Monday, March 07, 2011

Morgan, Michael L. Review of Sam B. Girgus, LEVINAS AND THE CINEMA OF REDEMPTION. NDPR (February 2011).

Girgus, Sam B.  Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine.  New ork: Columbia UP, 2010.

The question that I kept before me as I was reading this book and preparing to write this review is whether philosophers can learn anything valuable from it. After all, it is a book written by someone who has published extensively on film, it treats various Hollywood and European films that are classics and certainly worthy of attention, and it purports to engage with the work of an important twentieth-century philosopher as part of its project. To be sure, one can learn something even from a book that has significant deficiencies, but what I have been asking myself is something different. It is whether a philosopher could learn anything positive from the book. Does the book say helpful and interesting things about Emmanuel Levinas? Does it show us how to explore films in the light of Levinas's philosophical work? Does it read films in a way that is philosophically novel and interesting, about film itself or about these particular films? I wish that I could answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, but I cannot. The most I can say is that in the course of reading what Girgus has to say about Levinas and the nine or so films he discusses, one is provoked to reflect upon a number of problems and issues concerning Levinas and film, and although Girgus has nothing particularly helpful to say about most of them, it is worthwhile to have them called to our attention.

In the course of the book's seven chapters Girgus discusses: Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946); John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940); John Huston's The Misfits (1961); Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961); Edward Zwick's Glory (1989); Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988); Federico Felini's La Dolce Vita (1959); and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura (1960). He also briefly comments on Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), Rossen's Body and Soul (1947), and Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). He organizes his discussions of the films according to themes he finds in Levinas. For example, he uses the Capra films to show how the redemptive element in these films can be articulated using Levinas's notion of transcendence and responsibility to the other person, and he uses Levinas's notion of the face in order to clarify how to understand particular facial shots of Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Denzel Washington. His treatment of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, La Dolce Vita, and L'avventura attempts to use Levinas in order to clarify what the films tell us about art, ethics, love, sexuality, and gender. His most detailed and most comprehensive commentaries on the films are the last three, the European films. Girgus's basic project, then, is to identify and clarify themes in Levinas's philosophy in certain American films and to show how these themes are represented in European films that are also examples of what Girgus calls a "cinema of redemption." . . .

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