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February 24, 2013

Oscars Viewing Party Companion

Posted by: Katie Heasley

In honor of the Oscars, we present an excerpt from Irving Singer's Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film. Enjoy, and may your favorite films and actors win tonight!

The real world is continuous and consecutive, and often baffling. It is not cut up in a string of montages neatly ordered and subtly devised to communicate artificial and preconceived meanings that may nevertheless penetrate into the substance of what is neither artificial nor preconceived. The construction of this aesthetic truthfulness sustains the mythic impulse. While telling a beguiling story, films like Pygmalion marshal ocular effects carefully chosen from the real world. They thereby create mythological visions that can be deeply philosophical in their persistent probing.

Above all in Pygmalion as it was filmed, the miraculous compression of months into a few minutes of strictly integrated shots make us wonder how greatly human relations—in the feelings between men and women, for instance—may be understood in a comparable manner. Is it possible that these attachments we all endure are really disjointed, though perhaps unifiable, sentiments that only a work of art can truly explicate (as Proust believed)? In the beginning Higgins had remarked that, when the experiment was done, Eliza could be thrown back in the gutter to fend for herself as she had before. He refused to consider that she might “have feelings.” We laugh at her vehement insistence that she does, as well as his blatant arrogance in denying that she could. At the end they have both learned something about the nature of feeling. Once she has acquired an adequate voice for asserting what she feels, they each come to realize how volatile and chaotic all feelings are—in him as well as her.

Presenting this mutual discovery through the vivacity of its flickering images and startling shots, the film imparts a panoramic message about our sheer existence. It does so within a fanciful tale, as in other myths. Remaining close to our affective being in a work of make-believe, instead of didactic or prosaic philosophy, the movie fulfills the promise of the play’s subtitle: “a romance in five acts.” No actual romance occurs in five acts. That is an arbitrary convention of the theater. By invoking the supervening modes of representation that cinematic art affords, the movie Pygmalion acquires an augmented purchase upon the erotic realities that Shaw wished to depict and also transcend. What, then, does it tell us about those realities, and how do its insights comport with the rest of Shavian teaching? 

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