October 18, 2009

film as play

In philosophy, the notion of art as "play" has appeared as early as Plato and Aristotle, and has an important place in Kant's aesthetics. Others have shared this idea. Consider these two quotes from the fifteenth letter in Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man:
1. Man is only serious with the agreeable, the good, the perfect; but with Beauty he plays.
2. Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and
he is only wholly Man when he is playing.
Not that his are arguments I want to make, but play forms a vital part of Schiller's philosophy. It forms a vital, if small, part of the philosophy of art in general. Why then have I not seen it earnestly applied to film?

Film and play seem a natural fit. Although the rigid commercial production of a film may diminish the chance for play by filmmakers (who has time for play with a deadline and budget?), the spectator at least sits in a theater determined to depart into imagination. At the cinema, we are all at play. We project ourselves into the image, are consumed by it. And, as with all play, we play with film to grow: we experience all sorts of new situations, emotions, ideas.

I have felt remarkably clear-headed in these few days I've thought of film as play. Films become less heavy. They are no longer the monoliths of ideology recent film theory says they are; enculturation is no longer a sinister perpetuation of existing structures, but a curious exploration of worldviews. (This is not to say that those worldviews aren't harmful....) But I think it is the scientist in me that finds this idea most appealing. Play has many legitimate biological functions, and, by thinking of play as a biological product, one can map our genetically prescribed rules to their cultural consequences (like film, or art in general).

According to a few quick google searches, lots of people have been researching the biological, cultural, and social functions of play recently. I hope this interest crosses over to film soon. That it hasn't been important before now is odd, especially considering the rise of interactive media like the internet and video games; video game theory has been heavily influenced by film theory, so why hasn't film theory yet embraced video games? Good question. I think I'll go play Monkey Ball.

I read Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man by accident after finding it in a pile of Russian history books. It's not an easy read, and, unless you are interested in Schiller or philosophy, I'm not sure it's worth it. Consider this a mild warning from a mild mind.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview of Kant's aesthetics. More film people ought to have philosophy backgrounds (rather than half-learning the philosophies of complicated critical theory, which is what I am being exposed to in class right now).

Here's a thoughtful look at video games and the philosophy of art. This is a subject I need to explore further. The author's reading list looks great; that Homo Ludens book in particular interests me.

Finally, while browsing articles on the subject of art as play on the internet, I came across the Marxist thinker Plekhanov, and the essay Historical Materialism and the Arts. There is something refreshingly honest and naive about his Marxist approach, absent the complicated cultural criticism Marxism has become since the latter half of the 20th century. I am particularly interested in his thoughts on art as imitative and/or antithetic. This link is sort of off-topic and I expect it won't grab many people's attention, but I think it's worth reading.

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