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An Interesting Film Theory #1: Media-Philosophy and Materialism

As part of various film classes, I’ve had to learn about a number of different theories for analysing and discussing aspects of film. I find some of them more interesting than others, and I thought it would be enjoyable to briefly examine some of them here, one by one, with cinematic examples. First, is the theory of media-philosophy and materialism. So, what is that?

Media-Philosophy and Materialism is the exploration of the question of whether the materials used to create art (e.g. the pen, clay, or film camera) are merely tools used to express what already existed in the artist’s imagination, or if these technologies themselves birth completely new means of expression that could not be borne simply from imagination. So, essentially, is the artform dependant on the media used in its creation? Could a novel be conceptualised without the means to write it down? Could a film be imagined without the existence of cameras or projectors, or the established visual language of the medium?

For Karin Littau, art and philosophy could not exist without the media used to record, store and produce it and as such the two are intrinsically linked, explaining that: “If art defines our spiritual world, who we are, but is dependant on technological media to transmit our being, it would be wrong-headed to separate the world of spirit from the world of things” (Littau 2011, p. 156).

Examples in Film

In film, this idea could be explored directly through a focus on the means of film-making, or abstractly by containing story elements of artistry and creation. There was, infact, a Materialist movement in film in the 1960s (also called Structural films), a mode of film-making in which the film-making device is entirely apparent through the film’s construction, and any story or narrative was peripheral, or even entirely absent. Art of this type would be impossible to produce or even envision without the invention of the various technologies which facilitate it.

Some examples of Materialist/Structural films: The Flicker (Conrad, 1965), an experimental film composed of white and black frames, which alternate at different rates throughout the film. Empire (Warhol, 1964), an over 8 hour long slow motion fixed shot of the Empire State Building. Wavelength (Snow, 1967), a 45-minute film consisting of one fixed shot, constantly and slowly, almost imperceptibly zooming in.

A compressed and sped-up version of Wavelength for YouTube

In terms of stories about artistry itself, one my favourites would be Whisper of the Heart (Kondo, 1995): A drama following two teenagers with artistic aspirations as they develop their talents and creativity as well as their romantic feelings for each other. Through their artistry and development of their respective crafts they each learn more about themselves, and each other. Without the art-creating technologies they use (pen and paper for the author character, wood and tools for the violin-maker), they would be unable to exercise their respective creativities or effectively explore their adolescent emotional awakenings.

Whisper of the Heart

St. Thomas Aquinas famously posed the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, and I think Karin Littau’s answer is best:

“The number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin depends on the focal length and speed of the camera lens, or the technical sophistication of the CGI team.” (Littau 2011, p. 160)

More Reading

If you are interesting in reading a little more about this, I would recommend the following:

Littau, K. (2011). The ghost is the machine: Media-philosophy and materialism. In New Takes in Film-Philosophy (pp. 154-170). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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