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The purpose of this paper is two-fold: to identify the problem of cinematic imagination, and then to propose a satisfactory solution. In part one I analyze the respective claims of Dominic McIver Lopes and Roger Scruton, both of whom question the scope of imagination in film, when compared to other art forms, on the basis of its perceptual character. In order to address these concerns I develop a hybrid of Gregory Currie’s model of cinematic imagination and Kendall Walton’s theory of make-believe in section two. Section three offers a reply to Lopes and Scruton, examining the problem in terms of the tension between the normativity of films as props and the employment of the creative imagination by audiences. I conclude with a solution that admits of two incompatible conceptions of cinematic imagination.
creativity, experience, fantasy, film, imagination, props, visualization
1. The scope for imagination
Film is the most mimetic of contemporary art forms in the sense that it seems almost to replicate rather than represent reality. It is this capacity for reproduction and simulation that makes cinematic imagination problematic. I shall use a particularly realistic example, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), to demonstrate the puzzle. My response to the second scene in the film was something along the lines of "This is exactly what it must have been like on Omaha Beach on D Day." The use of surround-sound technology in the cinema theater provided an effective complement to the visual devices employed onscreen, the result of which was that the experience of war was reproduced as accurately as possible. The simulation was so realistic that I felt I was using my imagination at only the most basic level, so that it seemed impoverished when compared with how I appreciate art forms such as painting, literature, and music. Currie produced the first comprehensive philosophy of film in the analytic tradition, and I shall present a brief summary of his model of cinematic imagination before proceeding to Lopes’ and Scruton’s respective articulations of the problem.
Currie noted that the word "imagination" is variable and opaque, and specifies his concern as the engagement with fiction. He proposed the "simulation hypothesis" as an account of the functioning of the imagination: imagining involves projecting oneself into the situation of another, and then conceiving of one’s own beliefs and desires in that situation. Therefore, imagination consists of pretend beliefs and desires that are run "off-line, disconnected from their normal perceptual inputs and behavioural outputs." Currie distinguished primary from secondary imaginings. Primary imagining is simply imagining what is fictional, for example, Captain Miller on Omaha Beach on D Day. Secondary imagining supplements primary imagining when it concerns the experience of a fictional character, such as Miller, on Omaha Beach on D Day, as disorientated and frightened. That secondary imaginings are essential to one’s engagement with fiction is self-evident.
Imagination in film is typically and distinctively impersonal and perceptual. It is impersonal because of Currie’s rejection of the "imagined observer hypothesis" and the absence of egocentric information. When I watch Saving Private Ryan, I imagine Miller on Omaha Beach; I do not imagine myself seeing Miller on Omaha Beach,which would imply that I have some sort of presence in the film. The perceptual imagination involved in film has features of structure and content absent in literature. Perceptual beliefs "bunch together in so far as perception tends to give us beliefs about color, size and shape as an indissoluble package with a high degree of specificity." I therefore imagine Miller as looking exactly like Tom Hanks as he appears in Saving Private Ryan.
Lopes asked "whether cinematic experience…takes advantage of our imaginative capacities." He challenged Currie’s replacement of the traditional model of imagination as quasi-experience, that is, visualization, with quasi-belief, and draws attention to the difference between the experience of reading a detailed description of a landscape, for example, and the experience of seeing that landscape in a film. When watching King Kong (1933) he does not imagine – simulate perceptual belief in – King Kong, but has a sensory experience of the monster which prompts his simulated perceptual beliefs. According to Lopes, therefore, the sensory experience of a giant gorilla onscreen is prior to, and more fundamental than, the simulated belief in King Kong; the imagination is subordinate to perception. Lopes holds that an account of propositional imagining must be accompanied by an account of sensory imagining:
...in pictorial imagining, the propositional imagination harnesses an occurrent visual experience in order to shape its content, borrow its phenomenology, and sustain a rich variety of imagined visual actions.
