In the late 1970s, an associate professor in the Philosophy department at Johns Hopkins (thesis title: "The Nature of the Natural Numbers") began publishing essays on Hollywood movies. George M. Wilson wasn’t the first person to undergo this shift in specialism. In 1971, Stanley Cavell had published The World Viewed, a series of "reflections on the ontology of film." But Cavell had always been concerned with how works of art enable us to think through philosophical themes such as knowledge and meaning, and he held a chair in Aesthetics. Wilson differed in that he brought a range of analytic gifts to an ongoing revolution: the close reading of American cinema, conceived as part of the "auteur" policy of Truffaut and other writers at Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, and concertedly developed in the following decades by critics in England such as V. F. Perkins, Robin Wood (the author of the first book in English on Alfred Hitchcock), David Thomson, and Ian Cameron, the founding editor of the magazine Movie, whose polemical essay "Films, Directors and Critics" had called for "detailed criticism." Wilson’s ends were critical and analytic, not philosophical; his background furnished a method. Wilson went further than his English forerunners—and wrote at much greater length—in pursuing his desire to articulate how detail operated in films by a directors including Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. His readings and theoretical essays, collected in his book Narration in Light (1986), were quickly acknowledged by critics in England, who identified an American philosopher with interests and emphases close to their own.
Wilson’s subtitle defines the book as "studies in cinematic point of view," but that description feels narrow. Wilson is talking more broadly about how film direction qualifies as a form of narration—about the origin of the images we see (an especially vexed question when dealing with voiceover, as he shows in an essay on Letter from an Unknown Woman), and the implicit attitude expressed towards those images. To this end, Wilson was drawn to films which display a pronounced continuity of theme and treatment, subject and strategy. He starts with a moment from Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai in which a mischievous piece of editing seems to imply that a female character, by pressing a button, has caused a traffic collision somewhere else entirely, and the subjects of his five longer case studies are all found to be meta-textual, reflecting in formal terms on their own thematic investigations of vision and comprehension.
It’s something he deems too often overlooked. Narration in Light begins with a reference to those moments "which suddenly force us to reconsider, for at least an instant, our complacent ways of watching at the cinema," and in some cases, Wilson is consciously offering an alternative to the ‘standard’ reading of a film. He takes issue with Lotte Eisner’s claim in her book on Fritz Lang that You Only Live Once (1937) is a religious work, his Song of Songs, consistent with his identity as, in Wilson’s skeptical paraphrase, "the cinematic visionary of some vague form of fatalism, the director whose characters are invariably trapped without hope by forces that far outrun their understanding and powers to resist." In response, he argues that "the problematic character of any single perspective on the action is one of the film’s principal preoccupations."
You Only Live Once again and again confronts the audience with the characters’ failures of perceptual judgment—and with their own. Wilson shows how we may fail to see the ways in which the characters—and by no means only the central couple—also fail to see, how we may miss or slight the truth of the film in a way that mirrors how truth is missed or slighted within the film. As he puts it, "The narration explores with elaborate care the ways in which film may enhance and complicate our difficulties of seeing the world accurately by leading perception and conviction astray with methods of its own." He notes how in one scene Lang cues us to realize that a figure we had presumed to be Henry Fonda’s character, Eddie, is in fact his associate Monk. Later in the film, a close-up of a newspaper headline announcing Eddie’s imminent release is quickly revealed to be one of various possibilities—innocent, guilty, jury deadlock—being looked at by the editor. Wilson says that these touches "stand like small flags," prompting the viewer to ask whether "the same moral applies to the wider contexts of the film." (An especially thrilling passage considers the central heist, revealing the length to which Lang goes to cloud the question of Eddie’s guilt.)
Writing about You Only Live Once, Wilson helped to rescue a film long considered second-tier by revealing the intricacy of its processes. In the chapter on North by Northwest (1959), Wilson notices a number of flourishes and touches that, one strongly suspects, several millions of previous viewings had simply overlooked. At one point, he describes the ways in which Roger Thornhill’s kidnapping is prefigured by various events that take place in the Plaza hotel:
As he enters the bar, a few strains of the song "It’s a Most Unusual Day" are heard from some unseen string ensemble, which depicts a man standing before the open door of a parked carriage and, from the right, obscure figures rushing toward the waiting conveyance… So the crucial kidnapping is directly associated in three ways with a reversal in Thornhill’s relation to the aesthetic realm. First, he is accidentally mistaken for a character in a fiction devised by an imaginative board of spies. Second, he is thereby converted suddenly from being a theater-going spectator into a participant in an outlandish international coproduction. Third, he is figuratively abducted into the domain of a mysteriously prescient painting.
