Philosophy of Film (Spring 2015)

Philosophy of Film

PHIL 350-01 (CRN#22169) | TR 10-11:50 PM | Craig-Lee 253 | Spring 2015

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 219 Alger Hall, 12:30-1:30 T & b.a.


When people hear “philosophy of film,” they likely imagine something that would be better called philosophy in (or through) film. On this model, one picks a handful of philosophical films and then discusses whatever philosophical issues happen to be relevant. You can teach a serviceable introduction to philosophy in this manner, but not an upper-level course on the philosophy of film. Hence, in this class we won't be doing much philosophy in film; instead, we will focus on a set of philosophical problems having to do with the nature of film and our experiences of it.

We will address questions such as: What is film? Can movies be art? Should films be cinematic? What distinguishes narrative fiction films from documentaries? Do films have narrators? How do films move us? Do audiences identify with characters? Why do people watch melodrama and horror if such movies depress and disgust audiences? Do films have authors whose artistic intentions matter? Can films “do philosophy”? In other words, is “philosophy in film” possible?

Students will gain a clear understanding of the major problems in the philosophy of film and several central issues in the philosophy of art. Focusing on these problems is the most effective way to sharpen the critical vocabulary used in film theory and criticism.

Note: We will not be watching feature length movies in class. That would be a waste of your time and money. See the section title "Movies" below.


There are only two required books:

  1. Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi (Eds.). Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2006). ISBN: 1405120274 [PFMP]
  2. Noël Carroll. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures (Blackwell, 2008). ISBN: 1405120258 [PMP]

I will post numerous additional readings on Blackboard. [BB]

If you can get a cheap used copy, buy:

  1. Noël Carroll. The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990). ISBN: 0415902169 [PH]
  2. Rudolf Arnheim. Film as Art. (U Cal. Press, 2006). [FA]

If you can get used copies, I recommend a few other collections on the philosophy of film:

  1. Noël Carroll and David Bordwell (Eds.). Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Wisconsin, 1996)
  2. Noël Carroll. Theorizing the Moving Image (Wisconsin, 1996).
  3. Thomas Wartenberg and Angela Curran (Eds.). The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Texts and Readings (Blackwell, 2005).
  4. Richard Allen and Murray Smith (Eds.). Film Theory and Philosophy (Oxford, 1997).

For a fantastic critical take on a benighted tradition of film theory, I highly recommend:

  1. Noël Carroll. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. (Columbia, 1991).

For an excellent introduction to general issues in the philosophy of art, I recommend:

  1. Stephen Davies. The Philosophy of Art. (Blackwell, 2006).

For an extremely helpful introduction to the artform, you should buy:

  1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. (McGraw-Hill, 2009).


For every class, I recommend a movie to help anchor our discussion. Since Netflix killed nearly every video store in the country and our library has an abysmal film collection, I cannot make these required viewing. And given the high percentage of commuter students with job, screenings are nearly impossible to schedule. But you should try to watch at least half of the recommended movies. Although I will show short films and clips in class, we will not be spending valuable class time watching movies. That's a waste of your time and money. Ideally, you should try to watch each movie before class on the day it is assigned. Many of the movies can be watched on Netflix, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and parts can be found on Youtube in degraded form. Do your best. I will also post mp4s of most of the movies on Blackboard.


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 27) daily quizzes and three take-home examinations. I will give a short quiz at the beginning of each class that will require one or two sentence answers. The quizzes are closed-book, but open-note. The bulk of your grade comes from the take-home exams. All assignments must be completed to pass the course.

Quizzes (10%) + first exam (30%) + late-term exam (30%) + final exam (30%).

I encourage students who are doing well to write a term paper in place of the final exam. If you chose this option, please let me know before Spring break. I'll help you refine your topic and develop an outline. You must give me an abstract and a rough outline one month before the final exam period. I will not accept a term paper otherwise.

Attendance Policy

Although I record every class meeting, attendance is required. If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 12 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course. (There are no excused or unexcused absences. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Laptop Policy

Laptop use is prohibited. The same goes for tablet computers and smart phones. Consider this rehab for Facebook addiction. You should print the articles posted on Blackboard and bring them to class.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism—claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own—will not be tolerated. The tests are not collaborative. All sources must be cited. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course. I am also required to report you to the Vice President of Academic Affairs. But I would report you even if it was optional. Plagiarism is a serious offense.

