A Mind’s Eye
Author: Joanna Callaghan
Format: Experimental film
Duration: 20′ (2′ 27″ extract)
Ontological Narratives is an on-going practice led research project which seeks to formalise ideas related to philosophy and film practice into a coherent praxis evident through both writing that will discuss this theory and a piece of practical research that will apply this theory. These processes are linked closely and each product seeks to stimulate and interrogate the other. There are two core subjects to Ontological Narratives:
• Ontology – the ‘content’, the idea that categories of being might be distilled into (non-abstract) visual images (e.g. subject/object relationships, becoming, being/non-being)
• Narrative – the ‘structure’, how experimentations with mise en scene structure can lead to new non-abstract narrative forms.
Each film takes an idea from a philosopher and explores these creatively. The research questions are:
• How can philosphiocal concepts be translated into audio visual media?
• What role does mis en scene play in developing a coherent vision of these concepts?
Plato’s World of Forms – The Film of The Idea
In Timaeus Plato lays out the model for Ontological Narratives II, ‘A mind’s eye’. He proposed there exists two worlds, one of forms, the other of appearances. In the world of forms ‘things’ exist in the most pure sense, in the essence or ‘form’. In the world of appearances ‘things’ are recognisable because they participate in these ‘forms’ but are only copies of these forms. Therefore every thing in the world of appearances has an essence existing in the world of forms. Taking the idea of a world of forms or essences as starting point the narrative of the film was a journey of a character from the world of forms to the world of appearances. Plato spoke about elemental essences, fire, water, wind and earth which translate into visual images that can allude to an essence as something irrefutable, unchangeable and constant. He also spoke of somatic essences, animals, plants and human kind. However these are more difficult to capture visually as they are complex and varied with the choice of the ‘representative’ image (e.g. a blond baby, a black horse) operating within a systems of signs and meanings.
Research Project 2004-2012
Ontological Narratives began in 2004 with ‘Thrownness’ (2004, 35mm 9’) which treats Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘Geworfenheit in studio-based filmic narrative. ‘Ontological Narrative II: A mind’s eye’ (2008, 35mm 14’ AHRC funded) addresses Plato’s concept of forms (‘eidos’) from the Timaeus and ‘Ontological Narrative III: Do not read this’ (2011, HDV 25’) considers Jacques Derrida’s ‘writing and difference’. The fourth film will attempt a counter signature to Derrida’s The Post Card is currently in production, funded by an AHRC research grant and is a collaboration with Martin McQuillan.
The area of film philosophy is a growing one evident from activities such as the annual Film Philosophy conference, a flourishing film philosophy journal and network (http://www.film-philosophy.com) and a glance at recent publications (Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image, Mullarkey 2009, On Film, Mulhall 2008 new ed., Filmosophy, Frampton 2007, Film as philosophy, Read & Goodenough (ed.)2005). At the heart of this work is the notion that film might be philosophy in action, that filmic language may replicate or engender the language of philosophy. This research tends to be conducted mainly by theorists with few practice led researchers involved. There is also a long history of the philosophical analysis of film which in the main takes the feature film as an end product focusing on interpretation and reception (Cook et al, Allen & Smith, Carroll, Penn, Freeland & Watenberg, Cavell). However this entire field of research tends to treat film as an object of study for philosophy with specific films as demonstrating certain philosophical truths. It is less concerned with the process of filmmaking or the organic development of a research project as the production of knowledge. Commercially successful films, both documentary and drama, have been produced about philosophy or philosophers such as Examined Life (2008), Zizek! (2005), Edward Said (2004), Wittgenstein (1993) and Ghost Dance (1983). All these seek to illustrate philosophy rather than use film as a medium for the production or interrogation of knowledge itself. There has been practice led research such as Ross & Barison, The Ister(2007), Victor Burgin’s Nietzsche in Paris (2000), Gary Hill’s installations Plato’s Cave (1992) and Remarks on Colour (1994) and Benoit Marie who uses philosophical texts and ideas as a point of departure for his performances, painting and videos. These practice led examples better encapsulate the dynamic of my own research project that connects filmic and philosophical production in the same practice.