In Wilson’s essay, still the most trenchant reading, Hitchcock emerges as a sort of Pirandello. Though Wilson acknowledges the work of Robin Wood, he diverges from his essentially humanist interpretation. To Wood, what matters is that the twice-divorced ad man Roger O. Thornhill goes from being a blank or void—he declares that his middle initial stands for "nothing"—to someone capable of commitment and honesty, albeit by a series of well-told lies. Wilson says that Wood is "mistaken in identifying this aspect of the film as constituting its center of gravity," adding, a little devastatingly: "what falls under the heading of ‘Thornhill’s Progres’ should be viewed chiefly as a framework upon which more substantive and interesting structures are erected." Over fifteen pages, Wilson presents his cogent–really, unanswerable–vision of the film as "a kind of wry apologia for the sort of illusionistic art… that Hitchcock, paradigmatically, has always practiced." What stands revealed is the ultimate Hitchcock movie, with borrowings from Notorious, The Thirty-nine Steps, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, and Vertigo deployed to create "the bizarre impression that the kidnapping has thrown Thornhill out of a normal businessman’s existence and into a weird mélange of Alfred Hitchcock films," a world in which "the problem of ordering experience is precisely a problem in the interpretation of filmic representation." (The McGuffin, the thing the various warring factions want, is a little strip of film.) Describing Thornhill’s predicament and the film’s plot, Wilson presses the parallels between character and spectator:
Segments of physical reality have been judiciously arranged to generate perceived significance of various, usually misleading, types. The bases of perceptual judgment are controlled through assorted tricks and elision; these devices play upon the perceiver’s habits of expectation and bias. The field of action is filled with a parade of performers who bear a problematic relation to their roles. This is the art of the cinema with a vengeance, and the vengeance is wreaked on Roger Thornhill. Once his identity has become inextricably intertwined with Kaplan’s, his experience is qualitatively indistinguishable from the viewing of a Hitchcock retrospective. Indeed, insofar as Thornhill serves as a surrogate for members of the audience, the ultimate joke may be on the detached viewer of this Hitchcock film. For it is wholly unclear how much detachment can be justified when the film itself postulates a radical collapse of the normal division between ordinary perception and cinematic representation… What Hitchcock has accomplished in North by Northwest is to construct and show us a version of what is recognizably our world, but a version in which the perception of the characters, Thornhill’s most especially, has lost most of the qualities that would make it a paradigm of directness.
At one point in the essay, in a moment that reveals the book’s larger philosophical ambitions, as well as standing as a usefully succinct summary of this exceptionally artful and complex book, Wilson argues, "the spectator’s problem of ‘reading’ a film is revealed to be not so very different from any person’s problem of reading the world and his own (potentially tenuous) position in it."
Wilson, now retired, most recently taught philosophy and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. Narration in Light is still in print. It remains one of the great achievements of film criticism—a classic to compare with Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost and V. F. Perkins’s Film as Film.
NOTEBOOK: Looking back now to a book published in 1986, knowing not just your academic history but the kind of film analysis you went on to write, we think of Narration in Light as a contribution to film philosophy in both its forms—the philosophy of the film medium, and individual films as works of philosophy.
But if you go to the original essay on You Only Live Once, it is framed more overtly as an attempt to recuperate the film—an intervention in something more public and even popular than philosophical writing or theory that one might call auteur criticism or cinephilia. Almost twenty years after the Cahiers du cinéma Lang issue, and ten years after the first extended English language claims for Lang, here you are writing about Lang in the 1930s, an era not generally favored by the auteur tradition. The idea was that the 1950s saw the culmination of the Hollywood style. It’s an emphasis you replicate in some of your choices. Yet here you are in the book’s first study showing that a film as early as 1937 is revealing the problems and inadequacy of our ways of seeing. Perhaps Lang is an exception because the strengths he developed outside Hollywood were very naturally suited to Hollywood genres, whereas one might say Preminger and Sirk took their time to adjust. Can you recall your thinking at the time?
WILSON: I am struck by the way that accidents came into play in the genesis of a line of argument. And when I first started teaching film, I wanted to use something by Lang, but I would have been insecure about teaching the German silents. Also You Only Live Once was one of Lang’s American films available from a distributor at a reasonable price. The movies that I wound up writing on arose mostly out of my early teaching. So when it struck me that my line on Lang’s film was pretty different from the commentary I had seen, I wrote it up and decided to send it to Sight and Sound—and I sent it there just because it was a very well-known film journal.
