Film Phenomenology: Definition
Have you ever thought about film’s power to make you ‘feel’ something? How a film has the power to allow you to share in the experience of its characters? For example, an act of violence on screen can cause a viewer physical discomfort, if rendered a certain way. Or a film might allow a viewer to share in a character’s confusion and disorientation, or give them a sense of how a character physically interacts with their world. Film phenomenology is the exploration of these sorts of questions, of how film can do this, what it means and why it is effective (or not).
Phenomenology is a fairly tricky term to get to the bottom of, but I’ll do my best for you here. Phenomenology is the philosophical study of how the human experience and consciousness is shaped by phenomena, phenomena being any existing thing, “something that exists and can be seen, felt, tasted, etc.”
Film phenomenology then, is the exploration of the philosophy of phenomenology through the mechanisms of film form that allow the audience to ‘feel’, in both the physical and emotional sense, what is shown on screen. Films are constructed in a particular way using techniques like editing, and combining sound and image to elicit specific responses from an audience. Film Phenomenology can be explored through the examination of a given film itself as an object of study, or by concentrating on the viewer’s experience of a film. If you consider the first-person view of the camera as a film’s eye, you can imagine how it is possible to explore a film as an object capable of experience. There are many avenues through which film phenomenology can be explored, such as how a film can be experienced aesthetically, spatially, and its relation to human senses of touch, smell, sight, sound and taste. If things are still a little unclear, hopefully these examples will help illuminate things!
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
RoboCop is an action film about a cyborg policeman built from the remains of a murdered officer. The use of camera in RoboCop can be phenomenologically investigated to explore how the film portrays its protagonist’s humanity (or lack thereof). The film uses point-of-view shots to highlight its protagonist’s robotic nature, and the shots later become more organic and less computerised to signify his returning human identity. I’ve gone into a fair bit of detail on this aspect of the film previously, in this essay, and this video, if you would like to know more.
Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)
Three Colours: Blue is a drama following a woman’s struggle with grief after losing her daughter and husband to a car accident. The film uses various close-up and extreme close-ups of the protagonist to create a physical feeling of closeness for the audience to its protagonist which creates a pathway for the audience into becoming emotionally close with her. An emphasis on touch and tactility in tandem with sound and music emphasise this closeness and allow the audience to feel as the protagonist does, physically and emotionally. I have also gone into quite a bit of detail on the role of music in this film previously, in this essay, if you would like to know more.
Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
Blue (which, oddly enough, also came out in 1993) is an autobiographical art film exploring director Derek Jarman’s experience with AIDs and his declining health. The film forces its audience to experience life as Jarman does, if only for 80 minutes, with a single shot of blue on screen throughout signifying Jarman’s blindness, and sound, music and voice-over representing his train-of-thought. The film creates a unique experience, completing eschewing the moving picture aspect of “movie”, confronting you with stark and simple “blue”.
Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2020)
A more recent phenomenological film would be Sound of Metal, the story of Ruben, a drummer in a metal band (or duo, I guess would be more accurate) who has to deal with the loss of his hearing. At various points throughout the film, the sound becomes muffled, garbled, altered or even completely absent, signifying to the audience that we are now hearing as Ruben does (or does not). It’s almost as if the film itself, by altering its sound, has impaired hearing, and as such allows the audience to share in Ruben’s experience. Most definitely a worthy winner of the Academy Award for Best Sound.
I hope that you now have a clearer idea of what film phenomenology is, and are thinking a little more about the ways in which film can make us feel and experience things. If you want to do some more reading on film phenomenology, here are some (fairly dense) books on it:
Barker, J. M. (2009). The tactile eye: Touch and the cinematic experience. Univ of California Press.
Ferencz-Flatz, C., & Hanich, J. (2016). Editor’s Introduction: What is Film Phenomenology?. Studia Phaenomenologica, 16, 11-61.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) ‘The Film and the New Psychology’ in Sense and non-sense. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, pp. 48-59.
Sobchack, V. (1992). The address of the eye: A phenomenology of film experience. Princeton University Press