David P. Nichols (Ed.): Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real

Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real Book Cover Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real
David P. Nichols (Ed.)
Lexington Books
Hardback $90.00

Reviewed by: Antony Fredriksson (Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, University of Pardubice)

One starting point for a new approach within philosophical film-studies during the past decades can be found in Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film (2002). In contrast to the traditional approach within aesthetics, Mulhall regards cinema as an art form that carries a philosophical task by itself. Films are, in this sense, not considered as examples or raw material for philosophical scrutiny, rather they are understood as works of philosophy in the medium of the moving image. The book provoked a long debate concerning this question (can films be considered as philosophy by themselves) that ran, among other forums, on the pages of the journal Film Philosophy during the year 2003.

David P. Nichols’ (ed.) anthology Transcendence and Film continues with this approach. It is a book that deals with philosophical issues through a discussion between philosophers and works within cinema. Dylan Trigg exemplifies this by describing his relation to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001): “Lynch is not a director who makes films in lieu of a philosophical voice; rather, his philosophical voice is indistinguishable from that of his films, such that the task falls to philosophers to meet Lynch on his terms rather than vice versa” (16). This approach, in which a clear hierarchy between philosophers and theorists in relation to artists and their works of art is dissolved into a reciprocal dialogue, offers a vital perspective. At its best, Transcendence and Film brings out how pressing philosophical questions concerning subjectivity, the limits of experience, and the status of representation of reality in art can be dealt with in the audio-visual language of cinema.

The ten essays by John B. Brough, Allan Casebier, Herbert Golder, David P. Nichols, K. Malcolm Richards, Frédéric Seyler, Kevin L. Stoehr, Dylan Trigg, Joseph Westfall, and Jason M. Wirth, permit the films to do the philosophical work regarding some key-questions with phenomenology and aesthetics. Some of the key theoretical underpinnings for the book come from Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology of liminal experiences and questions concerning the role of transcendence. With cinema, transcendence can refer to several different phenomena. The strict emphasis of this book lies, however, in the way the aesthetics of film can allude to the ineffable, i.e., how a certain work can open up vistas that change our ways of relating to the everyday perceptual world; how film permits us to rediscover the world of perception which we are immersed in. The phenomenological approach stands out as a strength in the theoretical literature on film, since cinema is considered, at its best, to be a reflection of the dynamics of the structures of our consciousness. Then mentioned films are not required to provide rational philosophical arguments. Instead, the emphasis is on how this language that uses the building blocks of our perceptual world can reveal some ephemeral aspects of our cognitive and affective processes.

Regarding the ethos of “film as philosophy”, Dylan Trigg’s essay The Dream of Anxiety in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, stands out in this collection. Trigg shows how Mulholland Drive articulates sophisticated questions concerning the ontology of self. Lynch’s film portrays a particular borderline state between dreaming, sleeping and waking. The characters Diana and Camilla experience traumatic events that infiltrate their everyday waking life, blend into it and distort it. In this sense, their subjectivity becomes apparent as singularity. It is the projections of the own self that blend into perceived reality and thus, the nightmarish and unfamiliar experiences are also necessarily a part of the self (19). Trigg shows how the horror of Lynch’s film consists of the realization within the main character that “the very concept of personhood is itself a sad illusion” (18). Lynch’s film language reflects a philosophy of the dynamics of our consciousness that also stems from his own practice of transcendental meditation. The forte of film as a medium is that it is a visual language and is thus able to portray how dreams and memories break into and influence our direct perception. Trigg shows how Lynch is a master of this kind of portrayal of the dynamics of our psychology of perception. In the context of the essay, transcendence denotes a passageway between different levels of consciousness. Lynch investigates both in his meditational practice and in his films, these limits between dreaming and waking, bringing them into sight for the viewers and helping us to observe the processes that at times can entail both anxiety and bliss.

