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Steven Spielberg and Philosophy

Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Book

Edited by Dean A. Kowalski
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Steven Spielberg and Philosophy
    Book Description:

    Has any film director had a greater impact on popular culture than Steven Spielberg? Whether filming Holocaust heroes and villains, soldiers, dinosaurs, extraterrestrials, or explorers in search of the Holy Grail, Spielberg has given filmgoers some of the most memorable characters and wrenching moments in the history of cinema. Whatever his subject -- war, cloning, slavery, terrorism, or adventure -- all of Spielberg's films have one aspect in common: a unique view of the moral fabric of humanity. Dean A. Kowalski's Steven Spielberg and Philosophy is like a remarkable conversation after a night at the movie theater, offering new insights and unexpected observations about the director's most admired films. Some of the nation's most respected philosophers investigate Spielberg's art, asking fundamental questions about the nature of humanity, cinema, and Spielberg's expression of his chosen themes. Applying various philosophical principles to the movies, the book explores such topics as the moral demands of parenthood in War of the Worlds; the ultimate unknowability of the "other" in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Schindler's List; the relationship between nature and morality in Jurassic Park; the notion of consciousness in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence; issues of war theory and ethics in Munich; and the foundation of human rights in Amistad. Impressive in scope, this volume illustrates the philosophical tenets of a wide variety of thinkers from Plato to Aquinas, Locke, and Levinas. Contributors introduce readers to philosophy while simultaneously providing deeper insight into Spielberg's approach to filmmaking. The essays consider Spielberg's movies using key philosophical cornerstones: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, axiology, aesthetics, and political philosophy, among others. At the same time, Steven Spielberg and Philosophy is accessible to those new to philosophy, using the philosophical platform to ponder larger issues embedded in film and asking fundamental questions about the nature of cinema and how meanings are negotiated. The authors contend that movies do not present philosophy -- rather philosophy is something viewers do while watching and thinking about films. Using Spielberg's films as a platform for discussing these concepts, the authors contemplate questions that genuinely surprise the reader, offering penetrating insights that will be welcomed by film critics, philosophers, and fans alike.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7324-5
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    Dean A. Kowalski

    No film director has had more impact on popular culture than Steven Spielberg. This volume acknowledges that fact. In its pages, you will find thirty years of Spielberg’s directorial efforts explored and assessed through the lens of philosophy. What you will also find (surprisingly, perhaps) is that philosophy is not so much something that you “have” as something that you “do.” Within each essay, the contributing authors discuss philosophical issues—“doing” philosophy—in metaphysics (the study of ultimate reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics (the study of right living), axiology (the study of value, of which ethics is one...

  5. Part I: Philosophy, the Filmmaker, and the Human Condition

    • The “Big-Little” Film and Philosophy: Two Takes on Spielbergian Innocence
      (pp. 7-37)
      Gary Arms and Thomas Riley

      Film—at least good film—can be assessed in a myriad of ways. In this essay we attempt to help the reader better understand and appreciate Steven Spielberg’s choices as a filmmaker. Part I conveys pertinent literary and psychological insights, and part II offers relevant philosophical assessments. Through this combination, we intend to offer the reader an enriched conception of what Spielberg’s movies have in common and how one goes about mining their surprising philosophical depths.

      Steven Spielberg’s favorite kind of film (the modern world’s favorite, too) is the melodrama, especially that variety of melodrama known as the “action film.”...

    • The Recovery of Childhood and the Search for the Absent Father
      (pp. 38-49)
      Michel Le Gall and Charles Taliaferro

      Spielberg’s early filmsDuel(1971; made for ABC’sMovie of the Weekseries),Sugarland Express(1974), andJaws(1975) are the work of a driven young man taken with the power of the camera and its ability to create a sense of energy, obsession, and pending doom. His subsequent movies, however, advance a more sustained, subtle meditation on the responsibilities of fatherhood and the recovery of childhood. Many of Spielberg’s later films could be mined for insights into the relationship between fathers and sons, but we intend to focus onE.T.(1982),Hook(1991), and theIndiana Jonesmovies (1981,...

    • Levinasian Ethics of Alterity: The Face of the Other in Spielberg’s Cinematic Language
      (pp. 50-68)
      John W. Wright

      All too often, the cinematic work of Steven Spielberg is viewed primarily through the lens of its commercial appeal, or through an examination of its historical accuracy, to ascertain its place in the popular culture of American film. Discussions ofJaws(1975),Jurassic Park(1993), and theIndiana Jonesfilms (1981, 1984, 1989) commonly center on their use of melodramatic tropes (overt elicitation of emotional response and use of stereotypical characters) to produce commercially successful adventures and fantasies. Explorations of his “serious” work (e.g.,The Color Purple[1985],Schindler’s List[1993],Saving Private Ryan[1998]) usually revolve around an analysis...

    • The Paradox of Fictional Belief and Its Moral Implications in Jaws
      (pp. 69-81)
      Christopher R. Trogan and Dean A. Kowalski

      A small troop of Boy Scouts frolic in the water just a few yards from shore. It is a bright, warm summer day; you hear the gulls in the distance. As you scan the horizon, appreciating the vast stillness of the ocean, you spy a white, triangular fin rising out of the water. Is it a shark? Is it bearing down on the boys? You scream, “Oh, no, not the Boy Scouts!” But no one hears you because the television does not have ears (or a central nervous system). You are watchingJaws(1975) again. No matter how many times...

    • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and the Tragic Sense of Life
      (pp. 82-94)
      Timothy Dunn

      A.I.: Artificial Intelligence(2001) is undoubtedly one of Steven Spielberg’s most philosophically ambitious films. A visual and emotional tour de force,A.I.resists easy categorization. It is considerably darker than most Spielberg films, reflecting, in part, the somewhat misanthropic influence of the late Stanley Kubrick, with whom Spielberg collaborated before Kubrick’s death in 1999. Yet it remains a distinctly humanistic work, pessimistic perhaps, but not without empathy and hope. And despite its flaws, which include some clumsy exposition and occasional sentimentality, a profound meditation on the human condition.

      My aim in this essay is to offer an interpretation...

  6. Part II: Values, Virtue, and Justice

    • What Is Wrong with Cloning a Dinosaur? Jurassic Park and Nature as a Source of Moral Authority
      (pp. 97-111)
      James H. Spence

      Jurassic Park(1993) has at its heart a familiar problem: our limited capacity to control our own technological innovations. It begins with the premise that scientists have recreated dinosaurs from ancient genetic material, and both the opening sequence, in which a newly created dinosaur gets loose and must be killed, and the second scene, which graphically depicts what a velociraptor can do to a human being, foreshadow the chaos that is about to result. The movie also presents a familiar analysis of the problem: there is an important line between the natural world and all else, and to ignore this...

    • Is Oskar Schindler a Good Man?
      (pp. 112-128)
      Roger P. Ebertz

      WithSchindler’s List(1993), Stephen Spielberg brought the name Oskar Schindler out of relative obscurity. Based on a “nonfiction novel” by Thomas Keneally, the film portrays the story of a Nazi, Schindler, who saved more than a thousand Jews from death.¹ Against a sickeningly realistic portrayal of the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Jews, the film seems to present Schindler (Liam Neeson) as a hero. But is he truly a “good man”? The film makes clear that Schindler is far from being a saint: He is unfaithful to his wife. He relishes his influence and fame. His modus operandi...

    • A Spielbergian Ethics of the Family in Saving Private Ryan and The Color Purple
      (pp. 129-149)
      Robert R. Clewis

      Steven Spielberg’s filmsSaving Private Ryan(1998) andThe Color Purple(1985) can be useful in helping us to understand and evaluate certain ethical theories, in particular the ethics of care and the ethics of the family. Although the ethics of the family typically considers such issues as parent-child relations, parental responsibility, marriage and divorce, sex, and reproduction, I do not address these issues in the usual manner here.¹ Instead, I am interested in how the films can be interpreted in light of what I call a “Spielbergian ethics of the family.”²

      The Spielbergian ethics of the family maintains that...

    • Human Rights, Human Nature, and Amistad
      (pp. 150-169)
      David Baggett and Mark W. Foreman

      Readers might recognize the sentimental refrain in the epigraph from Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love.” To celebrate the permanence of love, the song borrows an image from a grim but ultimately hopeful chapter of American history, a chapter that Steven Spielberg captured cinematically in his filmAmistad(1997).

      After making films about aliens, sharks, and close encounters that stretched both the creative potential of special effects experts and the imaginative limits of moviegoers, Spielberg, in the first film he directed for DreamWorks, depicted an actual historical case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.Amistadis the...

    • Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and “The Story of What Happens Next” in Munich
      (pp. 170-188)
      Joseph J. Foy

      In 1972, the Israeli government instituted Operation Wrath of God, a covert response to the Munich massacre in which eleven Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. In 2005, Steven Spielberg dramatized these events in his filmMunich.Using Wrath of God as an example, the movie addresses the ethics of state-sanctioned responses to acts of terrorism. It is not surprising that the film simultaneously received commendation and condemnation. For some, the film’s focus on the nature and logic of counterterrorism undermines what they felt should be the proper discourse: a moral denunciation of any and all acts of...

  7. Part III: Realism, Mind, and Metaphysics

    • Spielberg and Cinematic Realism
      (pp. 191-209)
      Keith Dromm

      Soon after the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s World War II filmSaving Private Ryan(1998), there were reports of veterans suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after watching it.¹ Referring to his own experiences in the war, one World War II veteran said of the film, “It brought it back like a flash. Like I was there.” The film’s ability to do this may be explained by another veteran’s comment: “I want to say that it’s just a war movie, but it’s too close to being realistic.”² Film scholars have echoed this opinion of the film. One scholar writes...

    • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: Artistic Indulgence or Advanced Inquiry?
      (pp. 210-226)
      V. Alan White

      Film critics tend to be clumpy in their craft. It is the rare film indeed that divides them as sharply as didA.I.: Artificial Intelligence(2001), which puts it ironically in the same category as another film with a two-part title—Stanley Kubrick’s2001: A Space Odyssey. When2001first debuted in 1968 reviews were a morass of giddy delight with the “psychedelic” visuals, bitter disappointment with an unintelligible script, and “what-the-hell-was-that?” head-scratching.¹A.I.produced much the same reaction, with critics generally pleased with its sensory cinematic elements but otherwise at war about plot, point, and philosophy.² The irony of...

    • Minority Report, Molinism, and the Viability of Precrime
      (pp. 227-247)
      Dean A. Kowalski

      Spielberg is famous—or notorious—for inserting endangered children into his screenplays even when the original novel or short story depicts only adults. Two glaring examples of this areWar of the Worlds(2005) andMinority Report(2002).¹ Spielberg’s approach to adapting these two stories, however, is far from uniform. His adaptation ofWar of the Worldskeeps H. G. Wells’s original ending, even at the risk of implausibility. The alien tripod-wielders are advanced enough to bury their weapons of mass destruction far enough into the ground so as not to be discovered for thousands of years. They carefully study...

  8. Appendix: Discussing Five Spielberg Films
    (pp. 248-266)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 267-270)
  10. Index
    (pp. 271-274)