For a number of reasons, the relation between movies and thought can be difficult to pin down. Watching movies is often considered an idle pastime, and in terms of enjoyment, it is one of the more accessible forms of art. In some respects, it is clear that one film may be more intellectually demanding than another. However, it is not clear in which respects watching a movie requires thought. Some films may have a plot which requires careful attention, agile reasoning, and a strong memory to comprehend. But still, there may be some people who have no need to understand the plot in its entirety and are able to fully enjoy the movie without exerting any pronounced intellectual activity. A film might have subject matter that is more appealing to educated people than to non-educated people, but not be intelligently written. A film may be intelligently written and directed but not require intelligence to watch. Things such as the vocabulary or cultural context may add or detract from a film’s intellectual accessibility. Most of the things that would make watching a movie an intellectual experience seem to be inessential to the art form. The dynamic and multisensory stimulation of film has the power to compel despite a lack of effort on the part of the viewer. At the very least, watching a movie requires unconscious and sensory cognition, but it is less clear whether and how watching a movie requires conscious intellectual thought, or how film coincides with or augments intellectual activity.
Given that different viewers may enjoy a film for different reasons, and that a person’s general inclination towards intellectual activity does not necessarily predict their reasons for enjoying a movie, or which movies they enjoy, it is not at all clear that watching movies requires that the viewer engage in intellectual activity. It seems that watching a moving picture does not require any specified level of intellection. When reading a book, there is a baseline level of intellectual activity and attention which is the gatekeeper to the experience classified as reading a book. The criterion for watching a movie is at the level of merely looking in the direction of the screen playing the movie. Because of the basic intellectual requirement involved with reading, reading is classified as an intellectual activity by a large portion of the population, almost irrespective of the content of the literature being read.
But films may also appeal to a broad range of viewers coming from a variety of backgrounds, and what on one hand supports the populism of film may in another light support its transcendence and universality.
Despite intellectual activity being seemingly inessential to film, there are aspects of film which make it especially relevant to intellectual life. I wish to explore how film may play a role in intellectual life. Given that movies are possibly the most immersive art form beyond certain unorthodox forms of live theatre or installation art pieces, movies have great potential for intellectual richness and depth. I wish to draw upon Henri Bergson’s ideas about the cinematographical mechanism of thought in order to pose some possible ways of thinking about the intellectual nature of movies. On one hand, watching movies may appeal to our “preoccupation with action” in that they expand our ability to simplify and spatialize motion and other types of action and becoming. But watching movies also may appeal to our reasoning about “duration,” or the qualitative stuff of reality, or reasoning about things which do not pertain to our interests concerning action. In either case, I wish to argue that watching movies is appealing to the human desire to have “conquest over nought.”
The Cinematographical Mechanism of Thought
In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson criticizes the conception of nothingness as being a self-sufficient idea. The “nought,” Bergson argues, is not on equal footing with existence. In terms of content, it is not “less than” the idea of something existing. Rather, it is a secondary form of affirmation which involves conceiving of something to be negated, and thus involves the idea of negation in addition to the idea of something to be negated. Bergson discusses how philosophers tend to “pay little attention to the idea of the nought” but that it is a hidden force which drives much philosophical inquiry (p. 299). Reality is fundamentally positive, and its essence consists in its duration, or its qualitative multiplicity. However, people tend to think of nothingness as the default. The reason that Bergson believes that we as human have this tendency to puzzle as to whether there is something rather than nothing rather than to recognize duration as self-sufficient, is that the purpose of thought is aimed at action, and action is centered around the progression from nothing to something. He claims that “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (p. 297). This is a strong claim which at times requires some loose interpretations of “getting” and “creating,” but Bergson is correct to highlight the human preoccupation with filling voids, going “from the empty to the full, from an absence to a presence, from the unreal to the real.” More puzzling than the fact that anything exists, is the fact that humans themselves exist, and given our fragile existential status, it makes sense that we would be preoccupied with the idea of being something rather than nothing. It is possible that since all of our experience of something existing happens via our own selves existing, we mistake our own fragility for the fragility of existence in general. It is not the condition of the world to constantly be at war with nothingness, but the condition of human beings and other living organisms.
While it is difficult to give a precise definition of what makes something a living organism, a mainstay of the biological theory of life is to say that it is necessary but sufficient to say that a living thing must maintain and perpetuate its existence through homeostasis, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli, and reproduction. All of these activities of living organisms involve some sort of “conquest over nought,” because if not striving to grow, strengthen, empower, or augment its being, an organism is at the very least striving to perpetuate and maintain its existence, whether physically or through more abstract or displaced means. Living is a constant struggle to be something and to avoid becoming nothing.