Theoretically informed practice and the production of philosophy as film is not the same thing. A theoretically-informed practice does not ipso facto render its output philosophical. One could equally say of any art object that it is meaningful and worthy of theoretical analysis but this is not the same thing as saying that it is productive of philosophy. For example, Structuralist materialism is an art practice that subjugates philosophy to art in order to inform the production of an avant garde practice. My research project attempts to address these aporias with a philosophical precision not always present in art practice and an understanding of creative practice almost entirely absent from the current philosophical discourse on film. (Callaghan & McQuillan, 2011)
My methods arise from my experience in the film, television and radio industry in the UK and France. I work with narrative as a vehicle to explore how we perceive images and the cognitive processes that link these perceptions to meaning. I do this through an idiosyncratic approach to representation that includes highly stylised aesthetics, elaborate and complex editing processes and multifaceted, eclectic sound/textual workings.
Working on and with film and using narrative /mise-en-scene are two essential, related components of my practice. Celluloid, made from cellulose acetate, or more frequently today, polyester, has a range of image qualities that access cinematic codes which facilitate an exploration of narrative. The depth, richness, graduation, hue and contrast that celluloid possesses, lends itself to triggering within the viewer connections with other scenes, in other films, in other cinemas. This connectivity is essential since viewers are asked to consider complex, abstract ideas. Through making associations with film ancestry comprehension may be assisted. Thus, I work both with film and on film. Celluloid is an expensive medium, requiring great care and discipline, trust and courage. There is a preciousness and elusiveness to the film image and its production. With film, one must watch the action and imagine the potential, and one must live and work with the outcome. Video allows instantaneous feedback; shoot, shoot and shoot some more! In contrast, it is precisely because the film image cannot be seen that concentration on the conceptual product is allowed. Working on celluloid lets one work within the abstract and imagined.
I use narrative as a device, as an element of the film rather than the raison d’être. Conventional narrative imperatives such as closure, problem-resolution, character identification, the mise-en-scene, montage and sound are held as subjects of analysis. The narrative provides a vehicle for the subject matter and draws upon well understood codes and conventions of the cinematic art form. This is why I work with the aesthetics, creating luxurious and attractive worlds that can lead viewers inside them and allow them to open to what can be challenging ideas.
The research questions were explored through the production of a 35mm short film, shot on celluloid and using narrative. A script was written which presented Plato’s elemental and somatic essences intercut with a dialogue between two characters, Stanley and Stanley Too. The characters are named Stanley after American philosopher Stanely Cavell, though they are not Cavell in any autobiographical or performative way. In fact they are not characters in the dramatic sense at all. However perhaps they embody a Cavellian mode of speech, unconnected from spoken word, a particular view, way of seeing, frame of reference.
In A mind’s eye, I aimed to replicate a sense of Cavell’s speaking, not through the content of the characters dialogue, which is concerned with Plato’s ideas but through using two versions of the character, Stanley and Stanley Too. These two versions, one the form, the other the copy, are not the same man. They are different men. They are twins. At first glance, they appear as one man, upon further listening, seeing and knowing they become two men. What do both possess? Stanley-ness of course. Stanley-ness is a ghost, a phantom, fragile and elusive like the words and turns of phrases used to theorise and philosophise. As Stanley says, “I am here, but do I exist?”
The film is about a man named Stanley who thinks things into existence, who meets his reflection, and discovers that perhaps it is he who is the copy not the original. They have a dialogue in the tradition of Socrates and his pupils discussing the theory of recollection, the allegory of the cave, and the Third Man argument. Complicating the dialogue is the presence of the film, the knowledge they have of themselves as subjugated by the film, the narrative and that which has been defined for them by some unseen hand.
