Class 14: Film
Class 14: Film
Gregory Currie: “Film, Reality, and Illusion”
Film is a realistic medium, in a certain sense: we really see
movement on the cinema screen in the same sense that we
see colors when we look at ordinary objects in the world
under normal conditions.
Class 14: Film
Transparency, Realism, and Illusionism
• There are three central doctrines about cinema, each of
which has been called “realism”:
i. Transparency: Film, because of its use of the
photographic method, reduces rather than merely
represents the real world. Film is transparent in the sense
that we see “through” it to the real world, as we see
through a window or a lens.
Class 14: Film
Transparency, Realism, and Illusionism (cont’d)
ii. Perceptual Realism: The experience of film-watching
approximates the normal experience of perceiving the
real world. Film is realistic in its recreation of the
experience of the real world.
iii. Illusionism: Film is realistic in its capacity to engender
in the viewer an illusion of the reality and presentness of
fictional characters and events portrayed.
Class 14: Film
Transparency, Realism, and Illusionism (cont’d)
• Although other theorists have argued:
- That Perceptual Realism brings about Illusionism: the
closer the experience of film-watching approximates the
experience of seeing the real world, the more effectively
film engenders the illusion that the viewer is watching the
real world.
- That the notion of realism in film is suspect or even
• Currie argues that these doctrines are independent, both
logically and causally. He rejects Illusionism, accepts
Perceptual Realism, and is essentially neutral with regard to
Class 14: Film
Some Thoughts on Illusionism
• Illusionism is a mistaken doctrine.
• Its strength is derived from its being conflated with the more
plausible doctrine that the basic mechanism of film creates
an illusion of movement.
Perceptual Realism
• A mode of representation is realistic when (or to the degree
that) we employ the same capacities in recognizing its
representational content as we employ in recognizing the
(kind of) objects it represents.
- Unlike, say, literature, you can recognize an image of a
horse if and only if you can recognize a horse.
Class 14: Film
Perceptual Realism (cont’d)
• Realism comes in a matter of degrees:
- With a representation, R, of an object, A, R represents A as
having properties F and G.
- R might represent A as having F realistically, and G in
some other way (i.e., you are able to recognize R as
representing the F-ness of A in virtue of your visual
capacity to recognize the F-ness of A, but you recognize R
as representing the G-ness of A by some other means).
- This is Perceptual Realism.
Class 14: Film
Perceptual Realism (cont’d)
• We judge the spatial relations between objects by seeing that
they are spatially related.
• We judge the temporal properties of (and relations between)
events by taking note of the amount of time we take to
observe them (and the time between them).
• These methods are precisely how we judge the spatial and
temporal properties of things and events that we perceive in
the real world.
Class 14: Film
Perceptual Realism (cont’d)
• This brand of Perceptual Realism does not appeal to an
observer-independent world: it does not claim that cinema
presents objects and events isomorphic to those that exist in
an observer-independent world.
- Rather, it claims that in important ways, the experience of
film-watching is similar to the ordinary perceptual
experience of the world, irrespective of to what extent that
world is independent of our experience of it.
• This brand of realism is response-dependent – like the
concept being red, or being funny – applicable to certain
things in virtue of the responses to it of a certain class of
intelligent agents (namely, us).
Class 14: Film
Perceptual Realism (cont’d)
• A representation, R, is realistic in its representation of
feature F for creatures of a kind C if and only if:
i. R represents something as having F;
ii. Cs have a certain perceptual capacity, P, to recognize
instances of F;
iii. Cs recognize that R represents something as having F
by deploying capacity P.
• Consequently, for instance, film is both a spatial and a
temporal medium:
- Film represents space by means of space.
- Film represents time by means of time.
Class 14: Film
Marcel Duchamp, Nude
Descending a Staircase (1913)
Class 14: Film
Class 14: Film
Perceptual Realism (cont’d)
• Although art forms like painting, photography, and comics
can present time, for them time is not presented by means of
• If a cinematic image of a horse triggers my horserecognition capacity, doesn’t that mean I take the image to
be a horse, and thus fall victim to an illusion?
- No, there is a difference between my horse-recognition
capacity, and my capacity to tell whether there is a horse
in front of me.
- These capacities operate at different levels.
Class 14: Film
Illusionism (cont’d)
• It is possible for a film to effect this sort of illusion, but this
is not at issue when people call film illusionistic.
• The claim that film is illusionistic is the claim that the
standard mechanism by which film engages the viewer is
illusionistic – that the creation of an illusion of reality is a
standard feature of the relation between film and viewer.
• Illusionism comes in both strong and weaker versions.
• Strong Version of Illusionism: The film engenders the
illusion that the fictional events are real, and that the viewer
is witnessing them.
Class 14: Film
Illusionism (cont’d)
Objections to Strong Version:
1) Beliefs are apt to cause certain kinds of behaviour, but
film-watchers do not behave like they are in the
presence of ax murderers, monsters, nuclear explosions,
and the like.
- “Explanations of our responses to cinematic fictions
in terms of belief work only so long as we do not take
the notion of belief, and its connection with behavior,
seriously.” (332)
Class 14: Film
Illusionism (cont’d)
Objections to Strong Version:
2) The strong version of Illusionism is at odds with much
of the experience of film-watching. If Illusionism were
correct, the viewer would have to suppose her
perspective to be that of the camera, as it moves
throughout the film space.