At that point, as you say, I was mostly interested in simply giving an interpretation that made it significantly more interesting. By the time, the essay appeared in the book, something else transpired. I knew very well that no publisher would want The Collected Film Essays of George Wilson. So I had to do a ‘transcendental deduction’ of just why these films I’d thought about belonged together. The idea that came to me—for better or worse—was that all of the movies in question were built around non-standard strategies of ‘point of view.’ But I’m not so sure that there was as much consistency in my endeavors as a whole as I tried to pretend to myself. I needed to put a book together, and I exploited as well as I could the material, interpretative and theoretical, that I had at hand. The essay on You Only Live Once became my leading and clearest exhibit for this approach. Hence, it is framed, as you note, rather differently in the book.
My taste in movies was heavily influenced by the Cahiers authors, by Sarris’s little book on the American cinema, and even more by essays from the Movie group. All of the movies discussed at length in the book are American films from the classical period, but my main reason for adopting this constraint was that I wanted to narrow the topic of the book. It was to be about, very roughly, point of view structures in classical American films. Of course, I didn’t stick strictly with this constraint—I have several pages on Rules of the Game. I did share the view that movies of considerable subtlety, elegance, and complexity had been made within the forms that governed popular film making in Hollywood, and it was my ambition to show that this point could be established by the type of close, holistic interpretation that I favored. I had no systematic animus against the great European directors of the period, e.g., Bergman and Antonioni, but it was not controversial that their significance and merit would be elucidated only by suitable modes of film analysis. However, it was at that time still controversial that comparable claims could be made for, e.g. Nicholas Ray or American Lang.
I’d planned a chapter on The Searchers and another on The Rules of the Game, but I decided that there was already a fair amount of good stuff on them in other literature. So I cut down my discussion of both movies a good deal. The Scarlet Empress was another such film, although I have, since then, published the material I had. Some other movies that I contemplated at the time were: Bigger than Life, the Lubitsch Heaven Can Wait, and To Have and Have Not.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have any critical models and, if so, in what sense were you trying to depart from them?
WILSON: I was very much struck by the clarity of Victor Perkins’s writing, and I admired the sweep and incisiveness in many of Robin Wood discussions—his analysis of Vertigo was a paradigm for me.
But I also thought that large interpretative claims were often made about particular movies on the basis of a too narrow investigation of limited parts of the film in question. Looking back at the matter now, I suppose that I was strongly influenced by some probably inchoate version of ‘organicism’ that I had picked up from New Critics like Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks—that is, I was inclined to think that a range of exemplary works in literature and in film would characteristically exhibit a global unity of form and function. The parts should exhibit narrower functions that made a systematic contribution to the larger function or functions, thereby determining matters of theme or vision, that became manifest in the overall design of the whole. I won’t try to state this metacritical view any more sharply here, because I now doubt that there is any version of such an idea that I would presently endorse. But my interpretative writing was driven by some such ideal. Interpretation of narrative fictions was essentially functional explanation. Thus, an explanation of the function of the various parts aimed at showing how they contributed to the wider functions manifested in the whole.
NOTEBOOK: Most of the films are revealed to be self-reflexive, whether encoding commentaries within them, as in the planetarium voiceover in Rebel without a Cause, or including details that reflect on the way of seeing that the audience is itself involved or implicated in: Letter from an Unknown Woman, You Only Live Once, and North by Northwest. Do you think you alighted on very special cases or do you think a lot of even classical Hollywood movies play these sort of games? And was there ever a fear that a touch you wrote about was not conscious?
WILSON: I think that the nature of my interests drew me to movies that had a certain formal complexity. Most of my analyses were engendered in the first place by specific puzzlements about the function or functions of particular segments within their context in the total work. In connection with Rebel without a Cause, I was puzzled by the centrality of the planetarium scenes. Why is the first of these scenes so elaborately developed and why does the movie return in the end to this same locale?
The von Sternberg movies intrigued me in a special way. The Devil Is a Woman and The Scarlet Empress had certain kinds of narrative and narrational complexity that were not plausibly accounted for by the more familiar interpretations of his work, e.g., that von Sternberg was an uncanny aesthetician of perverse varieties of erotic stylishness and beauty. Although his movies were not at the top of my personal favorites, they did pose for me certain central puzzles that significantly shaped the development of my thinking about the importance of ‘point of view’ in movies. I could not give up the conviction about these films that I have just stated, but it took me a long time to figure out interpretative formulations that satisfied me, and I retained innumerable doubts about whether my suggestions about these movies were even on the right track.
