Point of view and communication

This book explores the theoretical and critical concept of filmic point of view. Its case studies are six acclaimed and accomplished instances of ‘classical Hollywood cinema’: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra, 1936), Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, 1939), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948), Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962). The book’s particular contributions to the study of filmic point of view are to use ‘communication’ as an idea which permits new ways of approaching this topic, and to offer detailed explorations of the filmic representation of character experience (including character ‘consciousness’ and interaction), and of the relationship of film to other media of communication (especially print media and the novel). With respect to character experience, it is argued that the often-held distinction between an inner realm of thought and feeling and an outer realm of behaviour and objects fails to do justice to the human experience of ‘being-in-the-world’ and film’s ability to represent it. With respect to film’s relationship to other media, it explores the traversing of the public, the private and the social that narrative fiction film represents, in a way that aligns the medium with the novel. The book is offered as a demonstration and defence of the value of a ‘conversational’ critical method that entails detailed scrutiny of our film-viewing experiences and of the language we use to describe those experiences, and eschews the construction of a taxonomy designed for general applicability.

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Point of view and communication

The introduction identifies the book as a contribution to the study of filmic point of view, which uses the idea of ‘communication’ to bring new ways of seeing to bear upon this topic. It presents the book’s method as blending conceptual exploration with detailed critical analysis, and announces the book’s focus upon the representation of character experience, and upon the addition of a consideration of the aesthetically- and historically-specific properties of film as a medium of communication to studies of point of view. A summary of the argument of each chapter is offered.

in Classical Hollywood cinema

Chapter 1 critiques the conceptualisations of character consciousness and interaction offered by a range of existing accounts of filmic point of view. It argues that positing a too far-reaching distinction between an inner realm of thought and feeling and an outer realm of behaviour and objects falsifies the nature of human experience, and does not do justice to some of film’s particular strengths in depicting character experience. An alternative view is offered, which draws upon a range of philosophical arguments (most significantly, those of Heidegger, Ryle, Wittgenstein and Matthew Ratcliffe), and is developed via detailed analysis of the chapter’s two case study films: Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra, 1936). Vertigo is offered as a film whose rigorous treatment of point of view can teach us much about that concept, but also as a singular film whose protagonist might be seen to replicate some of the limited ways of seeing of film studies – blind spots which Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is used to overcome.

in Classical Hollywood cinema

Chapter 2 demonstrates, by reviewing existing theoretical accounts and by using as a case study Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959), that to conceptualise an artwork as comprising a range of axes or spectrums of distance is a powerful way of exploring its handling of point of view (and its achievements in this regard). It uses the work of Robert Pippin and Harold Adams Innis to offer a reading of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a film concerned with the cultural and historical effects of different media of communication, including the distances these different media span and create. In its conclusion it offers a synthesis of the arguments of various members of the ‘Frankfurt School’ and the ‘Toronto School’ in order to suggest certain aesthetically- and historically-specific properties of the narrative fiction film as a medium of expression and communication – particularly its relationship to publicness and privacy.

in Classical Hollywood cinema

Chapter 3 largely eschews a ‘transmission’ model of communication. Instead, it takes James Carey’s model of communication as ‘ritual’ and John Durham Peters’ suggestion that communication ought to be about the creation of ‘shared worlds’ as points of departure for the exploration of the central heterosexual romantic relationships in Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, 1939) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). The latter is offered as a film in which a ‘shared world’ is briefly created by the couple, but then unwittingly destroyed by one of its members. The status of the letter as a communicative encounter that suits the dispositions of both members of the couple is also explored. Only Angels Have Wings is offered as a film in which intimacy stems not from disclosure but from doing, and as a demonstration of the virtues of not communicating.

in Classical Hollywood cinema
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Categories and conversations

The conclusion defends the methodology adopted by the book – in particular, its abstention from the proposal of a taxonomy of point of view (a very common feature of scholarly work on this topic), and its utilisation instead of close and, it is suggested, ‘conversational’ engagement with specific films. It is argued that such a method should be accepted as one mode of ‘theorising’, and that it is a method that has the virtue of granting a valuable degree of autonomy to the artworks and the readers it encounters.

in Classical Hollywood cinema
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Education, communication and film studies

The postscript explores what kind of communicative model the humanistic study of film is, using as its principal example the undergraduate film studies seminar. Drawing upon the work of Martha C. Nussbaum and others, it explores the partial overlap between humanistic education and democracy. It argues for the virtues (including the democratic virtues) of non-dialogic forms of communication, and as part of this argument suggests that what Habermas describes as ‘the pressure of the “Don’t talk back!”’ of film and other ‘mass’ media may in certain respects be salutary. In the face of ‘new’ media and their possibilities for instant interaction, it is argued, film, and the humanistic study of film, can help to cultivate what is perhaps the most important obligation of communication (which is also one of the most important features of democracy): listening.

in Classical Hollywood cinema