Class Schedule (tentative)

* The readings for each class are nested under the date. You should do the readings before class. There will be a short quiz every class.

Topic I. What is Film?

  • Week 1

    • T: C1 (1/20): Introduction, Overview, and Definitions
      • Movies
        • "La Jetée" (Marker, 1962) [clip shown in class]
      • Readings
        • none
      • Further Reading
        • Noël Carroll, “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment” [BB]
        • Thomas Wartenberg, “Philosophy of Film” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
        • Carroll, PMP Ch.0, "Introduction: From Film Theory to the Philosophy of the Moving Image" [PMP]

    • R: C2 (1/22): A Definition
      • Movies
        • "One Second in Montreal" (Snow, 1969)
        • "24 Hour Psycho" (Gordon, 1993) [clip shown in class]
        • "So is This" (Snow, 1982) [clip shown in class]
        • "Rotating Snakes" (Kitaoka, 2003)
        • "Wizard People, Dear Reader" (Neely, 2004) [clip shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Noël Carroll, "Defining the Moving Image" [PFMP]
      • Further Reading
        • Robert Yanal, "Defining the Moving Image: A Response to Noel Carroll" [BB]
        • Noël Carroll, “Monsters and the Moving Image” [BB]
        • Noël Carroll, PMP Ch. 3, "What is Cinema? [PMP]
        • Justin Remeselnik, Static Filmography (2012) [BB]
        • Thomas Wartenberg, "Carroll On the Moving Image" [BB]
        • Currie, "Film, Reality, and Illusion" [BB]
        • Kania, "The Illusion of Realism in Film" [BB]

Topic II. Is Film Art?

  • Week 2

    • T: C3 (1/27): Silent Film Art
      • Movies
        • "Sunrise" (Murnau, 1927)
      • Readings
        • Rudolph Arnheim, Film as Art, "Film and Reality" (pp.8-34) [FA]
        • Rudolph Arnheim, Film as Art, "The Complete Film" (pp.151-161) [FA]
        • Rudolph Arnheim, Film as Art, (p.57) [FA]
      • Further Reading
        • Noel Carroll, Ch.1 of Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory [BB]
        • Rudolph Arnheim, Film as Art, "The Talking Film" (pp.199-230) [FA]

    • R: C4 (1/29): The Case Against Film Art
      • Movies
        • "Summer" ["Le rayon vert"] (Rohmer, 1986)
        • "Reservoir Dogs" (Tarantino, 1992)
        • "Blow Up" (Antonioni, 1966) [clips in class]
      • Readings
        • Roger Scruton, "Photography and Representation" [PFMP]
        • Noël Carroll, PMP Ch. 1, "Film as Art" [PMP]
      • Further Reading
        • Dominic McIver Lopes, "The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency" [PFMP]
        • William King, "Scruton and Reasons for Looking at Photographs" [BB]
        • Nigel Warburton, "Individual Style in Photographic Art" [BB]

  • Week 3

    • T: C5 (2/3): The Case for Film Art
      • Movies
        • “The Blade” (Tsui Hark, 1995)
        • "Touch of Zen" (Hu, 1971) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Berys Gaut, "Cinematic Art" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Alexander Sesonske, "Aesthetics of Film, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Movies" [BB]

Topic III. Should Films be Cinematic?

    • R: C6 (2/5): Bazin
      • Movies
        • "Touch of Evil" (Welles, 1948)
        • "The Rules of the Game" (Renoir, 1939) [clips shown in class]
        • "Prince of Darkness" (Carpenter, 1987) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Andre Bazin, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" [BB]
        • Andre Bazin, "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" [BB]
        • Andre Bazin, "The Myth of Total Cinema" [BB]
        • Andre Bazin, "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Andre Bazin, "Cinema and Exploration" [BB]

  • Week 4

    • T: C7 (2/10): Medium Specificity
      • Movies
        • "Touch of Evil" (Welles, 1948)
        • "The Rules of the Game" (Renoir, 1939) [clips shown in class]
        • "Prince of Darkness" (Carpenter, 1987) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Noël Carroll, "Medium Specificity Arguments and the Self-Consciously Invented Arts: Film, Video, and Photography" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Noël Carroll, PMP Ch. 2, "Medium Specificity" [PMP]

    • R: C8 (2/12): Cinematicity
      • Movies
        • "My Dinner with Andre" (Malle, 1981)
      • Readings
        • Berys Gaut, pp. 282-295 from A Philosophy of Cinematic Art [BB]
        • Aaron Smuts, "Cinematic" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Murray Smith, "My Dinner with Noël: or, Can We Forget the Medium?" [BB]

Topic IV. Do Films Have Authors?

