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Irving Singer, Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir (Cambridge, MA. & London: The MIT Press, 2004, 29.00€, 279 pages, ISBN 0-262-19501-1)Marjorie Vanbaelinghem, Université de Poitiers


This new study by Irving Singer is a follow-up to Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique (MIT Press, 1998). To a certain extent, it illustrates the ideas exposed in his first book on cinema. Three Philosophical Filmmakers is indeed not just about film theory, but more specifically about three directors: Hitchcock, Renoir and Welles. Singer selects the three filmmakers because they fit into a sort of gradient, that is to say, they are similar in the sense but at different degrees. The filmmakers express, through their oeuvre, their personal views on reality, although these views are different in the case of each director, and are conveyed in different ways. Hitchcock, on the bottom end of the gradient, declared he made movies for mere entertainment purposes: the ideas in his movies are very implicit. At the other end is Renoir, who pledged to create a link with his audience and stated the superiority of morals over aesthetics. The personal perspective on life, reality, the world, that these directors inserted into their movies, as well as the fact that they not only directed movies but also wrote on the subject of filmmaking, are what makes them “philosophical,” according to Singer. The phrase used as a title for the book comes from Three Philosophical Poets, a study by Santayana (on Lucretius, Dante and Goethe) in 1970.

Perhaps Singer could or should have specified better from the very beginning what he meant by “philosophical filmmakers.” The need for a definition of philosophy may sound like a hackneyed one, but the question of what becomes of philosophy when applied to filmmaking is worth asking. Singer teaches Philosophy, not Literature or Film Studies (his other books include studies on love or on “feeling and imagination”), and no one doubts he knows what he is talking about when using the term “philosophical.” He actually starts to present his point quite clearly in the introduction (the “Preliminary Remarks,” some of which are repeated in the conclusion). However, as often happens in such studies, we lose the point through the course of the very demonstration. Brilliant, enriching, and fascinating as some of Singer’s analyses are, the point that is first made does not come back “on time,” when examples are exploited, so there is no real demonstration. The philosophical side to Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir’s creativity is but a very general concept that allows Singer to embrace a great many topics and aspects of filmmaking. It might function as a necessary pretext for a philosophy scholar who loves cinema…

In the preface and preliminary remarks, Singer explains that he has been trying, in his research, to reconcile the formalist and the realist critical theories. He also asserts the need for a more “humanistic” angle on movies, as the basis for an alternative theory of film. Singer also begins his definition of a key notion to his approach to filmmaking: authorship. His approach on the three filmmakers under scrutiny is characterized by an interest in directors as authors and theorists. This explains the use of not just films or scripts, but also of interviews and different writings by Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir. Although very enriching, this might be seen as perilous: the texts do not always correspond to the making of the movie they are about—being sometimes completed long after the filming. One could also wonder whether “Renoir the artist,” behind the camera, should be distinguished from “Renoir the thinker”? That question is not even taken up. Singer acknowledges that there is a risk, but adds that he is “willing to take that risk” (i.e., taking into account writings that might deviate from the actual filming) because the filmmakers’ statements are “windows into their individual existence” and function “as valuable clues about the content of their films and culture from which such artworks emanate” [5].

What Singer undertakes in each of the three essays is initially to characterize their technique of the director, the common stylistic thread running between their films. He also attempts to determine the general meaning of their oeuvre: their perspective on life and man, but also on film and its place in the human experience. I believe that is what the author means what he speaks of “philosophical” meaning, movies, or directors. It may sound simple, but the question of whether movies (by directors like Hitchcock) can tell the “truth” and offer a relevance other than formalistic are challenging ones. This is probably why Hitchcock is the first to be analyzed.

In the essay on Hitchcock, Singer begins by trying to define what philosophy can be in a movie: “In great art the philosophical […] not only accompanies whatever elements that entertain a receptive audience but also permeates the aesthetic fabric of the work itself” [8]. The notion of “receptive audience” is a crucial one when dealing with Hitchcock. But it makes things more difficult, because it brings about the notion of subjectivity and the question of whether it is the viewer—by his personal, original understanding of the movie—that makes it philosophical, or the director—who originally, injected objectively philosophical elements in his work. In other words, can a movie become philosophical because of the responses it gets (becoming a cult movie, reflecting its time)?