Lopes’ criticism of Currie is that he ignores the significance of the sensory experience that is so crucial to the experience of film; he believes this omission is proved by a flaw in Currie’s model. Lopes noted that experience is belief-independent for Currie because a belief in Captain Miller is actually an off-line imagined belief, that is, an imagining. I imagine Miller rather than believe in him, and so my experience occurs without belief. "And if my experience is independent of what I believe then it is independent of what I imagine, since, on Currie’s account, imagination is simulated belief." According to Lopes, Currie’s own theory relies on the primacy of the sensory (cinematic) experience that he has failed to acknowledge.
Scruton’s "Fantasy, Imagination and the Screen" is a somewhat rhetorical defence of theater over film, and although his condemnation of fantasy appears to have a moral rather than logical basis, Kathleen Stock agreed that there is indeed a link between film and fantasy. Scruton proposed a strict dichotomy between imagination and fantasy. The appreciation of art employs the imagination and aims to understand reality by indirect means. This return to reality through representation is realism. The imagination grasps the reality by way of style, convention, and manner in description and depiction. The route to reality (for example, the bombing of Guernica on the 26th April 1937) is circuitous (the complex representation in the cubist painting by Pablo Picasso), and the reality can only be understood by the active employment of the imagination.
In contrast, fantasy is "a real desire which, through prohibition, seeks an unreal, but realized, object." Scruton is concerned with desires that are typically the target of self-imposed prohibitions, such as sex and violence. An object of fantasy is realized when it "leaves nothing to the imagination" and is a surrogate for another object. In fantasy, the desire is for the surrogate to mirror the reality as closely as possible, like a waxwork or photograph, but this mimesis focuses attention on the surrogate and thus away from the reality. By combining photography with movement and sound, the medium of film is a near-perfect simulacrum. Whereas the theater employs conventions and stylistic constraints to represent reality, film constitutes an absolute and explicit realization that is actually an escape from reality. In watching a film, therefore, I am presented with a substitute for reality, which Stock refers to as a "fantasy prop."
Scruton believes that the medium of film contains an inherent conflict between the reality principle of dramatic representation and the realization principle of the camera. In the case of prohibited desires, the camera’s capacity for complete realization means that "There is therefore a danger that fantasy will take over, so as to dominate the interest in representation." If his view is correct, then the second scene of Saving Private Ryan is not a representation of Omaha Beach on D Day but a realization, and so focuses on the fantasy (the explicit violence in the film) rather than the reality (the human drama of D Day). Stock agrees that an increase in realization produces a more potent fantasy prop because it contributes to the fantasist’s goal of avoiding awareness that the fantasy is not real. It is worth noting that Scruton recently reiterated the distinction between imagination and fantasy, claiming that both he and Stock understated the essential differences in the respective paradoxes by which they operate.
Contrary to Scruton, there is no doubt that I used my imagination when I watched Saving Private Ryan. I imagined that Hanks was Miller, that Miller was disorientated and frightened, and that there were (at least) three series of events happening coincidently: Miller fighting on Omaha Beach, Private Ryan en route to Ramelle, and Mrs. Ryan learning of her tragic loss in Iowa. These imaginings, and many others like them, were necessary to understand the film as a narrative. However, in a sense Scruton was correct in that, despite my awareness of the fiction, I seemed to actually see soldiers being shot, drowning, and blown apart, and Spielberg’s graphic portrayal of D-Day appeared to have left very little for me to imagine. In fact, I appeared to have employed significantly less of my imaginative capacity in watching the fictional film than if I were to read a non-fictional account or examine historical photographs. Perhaps Lopes is correct, and watching Saving Private Ryan is an experience that is, or could be, independent of the imagination, or perhaps the answer lies with Scruton, for whom the film would be a paradigm of realization, the gratification of a violent fantasy. I shall return to these questions shortly.
2. Imagination as make-believe
Currie’s model of cinematic imagination is based on his earlier work in "Visual Fictions" and forms part of his contribution to the cognitive theory of imagination, which recognizes the functional similarity of imagination and belief. He identified two distinct conceptions, visualisation and make-believe. Visualization is the "activity of image-making." It can be produced by both fiction and non-fiction, but is necessary for neither. Make-believe applies to fiction alone, and is best understood as an attitude. To make-believe is to take a particular attitude towards the propositional content of fictions, and the functional relations between the attitudes of believing and make-believing a proposition are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, adopting an attitude of make-believe to the proposition that Miller is dying of his wounds disconnects me from my response in the case of belief: I may weep but I will not call for an ambulance.