  • Week 5

    • T: C9 (2/17): Auteur Theory
      • Movies
        • "Vertigo" (Hitchcock, 1958)
      • Readings
        • Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory" [BB]
        • Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares" [BB]
        • Andrew Sarris, "The Auteur Theory Revisited" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • David Bordwell, "Octave's Hop"
        • Andrew Sarris, "Toward a Theory of Film History" [BB]
        • Stephen Heath, "Against Authorship" [BB]

    • R: C10 (2/19): Joint Authorship
      • Movies
        • "The Shop Around the Corner" (Lubitsch, 1940)
        • "Duck Soup" (McCarey, 1933) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Paisley Livingston, "Cinematic Authorship" [PFMP]
      • Further Reading
        • V. F. Perkins, Film as Film, ch.8 "Direction and Authorship" [BB]
        • Noel Carroll, "Art, Intention, and Conversation" [BB]

  • Week 6

    • T: C11 (2/24): Collective Authorship
      • Movies
        • "The Long Goodbye" (Altman, 1973)
      • Readings

· Gaut, "Cinematic Authorship" PCA ch.3 [BB]

      • Further Reading
        • Gaut, "Film Authorship and Collaboration" [BB]
        • Thomas Schatz, excerpt from The Genius of the System [BB]
        • Paul Sellors, "Collective Authorship in Film" [BB]

Topic V. Film Evaluation

    • R: C12 (2/26): The Pluralistic Category Approach
      • Movies
        • "Carmen Jones" (Preminger, 1954)
        • "Cremaster 3" (Barney, 2002) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Carroll, PMP Ch.7, "Evaluation" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Daniel Kaufman, "Normative Criticism and the Objective Value of Artworks" [BB]

Topic VI. What is a Documentary Film?

  • Week 7

    • T: C13 (3/3): Trace Theory
      • Movies
        • "Hoop Dreams" (James, 1994)
        • "Queen of Versailles" (Greenfield, 2012) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Gregory Currie, "Visible Traces" [PFMP]
      • Further Reading
        • Andre Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” [BB]
        • Andre Bazin, “Cinema and Exploration” [BB]

    • R: C14 (3/5): Assertion Theory
      • Movies
        • "Sans Soleil" (Marker, 1983)
        • "Buck" (Meehl, 2011) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Noël Carroll, "Fiction, Non-Fiction, and the Film of Presumptive Assertion" [PFMP]
      • Further Reading
        • Noël Carroll, "Photographic Traces and Documentary Films" [BB]
        • Gregory Currie, "Preserving Traces" [BB]
        • Paul Arthur, "Essay Film" [BB]
        • Carl Plantinga, "What a Documentary Is, After All" [BB]

  • Week 8 ***SPRING BREAK 3/9-1/16***

Topic VII. Must Films Have Narrators?

  • Week 9

    • T C15 (3/17): The Case for Film Narrators
      • Movies
        • "Double Indemnity" (Wilder, 1944)
        • "Sunset Boulevard" (Wilder, 1950) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • George Wilson, "Le Grand Imagier Steps Out" [PFMP]
      • Further
        • Seymour Chatman, "The Cinematic Narrator" [BB]
        • David Bordwell, “Principles of Film Narration” [BB]
        • Jerrold Levinson, "Film Music and Narrative Agency" [BB]

    • R C16 (3/19): Unreliable Narratives
      • Movies
        • "The Tenant" (Polanski, 1976)
        • "Fight Club" (Fincher, 1999) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Gregory Currie, "Unreliability Reconfigured" [PFMP]

  • Week 10

    • T C17 (3/24): The Case Against Film Narrators
      • Movies
        • "Jerry McGuire" (Crowe, 1996)
      • Readings
        • Andrew Kania, "Against the Ubiquity of Fictional Narrators" [BB]

Topic VIII. Film and Emotion

    • R C18 (3/26) The Paradox of Fiction
      • Movies
        • "Point Blank" (Boorman, 1967)
      • Readings
        • Colin Radford, "How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Berys Gaut, selection from Art, Emotion, and Ethics [BB]

  • Week 11

    • T: C19 (3/31): Film and Emotion
      • Movies
        • "Don’t Look Now" (Roeg, 1973)
      • Readings
        • Carroll, PMP Ch. 6
      • Further Reading
        • Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions” [PFMP]
        • Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, pp. 59-88. [BB]
        • Alex Neill, "Empathy and (Film) Fiction" [BB]
        • Deborah Knight, "In Fictional Shoes: Mental Simulation and Fiction" [PFMP]

Topic IX. Do Audiences Identify With Characters?