Since Hitchcock always said that his aim was to provide entertainment, Singer writes, if we consider art and philosophy as separate from entertainment, “the mere idea of Hitchcock’s films as having a philosophical scope is mere nonsense” [7]. Singer argues, then, that such “nonsense” is only based on our taking the artist’s intention and declared will as a truth, without criticism. It seems to me paradoxical to decide to provide an objective analysis on the relevance of a creator’s art, use his writings and assertions on the subject, and declare that such a use must be limited and fundamentally critical. However, Singer succeeds in overcoming that paradox. The use of archives, interviews, is well-made, and we learn a lot about the directors—we actually get the opportunity to know them a bit personally. Singer is very good at grasping the personality, the mindset, the sensibility of artists.

As soon as Singer kicks off the actual technical analysis of Hitchcock’s movies, the book gets into gear. The author resorts to parallels, numerous examples, descriptions, long and detailed analyses. The explanation of the use of montage for the construction of a scene from Sabotage is but one example of the brilliant demonstration Singer makes of the specificity of cinematic devices. Hitchcock spoke about “pure cinema,” but Singer wants to go beyond that idea. He pores into Hitchcock’s use of hints, as well as his playing on what is not shown on screen, and explains that, in Hitchcock’s movies, the audience is left with a choice of different affective reactions. This is effectively demonstrated by a parallel with Gus Van Sant’s “remake” of Psycho. Van Sant’s film was more precisely a reenactment of the movie: although the scenes are perfectly similar, as well as the action and the set, Van Sant shows a lot more than Hitchcock. Van Sant’s tendency to be more explicit and direct, Singer argues, is the reason why his version of Psycho fails to provide the viewer with the same emotions. According to Singer, Hitchcock favors emotionality over sensationalism (that is why he makes us fear for the heroine and imagine the worse, rather than see her blood) and this is his aesthetic (and thus philosophical) program. Singer defines Hitchcock’s technique as a “sheer manipulative intent” [25], then launches a discussion on the moral relevance of the thriller as a genre. A number of concise overviews and analysis of movies are brilliant and enlightening pieces, even taken out of their context, for scholars, instructors and students involved in Film Studies. Examples are developed regularly, over a couple of pages, but this often means we leave the realm of sheer philosophy (for instance, with the digression on humor in Hitchcock’s movies).

The essay dedicated to Hitchcock ends on Singer’s assertion that he is a philosophical director on the ground that his statements “reach beyond himself and offer expert opinion about cinema in its relation to other arts, to modern civilization and to reality as a whole” [52].

A similar attempt at blending the aesthetics of filmmaking and moral philosophy is manifest in the essay on Orson Welles. However, it is much easier to show the philosophical relevance of Welles’s movies than that of Hitchcock’s. Welles was politically committed, and could assume he used his art to expose tenets and ideas. But the philosophical relevance of Welles’s films does not reside in their political hints: according to Singer, they are about the past “in its unfathomable nature” [79]. In order to fully grasp how a movie can present a “myth of the past,” the author incorporates in this essay a long, thorough study of The Dead by John Huston. There he analyses the movie in comparison with the short story by Joyce. Not only is this an extremely well-made study of the movie, but it represents a model of how to use a movie in relation to a novel: it fully shows what a movie can add. Singer seems very interested in the question of remakes, and there is a lot to be learnt in his book about the specificities of literature on the one hand, and cinema on the other. Sometimes, however, this makes him stray away from his point: for example, the discussion on The Magnificent Ambersons (I still do not know its final point), then about the notion of character, and the analysis of the acting performance (indeed crucial in the case of Welles, as he played in many of his movies) do not integrate that well into the original discussion. An exception is the idea of the “importance of thought in film acting” [120] (exposed by Welles himself), an interesting idea, which is opposed to the sensibility and poetry involved in filming, but which is not developed enough.