Currie’s concern is with the role of the imagination in the engagement with fiction, and he regards imagination as identical with make-believe. He noted the similarities and differences between fantasies, such as daydreams, and fictions. While they both involve a narrative consisting of characters and events, the latter are interpersonally accessible where the former are not. Fantasies and fictions are both "objects of make-believe," and neither necessarily involves visualization. Although Currie and Walton’s respective conceptions of make-believe differ on a number of points, I believe the similarities are significant. As the lion’s share of Currie’s discussion of imagination is devoted to its impersonal character, I shall develop his views on perceptual imagining by referencing Walton, and then use this hybrid model to answer the question of the extent to which the imagination is employed in film.
Walton proposed the interaction with representational works of art as a continuation of the games of make-believe played by children. He conceived of the imagination as a type of make-believe that is independent of truth conditions. This neatly explains how I can imagine Miller on D Day without contradiction. I imagine certain things about Miller, such as that he looks like Hanks, that are false because Miller is fictional; but I also imagine other things that are true, such as that the battle on Omaha Beach in 1944 occurred. Like Currie, Walton identified the imagination as variable and distinct from visualization. His theory relies on three core concepts: prompters, objects, and props.
Walton defined a prompter as something that prompts the imagination "by being perceived or otherwise experienced or cognized." A broomstick that prompts me to imagine a rifle is a prompter, and conventions may be internalized so that whenever I see a broomstick I automatically imagine a rifle. The broomstick also functions as an object of imagining, because I imagine of real object X (the broomstick) that it is imaginary object Y (a rifle). Objects such as the broom become prompters by chance; other objects, like toy trucks and snowmen, are designed to produce the imaginings of real trucks and living creatures, respectively. Neither prompters nor objects are necessary for imagining. I could, for example, decide to imagine what it was like on Omaha Beach on D Day out of curiosity or a desire to pass the time, in which case there would be no prompter and no object. When I watch Saving Private Ryan, the images onscreen serve as prompters but not objects. Walton believes that imagining with an object is more vivid than without.
Props are "generators of fictional truths, things which, by virtue of their nature or existence, make propositions fictional." The broomstick is a prop because it is responsible for the fictionality of the proposition "I am holding a rifle"; an image of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan is a prop because it is responsible for the fictionality of propositions such as "John H. Miller is a captain in the US Army." Props function by "principle of generation," which involves a convention, prescription, or stipulation. "Fictional propositions are propositions that are to be imagined – whether or not they are in fact imagined." Thus, there is a normative aspect to the concept. If I agree to the prescription that broomsticks are rifles in a game of make-believe, my failure to notice a broomstick lying on the floor will not alter the fact that, in the game, a broomstick is a rifle. Similarly, my thoughts about Hanks, like reflections on his acting ability or the extent to which he has aged since his previous film, do not alter the fact that in Saving Private Ryan Hanks is Miller. Walton defined games of make-believe as "exercises of the imagination involving props," and restricts representation to the kinds of things that are typically created to function as props. Representational works of art are "made specifically for the purpose of being used as props in games of certain kinds, indefinitely many of them played by different appreciators on different occasions."
Currie didn’t discuss props explicitly, but he touched on the issue when he considered the difference between fantasy and fiction. I cannot be mistaken about the content of a daydream unless I fail to remember it accurately, but I can misunderstand the content of Saving Private Ryan because this content is determined by the work. The film is clearly a prop about which "there are certain things it is appropriate to make-believe, and certain things not." I see the images onscreen, and those images authorize me to imagine the events represented by the film, that is, to adopt an attitude of make-believe towards the narrative. Here, the essential congruence between Currie and Walton is the relation they both recognize between normativity and imagination in fiction.
Walton stated that depiction is characterized by features such as resemblance and "the capacity of a representation to be understood without decoding and inference," and that depictive representation is consequently conducive to rich and vivid perceptual games of make-believe. He used ‘rich’ to refer to the amount of detail conveyed, and ‘vivid’ to describe the level of realism the experience involves, that is, the ease with which one is able to make-believe the fiction. Depiction stands in contrast to description. "In general, what we call pictures make much better props in visual games than verbal descriptions would." My imaginings of Miller are therefore particularly rich and vivid because the prop, that is, the image of Hanks, is a detailed and realistic depictive representation.
