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Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy.

Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy

By Robert B. Pippin

135 pages; Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2012; cloth $24.95

Whether and how much film can be said to do philosophy are questions that have vexed philosophers and film scholars of late. Among the proponents of film-as-philosophy is Robert Pippin of the University of Chicago's philosophy department and interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought. Over the last few years Pippin has contributed two short monographs, both adapted from lecture series, to the film and philosophy debate. His first film book, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (Yale UP, 2010), argued that canonical Westerns contained deep and original insights into the psychological nature of political organization. Hawks and Ford, by richly imagining how citizens welcome or resist political institutionalization, made genuinely novel contributions to political philosophy.

This style of discursive and film-interpretive philosophy continues in Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy. Through careful analysis of Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, and Scarlet Street, Pippin argues that film noirs depict a kind of agency that challenges the standard philosophy of action, which he calls the "reflective model." He lists three criteria for relatively free action in the reflective model. First, an agent must know what he is doing and why in a "noninferential" and "nonobservational" manner: an agent must have privileged access to his own thought processes and intentions and must not only learn about himself through retrospective observation of his actions. Second, an agent must be able to plan out a course of actions based on reasons and should be able to alter the planned course based on new reasons. Third, an agent must be able to bring about events which lead toward the desired end.

Film noirs undermine these canons of agency. The standard assumptions about ideal agents, if they were ever apt, are no longer helpful after the tumults of the early 20th Century. The common wisdom became an assumption of limited agency--curtailment by gender, social class, and, crucially, one's past actions and irrational drives--in spite of which everyone must still eke out a life. Pippin takes well-made film noirs as bellwethers of changing sociocultural attitudes about relative agency and freedom. A specialist in 18th and 19th Century German philosophy whose work bridges analytic and continental concerns, Pippin draws on his influential readings of Hegel to inform his cinematic interpretations of world-historic shifts in agency.

A revised model of the philosophy of action is unlikely to come from analytic philosophy, Pippin contends. The complex and richly textured world required to house a new model of agency will not be found on trolley tracks or in brain-vats. Instead, he turns to cinematic noir diegeses as pre-made test cases for exploring limited action. In line with much film criticism, Pippin's project involves a demonstration that his chosen films are more complex than they initially seem. He consistently argues in Fatalism in American Film Noir for a gap between characters' self-understanding and their actions, which complicates the plots.

In his chapter on The Lady from Shanghai, Pippin explains how the voiceover of Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) may be an unwitting attempt to shield himself from his own past mistakes, such as acting thoughtlessly against his self-interest by pursuing the dangerous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). In turn, Elsa's possessive husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) behaves with such blind malice toward Michael that Arthur risks undermining his own goals. The characters are free to act without physical restraint, but they are not free to determine their compulsive desires and the social situations that condition their spheres of action. The disconnection between reason and action, and the voiceover evidence that Michael has learned nothing and is self-deceptively fabricating information, suggest that the "reflective model" of action does not describe Michael's world of agency well. The view of free will displayed in the films and the one Pippin seems to defend is compatibilism, which posits that a qualified freedom can coexist with a deterministic universe.

Unsurprisingly, Pippin is best when talking about philosophy. He persuasively remarks that a saturnine belief in fatalism will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he phrases it, "to 'have a fate' is to submit to it, not to be irresistibly captured by it," which noir characters sadly never recognize (84). To my nonspecialist eyes, Pippin's observations on the philosophy of action and his dissection of its shortcomings are clear and authoritative.

Despite its philosophical merits, however, the film components of this volume disappoint. Many of Pippin's interpretations are standard readings borrowed from prior film scholarship, yet neither his main contention nor his close scene readings substantially engage other cinema scholars, who are mostly consigned to footnoted asides. Though the reader is promised close visual attention to the works, we are provided with such bland descriptions as "the lighting and staging of this scene are also quite beautiful; very lush blacks and whites" (34). Furthermore, there are multiple instances when Pippin references historical details--such as the Production Code Administration's exhortations to Fritz Lang, or Roman Polanski's revisions to Robert Towne's screenplay of Chinatown--without citing his sources.

Pippin spends much time untangling the films' baffling plots, but this accomplishes little. Many noirs, including several under discussion, seem more interested in creating the impression of a labyrinthine underworld than in composing a perfect, logical system of interactions. (One recalls the potentially apocryphal story of Raymond Chandler forgetting who killed a minor character in The Big Sleep, which he adapted from his own novel.) After lengthy deconstructive efforts, Pippin argues we discover minute character discrepancies, and on these he erects his weighty philosophical points about agency. The character discrepancies often rely on heavily subjective readings of the films, and they often beg simpler interpretations that do not upset action theory--e.g., Edward G. Robinson's Chris Cross murders because his beloved scorned him, not because of some metaphysical point about the nature of habits. To be sure, scattered throughout the book there are some clever and novel cinematic observations--such as the symbolic significance of Chris Cross whistling late in Scarlet Street--but the minor insights cannot adequately support the larger philosophical claims.

In Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, the philosophically incisive and cinematically novel chapter on The Searchers exemplifies a philosophical approach to film interpretation. There Pippin makes new close readings of the mise-en-scene and camerawork that support his political philosophical thesis. Such adroit scene readings are unfortunately rare in the noir monograph. As a contribution to film studies, Fatalism in American Film Noir has no clear place. Pippin's recommendations for philosophers of action are a far cry from the concerns of most film studies departments. Knowing the degree to which free action requires prior deliberation scarcely improves our understanding of what Out of the Past might mean, or how industrial conditions influenced its production, or how it embodies Tourneur's style, or other typical questions of this field. In turn, Pippin acknowledges he has another problem with his philosophical audience. Since they have no scholarly way to reply--fellow philosophers will not reinterpret The Lady from Shanghai--his perspective on action theory may not get a hearing. The book's audience remains a mystery.
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Author:Bessette, Eliot
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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