This is a dialogue between the emotional and the intellectual, the mind and the spirit, the essence and the copy. There are multiple, simultaneous, cross disciplinary, inter-cultural dialogues of words, images, emotions and thoughts between and within the maker and viewer, film and text, film and other films, text and other texts. At times the dialogue is visible and aural at others invisible and subconscious. This was problematic. A symbol was needed to embody these dialogues, since reflexivity was essential to the dialogue itself. The mirror was adopted as a metaphor. However the employment of the metaphor was also dialogic. It was not a mirror but the symbol of a mirror. What was reflected was not one man but two different men. It was not a mirror but a frame. A frame that literalises our interpretation. The frame is in fact a portal to another world; the world of forms, the world of the film, the inner world. However it is not the world of forms we see but the view from the world of forms back to the world of appearances, hence, Stanley and his many copies. The portal is not a portal but a mirror. Reflected is the world of reality. Plato’s world of reality. This movement from mirror to frame to portal and back to mirror takes place in the space that is the ‘here’ of the film.
This dialogue aims to explore Plato’s idea through incorporating the refutation offered by Aristotle (The Third Man argument). Through a playful delivery this complex idea might be rendered comprehensible by the image of twins speaking to each other as if they were the one man, though they are two. The third man is the audience’s image of Stanley in her ‘own mind’.
The outcome was a 13 minute 35mm film which has been shown in cinemas, galleries, museums and festivals and at academic conferences and research seminars. A secondary outcome was a ‘making of’ documentary produced from the project documentation, a useful tool for reflection and dissemination of practice and pedagogy.
There is no doubt film can act as a conduit for philosophical ideas. The aim here was to make explicit the philosophical ideas rather than implicit as may exist in any film subject to analysis. The aim therefore depends somewhat on the philosophical ideas themselves. Platonic notions are not popular in contemporary philosophy for countless reasons including the subjectivity associated with the consideration of what an essence comprises. This is indeed what arose in my own practice led research. Somewhat naively (I would argue one must be naïve to attempt making a film about philosophy at all), I approached the concept of an ‘idea’ as something that might be independently grasped or agreed upon (hence “independent of our minds” as Reviewer 2 picks up). The experience of making the film has led me to reconsider the impossibility of finitude in what is a film about ideas, in a sense about the ideaness of an idea. As Reviewer 2, states “the concept is not an Idea, but rather the process whereby conceiving arises in the world”. Indeed an idea is not singular or reducible, an idea is potential; it might or will become something else. The ‘it’ of the idea is the ideaness of idea. Like the Stanleyness that is shared in Stanley and Stanley Too, ideaness refers to the essence of idea, present in all ideas. If ideaness is potential, an idea is a set of potentials processing. This processing might or will result in some thing. The thing in this context, takes the form of a visual, aesthetic product, a film. What acts upon or with this ideaness to create the visual, aesthetic product? Of course there is the subject matter, but an idea is more than it’s subject matter. It is held by someone, by me. I shape an idea by my knowledge, experience and taste and it is the temporal collision of these that makes an idea of the present. This shaping of the idea occurs with and through me. The ‘with’ might be explained by style, aesthetics and practice, but also chance, coincidence and error. The ‘through’ is more difficult to articulate. It is an unconscious process of attraction based on personal history, culture and beliefs and physical/biological determinations, gender and sexuality. The results often surprise me. This might be tacit knowledge becoming present only possible though the experience of making.
For Alain Badiou ‘cinema is a place of intrinsic indiscernibility between art and non art… no film is controlled by artistic thinking from beginning to end, as it always bears impure elements within it’.(Badiou, 2003;84) This is a painful truth for the filmmaker. One must acquiesce to the inevitability of imperfection and the impossibility of perfection. Plato’s ideal film does not exist. A film may have an essence but there is no essence of film. Chemical construction, mechanical movement or projection are not ‘essences’. Nor can film essence be found or explained through psycho analytics, film theory, philosophy or linguistics. Film happens. The notion of ‘happening’ is synonymous with the nature of practice led research. That is the highly individual contribution of the practitioner and the practice (albeit part of the practitioner) to create new connections between ideas and re-contextualise ideas in alternative contexts. In this sense Ontological Narratives II has been successful in the marriage of philosophical ideas and a film practice that utilises celluloid and narrative elements. By aligning the research questions closely with the methodology I was able to address these questions in action and somewhat in the analysis stage. Philosophical concepts can be translated into visual aesthetic products and narrative can play a role in developing a coherent vision of these concepts. However the line between the translation and the ‘product’ is a creative relation between the conceptual and the actual, fluid and sometimes arbitrary. In this way transformation may be a better term to encapsulate the outcomes of the research process however brings another set of issues to the research process which will be explored in future projects.