Currie agrees that the perceptual nature of the imagination in film produces rich and vivid imaginings. In the novel Saving Private Ryan, the author could have chosen to describe Miller’s hair as "short, brown." Different readers would imagine different shades of brown and different styles of short. In the film, I imagined Miller’s hair to be the exact color and style I saw on Hanks’ head. The same would be true of a painting of Miller, and the experience of the visual arts is characterized by giving rise to these perceptual imaginings. Currie and Walton both addressed this perceptual nature, but neither attached significance to film as a paradigmatic form of depictive representation. I shall consider this omission after returning to Lopes’ and Scruton’s respective arguments.
3. The creative imagination
In order to defend Currie from Lopes, I must demonstrate that his theory of cinematic imagination does not allow for experience without imagination. The defense is straightforward, and I summarise Lopes’ objection as follows:
P1 I can have a cinematic experience without belief.
P2 Imagination is imagined belief.
P3 Real beliefs and imagined beliefs are both beliefs.
C1 I can have a cinematic experience without imagination.
I accept P1 because I can have an experience of Miller without believing in his existence. P2 is questionable because imagination is not restricted to imagined belief. For Currie, imagining comprises two different elements: simulated beliefs and simulated desires. I imagine Miller on Omaha Beach, but if the narrative is to succeed I must also desire (imagined desire because Miller is fictional) that he survive the battle. So there is an aspect of imagination that cannot be subsumed under belief, because it is imagined desire.
P3 is even more precarious. Real beliefs and imagined beliefs are only two types of belief in a linguistic sense, and they cannot be substituted for each other. Currie described imaginings as different from real beliefs and desires by being removed from the usual perceptual inputs and behavioural outputs. Imaginary beliefs and beliefs are two entirely different types of thing. Consider a parallel argument:
P1 I can ride a horse.
P2 Imaginary horses and real horses are both horses.
C1 Therefore I can ride an imaginary horse.
I can imagine riding an imaginary horse but I cannot really ride a creature that only exists in my mind. The meaningful dichotomy for Currie is between the imagined and the real, not between beliefs and desires. Imagined beliefs and imagined desires share the common characteristics of being non-real and being run off-line. Real beliefs and real desires both respond to perceptual input and both motivate behavior. Imagined belief cannot therefore be substituted for real belief in Lopes’ conclusion, and his claim that Currie’s theory allows for experience without imagination is false.
Scruton’s proposal that film is a prop for fantasy seems even less convincing. First, it relies on his idiosyncratic definition of fantasy as a phenomenon opposed to imagination, rather than Currie’s idea of fantasy as a variant of imagination. Although Stock supports much of Scruton’s argument, she also maintains that fantasy involves the imagination, which, in the light of Scruton’s subsequent insistence on the importance of the contrast, seems to call her endorsement into question. Second, Scruton’s position is dependent on his view that film is not a representational art form, which is based on his theory that the causal relation between an ideal photograph and its subject means that photographs are transparent. He maintains that the use of the camera is analogous to the use of a mirror and that while a hypothetical "art of mirrors" could exist, it would not be a representational art form.
If Currie conceived of cinematic imagination as visualization, one might be inclined to agree with Scruton, as there seems little, if any, visualization required in watching a film. I do not need to visualize Miller: I see an image of Hanks and the image serves as a prop for me to imagine Miller looking exactly like Hanks. On a broader scale, the whole film serves a prop for me to imagine the fictional narrative. I make-believe when I watch a play, complete with its conventions and constraints, and I make-believe when I watch a film, which, due to its closer likeness to reality, is usually easier to understand. While Scruton’s philosophy of film fails, he is nonetheless correct in identifying a tension between the role of imagination and the art form of film, as I shall show.
