The Reel Deal Mind Presents: Professor Tom Wartenberg and Michael Haneke’s Amour

September 16, 2013 No Comments

The Reel Deal Mind Film Series begins its 2013 film series on Sunday, September 22 at 1pm with a discussion of Michael Haneke’s riveting masterpiece “Amour” with a special presentation by distinguished philosopher Professor Tom Wartenberg.

Tom Wartenberg has written extensively on the subject of film and philosophy.  He  has graciously agreed to discuss “Amour” and will use extensive film clips to enrich his presentation.  His  book “Unlikely Couples:  Movie Romance as Social Criticism” (1999) is a unique exploration of the unlikely couple film, written to “concern itself with questions that go to the very heart of how we imagine a life wroth living.”  This theme, of course, is also at the heart of Haneke’s film.

What can a philosophical approach to film teach us ? (especially those of us who spend most of our days sitting in the therapist’s chair).  I have attached the Preface from “Unlikely Couples” to provide an orientation to Professor Wartenberg’s approach to film and to inspire those who read it to attend the program.

Matthew Sherman is the director’s chair occupant for this program.  He has studied Haneke’s films extensively and will provide additional perspective on the unique ways that the director creates his films.

“Amour” is an unflinching look at a couple struggling to survive.  It is terrifying at times and beautiful. It is a film that demands discussion.  It has been recently released on DVD if you haven’t seen it.  Please join us for this outstanding program.      (Jolyn Wagner)



Preface (from Unlike Couples:  Movie Romance as Social Criticism)


Like many American couples, before my wife and I had our son, we would often go to a movie on a Saturday night.  One particular Saturday in the winter of 1991, we found ourselves in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, after some discussion—I had been put off by ads for White Palace (1990) that featured James Spader crushing Susan Sarandon’s bosom—I agreed to see the film anyway.  Afterwards, Wendy and I found ourselves disagreeing.  The central bone of contention between us—I am Jewish, she is not—was whether the film was anti-Semitic:  The ending, especially, had angered me.

As I sat down to work the following Monday morning, I couldn’t get our disagreement out of my mind.  If I had been able to express my position more clearly, I was sure I could have convinced my wife that I had been right.  So I sat down—this was seven years ago—to work out my intuitions about the film and, after many false starts and changes of mind, began to write the essay that contained the seeds of this book. 

In writing about White Palace, I decided I wanted to do two things.  First of all, could I justify devoting so much time to worrying about this film?  I did not share the assumption of many who write about popular films that elaborating on their shortcomings is sufficient justification for the effort.  My preoccupation with this film stemmed instead from a sense that its shortcomings detracted from its interest, that they had trivialized the important perception that lay at its heart.  As my reflections expanded into a book-length project, I have maintained my commitment to the idea that popular film, a mass artform, can be a locus for reflection on the sorts of issues that have traditionally been the domain of philosophy.  Thus, a first aim of this study is to vindicate popular narrative film as a philosophic medium.

But the more I had thought about White Palace, the more I had begun to see it as one of a perennial type, a genre that I came to call ‘the unlikely couple film’.  All instances of the genre, as I had come to conceive it, explored the predicament of two individuals whose efforts to be a romantic couple transgress a social norm regulating appropriate partnering choice.  For me, a central question had become:  Why do so many popular films fit this basic pattern and must they necessarily suffer from flaws similar to those that I had detected in White Palace?  If so, I had decided to try to understand the significance of that fact.  The became my second aim in writing about the film.

As intimated, my interest in romantic relationships between unlikely partners is more than simply academic.  I am the elder son of German-Jewish Holocaust survivors; my wife is the youngest daughter of parents of German-Lutheran heritage.  My grandparents belonged to the wealthy Jewish community in Berlin; my wife’s paternal grandfather was a mailcarrier and her maternal one, a Lutheran missionary in India.  The differences in our religious and, to a lesser extent, class backgrounds qualify us as an unlikely couple, even if not, in this society, highly so.  In part, my attraction to films about unlikely couples stems from my realization that the very differences between my wife and me that make our union unlikely have been and continue to be a source of enrichment for both our lives.

It seems to me, and may have already struck the reader, that there is another ‘unlikely couple’ implicated here, the couple consisting of philosophy and film.  The unlikeliness of this couple is constituted by the fact that philosophy is supposed to be concerned with eternal truths while film is the most evanescent of media, one whose very substance is fleeting.  Indeed, Plato’s condemnation of art for concerning itself with images rather than ‘the Real’ seems particularly apropos for ‘the reel’.  So, then, what constitutes the rationale for a philosophic study of popular film?

One claim made by film theorists, though challenged with increasing frequency particularly by those influenced by cultural studies, is that film creates passive spectators.  But this seems to me less a claim about the inherent nature of the medium than about the social practice of film viewing that has developed within mainstream American culture.  My own practice owes as much to its origin in the collegiate culture of the late 1960’s, when I first became a passionate consumer of films, as it does to my professional status as a philosopher.  When I began seriously watching films, as well as watching serious films—I am thinking here of, for example, the French new wave and Bergman—this was not simply a way of passing an entertaining evening, it was an occasion for serious, often heated discussion.  Far from being passive consumers, my college friends and I used the occasion of the screening—of Persona, say, or Pierrot le Fou—as a jumping off point for discussions of war and peace, anomie and solidarity, and other pressing issues.

Although we wouldn’t have put it this way then, I now see us as having created a practice of active film viewing.  We were simply unwilling to allow a film, its images and sounds, to wash over our consciousnesses, only to be forgotten as we left the theater.  Films were works demanding critical intervention rather than acquiescence.  In this way, we opened a space between our reception of films and their attempt to position us as viewers.

The lines on these pages may seem distant, indeed, from the sometimes intense give-and-take that accompanies a post-flick espresso, but my hope is that the critical practice they embody retains the traces of its origin in those late-night sessions of long ago.  To help shape that type of critical practice in my readers is my hope for this book. 

The cultivation of a critical practice is, not coincidentally, my understanding of the aim of philosophy, too.  Despite a repeated tendency among philosophers to conceive their discipline as a body of knowledge, a science, or even a science of the sciences, I see it as the practice of critique.  Socrates did not so much seek to convince his followers to accept a body of doctrine that could be associated with his name—there is no Socratism to compete with Platonism or Cartesianism—but rather sought to cultivate in his followers the desire to challenge those platitudes of the age everyone else in Athens took for the truth.

So if there is a spirit guiding this work, it is not that of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, raptly staring at the screen.  It is rather that of Socrates, that garrulous old man, seated in a coffeehouse pushing his friends to defend their analyses of the movie they have just seen.  I will be satisfied if,  in the chapters that follow, I manage to convey some sense of what that would be like.

Finally, it is not just the cultivation of critical capacities directed toward film for their own sake that concerns me.  In developing the interpretations set out in this book, I have focused my attention on four categories central to understanding our social world:  class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.  (One section, each, is devoted to issues of class, race, and sexual orientation; gender issues recur throughout.)  The critical awareness that I hope to model for readers of this text is one that identifies corresponding structures and practices of hierarchy.  The four terms thus function as shorthand for some of the profoundest ways in which, in our society, human beings are shaped—and oppressed, demeaned, exploited, and stunted.  In interpreting the unlikely couple films treated in this book, I mean to show how a truly critical practice can concern itself with questions that go to the very heart of how we imagine a life worth living.  If Socrates were alive today, his agora might very well be the food court outside the multiplex at the mall.



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