Selected Minor Works: Where Movies Came From

Justin E. H. Smith

In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell wryly comments that it was not until he reached adulthood that he learned “where movies come from.” As it happens, movies come from the same place I do: California. Now as an answer to the question of origins, this is hardly satisfying. “California,” as a one-word answer to anything, has the air of a joke about it, whereas we at least aim for earnestness. This is a problem that has vexed many who have left California and attempted to make sense of it at a distance. The turn-of-the-century Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce once declared of his home state that “there is no philosophy in California.” Yet the state’s generative power, and my attachment to it, have left me with the sense that something of philosophical interest is waiting to be said, by me if I’m lucky, if not in it, then at least about it and its exports.

My sense is that these two questions, the autobiographical and the film-historical, may be treated together. This is not because I was born into a Hollywood dynasty –far from it– but because throughout most of my life, memories were something shared, something public, something manufactured. By this I mean that, instead of memories, we had movies, and instead of conversation, we mimicked dialogue. I use the past tense here, as in the title (though there in acknowledgment also of a debt to Joan Didion), because it is already clear that movies will not be the dominant art form of the twenty-first century, and if we agree with Cavell that a movie is a sequence of automated world projections, then movies are no longer being made.


A contingent development in the history of technology left us with an art form thought by many to reveal something very significant about what we as humans are. Cavell chose to express this significance in the Heideggerian terms of film’s ‘world-disclosing power’ (did Heidegger ever even see a movie?). Already before 1920, Royce’s Harvard colleague Hugo Münsterberg had argued that the ‘photoplay’ serves as a powerful proof of Fichtean idealism: what need is there for Kant’s thing-in-itself if a ‘world’ can exist just as well projected on a screen as embodied in three dimensions?

I take it for granted that the world disclosed to us today is the same world to which human beings have had access for roughly the past hundred thousand years, that is, since we became anatomically, and thus we may presume cognitively, modern. For this reason, what interests me most about movies is the question: what is it that our experience of them replaced? We have only had them for a hundred and some odd years, not long enough for our brains to have evolved from some pre-cinematic condition into something that may be said to have an a priori grasp of what a movie is, in the same way that we now know that human brains come into the world with the concept of, for example, ‘animate being’. We are not naturally movie-viewing creatures, though it certainly feels natural, as though it were just what we’ve always done. What then is it that we’ve always done, of which movie-viewing is just the latest transformation? What is that more fundamental category of activity of which movie-viewing is a variety?

One well-known answer is that watching movies is an activity much like dreaming. This is evidenced by the numerous euphemisms we use for the motion picture industry. In his recent book, The Power of Movies: How Mind and Screen Interact, the analytic philosopher Colin McGinn explicitly maintains that the mind processes cinematic stories in a way that is similar to its processing of dreams. He even suggests that movies are ‘better’ than dreams to the extent that they are ‘dreams rendered into art’.

But what then are dreams? To begin with, dreams are a reminder that every story we come up with to account for who we are and how we got to be that way is utterly and laughably false. Everything I tell myself, every comforting phrase so useful in waking life, breaks down and becomes a lie. For eight hours a day, it is true that I have killed someone and feel infinite remorse, that my teeth have fallen out, that I am able to fly but ashamed to let anyone know, that the airplanes I am in make slow motion, 360-degree loops, that my hair is neck-length and won’t grow any longer. None of these things is true. Yet, some mornings, for a few seconds after awakening, I grasp that they are truer than true. And then they fade, and the ordinary sense of true and false settles back in.

The images that accompany these feelings –the feeling of shame at levitating, the feeling of being in a doomed airplane—are relatively unimportant. They are afterimages, congealed out of the feelings that make the dreams what they are. As Aristotle already understood, and explained in his short treatise On Dreams, “in every case an appearance presents itself, but what appears does not in every case seem real… [D]ifferent men are subject to illusions, each according to the different emotion present in him.” Perhaps because of this feature of dreams –that they are not about the things that are seen, but rather the things that are seen are accompaniments for feelings– dreams have always been interpreted symbolically. This has been the case whether the interpreter believes that dreams foretell the future, or in contrast that they help to make sense of how the past shaped the present. Psychoanalysis has brought us around, moreover, to the idea that retrodiction is no more simple a task than oneiromancy, and that indeed the two are not so different: once you unravel the deep truth of the distant past, still echoed in dreams even if our social identities have succeeded in masking it, then by that very insight, and by it alone, you become master of your own future.

It seems to me that we don’t have an adequate way of talking about dreams. The topic is highly tabooed, and anyone who recounts his dreams to others, save for those who are most intimate, is seen as flighty and mystical. Of course, the consequence of this taboo is not that dreams are not discussed, but only that they are discussed imprecisely. For the most part, we are able to explain what happened, but not what the point-of-view of the dreamer was. This is overlooked, I suspect, because it is taken for granted that the point-of-view of the dreamer is that of a movie viewer. What people generally offer when prompted to recount a dream is a sort of plot summary: this happened, then this, then this. Naturally, the plot never makes any sense at all, and so the summary leaves one with the impression that what we are dealing with is a particularly strange film.

