Film Epistemology

Film as a self-contained universe.

I’d like to take a brief look at film epistemology. In order for that to work, I’m going to be positing that for our purposes, each film is its own self-contained universe with its own rules and knowledge both known and unknown.

(As a disclaimer, I’m no Scott Eric Kaufmann; I’m not going to be using visual illustrations, and precious few (if any) citations. There are also bound to be spoilers of every variety, so if a film is mentioned, avert your gaze if you don’t want to learn important truths about its ending.)

Film as philosophy and self contained world

As I’ve just mentioned, a singular film can be seen as its own self-contained universe – a universe populated with rules and knowledge which are specific to that universe. Sometimes that world looks much like our own and shares many similar traits, sometimes it shares many visual similarities but a different history, and sometimes it bears little resemblance to the world and universe we know and try to understand.

The important similarity is that there’s a philosophical system underlying each of these film universes, built on the philosophies and mores of the auteurs of each film (writer, director, et al). Some popular films and film franchises have generated series of philosophical works – Star Wars, in particular, comes to mind – as well as compendiums of knowledge and in-universe canon of all varieties. Within the confines of these films, the epistemology has been grown in such a way as to allow a more immersive universe (according to the optimist), and/or wring more money from dedicated fans (according to the pessimist).

One of the things that has tended to irritate my own film sensibilities have been when films violate their own rules. Film is a suspension of disbelief, but there are certain rules explicitly or implicitly set out during the course of the film, which define the epistemology in which I have to be immersed while watching. A film shouldn’t violate its own rules, otherwise I end up setting aside my suspension of disbelief and become very aware that I’m watching a film.

To elaborate, I quote TV Tropes' excellent page on this:

Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord. An author’s work, in other words, does not have to be realistic, only believable and internally consistent (see Magic A Is Magic A). When the author pushes an audience beyond what they’re willing to accept, the work fails in the eyes of that particular audience. As far as science fiction is concerned, viewers are usually willing to go along with creative explanations which is why people don’t criticize your wormhole travel system or how a shrinking potion doesn’t violate the laws of matter conservation, but even in the more fantastical genres, suspension of disbelief can be broken when a work breaks its own established laws or asks the audience to put up with too many things that come off as contrived. A common way of putting this is “You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable.” For example, people will accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world, or that the spaceship has technology that makes it completely invisible without rendering its own sensors blind, but they won’t accept that the ferocious carnivore just happened to have a heart attack and die right before it attacked the main character, or that the hacker guessed his enemy’s password on the first try just by typing random letters, at least without some prior detail justifying it or one of the Rules listed below coming into play. What is in Real Life impossible just has to be made the norm in the setting and kept consistent.

Epistemological overlap and suspension of disbelief

As much as there is a suspension of disbelief inherent in any viewing of film (it is, after all, a series of quickly presented still frames in an artificial viewing environment), we require a certain epistemological overlap with our own universe / reality.

There is a certain range of deviation from reality which is acceptable in the majority of film. I believe this is because film has to balance a sense of relatability, which is produced by overlapping epistemology with reality, with its own deviations and rules. If a film is too close to reality without matching it exactly, we end up encountering something similar to the “uncanny valley”, where we become disenfranchised from the reality with which we are presented because it becomes very clear to us that it isn’t real, and suspension of disbelief falls apart.

I believe that resources like CinemaSins are a combination of relevance and irrelevance. In regards to that resource in particular, it shows irrelevance when it posits that film should obey all of the rules of the real world in most of its critiques, but shows relevance when it acknowledges a film’s epistemological separateness and shows how that film breaks its own rules.

Narrator as deity / narrator as liar

Many films employ an explicit narrator, whether by title scroll (Star Wars: A New Hope), voice-over (Princess Irulan and Paul Atreides' voiceovers in David Lynch’s Dune), by a narrator telling an inner story (Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects), by physically narrating a written inner story (The Grandfather in The Princess Bride), or even a character’s internal soliloquy (the narrator in Fight Club). This is generally done to augment what could otherwise be clumsy and/or ineffectual exposition through other means in the film – or even to give a certain amount of backstory in order to produce enough in-universe knowledge to allow viewers to be sufficiently immersed in the universe which they are presented.