What is obvious about Singer’s work is that, more than anything, he tries to depict and analyze the attitude of the filmmaker toward art and filmmaking, and connect it to his attitude to life. This is also the result of Singer’s will to reconnect realism (the ideas and the character of the filmmaker as a man) with formalism (the eye of the artist). At one point, Welles is quoted on that matter: “A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it” [145]. Singer seems to be saying, in addition that a philosophical and successful movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it.

In the case of Jean Renoir, the connection between art and society, realism and formalism seems obvious: the ambition of the filmmaker is to “have a conversation” [147] with the viewers: “the establishing of human contact is preferable to any search for perfection” [153]. The importance of what is shown and above all its capacity to touch people, is far superior to the aesthetic perfection of a movie. We thus attain the opposite of the gradient going from technicality to realism, implicit thinking to explicit view on the world: from Hitchcock’s considering the audience “as an audience,” with set reactions and foreseeable sensations, to Renoir’s will to create a bond with the audience. A number of themes—such as the relationship between human beings and nature—are explored in Renoir’s oeuvre, thus making it truly philosophical. The explanation of the “naturalism” of Renoir is very well presented: the whole of the directing and actor-managing Renoir did is indeed pervaded by this sensibility. What is striking also about Renoir is the importance of art and filmmaking as a theme. While Hitchcock created “perfect movies” that are “pure cinema,” technical feats; Renoir made movies that dealt with art, artists’ lives as their theme (Le Carrosse d’Or, French Cancan). The reflection on technology (in La Bête Humaine) is another self-mirroring aspect of Renoir’s oeuvre. Singer never attempts to artificially re-construct a “career plan” or the evolution of a somewhat Hegelian idea expressed throughout the oeuvre of each filmmaker he is too subtle for that. At the core of Renoir’s philosophical relevance is the refusal to trust technology, as Hitchcock did: according to Singer, the limits to formal bravura are there on purpose, as the technical (or, rather, un-technical) counterpart to Renoir’s humanistic views. Singer’s book also raises the question of what movies are made of. Even when he admits to his own incomprehension or when he points out the lack of clarity of some notions or phrases from the directors’ interviews, Singer adds to the seriousness and the objectivity of his analysis. He also shows the mystery of filmmaking, as something between visual art and literature, with the physical presence of art and the abstraction and hermetism of philosophy.

On the whole, I must say that the three analyses, taken individually, are extremely helpful: the Hitchcock analysis is a model of scholarly research. The Welles analysis is perplexing to a certain extent, but perfectly renders the feeling and the structure of an oeuvre, that is what it is because it is unfinished, complex and contradictory. I found the analysis of Renoir at points too remote from its context, its country of origin, but as one reads, one feels the admiration and fascination Singer has for Renoir, and, added to the rigorousness of the comments, analysis of themes, techniques, and notions, this makes the reading extremely pleasant.

The last chapter, “A Family Portrait,” aims at picking up the threads of the argument in order to compose a harmonious conclusion to this triad of essays. Singer repeats his belief in the interdependence between technique and meaning—but this time as the basis of art in general. He also focuses on the audience, as an essential aspect of creation, especially in the case of cinema as opposed to painting. However, this brings about, once again, the question of subjective or objective philosophical meaning. Furthermore, the essay ends on intertwined portrayals of the three philosophical filmmakers, with a notable hint of psychoanalysis (for instance, the part on Welles and his mother). In these portraits, Singer shows more explicitly that philosophy to him does not mean aesthetics, but ethics—the very behavior of the creators, their commitment regarding a certain number of issues. The connection between the improvisational tendencies in Renoir’s filming and existential philosophy I found very pertinent. Again Singer aims at blending things that are apart: the look of an image and its ethical raison d’être, aesthetics and ethics, the stern shadow of Sartre with the joyful animation of Renoir’s movies.


The book is thus both strictly academic and personal. It is ambitious, and at points imperfect because of its ambition, which nonetheless opens a lot of doors and makes the reader think. It contains a lot of excellent, useful and even inspiring passages for anyone willing to theorize on films or just to think about filmmaking as a practice. There is no bibliography, and only few book references in the essays, but there is a very practical index of films, actors, authors, and notions mentioned, which the reader involved in research on other directors will find extremely useful.

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