- But this seems psychologically implausible: it would
require identification with a “character” that moves
about without the limitations of our bodies, invisible
to other characters, and so on.
- None of this seems to be part of the ordinary
experience of film-watching.
Class 14: Film
Illusionism (cont’d)
- Nor does the postulation of a “narratee” match up
with our ordinary film-watching experience.
- It has been theorized that the camera is like the “inner
eye” of one who dreams. This would explain the lack
of movement on the part of the dreamer, despite
emotional involvement. But again, dreamers are
concerned with their own actions and sufferings; not
so with the film-watching experience.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions
• A cognitive illusion is a state of mind involving a false
- Mirages
• A mental process is cognitively impenetrable if it operates
independently of our belief.
• An illusion that persists despite beliefs to the contrary is a
perceptual illusion.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• A Perceptual Illusionist thesis about film is a distinctly
weaker thesis than a Cognitive Illusionist one, and with
different consequences.
• Perceptual Illusionism, even if true, does not itself sustain a
thesis of Cognitive Illusionism.
• A thesis of Perceptual Illusionism commonly holds that the
moving image in film is simply an illusion brought about
through a quick succession of projected, still photographs.
- Even though we are always aware of the technical
mechanism that brings this about, we nonetheless
perceive movement on the screen.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• Currie’s thesis: In film, there really is movement (within a
single shot taken from a fixed perspective): “if we are
watching a shot of a man walking along a street, the part of
the image which represents the man will move from one
side of the screen to the other.” (335)
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• This is enough to contradict the claim that movement in film
is an illusion produced by the juxtaposition of static images.
Two Brief Theories of Time
• There are two basic metaphysical positions on motion and
change, generally:
- Three-Dimensionalism: Change takes place when a thing
has a property at one time which it (the very same thing)
lacks at another.
- Four-Dimensionalism: Change takes place when a certain
temporal stage possesses a property, and another temporal
stage lacks it, and these temporal stages are so related that
they compose the temporal stages of the same object.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• One might argue that the real movement in film can be
argued from a rather liberal view of reality: that what is true
is what is useful to believe is true (Daniel Dennett).
- Certainly, there is utility in describing a film by reference
to the movement of images.
- Ultimately, this position argues for an unintuitive
distinction between usefulness and reality.
- The apparent motion in film is not merely apparent, but
real. It is “cinematic motion”.
• We should hold that the cinematic experience of movement
does conform to reality unless there is significant weight of
evidence against this view.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• The argument that the experience of cinematic motion is a
perceptual illusion seems to appeal to there being no real
motion in the film roll – just a series of static images.
- But that there is no music on a CD (being simply a series
of encoded bits) does not mean that when we listen to a
CD we don’t hear music.
• A further argument for the stance of Perceptual Illusionism
might be that the movement is simply the product of our
perceptual system, and cannot exist independently of it.
- Of course, properties like color and taste also depend on
there being a perceiver: these are secondary properties, but
not unreal.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
- “What a realist about color should say is what we have
already said: colors and other secondary properties are
real, response-dependent properties of things.” (337)
- The apparent motion of film is not merely apparent – it is
real, response-dependent motion.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
Possible Objection 1
• This proposal can only succeed at the cost of destroying the
distinction between real and apparent phenomena, or will
intolerably expand the class of phenomena we shall have to
count as real.
• An argument parallel to that of cinematic motion would fail
to prove the “reality” of the illusion in the Muller-Lyer
- These lines appear to be of unequal length, but simple
measurement proves otherwise.
- There is no such equivalent test for cinematic motion.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• “We see the cinematic image of a man, and we see that it is
in one place on the screen, and we later see that it is in
another; indeed, we see—really see—that image move from
one place to another on the screen. That image is not to be
identified with some particular object. It is not like the
image in a painting which consists of a certain
conglomeration of physical pigments, at least relatively
stable over time. It is an image sustained by the continuous
impact of light on the surface of the screen, and no
particular light wave or particle is more than merely
constitutive of it. Nonetheless, that image is a particular,
reidentifiable thing, and a thing which moves.” (340)
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• One image of a man is the same as another one because both
are identified by normal viewers in normal conditions as
being the same man.
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• There is a difference between ascribing redness to a can of
Coke and redness to the aftereffect in the following
Class 14: Film
Class 14: Film
Cognitive and Perceptual Illusions (cont’d)
• In the case of a can of Coke, it is actually red, whereas the
aftereffect in the McCullough aftereffect experiment is only
an illusion.
• “It is traditional to regard motion as a paradigmatically
primary quality, to be contrasted with those secondary
qualities which are in some sense observer-dependent, like
color. If what I have said here about cinematic motion is
correct, we shall have to acknowledge a kind of motion
which takes its place among the secondary qualities.” (342)
Class 14: Film
Questions & Problems
(1) Is Currie correct to say that we recognize objects and
movement in film in the same way that we do objects
and movement in the real world?
(2) To recognize the Man in the Moon depends upon the
ability to recognize faces. Is the property of movement
ascribed to objects of film more like a secondary
property (as Currie asserts) or more like a tertiary
property or “aspect” (as Scruton asserts of movement
in music)? What’s the difference?