AHRC Practice led research grant
University of Bedfordshire Research Grant
Teaching and Learning grant
Centro Cultural de Lagos, Portugal
AP engine – http://www.apengine.org/2010/06/joanna-callaghan-a-mind’s-eye-by-cecilia-wee/
Whitechapel Art Gallery
Film & Philosophy 2009
Australian and New Zealand Art Historians Conference 2009
Journal of Media Practice symposium 2011
University of Bristol 2010
Edge Hill University
Callaghan, Dronsfield, McQuillan (2009) “La Carte Postale: Film & Dissemination” A proposal to the AHRC (unsuccessful)
Callaghan & McQuillan, 2011, Ontological Narratives IV: working papers (unpublished)
Cavell, Stanley (1971) The World Viewed, Cambridge, Harvard University Press
Badiou, Alain (2004) Theoretical Writings, Eds. & Trans Ray Brasier and Alberto Toscano, Continuum Books, New York
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The main research claim is that the narrative organisation, iconography, sound design and materiality of film act as an original contribution to the field of philosophy (Platonic studies).
Given that the research focuses primarily on the use of narrative and of film form / materiality to explore Plato, rather than vice-versa, it is difficult for an assessor from outside the field to evaluate the extent to which the film contributes to the body of knowledge on Plato, or indeed how might be said to “perform the production of knowledge [about Platonic concepts] within the film itself”. As the research statement acknowledges, this is a work primarily aimed as a contribution to a complex and specialised debate. Beyond this, the research questions seek to generalise rather than address specific issues around Plato, and it’s impossible to assess the extent to which the work succeeds against such generalised aims about relations between philosophy and film. It will undoubtedly provide a useful point of reference in this new area.
In terms of audio-visual strategies and concepts, the work itself engages with and interrogates ways in which the cinematic elements are held as subjects of reflexive analysis. The dialogue and commentary on appearance, form and ontology in the context of the images and iconography (frames, mirrors, cultivated and abstract environments) and sound design provide intriguing pointers towards ways in which film form itself is a subject of research process and outcome. Discussion of such strategies with the collaborators (cinematographer, sound and picture editors, for example) could have provided illuminating interesting authorial comment in the ‘making of’ documentary.
As indicated by the criteria statement, the work can be generically classed within contemporary art practice on the basis of narrative, formal strategies and production values, although no information is given about intended audiences or exhibition venues. The production values derived from the quality of art direction and camera technologies (less so from performance) do move towards the achievement of the aim of seducing the viewer through an aesthetic of austere sensuality. The criteria section of the statement is populated by questions – an initial attempt to turn these into criteria raises substantial questions of presentation and substance. Clear statements about the criteria should be provided.
The statement would also benefit from a brief critical evaluation of ways in which the work engages with the identified Platonic concepts, and how new thinking about such concepts might inform contemporary approaches to film. At present it provides an interesting provocation rather than a clear summary of the outcomes and conclusion of the research.
– revision of the questions in the Criteria statement to provide genuine criteria for assessment
– a short summary (in the research questions section) of the Platonic themes primarily being addressed through particular characteristics of film form, and (in the research contexts) a brief summary of the research outcomes i.e. new knowledge emerging through exploration of relations between form and idea.
Review 2: Accept work and statement with no alterations
My purpose in reviewing this film is to assess its philosophical dimensions. The work is highly literate in the philosophical materials with which it deals, and rather unusually not only sources those materials from Plato, but, from amongst these dramas, from his Timaeus, a text central to Platonic natural philosophy and to the dominant understanding of nature even in the Renaissance. Let me start with comments about Film and Philosophy, or Philm. Firstly, as the author notes, this increasingly widespread conjunction tends to devolve into philosophical exegesis of a filmic text. The approach here adopted is greatly more intelligent and greatly more productive. Rather than merely illustrating this or that concept, the film engages problems of ontology at the levels (a) of its own medium; (b) of the representations of which this medium is capable; and (c) of the representations of which other media (nature and mind) are capable.