A completely different kind of aesthetics that, however, carry similar goals of disclosing a specific liminal territory within our perception is present in the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu. In his essay, Transcendence in Phenomenology and Film: Ozu’s Still Lives, Allan Casebier, who is considered by many as a predominant scholar for introducing the tradition of phenomenology to Anglo-American philosophy of film, scrutinizes the connection between the phenomenology of Karl Jaspers and the Zen Buddhist aesthetics of film director Yasujirō Ozu. According to Casebier, the cinema of Ozu strives to disclose the ineffable. Here we are already dealing with a particular philosophical tension, since; if something is ineffable, how can it then be expressed? The aesthetics of Ozu are designed to work around this tension by using the concept of shibui. Casebier writes: “Shibui’s ever hidden aspect creates a lingering attraction for more since the object is so fashioned that it reveals only enough of itself to impel one to seek additional qualities of what has been found pleasing but which are not readily perceivable” (93). In this way, transcendence in the films of Ozu is achieved through allusion and through the dialectics of the seen and the hidden. It is up to the viewer’s imagination to initiate the movement towards the transcendental. In contrast, Ozu’s role is merely to invite this imagination through his minimal and still language of film.

Casebier relates this ineffability to Jaspers’ concept of “cypher”, something that hints at a beyond without ever disclosing it. The transcendent cannot, in this sense, become an object for our knowledge. For Jaspers, it resides at the boarders of the knowable. The ineffable has an impact on our experience, but it can never be fully delineated. In this way, transcendent films guide us to the borders of our normal, habitual perception. It alludes to a beyond that is never fully grasped. Transcendental cinema is, in Paul Shrader’s words, like a catholic mass; a ritual that prepares us for experiences that are contradictory to the conventional (93).

Although Casebier is able to point out a philosophically interesting aspect in the aesthetics of Ozu, the essay still feels like it falls short. Casebier writes in quite general terms, without referring to specific films of the director. For me, it is evident that there is a more mundane explanation for the minimalism and emptiness in Ozu’s images. The subject matter that was central to Ozu is a certain alienation. The challenging predicament of modern life, in which social relations become problematic due to the fast pace of urbanization and the breaking up of traditional social structures is often portrayed as tensions and challenging encounters between generations. The emptiness in his films is not purely aesthetic, but also descriptive of the loss of connection between generations and within family life. In this sense, the emptiness is a reflection of the loss of the social connectedness of the characters. Ozu’s minimalism caters to an existential undertone that alludes to, not only aesthetics of shibui, but furthermore to moral shortcomings and the challenges of alienation between the characters in his films. Perhaps this moral theme would have required a separate essay on the cinema of Ozu. To simply make his empty and minimal images into an aesthetical matter is somewhat a limited interpretation of these devices.

One constant shortcoming in philosophical texts on film is that philosophers tend to fail at describing storylines, narratives and the aesthetics of a specific film in a manner that helps the reader grasp the viewing experience. David P. Nichols is one exception. In his rendition of Martin Scorsese´s Silence (2016) Nichols’ beautiful portrayal is engaging and perceptive in its analysis. Nichols reads Scorsese´s aesthetics through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the silence that enables us to grasp the flesh of the world. This is a continuation of the theme of the ineffable in the book. According to Nichols film is not a mirror that shows us how we appear to be, instead it is “like a mirror that reverses our ordinary sensibilities about who we are and what surrounds us” (134). When film succeeds in transcendence, it is able to point beyond “our ordinary linguistic abilities” (121). Like Trigg, Nichols points at the sedimentation in human perception, silence is something that is hard to grasp in linguistics, but at the same time, it is a prerequisite for language. Silence provides our language with rhythm. This is immensely important for the language of film. Through editing, sound and camera work film contains its temporality and rhythm. Through Scorsese´s mastery of pacing and rhythm, the film becomes a reality of its own that carries a certain mood (stimmung in Heideggerian terms) that alludes to monastic experience. Through rhythm, something invisible (mood, quality of experience) can be portrayed in a visual language.

