The following entry is from an assignment I did for a Philosophy of Film class that I took this Spring 2017 Semester. I really enjoyed this class and the movies and readings assigned with it. That being said, I hope my readers will enjoy this movie. And for those who have not seen the films: Mary & Max or Terms of Endearment you have been warned for Spoilers.
I am running through a series of emotions at this very moment contemplating the perfect way to begin this essay. Anxiety, because I have been staring at a blank document for the last twenty minutes with my fingers on the keyboard remaining unmoved and Frustration, because I want this essay to be perfect, despite my amateur philosophical approach to the issue of emotions felt as a result of films. Just like coming up with a proper way to begin this essay, these emotions I felt, are genuine because my aim is to capture the reader’s attention and convince them that I know what I am talking about and that I worked extensively on this essay on. With that confession, the reader may empathize with me of the emotions I feel thereby, perhaps even cutting me some slack and allow me to get on with the point I’m trying to assert: that genuine, human emotions, can without a doubt be felt from fiction, however only under the condition that the viewer genuinely cares about the film he is watching. Moreover, that the film created, was made with the absolute intention to move and entertain its audience.
Only an ignoramus would believe that what is seen on a screen is real, yet it should not take away from emotions being felt because they are that caught up in the narrative or the actor’s portrayal of a character. When watching the film, Terms of Endearment, the reality of Debra Winger’s character lying in the hospital bed speaking to her children (that are not biologically hers) is irrelevant when the younger son is trying his best to keep himself from crying and simultaneously, cannot help but feel frustrated with his elder brother who seems to show an apathetic and dismissive attitude towards their mother as she is slowly passing away. Understandably, one who watches this scene would feel something from observing this scene, but what emotion that would be and how come, will vary. Examining the back and forth discussion on what emotion (if any) are felt from fiction between philosophers, Alex Neil and Colin Radford, reaching a compromise in their responses to one another (from this outsider’s perspective) seem to be a chore. The one thing that they both seem to agree on though, however, is that emotions, in general, are felt. The conflict tends to lie within what emotions, per se, are being felt and if the authenticity in feeling those emotions. The emotion of Fear, for example, according to Neil cannot be considered authentic because “I cannot coherently believe that [feeling Fear] is actually the case that I am threatened by something I know to be fictional.” (Neil, 4) Radford on the other hand, states that we can indefinitely feel genuine fear of something, even if we know it not to be fake: “even the mere thought of spiders may elicit these feelings of panic.” (Radford, 72)
These arguments put forth by Neil and the laws of the Paradox of Fiction attest Radford’s view. Specifically, that genuine emotion requires belief that the objects exist; moreover, we do not believe that fictional objects exist. Referring to Neil’s statement in the previous argument, one could make the assumption that if he were to have seen Mary & Max, he would not feel fear when Mary is at the verge of committing suicide after not hearing from Max for so long, but at this point, the audience has seen that Max has already sent a letter and hopefully, it will reach Mary in time, before it’s too late. Although in subsequent pages, he states that we may not be able to feel fear, but may feel pity: “we should remember that not all fear is fear for oneself; we may also experience fear sympathetically, or for others.” (Neil, 5) Neil is called out for this sort of contradictory (perhaps because it is so vague) by Radford and contends, “if the ways in which we are moved, the various responses, including feelings and desires, are like those we experience in unproblematic cases of pitying, we do pity fictions…(But why then, does [Neil] argue differently regarding…fear?” (Radford, 73)
As demonstrated with the two previous examples, it should be very clear that neither philosopher will deem Pity and/or fear as universal emotions felt by fictional films. Although again, they do admit that a viewer can most definitely be moved by something even by knowing it is fiction. I propose that one cannot simply categorize the feeling in one term, as interpretations of films are incontestably subjective. According to Radford, “we are irrational, inconsistent, and incoherent in being moved [by emotion] for fictional characters.” (Radford, 75) This means that we can feel emotions and we don’t know what they mean but because we are simply incapable of doing so. However inexplicably unsatisfying that reason may be for some who are unable to understand how fictional mediums can invoke genuine emotion, the main crux is that we can be moved by fiction. In order to make my argument more coherent for the reader, I will draw from a personal experience of how I genuinely am moved by fictional mediums.
Before this semester began (sometime in December 2016 or early January 2017) I purchased a book: The Simpsons and Philosophy by some author. My girlfriend, seeing what I had purchased, smiled because she is well aware of my obsession with this legendary, comical cartoon. She knew this not only because I watch it OnDemand each time we are at my house or that my mother pretty much spilled the beans to her (prior to us dating) of how much I loved this show as a child, even though she couldn’t understand how something so simple and childish (because it was a cartoon) could be so entertaining. It was inexplicable because I was well aware none of it was real and everything but I genuinely would smile and laugh at the episodes I’ve watched (repeatedly) even as an adult in his early twenties, I find myself laughing even harder because I am old enough to understand the little jokes I didn’t once understand as a kid. I am reminded of Blaise Pascal’s quote when he said, “the heart has reasons for its operations that sometimes reason does not often understand.”
With that, I hope I have been able to demonstrate my view, that we can genuinely be moved by fiction. Whatever emotion may be is dependent on the viewer. And in spite of a listener potentially not being completely convinced of why a viewer feels a certain way about a film, something entirely fiction and therefore, nonexistent, the reason for how or why those emotions are felt, any efforts in convincing may seem almost incomprehensible.
Therefore, I contend that it is not (nor should be) the responsibility of the viewer to have to explain to anyone, who simply does not understand, why he or she is moved by fiction. Moreover, by maintaining such feelings for fiction, we remain well aware that our strong belief in the medium will not miraculously “give life” to fiction but the very fact that we are defending our reasons for why we are moved by the fiction, should suffice well enough, that our emotions are authentic.
Neill, Alex. “Emotional Responses to Fiction: Reply to Radford.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53.1 (1995): 75. JSTOR. Web.
Neill, Alex. “Fiction and the Emotions.” North American Philosophical Publications 30.1 (1993): 1-13. JSTOR. Web.
Radford, Colin. “Fiction, Pity, Fear, and Jealousy.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53.1 (1995): 71. JSTOR. Web.