Review of:

Title: UNDERSTANDING LOVE: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction
Author: Edited by Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-538450-5

Review by Bob Lane

With the possible exception of television, which more and more is turning to old movies for its programming,  film is the popular art form in North America today. Millions of North Americans every week sit in front of movie screens to be entertained, titillated, educated, or simply to find an escape from quiet desperation.

As with all art forms, one’s enjoyment can be increased by increasing one’s knowledge of the techniques or aspects of the form. Just as drama has its own vocabulary, so does the film; and certain techniques are unique to film and to the film alone.

Basically, of course, a film is an arrangement of moving pictures and recorded sounds. The director is responsible for this arrangement, and has at his disposal a wide range of possibilities, from close-up to long shot, from placing the camera at a low angle to shooting from high above the action. The camera can be held still, allowing the movements inside the frame to speak for themselves, or it can be moved freely in any direction, coming in close to isolate a particular feature, or drawing back ,to set a feature in perspective.

            Each of these possibilities contributes to the way a film communicates. When Alfred Hitchcock, in Psycho, shows us a pair of frightened eyes, staring at us through driving rain from behind the windshield wipers of a car, he presents us with a concrete image of the fear that lies below the surface of ‘the everyday world’.

            Just as form and content cannot be separated in the literary work, so, picture, language, and music combine to communicate the idea of a film. When Bergman shows us the old man, in Wild Strawberries, piercing his hand on the wooden cross-beams  of a structure he is about to enter, the symbol is clear in its visual impact.

Is music necessary? Just try to imagine the film, The Graduate, without the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack – it would stumble along like a three-legged horse. The music is  obviously an integral part of the film and adds greatly to the effects of that movie. A good piece of cinematography will have a visual logic of its own, but a movie, as a finished product, is both a sight and sound experience. Language is, of course, important, but no more so than the other aspects of the film. Film like any other art form consists of  technique and content.

UNDERSTANDING LOVE offers seventeen essays on love and film: sentimental love, love of animals, erotic love, interracial love, straight and gay love, self-love, and ordinary love. The genesis of the selection of papers is interesting:

The project from which this volume emerged could not have been carried out—indeed, it would not have even been conceived—but for the extraordinary generosity of the Mellon Foundation. We are deeply grateful to it for both the Foundation’s intellectual and financial support of the project and for its ongoing commitment to the flourishing of the humanities.

The volume took shape through a series of workshops in which the contributors came together to discuss their ideas and present their work. We thank the University of North Carolina’s Parr Center for Ethics and its Philosophy Department for the use of their facilities and administrative staff . Further, we are indebted to Maria Francisca Reines for planning, arranging, and running the workshops with consummate skill, attentiveness, and good cheer, and to Jordan MacKenzie for her excellent editorial and indexing assistance.

Finally, we owe thanks to the National Humanities Center for providing the time and space to see the volume to its completion.

The contributors are experts from many universities representing philosophy, psychology, Liberal Arts, race studies, comparative literature, romance studies, political science, cultural history, film studies, and, in short, a group of knowledgeable and competent critics. (A critic in this context is one who points – points to aspects of the work under discussion in order to draw attention to the fusion of technique and meaning.)

In a short review one cannot write about all seventeen of the interesting and insightful essays on love and film, but perhaps the best way to give potential readers a sense of the project is to quote from Susan Wolf, who in her introduction writes:

I wanted to initiate some project or other that would bring philosophers together with other scholars in the humanities to encourage more engagement among them in a way that would make their ideas accessible and interesting to each other and to a wider nonacademic public. The idea of organizing the project around the exploration of connections and interactions among philosophy, fiction, and film occurred almost immediately, since first, literature and film are the principal subject matter of so much work in the humanities and, second, everyone, or at least a lot of people, like (or love) novels and movies. Many of us love talking about novels and movies, too. So I gathered a group of scholars together—professors of literature, philosophy, film studies, and others—to consider how best to give the project shape and unity. What emerged was the decision to hold a series of work-shops for which we would each write papers that we would discuss and eventually put into a volume. We wanted a theme that would be substantial enough to make likely the prospect that the issues and essays would “speak to each other,” but that would be expansive enough to make it easy for all the participants to find something they could get excited about working on. We chose love.

Taken together the essays do not argue for a particular unified position on film or on love, but instead are interdisciplinary in approach and each essay points to an engaging aspect of a particular novel or film to draw out some aspect of the theme of love. Wolf writes, “it might be more accurate to describe the essays as non disciplinary: exercises in thinking and writing that, while inevitably reflecting the author’s training and temperament, engage with a text or explore an idea in a way unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries.”  Several of the essays in this volume are close readings or interpretations of a particular film, play, or novel. (This includes the essays by Maria DiBattista, Frances Ferguson, Douglas MacLean, Toril Moi, Frederick Neuhouser, David Paletz, Gilberto Perez, C. D. C. Reeve, and George Wilson.) Reading these essays in conjunction with viewing or reading the works on which they focus can be instructive, both about how much is in these works and about ways of reading films, novels, and plays more generally. Overlapping with these are essays that use individual texts or films as a spring-board for introducing a more general idea or problem. (See, for example, the essays by Macalester Bell, Lawrence Blum, Christopher Grau, Rae Langton, Judith Smith, George Toles, and Susan Wolf.)

The essays in this volume are focussed on love. Each addresses some aspect of that complex intellectual/emotional experience that in English we call “love”. This is a book that can be enjoyed in many ways over time by reading the essays and going to the art works discussed armed with new questions and with new knowledge about the meanings of the art works discussed.

Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.

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