Kevin L, Stoehr’s essay Ciphers of Transcendence in 2001: A Space Odyssey brings forth the question concerning post-humanism. Kubrick’s film starts with the event of the invention of primitive technology as the ape in the opening scene starts to use a bone as a tool. The quick jump to space technology and interstellar travel alludes to an immense transformation within a lifeform. The question then becomes what the next stage in this evolution might entail. Will humanity, in relation to technology, transcend some of the very fundaments of what we call being human? The aspects that we take for granted – like our corporeal embodied orientation in the world and our sense perception – will they always be essential facts of our lived life? Stoehr refers to Hubert Dreyfus’ concept of “disembodied presence” which describes a form of life spent mostly in cyber space in which the embodied sensory experience is tied to a technologically created interface, and thus the natural orientation of our body in a corporeal world is exchanged for a world of representations.

Kubrick’s film describes this kind of displacement. The main character Bowman is completely dependent on the spaceship and the computer HAL that controls Bowman’s living environment. This sense of disconnection and alienation enables the film to pose philosophical questions. The rational design of technology has transcended the belief in a universe with a natural order created by God. In addition, as human life becomes more immersed in the technological design, the coordinates given by our natural embodied lifeform possibly lose, or change, their significance. Stoehr writes: “But the director also summons us to consider the possibilities of an experience in which the natural body – as the active filter of one’s individualized experiences and as the fixed point of orientation for one’s material existence – is no longer primary. This is especially the case when our technology has increasingly gained the capacity of delivering a more indirect world, one in which our five senses play a minimized and mostly passive role” (157-158).

The reading of Kubrick’s 2001 as a meditation on transcendence in the history of the meaning of the concept of the human brings nicely together film and existential philosophy. Kubrick is portrayed as posing open-ended questions concerning the future of our lifeform. He does this by using aesthetics that deliberately dislocate the viewer’s sense of time and space. Bowman travels in our solar system but also goes beyond our understanding of space-time into other dimensions. He encounters forms of higher intelligence whose intentions are not decipherable for our understanding. Stoehr uses Jaspers’ concept of “cipher” (one of the key concepts of the whole book) that alludes to the ineffable, in order to describe Kubrick’s allegories of a future that is still indescribable.

Among the more traditional themes of film-theory represented in the book are Frédéric Seyler’s essay Pointing toward Transcendence: When Film Becomes Art and Joseph Westfalls’ ASA NISI MASA: Kierkegaardian Repetition in Fellini’s 8 ½. Both authors address what can be called the first questions of film-theory: Is film a proper art form, and does it add a unique form of expression in comparison with the other arts? That is, can cinema help us grow as subjects – do films challenge us to reflect upon our relationship with the world or are they simply objects for our consumption that caters to our escapism? Leaning on Jaspers, Bergson, and the radical phenomenology of Michel Henry, Seyler pushes the point that certain films, like, for example, Louis Malle’s  My Dinner with André (1981), can break free from the predominant mode of escapism of television and film. Film as art can help us grasp that which “escapes our ordinary attention” (83) and thus help us reach beyond our prejudices and even our desire for escapism.

Westfall drives the same point in his reading of Fellini’s 8 ½. He emphasizes the temporality that is essential for the performing arts, film, and music. The viewing experience unfolds in the present, but film also enables a play with temporalities of a future and a past. Thus, the world in film is not like the temporality of our lived life experience, as it in Cavell’s terms, uses the past recording of a scene, as material for the present viewing situation (110). This play with the building blocks of our consciousness enables the art form to tap into our perception and cognition. According to Westfall, this deliberate reorganization of temporality enables cinema to go beyond mere escapism and guide us in the processes of our consciousness.

