Would you be surprised to hear that some films have philosophical content? I know that I was when I first heard it – but how can we recognise it? If we accept that philosophy examines what we consider some of the main questions to be in life – Who Am I? What Can I know? How Should I Live? What Does Life Mean? – and think about some of the films we have seen, it will become apparent that these questions have been addressed over and over.
Take Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall(1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is about the first question, which in philosophy is known as the problem of personal identity – the problem of what makes you the person you are; the same person you were yesterday yet different from everyone else. It is, as the film shows, our memories. The story (originally by Philip K Dick) is used by Verhoeven to defend the memory theory of personal identity through the characters of the two different people that Schwarzenegger is before and after his memories are erased and replaced with new ones. This is a complex film and these issues are explored thoroughly by philosopher Mark Rowlands in his very readable book The Philosopher at the End of the Universe (Ebury Press, 2003) – philosophy explained through science fiction films.
The third question, concerning how we should live (moral philosophy), is addressed in a film the KLCCC screened this August – Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). The (anti-) hero, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) initially does not seem to be torn between what he wants and sticking to any moral principles. Rick is someone who will look out for himself, who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody’. But as the film develops it turns out that he does recognise the force of moral considerations. He comes to support the Resistance and is willing to sacrifice much to the cause – even the woman he loves. Early on in the film Rick’s idealist past is hinted at by the police prefect, Renault (Claude Raines) – he had supported anti-Fascist struggles (in Spain?) and that it is only circumstances that had made him cynical and bitter. The triumph of duty over desire and ‘doing the right thing’ is a familiar cinematic theme: The Maltese Falcon(Huston, 1941) and High Noon (Zimmermann, 1952) for example. Both Casablanca and High Noon exhibit stern self-denial and the putting aside of personal feelings to do what is right, and both exemplify the distinctive tenet of existentialism that there is nothing outside or within ourselves to which we can appeal to justify our values or moral rules. Neither God nor reason can give us either guidance or rules for living.
Many films explore philosophical questions such as these and it is mostly intentional as with Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) which is about death and the meaning of life and The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957) where recourse to God is no longer an option, an argument germane to Existentialism. But there must be many others where it has crept in accidentally as philosophy, like choice, is impossible to avoid – but does it matter whether it is intentional or otherwise? It’s there and part of life.