In one of his few discussions of film in Mimesis as Make-Believe, Walton used the contrast with theater to prove that make-believe is more vivid if it has an object. In the theater the audience is actually in the presence of the actors, and the actors are the objects of the audience’s imaginings, as well as prompters and props. In the cinema, the audience is in the presence of images onscreen, and these images are prompters and props, but not objects. Hanks is the object of imagination, because I imagine him as Miller; I do not make-believe of the image of Hanks that it is Miller. This seems accurate, but I cannot accept Walton’s conclusion that the presence of actors as objects of imagination makes a play more vivid than a film. ‘Vivid’ refers to the ease with which one is able to make-believe, and the contrary seems true.
Scruton notes that the depiction of events in a play, e.g. the murder of Desdemona in Othello, is "stylized and bound by convention," whereas cinematic depiction is lifelike. The art form of theater is constrained in ways that film is not, like the size of the stage. In Richard III, therefore, Shakespeare uses a duel between King Richard and the Earl of Richmond to represent the historical Battle of Bosworth Field, which involved over 20,000 combatants. One needs to interpret the representation and have some knowledge of theatrical convention to understand the work. In Saving Private Ryan, the landing on Omaha Beach is represented in a completely lifelike fashion and requires no interpretation. There may have been only hundreds, rather than thousands, of actors, but the special effects are such that it appears as if the viewer is watching a representation that is almost identical to the event. I shall not labor the point, but I maintain that photorealistic film (usually) involves a more realistic representation than theater, and is therefore (usually) more rather than less vivid. The presence of the actors in the theater undoubtedly adds an element that is missing in film, but film is, paradoxically, perhaps, more lifelike.
The reason film prompts more vivid imaginings than theater is found in Walton’s account of the power of depictive representation and Currie’s account of likeness. A film is more lifelike than the theater and painting and requires less decoding. One might say the same of a photograph as opposed to a painting, but a film is more lifelike than a photograph because of its transtemporal information – the automorphic representation of duration – and the auditory experience it affords. My thesis is that film is the most lifelike of all representational art forms, the paradigm of perceptual realism, and that the tension between film and imagination is between the normativity of film as a prop and the creative imagination of the audience.
The images of Hanks in Saving Private Ryan do indeed produce detailed and realistic imaginings. As the imaginings become richer, however, they become correspondingly more restricted. In the novel, the words "short, brown" serve as a prop that authorizes me to imagine Miller’s hair in a number of shades and lengths. So long as I do not stray from the meaning of the two adjectives, I will be adhering to the rules of the particular game of make-believe for which the text is a prop. But when I see an image of Hanks, I must imagine Miller’s appearance as exactly the same. If I imagine that Miller has slightly longer or lighter hair, or a different shaped face or different colored eyes, then I am not responding to the prop appropriately. Where the novel makes it fictionally true that Miller has short, brown hair, the film makes it fictionally true that Miller’s hair is exactly like Hanks’ hair.
If one considers the film as a whole, one can see similarly how the very richness and vivacity of the imaginings restrict my response by specifying what is appropriate in explicit detail. Richard III presents me with two actors pretending to duel and leaves me free to imagine the battle that rages around them in a variety of ways. Saving Private Ryan presents me with images of the actors apparently engaged in a real battle and requires me to imagine that they are the characters in the fictional narrative. My experience of Omaha Beach is more realistic and detailed than Bosworth Field, but there is far less creativity required on my part. The latter requires extensive use of my cognitive processes, while the former is relatively effortless and even passive.
I realize that this is a superficially controversial claim. I have already explained how, even in my chosen example selected as a paradigm of vivid cinema, I had to employ my imagination to understand the film. Offscreen events need not be supplementary to the main narrative, and there are many films where the viewer is invited to imagine crucial scenes, such as the murder of Marion Crane in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The very same device, however, is frequently used in literature. A particularly dramatic example occurs in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Sun Over Breda (1998), where half of the fourth chapter is devoted to setting the scene for a duel between Captain Alatriste and another soldier. The narrator comments on Alatriste’s smile as the men prepare to fight, and the next sentence is: "As they pulled the Valencian onto land, blood stained the calm waters of the canal around him." There are also films, like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), where the complexity of the narrative structure demands an active imaginative engagement from the audience. Once again, however, a similar complexity is employed in novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). My claim is simply that the viewing of a photorealistic film usually requires less effort on the part of the audience than watching a play or reading a novel. This characteristic is a symptom of the problem of cinematic imagination; I shall show how it also provides a solution.
