Sunday, August 18, 2013

The director as demiurge


I’ve been reading Ian Nathan’s book Alien Vault, an agreeable account of the making of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  “Making of” books and documentaries make it clear just how many hands go into putting a movie together.  The director is not the God of classical theism, creating ex nihilo.  There has to be a screenplay, which is usually written by someone other than the director, and which is in turn often based on source material -- a novel or short story, say -- written by someone other than the screenwriter.  Good actors can salvage an otherwise mediocre film, and bad actors can ruin an otherwise good one.  The music, sets, and special effects depend on the artistry of yet other people.  So, why is it “Ridley Scott’s Alien” rather than “Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s Alien”?  Why is it “Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita” rather than “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita”?  Why “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” and not “Jimmy Stewart’s Rear Window”?
 
Well, there’s a good reason.  As the “making of” literature also makes clear, no one else is nearly as crucial to the nature of the overall product as the director.  He, of course, is the one who gathers and arranges all the other elements into just the pattern we see onscreen.  To understand his role we need to look for our analogy, not in Genesis or in Part I of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, but rather in Plato’s Timaeus.  The director is not God, but he is a kind of demiurge.

A demiurge or craftsman god (with-a-lower-case-g) takes pre-existing matter and fashions it in light of the eternal Forms.  Matter by itself is without form; the Forms by themselves are abstract entities, causally inert.  The demiurge creates neither, but he does bring them together, thereby ordering the otherwise chaotic matter and bringing into concrete reality the otherwise remote and ineffectual Forms. 

A director is like that.  Screenplays and other source material are, relative to a movie, like the Forms -- pure ideas, abstracted from concrete reality and utterly unable by themselves to bring such a reality into being.  (And there is absolutely nothing in the world as causally inefficacious as an aspiring screenwriter trying to break into the business, as any one of them could tell you.) 

Like the Forms in Platonism, stories and screenplays are in one sense the source and standard of everything else, which is why the writer naturally feels a sense of injustice at the attention given to directors and actors.  But like the Forms, they simply can’t do a damn thing on their own and are only ever imperfectly grasped by anyone in the first place, which is why the director feels little compunction about altering the writer’s contribution -- since like a philosopher vis-à-vis his own ideas, a writer may not understand the nature and implications of his own story as well as others do -- and slapping his own name on the result.

A good actor, meanwhile, is like prime matter, having the potentiality to take on the “form” of any role but not actually having any such form until directed in light of the director’s vision of some story.  The raw material that goes into making up a set or special effects is obviously like this too.  Even pre-existing works of art -- such as the music used to such good effect in Kubrick’s 2001, or H. R. Giger’s bizarre designs in the case of Alien -- are, relative to film, just “matter” waiting to be arranged in some cinematically sound way or other.  And it is the director who ultimately determines how all this works out.  (Especially if he is eminent enough, though of course there is occasional interference from studio executives and the like -- lesser gods frustrating Zeus’s will, as it were.)

So, the unique association of a movie with its director is artistically justifiable.  And of course, there is another way in which the big shot director is like a demiurge, or like the deity of what Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism.”  He only thinks he’s God.

Related posts:

The metaphysics of Vertigo

The theology of Prometheus

The Avengers and classical theism

Cinematic representation

20 comments:

JScannura said...

I always like when you write about movies, comics, and the like. Thanks for the article. There's a case to be made against what you said concerning screenwriters and screen plays. Of all those involved in the process they seem to have the most amount of claim to call the movie "theirs".

Consider this:
1. Some screenplays are sold independently in book form to be read just like novels. If constructed well enough they can take on the same level of entertainment that a fiction book does.
2. Directors that are also screenwriters seem to get that much more praise if their work is good. They are considered to have done more than just pulling the pieces together as you say.
3. You can make the argument that the screenplay is the true genesis of the entire project, without which nothing else would come into existence (the actors, the director, etc.) Taxi driver would not be without Paul Schrader, but it could have easily existed without Martin Scorsese. It would have been different, but still the core would remain there.

Bilbo said...

Ed,

Ah, you offer yet another opportunity to visit the question of ID. I'm just wondering if an Aristotelian/Thomistic view could allow God to create substances which don't have the power to come together of themselves, but when brought together (by God or other agents) have the power to be living organisms.

Leon said...

I disagree with your characterization of good actors prime matter. A good actor is surely not some infinitely flexible tabula rasa subservient to the director's vision, but rather someone who can "inhabit" their character in a way that brings forth stuff latent in their own personalities.

Gene Callahan said...

Wonderful post!

Do you know Dorothy Sayers book on the trinity, relating the idea to artistic creation?

Anonymous said...

Women are also directors, so consider gender inclusive language.

Mr. Green said...

Anonymous: Women are also directors, so consider gender inclusive language.

Women are directresses. But I'm sure Ed did consider "gender-inclusive language"... and then rejected it. 'Cause he wasn't writing about parts of speech. Unless you count actors' parts that involve delivering speeches. On an unrelated note, it appears he also considered using sex-inclusive language, seeing as how that's what he did use.

Mr. Green said...

Bilbo: I'm just wondering if an Aristotelian/Thomistic view could allow God to create substances which don't have the power to come together of themselves, but when brought together (by God or other agents) have the power to be living organisms.