The narrator has a particular type of power and hold over the viewer ; they are the lens with which the fabricated universe of the film is viewed. Even though we are presented with visual and auditory information through picture and sound, the narrator is the voice of god (or at least some sort of prophetic voice, if we’re going with the religious metaphor) as far as this universe is concerned. But what if this omnipresent narrator isn’t telling the truth about this universe?

Two extremely visible cases of this occur in David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects”.

In “Fight Club”, we’re led down a paraprosdokian storyline by a nameless author, who not only tells us a story in his droning monotone, but also shows us his misadventures with a character we know as Tyler Durden. Only at the end of the second act do we learn that our author has been lying to us, much as he has been lying to himself. What we have seen as a fully realistic and discernibly physical part of this universe is a figment of the narrator’s imagination. We’re forced to change our view of this film universe as part of an unsettling experience which helps define a major part of the attraction to that film.

In “The Usual Suspects”, we confront a similar situation – except that the narrator (Verbal Kint) is very much aware that he’s misleading both us and Agent Kujan. Our realization comes right after the perceived climax of the film, as Verbal allows Agent Kujan to apparently convince both himself and the audience that the elusive Keyser Soze is really Dean Keaton. Mere moments later, Kujan comes to the realization at which we are meant to arrive ; he has been lied to. This is shocking to the audience because we implicitly trust the narrator to guide us to the truths of the film universe which he inhabits, yet he betrays us, breaking our knowledge of his universe. Even more troubling is that we’re not sure how much of the last few hours has been real (according to the film universe), and how much was made up by the narrator. A false world, inhabited by a virtual deity who hides the nature of that false world with yet another representation.

Yet another power that on-screen narration (in particular) has is that it can provide the film equivalent to the literary “aside” or footnote. Groucho Marx was known for pioneering this form of soliloquy, which came to be known colloquially as “breaking the fourth wall”. It allows the author to speak through his/her characters directly to the audience without the need for voiceover – but it shows the universe stop around the narrator. What they’re saying is so important that their universe literally stops so that you, the captive audience, can bear witness to it. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the narrator’s diatribe (aimed directly at the viewing audience, in spite of the people around him) appears to be breaking the fourth wall – but the subject of his anger is revealed to be able to actually hear what he is saying, in contravention of Groucho Marx’s tradition of film asides. Allen then proceeds to almost literally pull a rabbit out of a hat by magically pulling Marshall McLuhan seemingly out of thin air to make his point for him, then resumes his narrative aside. To Allen, the narrative aside is just another platform on which to base a joke, but it speaks to the unspoken acknowledgement that the narrator is aware at some level that he is part of a film universe; he just bends the rules a little.

Epistemic closure vs incomplete epistemology

Another supposition I’d like to put forward is that epistemic closure in a film universe essentially eliminates a very specific source of tension. “Settling films” (films which leave the viewer with a feeling of completion) tend not to leave unanswered questions, and if it does leave unanswered questions, they’re generally fairly benign or immaterial to substantial portions of the central plot.

On the other hand, we can look at some of the films of Christopher Nolan as examples of intentionally incomplete epistemology. A number of his films employ missing information or information which can be interpreted in a number of different ways to provide differing conclusions or philosophies to his films.

“Inception”, for example, famously ends with a shot of a spinning top which either will or will not fall down to indicate whether the principal character is trapped within a never-ending dream. Depending on whether you believe that he is awake or asleep, it changes the interpretation of the ending. (Nolan had actually said that fixating on the top essentially missed the point of the ending, as Cobb is happy, which is the important part of the conclusion.)

“The Prestige” offers a number of events which can be interpreted in more than one way. The last shot shows a room full of water tanks full of dead clones – or does it? We see that because we want to see it; we want to believe in the magic of Tesla’s invention, no matter how horrifying the potential consequences. The narrator, being Angier for the expositional sequence about Tesla’s machine, may or may not be telling the truth – he is, after all, a magician who would hide his secrets from everyone including the invisible audience. If there is only one body, it could easily have been Angier’s double. We could puzzle over this at length, which gives us a sense of unsettling non-completion.