Certainly, there is a connection between some films –especially the ‘weird’ ones– and dreams, but only because the filmmakers have consciously, and in my view always unsuccessfully, set about capturing the feeling of a dream. From Un chien andalou to Eraserhead, weird things happen indeed, but the spectator remains a spectator, outside of the world projected onto the screen, looking into it. We are made to believe that our dreams are ‘like’ movies, but lacking plots, and then whenever an ‘experimental’ filmmaker attempts to go without plot, as if on cue audiences and critics announce that the film is like a dream. Middle-brow, post-literate fare such as Darren Aronofsky’s tedious self-indulgences have further reduced the dreamlike effect supposedly conveyed by non-linear cinema to an echo of that adolescent ‘whoah’ some of us remember feeling at the Pink Floyd laser-light show down at the planetarium.

Dreams are not weird movies, even if we recognize the conventions of dreamlikeness in weird movies. Weird movies, for one thing, are watched. The dreamer, in contrast, could not be more in the world dreamt. It is the dreamer’s world. It is not a show.

However problematic the term, cinematic ‘realism’ shows us, moreover, that movies can exhibit different degrees of dreamlikeness, and thus surely that there is something wrong with the generalized movie-dream analogy. In dream sequences, we see bright colors and mist, and, as was explicitly noted by a dwarf in Living in Oblivion, we often see dwarves. When the dream sequence is over, the freaks disappear, the lighting returns to normal, and in some early color films, most notably The Wizard of Oz, we return to black-and-white, the cinematic signifier of ‘reality’. My dreams are neither like the dream sequences in movies, nor are they like the movies that contain the dream sequences. Neither Kansas nor Oz, nor limited to dwarves in the repertoire of curious sights they offer up.

A much more promising approach is to hold, with Cavell, that movies are mythological, that their characters are types rather than individuals, and that the way we experience them is probably much more like the way folk experience their tales. Movies are more like bedtime stories than dreams: like what we cognize right before going to sleep than the mash that is made of our waking cognitions after we fall asleep.

If anything on the screen resembles dreams, it is cartoons (and thus Cavell is right to insist that these are in need of a very different sort of analysis than automated world projections). Cartoons are for the most part animistic. It is difficult to imagine a dream sequence in a Warner Brothers cartoon, since there were to begin with no regular laws of nature that might be reversed, there was no reality that might be suspended. For most of the early history of cartoons, there were no humans, but only ‘animate’ beings, such as cats and mice, as well as trees, the sun, and clouds, often given a perfunctory face just to clue us into their ontological status.

The increasing cartoonishness of movies –both the increasing reliance on computer graphics, as well as the decreasing interest in anything resembling human beings depicted in anything resembling human situations (see, e.g., Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond for a particularly extreme example of the collapse of the film/cartoon boundary)—may be cause for concern. Mythology, and its engagement with recognizably human concerns about life and death, is, it would seem, quickly being replaced by sequences of pleasing colors and amusing sounds.


I do not mean to come across as a fogey. Unlike Adorno with his jazz problem (which is inseparable from his California problem: the state that made him regret that the Enlightenment ever took place), I am a big fan of some of the animistic infantilism I have seen on digital screens recently. Shrek and the Teletubbies are fine entertainments. I am simply noting, already for a second time, that the era of movies is waning, and that nothing has stepped in, for the moment, to do what they once did.

A video-game designer recently told me that ‘gaming’ is just waiting for its own Cahiers du Cinéma, and that when these come along, and games are treated with adequate theoretical sophistication not by fans but by thinkers, then these will be in a position to move into the void left by film. I have no principled reasons to be saddened by this, but they will have to do a good deal more than I’ve seen them doing so far. Now I have not played a video game since the days when Atari jackets were sincerely, and not ironically, sought after. But I did see some Nintendo Wii consoles on display in a mall in California when I was home for the holidays this past week. The best argument for what the crowding mall urchins were doing with those machines is the same one, and the only one, that we have been able to come up with since Pong, and the one I certainly deployed when pleading with my own parents for another few minutes in front of the screen: it seems to do something for developing motor skills. This makes video games the descendants of sporting and hunting, while what movies moved in to replace were the narrative folk arts, such as the preliterate recitations that would later be recorded as Homer’s Odyssey. These are two very different pedigrees indeed, and it seems unlikely to me that the one might ever be the successor to the other.

Dreams are the processing of emotional experiences had in life, experiences of such things as hunting, or fighting, or love. Narrative arts, such as movies, are the communal processing, during waking life, of these same experiences. Movies are not like dreams, and video games are not like movies. And as for what experiences are, and why all the authentic ones seem to have already been had by the time we arrive at an age that enables us to reflect on them (seem all to have happened in California), I will leave that question to a better philosopher, and a less nostalgic one.


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