Bergson claims that thought is “preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action,” and makes an argument that thought spatializes and simplifies for the necessities of action. We create “snapshots” of reality in order to stabilize it sufficiently to make decisions concerning action. We then combine these snapshots to form a mean image which seems to constitute motion or becoming. This is the cinematographical mechanism of thought, as Bergson describes it. As explained earlier, Bergson believes that the mind works this way because of its concern with action. Actions themselves are discrete. Whenever we decide to perform an action, we think of it in terms of its end. The following passage is Bergson’s very intriguing description of action’s discreteness:
The function of the intellect is to preside over actions. Now, in action, it is the result that interests us; the means matter little provided the end is attained. Thence it comes that we are altogether bent on the end to be realized, generally trusting ourselves to it in order that the idea may become an act; and thence it comes also that only the goal where our activity will rest is pictured explicitly to our mind: the movements constituting the action itself either elude our consciousness or reach it only confusedly. Let us consider a very simple act, like that of lifting the arm. Where should we be if we had to imagine beforehand all the elementary contractions and tensions this act involves, or even to perceive them, one by one, as they are accomplished? But the mind is carried immediately to the end, that is to say, to the schematic and simplified vision of the act supposed accomplished (p. 325).
We are not consciously aware of most of what happens when an action is performed. In order to perform an action, we must think of its end, and if the bulk of an action is too complex or unpracticed to perform subconsciously, the action must be divided into smaller discrete actions. Bergson describes actions as being “indivisible,” in that each action is performed with a discrete end or goal in mind, and if one attempts to “divide” that action, it ceases to be the same action. When people think about actions, they conceive them from period of rest to period of rest. Similarly, memories of motion pose a difficulty, since they tend to be loosely tied together images whose quality of motion is nowhere near as robust as what one perceives visually. In many types of thought, humans are quite used to pasting together various static images and augmenting them into a more continuous image. Mathematics is done by repeating and reflecting on various actions, abstracting from them, and forming processes from them. Most complex skills require isolating smaller discrete, unitary skills that can later be combined to form the more complex skill.
Since we think of actions in discrete steps, we must conceive of our environment as static and discrete in some way in order to allow it to be acted upon by our discrete conception of an action. In order to comprehend our environment to an extent that we may act effectively within it, we must simplify our perceptions in terms of what is most relevant to performing the action. In order to make a complex sensory experience of duration comprehensible, we must contract our various sensory data into a few summary statistics which we are capable of holding in our minds.
But Bergson aspires to a type of thought which goes beyond the concerns of action to a consideration of “the nature of things independently of the interest they have for us,” and this requires recognizing the ways in which the manners of thought preoccupied with action are not suited to philosophical speculation. We have some perception of duration as having qualitative multiplicity, a multiplicity which defies quantification by nature of its utter heterogeneity.
How is Action a Conquest Over Nought?
Action signifies our interaction with our environment. Performing an action affirms one’s existence, whether by the sensory experience of being an individual who is doing something, or by exerting force in order to make a change in one’s environment. Thoughts themselves are flimsy impressions with a tenuous existence. The bulk of human experience consists in perceiving and acting, and yet, our conscious thoughts and unconscious thoughts auxiliary to reasoning and intellection seem to be the things which are most quintessentially “us.” It is then desirable to find some way to transform these thoughts which constitute ourselves into something both intellectually and perceptually substantive. In order for a thought to go beyond its ephemeral nature as a faint impression in the mind, it must result in an action or be accompanied by a perception.
While I find it imprecise to say that all action is aimed at getting something or creating something which doesn’t exist, action is a development which allows for greater adaptation to one’s environment, and this confers survival benefits, and many of these actions consist in incorporating things into one’s being or augmenting the self by means of tools, material objects, social involvement, and by other means. Survival itself is a form of triumph over nought in which a self-maintaining organism strives for the things which will keep it alive and perpetuate its genetic material, and so long as it is able to do those things, the organism exists as a discrete being in the way that its internal system strives for its being.
Watching a film engages sensory processing required for adapting to one’s environment, at least in our evolutionary history. On the screen we may be presented with scenes similar to those which might have great significance for survival, were we to actually be in those situations. It seems advantageous that we would be interested to see how a physical fight plays out, since it would crucial for survival to pay close attention to this. In some vestigial sense, we watch movies to rehearse various scenarios which might be relevant to our survival and decisions concerning action, were we to find ourselves in those situations, despite how far-fetched the scenarios might be. Perhaps some of the entertainment value of movies is in considering far-fetched but high stakes scenarios. We can’t be constantly worried about the possibility of the more unfortunate occurrences in movies happening to us, but it might be advantageous to have a reason to consider these situations for a reason other than worry, and for thinking about these scenarios to actually be enjoyable rather than stress-inducing. Worrying about every possible scenario that could occur would overwhelm us, but if mentally, we have an incentive to consider novel situations because we find it enjoyable, we might find ourselves more prepared to handle novel situations when they do arise. With a greater ability to consider novel situations and adapt to one’s environment comes a greater ability to survive.