Similar doubts haunted almost all of my critical work. The interpretative essays in both Narration in Light and my more recent book Seeing Fictions in Film were the subject of many lectures, and they were rewritten a huge number of times. In each case, I also was not (and I am still not) at all confident that the relevant director was conscious of many aspects of the meanings I imputed. Given that the relevant structures are quite complicated, I would be surprised that the director had no sense of the character of the patterns that get established in the movie, but it would not surprise me at all that the director would not think of them as bearing the significance that I assign. I was not much tempted to quote from directors (and other filmmakers) because I was very concerned not to seem to claim that the soundness of the interpretations depended upon their being a correct account of the director’s conscious intentions. I thought that a lot of what I was saying probably captured something about the director’s intentionality, but I didn’t want that to seem to be the central matter. The meanings I ascribe need not be meanings that were knowingly intended, but it has always seemed to me simpler and more generous to write as if I were presenting matters that the director fully recognized. It would also be tedious for the reader to have to hear a lot about all of my doubts, hesitations, and possible qualifications. Reading through interpretations of this length and complexity already calls for a lot of patience on the reader’s part.
NOTEBOOK: One of the boldest ideas in the book is that in Rebel without a Cause a vast metaphysical or galactic context sort of obliterates the meticulously established social context which is shown to form the characters: weak or cruel fathers, the whole uncaring adult world. You argue that while the film looks like a social problem film, this element is quite schematic, even perfunctory, and Ray is concerned with the idea of "unrestricted space," and other psychological, metaphysical, and cosmological ideas, raised most obviously in the planetarium scene but traced through the film in sequences such as the chickie run–and of course, as you point out, Jim, Plato, and Judy end up back at the planetarium. It’s perhaps the most ruminative reading in the book.
WILSON: Although I like the essay on Rebel, it perhaps doesn’t fit the topic of narration and point of view as well as the others, and I don’t remember much of the genesis of the interpretation except for one matter that is mentioned in the essay. I had become a great fan of Ray’s, and it struck me that several of his movies—The Savage Innocents, Wind Across the Everglades, Bigger than Life—had an odd, almost ‘anthropological’ slant. I later wrote an essay on this but never tried to publish it. This pattern led me to lay emphasis on the possible significance of the recurrent rituals that are found in Rebel, and I briefly note the existence of this pattern in fn. 5 on p. 218 of the book. When this line of analysis began to match up with the more ‘cosmological’ reflections suggested by the planetarium scenes, the essay began to take on the argumentative profile that it has.
NOTEBOOK: Perhaps my favorite essay in the book is that on North By Northwest. In no other case is the film you revealed so many degrees richer than the one we might have thought we were watching. What drew you towards this less fashionable (for exegetes) of Hitchcock’s films? Was there a sort of eureka moment when you first observed the strategies you explore in the chapter?
WILSON: A lot of the original ideas for my various interpretative efforts came to me originally as ‘visual flashes’—an intuitive juxtaposition of different segments in a film that led me to fruitful questions about the functions of the overlapping structures that had thereby been discerned. I do have a memory of standing in the shower and having a couple of scenes (I don’t remember which) flash together in my mind. So, yes, there was a “eureka” moment, and it was that sudden associative combination that induced some early version of the thesis that I finally worked out. Working out the thesis, I remember, involved going through the movie several times to see what might fit my initial inspiration and how the pertinent ‘fitting’ might be explained. Similar ideas were somehow in the air. Some time after my piece was published someone pointed out the existence of a kindred piece by Marian Keane in Wide Angle from 1980 called “The Design of Authorship, an Essay on North by Northwest.”
NOTEBOOK: How did questions of aesthetic or artistic merit inform your interpretative work?
WILSON: At the time, like Victor Perkins and the critics on Movie, I had the view that evaluative judgments and explicit discussions of aesthetic merit should play little explicit role in one’s writing on film, and questions of value were generally left tacit.
Of course, the choice of a film as ‘good’ or ‘great’ or ‘exemplary’ in some way was actually crucial in guiding one’s reflections, but these judgments were supposed to be embodied in the analytic or interpretative considerations that constituted one’s critical arguments. It was implicit in the fact that one had decided that a work deserved close attention and rigorous explication that one held that the work had substantial merit. The nature of that merit was tacitly made clear by the details of the criticism itself.
If you took the movies I discuss in the book you could not easily generalize to an overall view of what I thought were good-making properties in the movies. I was very skeptical of general theories of aesthetic properties and that included general theories of or general criteria for artistic distinction in film. So Wittgensteinian orthodoxy reinforced for me by then fairly standard Movie-type critical practice. But I admit that I had an obvious weakness for a certain level of complexity and subtlety in narrative and narrational structures, and I probably gave too much weight to these virtues.
NOTEBOOK: Were you ever tempted to include more industrial detail in the book?
