Routledge, publisher of a strong, varied, academic catalogue, has brought out Philosophy Goes to the Movies, a book which aims to introduce the subject of philosophy by way of various illustrations from the cinema. Its author, Christopher Falzon, lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University in Australia, points out that 'The structure of this book has been dictated by broad areas of philosophical interest'. His first section, therefore, deals with the theory of knowledge, and each subsequent section uses a specific film as the springboard for its discussion: thus, All of Me (1984) introduces ideas relating to the self and personal identity, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) sets up the question of what it means to be moral, while social and political philosophy is backed up by Antz (1998), and society, science and technology by Modern Times (1936). Lastly, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) helps the discussion on critical thinking.
The jaunty title of this book suggests that it is going to look at various films in a light-heartedly philosophical way, but Falzon's text is actually more about philosophy than about film. Plato, Descartes, Kant, the Existentialists - they're all in here, which makes the book ideal for the beginner philosophy student. And it is definitely the films which serve to back up the discussions of philosophy, not the other way round. Yet the book is written so carefully and so pleasantly, with the author constantly reassuring us of how difficult it is to say anything definitive in philosophy, that it also works as an introduction for the general reader, and perhaps most aptly for the moviegoer who wants to see the likes of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Face/Off (1996) in a whole new light. It has the major virtue, therefore, of managing to exist in the academic field while remaining accessible to all. It's as though someone made a pizza topping by mixing the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy with Sight and Sound.
One might wonder, though, whether the book might have been a better read had it delved a little more deeply into some of the issues. There's no doubt that it manages to elucidate key philosophical areas, but throughout its 200-odd pages it doesn't really vary its project or build upon the issues. Falzon's allusions to Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, are apt and sound, but that is a terrific film which manages to philosophise about a great many powerful issues, and with the clarity of his writing, he might have ventured into a more in-depth look at it, to illustrate exactly how one might understand philosophy better through the movies, and vice versa. Instead, eventually the reader is left, perhaps, with the oxymoronic feeling of superficial information overload.
An alternative approach would have been to split the text up into individual philosophers, and then choose specific films which support their arguments. But Falzon's approach is evidently suited to a first-year philosophy degree structure. Philosophy Goes to the Movies is an unusual and welcome book, a learned and for the most part entertaining introduction which will inspire further reading on its subjects, and which lays the groundwork for other writers to expand upon.
Reviewed by Edward Lamberti