On Film

I just finished (not really, only about 75% of it) Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film. In short, the book is film criticism, but not incomprehensible and jargon filled art analysis. I mean, the criticism itself is very serious and very philosophical, but the films being studied here are Terminator, Terminator 2, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Paycheck, Face/Off, the Alien series, the Mission Impossible series, the Untouchables and others. And the analysis of movies like these is what makes this book really interesting.

In the course of analyzing these movies, Mulhall extracts a lot of meaning, particularly about the human condition, the meaning of philosophy, and the increasing practice of sequelization.

The stuff about the human condition is just great, but at points exasperatingly implausible. The essential insights are great, about the Alien series manages to get at our fear of what Mulhall calls fecundity or our own fleshiness. The terror provoked by the alien species is that they are purely natural. They live only to procreate and in fact, their need to procreate is so insatiable that they must involve humans in the bare reproduction of life. He then relates the aliens parasitic nature as a type of rape (in that it makes us pregnant) and the symbolism of the female heroine’s resistance to be implanted or assimilated is a type of chastity. These themes are then explored throughout the Alien movies.

The second theme, that of philosophy is well done but also a little off. Mulhall’s point is that film’s can do philosophy on their own, which is kind of right, but its not clear what he means. As he admits, there are no arguments in film, merely illustrations, and nothing necessary could come from such contingent representations. Not that this alone means that film isn’t philosophy, but just that I would qualify his thesis as telling us about our particular conceptual situation. His better point I think is that film can reflect on itself through self reference. There are cameras in most of the movies discussed and there presence is an opportunity for the director to make a film about film and its meaning. This isn’t artistic pseudo-analysis, but a real point about the medium of film comes into awareness of itself and creates unique problems for itself that it must solve for itself, just as philosophy is thinking that grows out conceptual problems humanity creates for itself. Still, I think a better way of putting the point would be that film can have a kind of self consciousness rather than that it is philosophizing.

I actually think Mulhall is best on the last point, about the nature of sequels and what it means that sequels are becoming such a phenomenon (think lately of all the films out there. Any hit almost always merits a sequel. Iron Man, Spider Man, Harry Potter, Narnia. Increasingly, Hollywood wants serialization, and I was inclined to see this as just one more sign of decreased creativity. What Mulhall does though is show, as any good philosopher does, the other side. In his mind, sequels allow directors to inherit a tradition and respond to it and thus create a long more self reflective chain of meaning. His best example by far is the alien series (for how sequelization contributes to meaning rather than erasing). But he also admits that the urge for sequels can be dangerous at times. The best example for this by far is his analysis of the Terminator movies (his reading of Terminator I is REALLY Interesting. His claim is that the movie enacts a male fantasy of self-creation without the aid of woman since John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time not only to defend his mother but also to impregnate her with him. In this way, through time travel, John Connor authorizes or creates his own existence.) His criticism of T3 is that T2 resulted in the destruction of Cyberdyne, which was supposed to be enough to keep judgment day from happening, but 3, rather than building on the narrative or complicating it in some way, merely repudiates it by concocting a reason why judgment day will still happen. Mulhall fascinatingly puts it by saying that the director of T3 does violence to the series by rejecting its premises so crudely and that this violence is mirrored in the subject matter: humanity did not escape and nuclear war will still happen. It’s as if the director wanted humanity to suffer its judgment day and to bring this destruction to the screen, destruction to the series itself had to be done first. A very nice reading. Unfortunately, its weird, because I actually really liked T3.

Anyway, I skipped some of the later parts, and some of the arguments and comparisons are really absurd, but overall, there is some really interesting stuff here. It’s a resuscitation of the artistic possibilities of pop culture.

Also, Mulhall is right that Terminator 2 is just a GREAT movie. Wow that movie is good.


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