WILSON: No, for two reasons. First, I really did not know much about those matters. Nothing I might have added would have constituted a novel contribution to an understanding of the appropriate historical context. Second, I did want to keep the book as sharply focused as I could, and that focus was meant to be ‘narrational point of view in classic Hollywood films.’ What I wanted to do was to provide a forceful and coherent way in which the movie as a whole could be viewed. Here again I was probably much influenced by New Criticism writing on literature.
NOTEBOOK: Did you think about how you wanted the book to be written? Or did you find that your existing style—elegant without being too personality-heavy, lucid though with a mild technical edge—leant itself naturally to the sort of criticism you wanted to write?
WILSON: The interpretative essays that had already appeared in print did a lot to set the tone. I worried a good deal about the ‘theoretical’ chapters being too heavy and too hard to read. I hoped that I had avoided this danger by writing as clearly and directly as I could, and I think that, on the whole, it is, in fact, pretty clear what I am saying.
But many people have told me that they don’t find it an easy book to read. This has puzzled me a little, but my brother, also a philosopher, has made a suggestion here that strikes me as plausible. In aiming at great lucidity, economy, and a lively prose style, I wrote and re-wrote all of the essays many times. My brother believes that that has resulted in the prose style being too dense in various sections and that the exposition of certain abstract points is too compact. Why does aiming at clarity and precision have a tendency to produce difficulty and apparent lack of clarity? I think that in aiming at elaborate clarity and intense precision, one is (I am) likely to introduce a string of clarifications and qualifications that are too dense and clotted to be easy to follow. The initial goal becomes, to some extent, defeated. Isn’t this a main reason why a lot of later Henry James prose is hard to comprehend?
If there was a philosopher whose style I might have tried to emulate, it would have been J.L. Austin. I still love the ways in which elegance and humor combine in many of his books and papers with wonderful clarity of thought. Literary people have taken up and misused his notion of ‘the performative’ from his philosophy of language, but I think he is underappreciated as a stylist of English prose.
NOTEBOOK: Would you be tempted to revise or tweak any of the case studies in light of later criticism, for example V.F. Perkins’s essay on repetition and framing in Letter from an Unknown Woman?
WILSON: A lot of what Victor Perkins said to me or wrote in his essays convinced me that it would be highly desirable for me to revise or extend stuff that I claimed in the original essays. This would be true, as you suggest, by things he wrote about Letter but also by a later essay he wrote on You Only Live Once. But I was not really tempted to write out the revised versions. The originals all took me so much time that I was pretty tired of thinking about these movies by the juncture at which I finished developing the extant versions of the analyses.
NOTEBOOK: You acknowledge the help encouragement of the art historian Michael Fried. Though he doesn’t write on film, he seems to have been close to a lot of people who have.
WILSON: Michael Fried and I were colleagues in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s. We both had great hopes for strengthening various humanities departments (including Philosophy) at Hopkins, and we often worked together to that end. He was very supportive of the fact that I was doing work on film, but I don’t remember getting any extensive comments on anything I wrote. So, he was not, in that way at least, an important influence on my work. I had read some of his influential work on contemporary art and on the history of painting, and I admired a range of it. However, my grasp of what he was doing would not have been strong enough (even in my own estimation) to have had a significant influence on my thinking. Stanley Fish was another colleague of ours at Hopkins during that period, but Fish and I had very few intellectual sympathies in common.
NOTEBOOK: One’s first observation on seeing the book’s contents is the mix of five ‘readings’ and five ‘theoretical’ chapters. Why do you think you chose this approach?
WILSON: I was not unsympathetic to the possibility of ‘theory’ under some appropriate understanding of the term. Work in linguistics on the theory of syntax made a large impression on me. But I had read a lot of 1960s style, pre-Kuhnian philosophy of science, e.g., from authors like Carnap, Hempel, and Reichenbach , tended to be strongly positivistic in character. This led me to feel that what was offering itself as ‘theory’ in literature and in film was generally not up to snuff as serious theory construction. And yet, Chomsky’s theories of grammatical structure did not obviously fit these positivistic models very well. So, at this time, I was pretty deeply conflicted about the possibility of theory in systematic thinking about film.
What presented itself as ‘theory’ in the literature on film seemed to me, on the whole, pretty hopeless. That is, a lot of this writing seemed to me to be pretentious and muddled. The Movie authors that I most admired seemed to me to constitute a very important improvement in the dialectical quality of their discussions. But even in these cases I was dissatisfied by the clarity and rigor of many of their discussions.
I had read and enjoyed a range of works in literary theorizing about point of view and related aspects of narrative strategy. Since I thought that there were comparable good questions about point of view in movie stories, this seemed to me to be a feasible domain for the more theoretical aspects of my incipient book. I believe that I was also sympathetic to Wittgensteinian skepticism about the claims of theory. I would have been content if the theoretical content arose in a very limited way from the range of specific movies that I discussed. For me the division between interpretative and theoretical work would have been modest and not terribly important. These Wittgensteinian strands in my thought were in tension with my Chomskyian influences from linguistics.