Currie and Walton describe imagination as a variable term, and cognitive theorists in general admit of different varieties of propositional imagination. I have mentioned two variations in Currie thus far:
I1: mental image-making.
I2: adopting an attitude of make-believe towards fictional propositions.
Leslie Stevenson identifies 12 different conceptions of imagination (18 if one includes his sub-categories). The two conceptions which parallel Currie’s usage are:
[I3:] The ability to entertain mental images.
[I4:] The ability to think of things one conceives of as fictional, as opposed to what one believes to be real or conceives of as possibly real.
Stevenson specifies that I4 is compatible with Walton’s account of fiction as a game of make-believe generated by props. He then identifies two sub-categories of I4:
[I5:] The ability to create (or "think up") fictions.
[I6:] The ability to think of already-created fictions as fictional.
The concept of creativity is itself variable, and perhaps opaque as well, and I5 refers to the creation of fictions by poets, dramatists, and novelists. Stevenson’s classification reflects the standard concern with the concept in aesthetics, the discussion of the creative genius of the artist exemplified in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement. My concern, however, is with the creativity required on the part of the appreciator of the work rather than the creator. Ignacio Götz identified five different conceptions of creativity, but defined the term as "a process of making." The delineation captures the basic meaning of creativity I wish to convey, a meaning that is confined to neither the artist nor art. I am reluctant to add to Stevenson’s list of conceptions of imagination and prefer to consider I5 in terms of Götz’s definition of creativity. In fact, the move is unnecessary, as I5 is well-suited to my purpose: if the connotation (the creativity of the artist) is dropped, one is left with the denotation, which is simply the ability (of anyone) to create fictions.
Creativity is a requirement of the appreciator of a work of art as well as the creator, albeit to a much lesser extent. When I watch Richard III, the work of art serves as a prop for my imagination, and in making believe that the battle rages around the two actors, I engage in a creative process of making, or thinking up Bosworth Field. I5 is thus the aspect of imagination that creates what is not perceived by the viewer, that is, the creative imagination. I propose that a film is very poor prop for I5. A play, with its conventions and restrictions, is better; and a novel, where my perception of a few words might inspire the creation of a complete character or setting, is better still. In contrast, film is a very effective prop for I6. When I watch the already-created fiction called Saving Private Ryan, the work serves as a prop for my imagination, and my imaginings are particularly rich and vivid because of the paradigmatic nature of the depictive representation. Scruton is therefore right in claiming that film leaves little to the imagination (I5), but Currie is also correct, because film produces detailed and realistic imaginings (I6).
This distinction between the creative and, for want of a better term, fictional imagination provides the solution to the problem. Film is the most realistic of the representational arts, and this likeness to reality results in a unique relationship between film and imagination. Film serves as a prop for rich and vivid imaginings, but the richness and vivacity leave little room for creativity on the part of the imaginer. I maintain that it is impossible to reconcile the fictional and creative conceptions of imagination, and the question of the scope for imagination in film depends entirely on which is being employed. The solution to the problem of cinematic imagination is the recognition of the two different conceptions, which itself involves an understanding of the normativity of props. The reduced role for the creative imagination in film appreciation may have consequences for the status of the art form, but that is a question which must be answered elsewhere.
Rafe McGregor is a second-year philosophy PhD student at the University of York. His thesis is on the relationship between aesthetic value and moral value, and his interests include history of philosophy and fictionality.
Published on January 12, 2012.
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Gregory Currie ("Visual Fictions," pp. 133-134) maintains that make-believe is a type of belief for Walton; and Walton (Mimesis as Make-Believe, p. 28) holds that self-reference is essential to imagination, which seems compatible with the Imagined Observer Hypothesis. Walton nonetheless regards Currie’s simulation theory as supporting his account of pictures as props ("Depiction, Perception, and Imagination: Responses to Richard Wollheim," p. 31).
Matthew Rampley, "Creativity," British Journal of Aesthetics 38, 3, (July 1998), 266. See Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 186-196 (§§ 46-49).