That's almost how it does happen: to be precise, for A-T when different substances come together, such as the matter that produces a new plant or animal, the individual substances cease to exist, and in their place is a new substance, the living organism. Technically, the non-living substances don't "become" alive, because they no longer exist. (Similarly, if hydrogen and oxygen, for example, are brought together in the right way so as to form a substantial molecule of water, the individual atoms cease to exist, and the water comes into existence as a different substance. If the water is then broken up, it ceases to exist as a substance and the individual substances of the hydrogen atom and the oxygen atom come to exist.)

Bilbo said...

Hi Mr. Green,

If I understand you, then it seems that there need be no conflict between A-T and ID.

Scott said...

@Bilbo:

"If I understand you, then it seems that there need be no conflict between A-T and ID."

There are very fundamental conflicts between A-T and ID, and you can find them discussed here and here.

In a nutshell, what Mr. Green is talking about are natural substances, which A-T carefully distinguishes from artifacts, whereas ID in effect treats the natural universe as though it consisted only of artifacts.

Bilbo said...

But ID need not treat the universe as though it consisted only of artifacts. It could treat the universe as consisting of things that have final causes, but that for some of them, such as living things, it takes a demiurge to bring the substances together in the right way so that they are living things.

Do you see an inconsistency with A-T in this view of ID?

Scott said...

@Bilbo:

"Do you see an inconsistency with A-T in this view of ID?"

I see an inconsistency with what ID's own proponents have said about ID. I therefore disagree that "ID need not treat the universe as though it consisted only of artifacts." A version of "ID" that was consistent with A-T would be redundant.

Bilbo said...

Hi Scott,

But ID proponents need not be committed to a mechanistic view of the universe. It's just part of the milieu that they have grown up in, and once properly corrected by A-T, they can abandon the mechanistic view.

As to redundancy: Not necessarily. The A-T view commits us to seeing that everything in our universe has a final causer. But does it commit us to the view that the final causes can always be realized without the aid of a demiurge? If not, then the point of IDist who has been properly corrected by A-T, is that the substances whose final cause is to be a living thing also need the aid of a demiurge to bring them together in the proper way.

Bilbo said...

er...cause, not causer.

Scott said...

@Bilbo:

"But does [A-T] commit us to the view that the final causes can always be realized without the aid of a demiurge?"

Yes.

Bilbo said...

Hi Scott,

So do you and Mr. Green disagree on this issue?

Scott said...

@Bilbo:

Not at all. Mr. Green is saying that God can create "substances which don't have the power to come together of themselves, but when brought together (by God or other agents) have the power to be living organisms." I'm denying only that He must—affirming, that is, that "final causes can [emphasis mine] always be realized without the aid of a demiurge."

Mr. Green said...

Bilbo: But ID proponents need not be committed to a mechanistic view of the universe. It's just part of the milieu that they have grown up in, and once properly corrected by A-T, they can abandon the mechanistic view.

I actually am entirely sympathetic to the fundamental idea underlying ID: namely, that some things are too unlikely to ascribe to chance. In fact, this is something we all believe, really, everyone from Ed Feser to Richard Dawkins. And I think the real point of "intelligent design" is to apply the scientific method to this notion: if we have a scientific description of how some phenomenon is likely to play out, then we can measure whether some event fits that description or whether something else enters into it. As far as that goes, I don't think anyone should have a problem with "intelligent design"; and Ed has clearly said that insofar as ID is doing actual science, of course it is compatible with A-T.

The problem comes when you capitalise it and start talking about Intelligent Design™ as a movement, or as the position of certain people.... the presentation of ID is heavily steeped in a modern (mechanistic) view of nature, which really does put it at odds with traditional metaphysics. Now the underlying idea could be taken and cleaned up and presented in a Aristotelian/Scholastic framework, and frankly I wish someone would do so; however, there simply doesn't seem to be much interest on that part of anyone who could do it.

Nor would I say that doing so is redundant: if you want to demonstrate the existence of God, ID is not a terribly good way to do it. But that's because that isn't the question to which "design" is the proper answer. It's a perfectly good question in its own right, and from a theoretical point of view, is as worthy of philosophical study as any other. (There are all sorts of interesting related questions; for example, if organisms are not literally "programmed", then what is the correct way to look at genetic information?) Meanwhile, from a purely practical point of view, it doesn't matter that the Five Ways are better arguments if Joe Shlabotnik refuses to pay attention to them. But if an ID argument can get his attention, it may be a stepping stone to something better — so it's still important to know how to present the lesser arguments properly.

Scott said...

"Joe Shlabotnik . . . "

Ah, memories.

Bilbo said...

Hi Scott and Mr. Green,

If I understand both of you, ID need not be incompatible with A-T: A-T allows for the possibility that God created substances whose final cause is to be living things, but who do not have the power to come together of themselves, but must be brought together by someone or something else.

I agree that ID is only an argument based on probabilities, and is therefore much weaker than the Five Ways. But as Mr. Green pointed out, that doesn't mean that ID doesn't have any legitimacy at all.

Thursday said...

I like to compare the director and the screenwriter of a film to the the composer and the librettist of an opera. The latter two provide the underlying structure, but it's what we see or hear that is the actual work of art. Hence the composer and director get the well deserved credit.