To briefly explain: the Wittgensteinian strands that impressed me then suggested that close interpretation, grounded firmly on the surface of the work, did not call for abstract and general interventions based on more comprehensive theoretical considerations. Wittgenstein seemed to suggest that that theoretical generality was not to be hoped for in aesthetic and many other philosophical domains. And yet, the seeming success of theoretical generality in the study of grammar was a worrisome counterexample to my Wittgensteinian convictions. These tensions were utterly unresolved in my mind at the time.
It is important here that I was a young analytic philosopher, and it seemed to me that the world was being drowned in bullshit. These attitudes seem to me prissy now, and there is a lot in the chapter “Morals for Method” that I would not presently endorse, but the chapter does give a pretty good idea of my intellectual mind set at the time.
NOTEBOOK: You quote Cavell at one point, though the passage is not perhaps his most characteristic, and you wrote a slightly equivocal review of The World Viewed, not a book you’ve discussed much since. Were you conscious of being a new sort of philosophical film critic?
WILSON: I went to Cornell for graduate school, and the Philosophy Department there was the home of The Philosophical Review, the journal where my review of Cavell was published. Someone there had heard that I was thinking about films, and they asked me to write the review. (I did no work in Aesthetics as a student at any level, but I had a long interest in literature and film.) It is, I believe, my first publication. I very much admired The World Viewed, but I was also puzzled by it. I had never seen anything like it. It struck me as containing some terrific insights and some very intriguing, original proposals. But it also had significant parts that struck me as obscure and/or arbitrary. I worried that the more idiosyncratic parts might sink the book completely for an audience of more ‘analytic’ readers—the chief audience for the Phil Review.
So I spent a fair amount of space in the first part of the review trying to convey what seemed to me to be the more admirable parts of the more accessible segments of the book. Toward the end of my review, I complained about stretches of obscurity. I meant the review to be overall a positive one, and I hoped that what I wrote in the review would help to guide ‘analytic’ readers to the strongest aspects of the book. Unfortunately, I don’t think I succeeded in these aims. My brother was a graduate student at Harvard at the time, and I learned from him that Cavell was very angry. I don’t think we ever got past this kerfuffle. In his piece on North by Northwsest, he is, in a footnote, pretty snide about my essay on that film. Compared to The World Viewed, I much prefer Cavell’s book on ‘the comedies of remarriage.’
But I don’t believe that I thought of myself as a new kind of philosopher of film. I would have been dubious that there was such an intellectual discipline as ‘philosophy of film.’ I don’t remember if I even knew at that time that there were senior Anglo-American philosophers who were writing on film other than Cavell. And, as much as I admired aspects of his brilliance, I didn’t think of him as conforming to the ideals and standards I cared about from my training in analytic philosophy.
NOTEBOOK: How would you characterize this tradition and the mental habits it formed?
WILSON: In retrospect, it is not easy to capture how I thought of ‘analytic philosophy’. As narrow as it was reputed to be, there was a fair amount of diversity among the leading practitioners. Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, Elisabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson, and Michael Dummett all fell within the ‘analytic’ canon that I admired, but they are very different from one another. But within the ‘analytic’ paradigm, there was a great emphasis on clarity of formulation in discussion and on logical rigor in argumentation, and certainly these were ideals that influenced me enormously. As intellectually conservative as the movement seems in retrospect, I and many other young philosophers thought of ourselves as radicals in the following sense: we were going to sweep away all of the murky bullshit that, in our eyes, had dominated traditional philosophy and infected many other intellectual enterprises in the humanities. Film theory seemed overloaded with such bullshit, and certainly I thought that this needed to be replaced by something better. In my mind, I was just a guy who loved literature and movies whose intellectual education had mostly been influenced by analytic philosophy. I did not imagine that I was some new sort of philosopher. Of course, my perspective at that time now seems incredibly naïve.
NOTEBOOK: Could you give an example of where your analytic training had an impact on a line of argument?
WILSON: Perhaps the clearest example of where my analytic training had an impact on some line of argument has been the set of reflections on ‘cinematic narration’ and ‘cinematic narrators’ that began in the book but have continued until the present. By ‘cinematic narration’ I mean ‘the activity of telling a specific story in a movie by means of the structured succession of sights and sounds that constitute the film.’ On the whole, I have been especially concerned with movies telling a fictional story. So ‘telling’ can be verbal and it can be, so to speak, audiovisual.