In the essays mentioned above, there is a common thread regarding transcendence and film. By establishing, not a mirror image, but a counter-world to our common perceptual experience, cinema can help us attend to subtleties that we easily look past due to our ingrained conventions of perception. Similar claims have been made before, for example, by Malcolm Turvey in his book Doubting Vision (2008) in which he re-interprets the classical tradition of film-theory and work by Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer. All these attempts aim at liberating film-theory from the realist-idealist dialectics in order to show that film can be an art form and that it is able to refrain from falling into escapism.

Although the volume has its highlights – at their best, the essays demonstrate the transformational power that film can have on the subject – there are some shortcomings. The book reads more like a conference catalogue than a thoroughly edited anthology with an overarching aim. Even the better pieces are quite short, and as they introduce important philosophical themes, they still, in many cases, leave too much unsaid. Some of the less thorough work in the volume falls short due to extensive descriptions. K. Malcolm Richards essay on Cronenberg’s eXisntenZ (1999) poses the same kinds of questions as Stoehr’s piece on Kubrick, but the text is, to a large extent, just a rendition of the narrative in the film. The current and pressing question concerning how immersive technologies change our quality of experience deserves a more thorough and definitive treatment, and Cronenberg’s film has more to offer in this discussion than Richards’s essay can disclose. John B. Brough’s essay on Karl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jason M. Wirth’s piece on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) are weighed down by the same disproportion between extensive description of the film and brief analysis. Herbert Golder’s essay related to his collaborative work with Werner Herzog stands out for different reasons. It is in an anomaly in the collection since its focus is wide-ranging, stretching from classicist interpretation of Greek philosophy to biblical mythology to Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology. It is hard to find a focus in the text that would enable the reader to relate it to the general themes of the book.

These texts give further evidence to the interpretation that the book primarily is a collection of conference papers. Extensive editorial work and requirements of in-depth analysis would have made this book a more substantial companion to the discussion concerning the intrinsic philosophical qualities of cinema.


Mulhall, Stephen. 2002. On Film. London: Routledge.

Turvey, Malcolm. 2008. Doubting Vision – Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shawn Loht: Phenomenology of Film: A Heideggerian Account of the Film Experience, Lexington Books, 2017

Phenomenology of Film: A Heideggerian Account of the Film Experience Book Cover Phenomenology of Film: A Heideggerian Account of the Film Experience
Shawn Loht
Lexington Books
Hardback $95.00

Lee Carruthers: Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics and Contemporary Cinema

Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics, and Contemporary Cinema Book Cover Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics, and Contemporary Cinema
Horizons of Cinema
Lee Carruthers
SUNY Press
Paperback $20.95

Reviewed by: Diane Stringer (University of Adelaide)

In her ‘Doing Time’, Lee Carruthers provides a clear and accessible discussion that will be relevant to a range of readers: philosophers of time who are interested in a novel account of temporality and temporal experience as it is represented in film; philosophers of film looking for a fresh approach to the topic, in this case a comprehensive exploration of a hermeneutic approach to how we understand filmic texts; and those engaged in Film Studies and film theory who enjoy a fillip of philosophy in their reading. It is a work grounded in hermeneutics and phenomenology, and while philosophers working in the Analytic tradition may find the book interesting and informative, it is not intended for this readership.

Carruthers’ aim throughout this book is offer us a deeper understanding of how we ‘live’ in and through time, via her interpretation of a selection of relevant films. Her approach to this task, a kind of philosophical, phenomenological hermeneutics, is, as she puts it: ‘…a way of being thoughtful about our contact with cinema’s temporal forms, and the time we take to interpret them’ (14). The hermeneutical approach she adopts is informed by the work of Paul Ricoeur, who in turn draws from the works of Heidegger and Gadamer (15). Her discussions of temporality and film are also influenced by the work of André Bazin and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (17-32 passim.).

The work of Gilles Deleuze, often associated with the analysis of film, is explicitly excluded from her discussion (7). Unlike Deleuze, Carruthers does not use the films she analyses in this book as a means of articulating concepts, her aim is the articulation of temporal experiences, her focus is on how we ‘do’ time in films, on how a viewing a film can be a means of living in, and through, different experiences of time.