    • R: C20 (4/2): Against Identification
      • Movies
        • "The Thing" (Carpenter, 1982)
      • Readings
        • Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, pp. 88-96. [BB]

  • Week 12

    • T: C21 (4/7): In Defense of Identification
      • Movies
        • "Say Anything" (Crowe, 1989)
        • "Manhunter" (Mann, 1986)
      • Readings
        • Berys Gaut, "Identification and Emotion in Narrative Fiction" [PFMP]

    • R: C22 (4/9): Sympathy for the Devil
      • Movies
        • "Pulp Fiction" (Tarantino, 1994)
        • "The Wire" (selections)
      • Readings
        • Murray Smith, "Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Murray Smith, chapter 3 from Engaging Characters [BB]
        • Noel Carroll, "Sympathy for Soprano" [BB]
        • Murray Smith, "Imagining from the Inside" [BB]

Topic X. Why Do People Watch Melodramas and Horror Movies?

  • Week 13

    • T: C23 (4/14): The Paradox of Horror
      • Movies
        • "Suspiria" (Argento, 1977)
      • Readings
        • David Hume, "Of Tragedy" [BB]
        • Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, Ch. 4 [BB]

    • R: C24 (4/16): The Paradox of Painful Art
      • Movies
        • "Au Hasard Balthazar" (Bresson, 1966)
        • "Scenes From a Marriage" (Bergman, 1973) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Aaron Smuts, "Art and Negative Affect" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Aaron Smuts, "Why Do We Listen to Sad Songs?" [BB]
        • Susan Feagin, "The Pleasures of Tragedy" [BB]

Topic XI. Can Film do Philosophy?

  • Week 14

    • T: C25 (4/21): The Bold Thesis
      • Movies
        • "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (Gondry, 2004)
        • "Wings of Desire" (Wenders, 1987)
      • Readings
        • Paisley Livingston, "Theses on Cinema as Philosophy" [BB]
      • Further Readings
        • Bruce Russell, "The Philosophical Limits of Film" [PFMP]
        • Thomas Wartenberg, "Beyond Mere Illustration" [BB]
        • Russell, "Film's Limits: The Sequel"
        • Carroll, "Philosophy in the Moving Image: Response to Bruce Russell"
        • Wartenberg, "What Else Films Can Do: A Response to Bruce Russell"
        • Russell, "Replies to Carroll and Wartenberg"
        • Murray Smith, “Film Art, Argument, and Ambiguity” [BB]

    • R: C26 (4/23): Defending the Bold Thesis
      • Movies
        • "It's a Wonderful Life" (Capra, 1946)
        • "The Little People" (Twilight Zone, season 3) [clips shown in class]
        • "October" (Eisenstein, 1928) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Aaron Smuts, "Film as Philosophy: In Defense of a Bold Thesis" [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Aaron Smuts, "It’s a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life” [BB]
        • Chris Grau, "Love, Loss, and Identity in Solaris" [BB]

Topic XII. Is Watching Movies Like Dreaming?

  • Week 15

    • T: C27 (4/28): Defending the Bold Thesis
      • Movies
        • "Spellbound" (Hitchcock, 1945) [clips shown in class]
      • Readings
        • Susanne Langer, "A Note on Film" [PFMP]
        • Francis Sparshott, "Vision and Dream in Cinema" [PFMP]
      • Further Reading
        • Carroll, (ch.1) from Mystifying Movies [BB]
        • Baudry, "The Apparatus" [BB]

    • R: C28 (4/30):
      • Movies
        • "Mulholland Drive" (Lynch, 2001)
        • "Waking Life" (Linklater, 2001)
      • Readings
        • Colin McGinn, (chs.4 and 5) from The Power of Movies [BB]
      • Further Reading
        • Colin McGinn, (ch.6) from Mindsight [BB]
        • Eric Schwitzgebel, "Why did we think we dreamed in black and white? [BB]