One ‘analytic’ point that is significant from the outset is the following. The concept of ‘telling a fictional story’ is crucially ambiguous, and this is true both in the case of literary and cinematic fictions. In one sense, “Dickens told the story of David Copperfield in writing the novel of that name,”—he authored the novel—but, in another sense, “In that same novel, David Copperfield told his own story,”—he is the narrator of the tale. But this fact is a little puzzling. The verb “told” does not seem to have two distinct meanings, e.g., as the verb “spotted” does. Now, if it is said that Dickens told me about his own childhood, this probably just means that Dickens asserted as factual a sequence of propositions about his childhood. However, in the case, “Dickens told the story of David Copperfield,” Dickens probably didn’t assert anything as factual in constructing the fictional narrative. Rather, he simply made it fictional in his invented story that various imagined events and situations transpired.
What does this speech act of ‘fictional storytelling’ amount to? That is one of the key questions in this tangle of issues. On the other hand, to say that David Copperfield told (is the narrator of) his own story is to say (roughly) that it is a part of the total fiction in the novel that the character David Copperfield asserted the relevant sequence of propositions about his life. Here again, the idea conveyed by “it is fictional in work W that so-and-so…" is one of the basic ideas that a theory of fictionality needs to explicate. Notice that if it is fictional in the story constructed in work W that so and so, then it is thereby fictional in the work W that so and so, but the implication does not hold in the other direction. For instance, it is no part of the story of Oliver Twist that it is being told by a sardonic quasi-omniscient narrator, although that may be a part of the total fiction established in the total work.
And then, what about films? It seems alright to say that Alfred Hitchcock (and his collaborators) told the story of Vertigo, but it is extremely unclear whether that fictional telling presupposes the existence of some kind of fictional agent created within the work who is understood as having done this audio-visual ‘telling’—understood as having fictionally ‘shown’ us the narrative action. Thus, it is unclear whether the fictional telling of fiction stories in movies presupposes anything analogous to the fictional narrators of stories in literary fiction. Over many years, I have managed to wobble about this topic and to affirm both sides of the question at different times.
It is, I believe, hard to pose these questions clearly enough without going through some of the analysis illustrated above, and this is the sort of analysis that has been characteristic of some types of analytic philosophy. It is also hard to make any serious advance on these questions without deploying a range of the conceptual and argumentative moves characteristically invoked in the forms of analytic philosophy with which I was most familiar. At any rate, these analytic strategies have driven most of my work on the narratological topics just sketched and on a range of other topics in film theory as well.
NOTEBOOK: V.F. Perkins’s Film as Film is one of the very few books you quoted approvingly. Did the book give you a sort of license to write the way about film you felt naturally inclined to?
WILSON: It is hard for me at this juncture to recapture the impact of Victor’s work on me. I do know that Film as Film had the kind intellectual breadth and clarity of exposition that I admired tremendously and had not much found in the stuff on film that I had read at that time—the more theoretical stuff especially. I probably thought that Film as Film left a lot of philosophical work to do, but I would have felt that it constituted a reasonable place for someone to make a serious beginning. As time went on, I came to admire (and even envy a bit) the precision of his observations about key moments in movies. The wonderfully nuanced character of these remarks emerges most sharply for me in his books on The Magnificent Ambersons and The Rules of the Game. Over the years, we did discuss more ‘philosophical’ topics quite a bit. I always found these discussions helpful, but I don’t think we really saw the potential role of philosophy in film studies in the same way.
NOTEBOOK: Though Seeing Fictions in Film is a rather different study in many ways, it shares a central concern with the ways in which film figures or implies a narrating force. Your use of “point of view” amounts to a lot more than whether we see stuff from an optical perspective or whether things are “epistemically” limited to one character’s experience. Why do you think this has been your main preoccupation?
WILSON: This is a marvelous question, and I could go on too long on the subject. But here is one important dimension of an answer. ‘Point of view’ strategies (in film) are strategies of the way in which the movie narratives get narrated. But what can ‘narration’ mean in this context? Well, it has to do with the way in which the story gets ‘told’ in sights and sounds—sights and sounds that have been photographically derived from dramatic enactments of the fictional, narrative action. Fine! But this all seemed to me (and still seems to me) to be fraught with notable obscurities at every stage of the skeletal thought.
So I got caught up with the enterprise of making it systematically clear how the concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘narration’ should be construed in connection with film. I think that these concerns became a kind of obsession that sometimes led me into unfortunate forests of overwrought analysis. Nevertheless, I thought of this as crucial ‘foundational’ work not totally dissimilar to Gottlob Frege’s work on the foundations of arithmetic. I’m a little embarrassed to even mention such a comparison, but the evolution of the discipline of narratology illustrates the extensive need for such inquiries and the complexity of the issues they involve. I wish I could be more sanguine about the value of the contributions I have tried to make. For example, it is difficult for me not to notice that, after all these investigations, I still haven’t been able to make up my mind about whether the concept of fictional filmic narration implies the correlative existence of a fictional filmic narrator (on even the most minimal understanding of this notion.) I don’t know if this embarrassing fact shows something about my theoretical limitations or about the difficulty and subtlety of this and related question. I would rather believe the latter.
