This blog is dedicated to philosophy, film (with some TV thrown in there), and fiction. In this first post, I’ll talk a bit about the three and give you preview of what’s to come.
As a depressed teenager I was unhappy when I first went to college (I started out studying engineering because I’d been good at math and science in high school). So I dropped out, did the whole rock and roll thing for a while, then re-enrolled at a different college. I happened into a philosophy class and that was a life-changing experience. I felt like I’d found a home, a calling. I finally found people talking about things that mattered and in a serious way. I changed my major immediately, ended up going to grad school, and now I teach the stuff for a living. Imagine getting paid to talk about really interesting ideas. I still marvel at that fact.
But philosophy isn’t what most people think it is. The average person seems to think of philosophy as chucking around opinions about whatever (“my philosophy is…”); or they think of it as old bearded white guys in togas talking about bullshit, stuff that doesn’t matter for anyone’s daily life.
But that’s all wrong. Philosophy is an investigation of the most important issues people face, particularly issues concerning reality, knowledge, and values. These are questions that, if you’re at all reflective, you’ll run up against at some point or another. And they demand answers.
The study of the nature of reality is METAPHYSICS (questions about God, free will, the mind) ; the study of knowledge is EPISTEMOLOGY (issues concerning belief, truth and falsity); and the study of moral values is ETHICS. (More posts to follow about these different areas.)
Philosophy is different from the natural and social sciences because it’s not an empirical investigation (it doesn’t concern observable facts). It concerns non-empirical, abstract issues (knowledge and moral values aren’t concrete; they’re abstract). Just because they’re abstract doesn’t mean they’re not real. Justice, belief, evil, truth are certainly real.
And that doesn’t mean it’s all just a matter of opinion (or just bullshit). Philosophy is reasoned inquiry that operates via arguments. In other words, you have to back up your philosophical claims with good arguments, and the best argument wins the day.
Does anything ever get decided or settled in philosophy? Absolutely! Just as any theory in the natural sciences is always subject to further testing and revision, so any philosophical position or claim is subject to further examination and argumentation. Those positions that stand the test of time and further evaluation are settled (just as it is with any empirical claim that withstands further investigation).
We didn’t do a whole lot of reading in my house when I was a kid. Instead, I grew up on movies. I devoured them. In life pre-cable (yes, I’m that old), the networks used to show movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sure, they were edited for content and broken up with commercials, but I didn’t care. I got sucked into the stories.
I loved Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, loved the classic noir films, particularly the ones with Bogart (The Big Sleep was a particular favorite). I loved big epic dramas like Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai. And, yes, I loved those classic films that cineastes tell us are great, like Citizen Kane. I never missed a chance to watch Casablanca (I still get teary-eyed during the Marseillaise scene).
So it was only natural, I suppose, that I ended up writing a great deal on the philosophy of film.
My first foray into philosophy and film was when I wrote a piece about the symbolism in Pulp Fiction. That was great fun. Afterwards, I got involved writing chapters and editing books for different series in popular culture and philosophy (mostly for my own series). Thus were born my volumes on Woody Allen, film noir, neo-noir, Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Spike Lee.
The essays in this area either do a philosophical analysis of some aspects of the film, or use the film as a way to discuss and examine some classic philosophical ideas. E.g., my Woody Allen essay is on the meaning of life in his films, my Coen brothers essay is on Barton Fink and the problem of interpretation, and my Spike Lee essay is on 25th Hour and the issue of justice.
This work has been my academic bread and butter, so to speak, in my professional life.
I came to write crime/suspense fiction somewhat accidentally. In grad school in Philly I started working on a screenplay with a buddy of mine. We got together in various pubs, drank a lot of beer, and hammered out a story. It ended up being a mystery/suspense tale, and we came up with a rough outline and some character sketches. My friend left it to me to put the thing into the format of a screenplay, which I didn’t know how to do. So I set it aside for a while, and one summer I broke it out and started developing it as a novel.
It was only then that I started reading in the suspense genre. In that way I ended up discovering the great writers who became my strongest influences: Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and David Goodis.
It took a lot of time and effort, and abandoned drafts, but I finished that first novel, and I enjoyed the process so much that I started another one right away. I’ve been doing it about fifteen years now, and I’m continually learning new things and developing as a writer.
The connections between philosophy and film should be clear from what I said above. And I’ve become more and more aware that there’s a deep connection between film and suspense writing for me. Since I grew up on movies, my approach to story-telling is very cinematic. I’ve recently come to embrace that approach more explicitly. I’ll post about that soon.
The connection between philosophy and suspense fiction is less obvious. Training in philosophy teaches you to be analytical, which helps a great deal in structuring plots (for example); and it gives you great insight into the central existential questions of humanity, and these are the heart and soul of our stories.
This blog will be about these three passions of mine, plus the occasional foray into bourbon, blues, food and wine.
6 thoughts on “Philosophy, Film, and Fiction”
You had me at depressed teenager and Casablanca, haha. I actually had an opportunity to work on Elmore Leonard’s TV adaptation Justified for two years. I’m looking forward to reading your future posts.
Hey, thanks so much for your comment. That’s fantastic that you worked on Justified. Leonard was one of the great masters of the genre. Love his work.
I have read your book ‘Woody Allen and Philosophy’ and liked your perspective on ‘God, suicide, and the meaning of life in the films of woody Allen – essay.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the essay!
This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
Yes, it takes a special consideration, thoughtfulness, and creativeness to use metaphors and similes without being cliched.