it, if he were so inclined. Seems to me.

dave94703's picture


Saturday, February 17, 2018 -- 12:33 PM

Great essay, fantastic quotes

Great essay, fantastic quotes. (Nothing pertinent from Proust?) Here's a useful one, from Pascal: “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

Josh Landy's picture

Josh Landy

Monday, February 19, 2018 -- 1:38 PM

Thanks for that fantastic

Thanks for that fantastic Pascal quote! You're right, it's absolutely perfect. Proust is a complicated case, but he does have his narrator say that “a work in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price-tag on it." (Many have noted the irony, given that this itself is a theory...) Proust also has his narrator make a very eloquent case for the idea of artworks as portals into the hidden worlds of other minds: "art... exteriorizes in the colors of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never know"; "the only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is." Simone de Beauvoir also said it beautifully: “That is the miracle of literature, the thing that distinguishes it from information: an other truth becomes mine.”

dave94703's picture


Monday, February 19, 2018 -- 9:21 PM

Well, his narrator is just

Well, his narrator is just another character, no? So he’s just conveying what a character thinks. Thanks for more quotes. Here’s a not very relevant one that talking about Proust brings to mind. “Music is the voice that tells us that the human race is greater than it knows.” Napoleon Bonaparte. (He’s the best aphorist ever. Guess there’s not much to do on Elba.) And here’s the text for which the Pascal quote above is the conclusion: “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

dave94703's picture


Monday, February 19, 2018 -- 9:43 PM

Whoops. Also meant to hand

Whoops. Also meant to hand over another Kundera quote. (Well, maybe not literally. Translator Maria Tatar relays it from memory.) “Painting is an intelligible lie on the surface, but underneath is the unintelligible truth.”

MJA's picture


Wednesday, August 1, 2018 -- 6:17 AM

For the love of philosophy:

For the love of philosophy:

Is it possible to teach the blind to see, or must the blind learn to see themselves? What is in a message, a lesson, what truly can be taught.

I've often thought that once the truth is found it then must be practiced and shared. But to tell someone what is true can only be accepted as true when One knows what truth is. One must see for Oneself.

Then all that remains for the beholders of truth is to be true,
be One,