In any case, in Narration in Light, I pretty firmly rejected the idea that such an implication existed, but then, in a pretty limited way, I recanted in a later essay called “Le Grand Imagier Steps Out”. At this point, I feel much clearer about the texture of the issues that arise, but I also feel merely muddled about taking a position on the larger question. Is this progress?
NOTEBOOK: In the background there is the light rumbling of a debate about the futility of essentialism—hand-wringing over the ‘realist’ or ‘antirealist’ nature of the medium. Were you conscious that writing as you did on the broader issue of point of view you were avoiding—as well as affording yourself an opportunity to question—that sort of narrow concern?
WILSON: This is a very hard question. When I wrote the book, I wouldn’t have taken ‘essentialism’ about the medium of movies the least bit seriously. For me, as for many philosophers at the time, Wittgenstein’s remarks on the prevalence and importance of ‘family resemblance concepts’ would have settled the question pretty much out of hand.
The proper explanation of ‘family resemblance concepts’ is highly controversial, but broadly, a concept is governed by ‘family resemblance’ if the correct application of the concept in a given instance is determined by the striking resemblance of the instance to a variety of other established paradigms for the proper deployment of the concept. From case to case the character of the relevant resemblance and the relevant antecedent paradigms may vary. This means that in the case of such concepts there is no expectation that there is a fixed set of conditions that uniformly determine whether the concept is or is not correctly applied. There are no conditions that are essential to the application of the concept in each case. Wittgenstein held that many familiar, important concepts are governed by the ‘family resemblance’ model.
I thought then that the sheer diversity of filmmaking strategies needed to be emphasized and not be factitiously papered over by facile generalizations about the ‘nature’ of the cinema. Reading Wittgenstein had inclined me to be very skeptical of philosophical ‘theory’ of almost any kind.
On the other hand, I can’t reconstruct now what I might have thought about the question, “Does fiction film have a distinctive ‘medium’?” I don’t know how I thought the concept of an artistic ‘medium’ ought, in general, to be construed. Moreover, I am not at all so certain even now about how these ought to be sorted out. The idea that the ‘medium’ of movies is ‘photographic’ is almost disastrously obscure, but I would want to grant that it may well capture some important truths. This means that I now would not be so dismissive of debates concerning the topic, “Is film an essentially ‘realistic’ medium?”
In fact, I recently grappled with this topic (not very successfully I’m afraid) in a symposium I did with Robert Hopkins, an excellent British philosopher who now teaches at NYU. I don’t think that the questions have been greatly advanced in the last thirty years, but I am not so inclined to be utterly dismissive of them now.
NOTEBOOK: A final question perhaps on response to the book and work since? And something on your future work, and how it emerged from Narration in Light?
WILSON: As I recently wrote in an obituary of Victor Perkins, the book did not sell a lot of copies, and, during the period in question, I think I never even saw it in a bookstore. Then I received a letter from Victor, and it explained at gracious length why he liked my book a lot. I had never received a commentary on any of my work that pleased me so much and that I valued as highly as this unexpected letter, and in all the time since Victor’s letter arrived, I have never been more pleased than I was by his generous remarks. I believe that it is pretty rare to get a strongly supportive letter from someone you have never met, but who has from long distance crucially shaped your own thinking about the fundamental area of research in question. I was simply thrilled, and it was his support at this juncture, more than anything else, that encouraged me to continue writing on film.
After Narration in Light, I wrote that long essay “Le Grand Imagier Steps Out”, in which I tried to develop a more systematic, general position concerning the nature of ‘cinematic narration’ (and cinematic narrators) in classical Hollywood films. This essay attracted a lot of attention in Philosophy, but, as is usually the case in the discipline, most of that attention was critical. A lot of people tried to make clear the various ways in which I had for them gone off the track. A great deal of my later writing concerned attempts to reply to these objections. Replying to criticism was not something I had ever gone in for previously. My second book, Seeing Fictions in Film, collects a lot of these materials. Although I would still stand by a lot of what I say in this second book, it now seems to me much too focused on responding to criticisms. To my mind, this makes the book come across as much too narrow, self-defensive, and indulging in what can seem like logic chopping. If I were to start the second book again, I would want to do things in a different, more expansive way.