Throughout her discussion Carruthers emphasises the word ‘timeliness’ (16), linking the word to Heidegger’s ‘Dasein’ and identifying it as particularly relevant to her hermeneutics of cinematic time (11, 16). ‘Timeliness’ has connotations of activity; it captures her view that in films time is ‘actively mediated by films and viewers’ (16). She also emphasises the importance of the Heideggerian idea of the ‘immersiveness of lived experience’, the sense that we are engaged in interpreting our experiences of time in a dynamic way as time unfolds around and within us. Put simply, watching a film and being immersed in a film is taken to be an exemplary ‘experience of temporal duration’ (13). Carruthers adopts the Heideggerian idea that understanding occurs ‘within this situation’ of immersiveness rather than being abstracted from it, or (as we saw in the reference to Deleuze, above) conceptualised (15).

This ‘understanding’, based on our immersion in the temporality of a film, allows Carruthers to demonstrate that films are relevant to studies of how we are affected by time more generally. She argues that by manipulating the temporal aspects of the films we view, we are able to add to our understanding of the relationship between our perception of time and our lived temporal experience, a relationship that we subjectively experience as viewers.

Her Heidegger-Gadamer informed hermeneutics privileges understanding above all else. For Gadamer, ‘Hermeneutics turns out to be universal, not merely in regard to knowledge…but to all understanding and, indeed, to philosophy itself’ (Malpas, 2016), and Carruthers also seems to be making the connection here between the universality of time and temporal experience, and the universality of hermeneutics. However, as she notes, ‘Doing Time’ aims to better understand the importance of time in film, but the understanding of film thus gained is not itself fixed in time but remains revisable in the future (15). Cinema ‘…allows us to see the world anew…’ but in a contrived way (18-19), a way that is not necessarily like any real world event we can experience. A film can manipulate the ‘clock time’ within a movie and thus our subjective experience of the time as it is represented within the film (17), but not, of course, the time in which we are viewing the movie. As I see it, this process of reflecting on the understanding we gain after our immersion in a film seems to be somewhat analogous to working through a philosophical thought experiment, or doing ‘armchair philosophy’. Carruthers argues that looking at film is the ‘best’ way of experiencing time; in doing so we are getting to ‘know temporality better’ (16-17). So, filmic time may not be like our lived experience of time, but perhaps it’s better, for we can go back into that constructed filmic world, relive it and analyse it in a way we cannot do in real life. However, it’s not so clear how the information we glean from this kind of analysis can be generalised (or tested).

‘Doing Time’ is interesting in the context of recent work that explains our lived experiences of time in terms of it being projected and constructed by our mind, rather than simply a direct response to physical properties of time. We are passive perceivers of (some of) the temporal aspects of a film, its formal, objective properties, but we are also constructors of our subjective temporal experience of the films Carruthers discusses, with some of this construction and projection presumably happening below the level of consciousness. However, as Carruthers does not develop this line of enquiry, I will simply note this book’s relevance to current work in this area.

Having set out her main aim in writing this book, and explained her influences and her methodology, Carruthers offers four case studies to demonstrate different ways in which we can be immersed in ‘filmic time’ and the interpretations that can be drawn about time and temporal experience from each study. In each case this involves interpreting the narrative of the film and understanding the temporal aspects of this narrative, subjectively, as we view it; as well as experiencing its affective influences: how the objective temporal forms within the film makes us feel and think about time.

