The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and the Christian Aesthetic

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog)

The concept of beauty is something that has been debated for centuries. There is actually a sub branch of the discipline of philosophy dedicated to it. There are three branches of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Ontology is the study of being, nature, and existence. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, belief, and intuitions. Axiology is the study of ethics, aesthetics, and value theory. Aesthetics deals with beauty. The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is commonly and rather flippantly stated whenever a discussion of beauty arrises. But what most people do not realize is that this is not just some casual cliche but is in fact an important philosophical statement. Essentially what this phrase means is that my response to beauty is more important than beauty itself. Taken completely literally this phrase means beauty does not exist outside of my mind. Beauty is a quality I give to something not something it actually possesses. So beauty is only perceived. But If beauty is only a perception then why does it matter at all? Well maybe it doesn’t. Because if all we mean when we say “That waterfall is beautiful” is that “I am having beautiful feelings because of that waterfall” then all we are doing when having discussions of value is simply to express a state of affairs about ourselves. When I look at the sun setting and I feel awe because of the beauty my mind perceives from it and I express that in a poem I am expressing nothing except for my own feelings.

Is this such a bad state of affairs? Well yes and no. If it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder…well then its true and we should accept it. But if its true that “beauty” only exists in me then what do we say about God? When I finally “see” or experience God directly some day and I say to him “you are the most beautiful” all I have said to him is “I have never experienced such wonderful feelings.” But that isn’t what I mean when I speak of God’s beauty. In fact that isn’t what anybody means when they ascribe beauty to something. If they meant that they were having “beautiful feelings” they would probably say so. The statement “x is the most beautiful” or even simply “y is ugly” taken in its most strait-forward sense requires either assent or denial. Either the statement is true or false. It requires the same kind of commitment as a moral statement from the person who is confronted with it. It is wrong to kill innocents for fun requires either assent or denial. I don’t mean by the statement “abortion, in cases where the LIFE of the mother is not in jeopardy, is always wrong” that abortions make me feel wrong. They may in fact make me feel wrong. In fact that might be my only justification for the moral claim that I have made but the claim still stands on its own. It is either true, false, or partially true (in which case further corrections will either make it completely true or completely false).

But for many in the west ethics and aesthetics have taken on this kind of reasoning. Everything is based solely on our feelings. Judgements can and should be based at least partially on feelings. But when you believe that feeling this or that is the criterion for what makes something whatever it is then you have destroyed objective value completely. The only thing that remains are feelings.

But how can beauty be simply a perception? We are drawn to beautiful things. The eye of the beholder recognizes the beauty in something. If we claim that beauty is subject to ourselves then what we are really saying is that I determine what is beautiful. And if I determine what is beautiful then you also determine what is beautiful. And when we disagree? Well we’re both right because objectivity about beautiful things is impossible. I can only know that I think x is beautiful and y is ugly. And if you think y is beautiful and x ugly well, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

I believe that this is false. Mainly for this reason: I know that we attribute beauty to external things. Even if beauty was in the eye of the beholder the beholder has to be beholding something. It’s not as if propositions concerning beauty just spontaneously generate in our minds. They are reacting to something, they are in fact caused by something. And just because not everyone can see what you see in something does not mean that it is not there. It just maybe that something about you allows you to see the true value of whatever it is you are beholding. And vice versa, just because a thousand people believe a lie does not make it true. Consensus is not always a sure indicator of truth.

Now let us see what the Tao of film might be. If in fact objective beauty does exist let us see if we can find it in cinema.

“Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.”- Roger Ebert

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”- Philippians 4:8

These two statements are what make up the film aesthetic that I am using to evaluate films. I am calling the first statement the basic essence of Pure Cinema: that film, being a primarily visual medium, is most powerful when it focuses on visual story telling or visual communication of meaning or information to the viewer.
I am calling the second statement the Christian Aesthetic: that we should value what is truly valuable.

I do my best to evaluate films with these two theories primarily in mind. My project is to try to demonstrate how the life of the mind should effect film criticism. Most film criticism centers around personal taste and originality/creativity. And it is due to this that most people are under the impression that things like films (artistic achievements like painting, literature, etc.) are valued subjectively. This is partially a symptom of the collapse of modernity and the rise of existenialism. Both of which are things that I think have helped and hurt us at the same time, but especially in the arts and art criticism it seems to have hurt us.

I once told a friend that I thought aesthetic value was objective. She said she disagreed and could demonstrate to me how I was wrong. I said okay. She asked me who my favorite painter was. I said Georgia O’Keefe (she probably still is). Well, my friend retorted, I don’t like O’Keefe! You see it’s all subjective. That’s literally all she said. She though that settled it and didn’t want to discuss it anymore.

I realize that there may be more robust critique’s of objectivist aesthetics but this is a common argument that is put forth. But just because intelligent people disagree does not prove that there is no right answer. And if we are able to formulate some sort of criterion for determining what may constitute a right or a wrong answer it will help us even more. That is why I have chosen to stipulate the above criteria. I think that we need something to help us evaluate cinema as Christian intellectuals.

Now anytime a criterion is imposed to determine what is or is not x we run into an epistemic problem. This problem is called the problem of the criterion.

This problem is most elegantly postulated by Roderick Chisholm. The problem is essentially the very foundation of epistemology. At the very bottom of all epistemic thought are two questions.

Question 1: What do we know?
Questions 2: How do we know?

It is not clear from these two questions which one should be answered first. Because if we had the answer to the first question we could almost certainly answer the second question by examining the set of things we know to come up with what they have in common: namely what makes them knowable. But if we had the answer to the second question we could figure out the answer to the first question.

But if there is something wrong with our set of answers to question 1 how could we know it? We don’t have a criteria yet to exclude the good pieces of knowledge from the bad.

But how do we know our criteria is effective in determining what knowledge is? We don’t have any particulars to test it agaisnt.

If we begin the epistemic project by answering question 1 first then we are particularists. If we begin by answering question 2 then we are methodists (no affiliation to the protestant denomination thankfully).

Now then what should we be? Particularists or methodists? Well this is the conundrum. And like many things in philosophy…nobody really knows for sure (except God). When it comes to epistemology I am primarily a particularist. I think that the things we know are generally speaking quite obvious, at least the most important things. But we do need a method of evaluating. In the end we have to be methodists and particularists. Which one comes first? Well probably particularism. You have to start somewhere and chances are even if you tried to be a methodist first you would be harboring particularist notions that you were trying to find justification for anyway. But it is not a question to be shrugged off. And at this point I will be functionally shrugging it off. Now how this relates to our current endeavor is that we need to be able to figure out instances of great film. How do we do this? The two questions reformulated lay before us:

Question 1: What films are great?
Question 2: How do we evaluate a great film?

The method I have suggested above is both particularist and methodist. I have stipulated two criteria, pure cinema and the Christian aesthetic. The first criteria is based upon observing many many films. I eventually came to the conclusion that what all truly great movies have in common is that they rely on the very essence of film to tell their stories: the visual. But at the same time I am a Christian. And in order for something to be valuable it has to conform to the Christian aesthetic which is summed up in Philippians 4:8. It has to be something that God deems worthwhile for me to spend my time involved with. This conclusion is based upon many other reasons, mostly that I think Christianity is the way to God, some of which are basic and reasoned for as well.

I will continue to work out the Tao of Film soon.

Further Reading:

Problem of the Criterion
The Abolition of Man

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