Perhaps in a “search for more money” (as a certain purveyor of The Schwartz had been known to say), prequels and origin stories for most major film universes have been veritably exploding into existence. (For the sake of some form of brevity, I’m leaving out film reboots and re-imaginings.) The question which should be asked about these expansions and attempts to bring about some form of epistemic closure should not be “is it good?” but rather “is it necessary or right?”

Sometimes prequel films end up completely destroying a venerable mythology (Star Wars Episodes 1-3), and sometimes prequel works add backstory which is more or less completely unnecessary for the comprehension of a character (the “Gotham” and “Hannibal” television series, for example). I posit that incomplete epistemology inherent in film universes provides a tension which underscores certain themes, and this tension and uncertainty dissolves as soon as every important mystery is taken away by subsequent works. You have to know when to explain and when not to explain.

Layered realities in film

A popular motif in film has been the story within a story – from Sherlock Jr’s cameraman dreaming in the booth to Inception’s dreams within dreams, and many more in between. My supposition is that the popularity of this motif, which stems from sentiments like:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players - “As You Like It”, William Shakespeare

There are many transpositions of external epistemological ideas in non-“story within a story” contexts as well. Examples of this are films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which uses knowledge about the internal workings of Hollywood to inform and shape the story.

A combination of those methods for transposing epistemology into film are also possible; Inception not only has dreams within dreams, but also has characters who mirror the jobs of the people who make film. David Mamet’s State and Main tells a story-within-a-story (the film which is being made), but also pulls from the reality of filmmaking and Hollywood politics.

One of my favorite auteurs in the realm of mixing epistemologies and conflating fantasy with reality is Terry Gilliam. As an example, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has a series of overlapping and interweaving stories within stories. The Baron’s life and adventures (which may be pure fantasy, and almost surely represent fantasy and imagination in the context of the larger story) are presented as a matter-of-fact stage play which is being used as a diversion from a larger, terrible reality. As the film progresses, we begin to descend into layers of transitions between what we believe is the “real world” of the film and stories-within-stories. The transitions between them are usually not the typical dream sequence transitions; one of the most genius transitions in the film occurs when the Baron begins narrating his own life, and the stage actor playing the Sultan is pushed out onto the stage, to discover that it is no longer the stage, but rather the Sultan’s palace. Gilliam doesn’t really want there to be a solid delineation between reality and imagination, and it shows. By the end of the film, we’re aware that (at least, within the confines of the film’s epistemology) some of the stories must have been somewhat real, but we don’t know which ones or how much of them. Gilliam denies us epistemological closure, and it does not detract from the film – quite the opposite – it defines the nature of the film.

Documentary and narrative fallacies and truths

Documentary filmmaking is another odd case ; it presents itself as a sort of objective narrative truth, whereas in reality documentarians rely on their own subjective narrative truths and fallacies to underscore themes which they believe to be present in reality. The power of documentary film comes from its ability to expose an external epistemology in the guise of objective observation. The majority of documentary films also possess the omnipresent narrator, using him/her as the lens with which to see the universe of the film – but that universe is our universe.

Rather than creating an artificial world and filling it with narrative and knowledge, documentarians use the real world as the substrate to build their own artificial world, but sell it back to us as being the “real world”. It’s much easier to consume documentary film works when we are aware that they are someone’s subjective view of reality, with all of the epistemological baggage that carries.

The Big Lie

The Big Lie is that it’s all fake; documentaries and flights of fantasy alike.

We enter into an unspoken and unwritten agreement with the filmmakers to suspend our ability to differentiate the 24 still frames flying past our eyes as individual discrete images, and instead peek into another world with its own laws, knowledge, and history. We all know, somewhere inside us, that it’s all a Big Lie, but we agree to leave our sense of reality, suspend our disbelief, and share in a small piece of something unlike what we’re used to seeing.

The problems with ignoring the separate epistemology of a film is that it can limit our ability to enjoy that film by removing lingering doubts or questions, or possibly coming a little too close or far away from what we understand to be reasonable deviations from our own local experiences.

This is continued in a subsequent article on epistemology in film.