The first case study is centred on Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Limey’ (1999). Carruthers uses this film as a means of foregrounding our ability (or otherwise) to see ‘elements of the past’ as features (‘aspects’) of our present situation and as ‘determining factors’ of the future (39). The film moves back and forth between scenes which are set in earlier or later times and places and not ordered in temporal sequence, nor are visual cues or conventions used to make the temporal order clear. The viewer is faced with the task of discerning a linear order and narrative from a series of repetitions in the film that form a pattern for the astute viewer to latch onto (45). The work of temporally ordering these temporally diverse scenes brings to the fore our capacity to see the shadows of the past in the present, and (more controversially) as determining the (our?) future. Yet in the end Carruthers argues that this insight is less important than ‘The Limey’s’ other contribution to our understanding of time. This contribution is the idea that the past events of our lives inform the present but they do this because the past occurs ‘through us’ and this ‘…is an aspect of the present that we so often fail to see…’(56). Put simply, we are not always in control of our current beliefs about the past, nor can we always control how (or if) we remember past events.

The second case study is Francois Ozon’s ‘5×2’, (2004), a study of time reversal. The focus is squarely on the past and present: the future is not part of our experience, within the film. The reversed temporal order of scenes and events in ‘5×2’ allows the viewer to become aware of the work we need to do to make sense of a narrative that begins in the present and works its way backwards, a time order that is strange and unfamiliar to us (83). In doing this work we are forced to notice time. Interestingly, while we are explicitly noticing time because it is so unfamiliarly ordered, and it feels so strange, we still feel the normal emotional responses to the events and situations portrayed by actors within a scene (72, 84), even while we strive to work out where that scene fits in the overall temporal order of the film. This, I think, is the key point made in this case study — our normal emotional responses are not affected by our immersion in a strange and unfamiliar temporal experience where the past, present and future are presented in unfamiliar ways (84).

The third case study, Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘What Time Is It There?’ (2001) focuses on our experience of duration. Using the method of ‘slow cinema’, objective time is ‘bracketed’ so that time has no direct role in explaining and understanding the world within the film. We, the audience, are invited to focus on the different ways in which time is represented within the film and are meant to discern what these different representations of time might explain about the role of time in the internal narrative and in the ‘world’ portrayed in the film itself (86). In fact, while clocks and watches are described and used numerously and obsessively throughout the film they ultimately seem to serve no real purpose within the film’s internal world (95-97). It is the viewer who, having privileged information divulged in the film but unknown to the film’s protagonists, is invited to seek and find meaningful correlations between the slow moving representations of time portrayed within the film, and the film’s narrative (98-99). The message of the film seems to be that in our own lives our perspective on time and our grip on time are very limited, just as it is for the characters of the film (113), who despite attempting to keep, own and control time in the form of timepieces (clocks, watches), inevitably find any control over time eludes them.

The final case study is based on Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011). This film uses a technique described as a ‘montage system’ (127-129), where images, shots and footage are cropped, juxtaposed, cut abruptly, and importantly, subject to ‘chronological rupture’ (131) defined as a chaotic temporal ordering.

Time, in this film, proceeds holistically rather than incrementally (132). In order to convey what this means, and to bring out what is of particular interest in this film, an analogy is drawn between time and music: the artistic techniques used in the film present temporal experience as ‘…a shared flow of sensation that shows us temporal experience as something embracing — something that surrounds us like music, or carries us forwards in its dance’ (134).

In summary, ‘Doing Time’ offers a well-researched and penetrating discussion, developed within a Continental philosophy framework, but with something to offer curious Analytic philosophers and other academics (and an interested general readership). Phenomenological hermeneutics is revealed to be an appropriate and interesting way to approach the analysis of film. The book focuses on time and temporality in film, but the theme and discussion of ‘timeliness’ is the real focus here and it yields interesting ways of interpreting filmic texts that resist any final reading, they remain open and up for new interpretations and revisions. It outlines a number of interesting ideas and directions that could be taken up and developed in the future. The book is very accessible, and provides interesting examples that may be of use to philosophers and other writers interested in time and temporal experience. There are many more positives that space does not allow me to set out in detail here, and I heartily recommend this book.


Malpas, Jeff, «Hans-Georg Gadamer», The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).