There is a single instance of breaking the fourth wall in the film, and a dissolve or ‘resolve’ of the medium of the eye into that of the camera. While both tropes are well-known, they do not form the central narrative strategy of the film, which is constituted instead by the demonstration of the relative objectivity of the processes that form its narrative. It is particularly pertinent, therefore, to the Platonism it addresses that some of these processes are verbal, and some are non-verbal. Noting in particular the filmmaker’s aim of letting film “perform the production of knowledge”, there is a clear sense in which the interaction of these verbal and non-verbal processes coalesce around what is, and how what is, is; but there is also the process of the resolution of images from motion to relative rest – the capture of this or that appearance (of a bonsai, a child, of the elements, etc.) as a recollection of the moments of its constitution as image.
The device of the frame thus sensibly articulates both its content and what contains it, creating not merely an image but a performance of that relation (container-content or concept-conceived) through repeated elements altered with each iteration. This is precisely the means by which Platonism resolves the conflict of ceaseless motion (becoming that is not) and immobile rest (being that does not become) stated at the outset of theTimaeus: becoming is the attempt to approximate what does not become. The deployment of themes as performances is therefore the appropriate approximation not merely of concepts, but of ideas. When, deploying another somewhat hackneyed Platonic concept, we discuss mimesis, we think falsely of this thing copying another; but mimesis, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, is copying rather than copy, a process rather than an object, the means by which one process recovers, repeats and changes another in the attempt to assume the quality of being that, by its nature, it cannot.
This film is, therefore, in equal parts a positive critique of the predominant exegetical mode of film-philosophy in the interests of an exploration of filmic potentials for conceptualisation, an epistemic or epistemogenic performance, an ontological essay whose contents include, but – vitally – are not limited to, scrupulous attention to the properties not only of the medium of film, but also of those other media by which precepts and concepts are created; and, finally, a powerful reconception of mimesis. That philm should rediscover Plato does not therefore entail it rest content with its characterisation as the cave-dwellers’ tranquiliser, but rather that the forms of process be themselves explored not merely in the medium of thought or intelligence, but also in film. This film is therefore a genuine legatee of Plato-the-dramatist, as Rose English’s performance Plato’s Chair (1984) was in its time.
I have two philosophical qualms. The first concerns an equivocation concerning “existence” regarding the concept, which Stanley2 tells us, “exists in the mind”, and the Idea or Form, which Stanley2 also tells us, “exists independently of our thinking”. It is true that reality is made up of being and becoming. It is also true that conceiving is a process, chiefly a dialogical or dialectical one, whereby a concept is created. But for that reason, the concept is not an Idea, but rather the process whereby conceiving arises in the world. Plato caused himself no end of trouble by refusing a common term for the ontological status of becoming and being, respectively, which is the role “existence” plays here. Instead, what becomes is not because it becomes, and what is does not become because it is. Conceiving therefore is as much appearance as is nature, as conceived in whatever medium (sense, intelligence, film), and strictly is not because it becomes. This is just a detail, but an important one.
Secondly, the radicalism of Platonic philm, or of ‘media-ontology’, if you will, is not simply its untimeliness, but its commitment to the immanent law of process as governed only by what is. When therefore the Statement cites Alain Badiou in support of the claim that film is an “impure art” (just as the Timaeus says that all talk of a form of becoming or of matter as such must be a species of “bastard reasoning”), this is the formulation of one who self-presents as a contemporary Platonist. Yet Badiou’s complete dismissal of the problem of nature, that is, of becoming, represents only a partial or one-sided Platonism, a Platonism incapable of appearance save as lacking all content in advance. This film is an aesthetic (that is, a sensible) critique of the absence of nature in contemporary philosophy, rather than, as is usual in the circus of reflexivity in which intellectual culture spins without substance, a celebration of its reduction to the image.