Readers of this blog know that my recent book presents what’s essentially a Whiteheadian (and Peircian) theory of cinema. (A theory, not the theory. And when compared to something as deeply Whiteheadian in its details as, say, Donald Sherburne’s A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, mine is, at best, “inspired by Whitehead.”)

To my knowledge, it is the only such theory of cinema that’s been developed to the extent of a full-length scholarly monograph. Peirce’s ideas have been applied to film in very many ways; the same cannot be said of Whitehead.

Regular readers will also know that Whitehead is being taken seriously by numerous contemporary philosophers and cultural theorists, and that some of them — like Steven Shaviro — write a lot about film. So it’s probably just a matter of time before another Whiteheadian film treatise comes along.

That doesn’t mean that Whiteheadians don’t like films. The Whitehead Film Festival, which takes place annually at one of the hubs of Whiteheadian process thinking, the Claremont, California, based Center for Process Studies – and which begins in a couple of days – testifies to the seemingly natural link between Whitehead’s philosophy and the art of the cinema.

The festival’s mission statement informs us that the festival was formed when a group of like-minded thinkers asked themselves:

“How can we, as Whiteheadians, foster a deeper awareness of our responsibility for the common good?”

[. . .]

And one of the answers was this film festival. Films are the common language of people around the world; we share our cultures through film; we share our perceptions of what it is to be human, our trials and our transformations. Through film, the ‘strangeness’ of other cultures can turn into appreciation and understanding. And through appreciating and understanding one another, we exercise care for one another, doing what we can to seek and promote the common good.

And so we select films of artistic excellence that do this very thing. Each film speaks of human dignity, of our responsibilities to one another, of problems common to us all, and of the hope of creative transformation in our very togetherness.

Whiteheadian philosophy provides a worldview that fosters social and personal responsibility to one another and to the earth that sustains us. And so do the films we select each year. Thus, we are the Whitehead International Film Festival.

That “thus” leaves me wanting to hear more about how exactly the films highlighted at the festival do this.

The list of films awarded the Whitehead Award is intriguing, but doesn’t help much. The criteria for festival selections seem broad enough to cover a great many good films:

  1. “The film shall exhibit artistic excellence in screenplay, music, and filming technique.
  2. “The film shall promote the common good, which is defined as a society in which persons and communities care for one another’s well-being.
  3. “The film shall exhibit sensitivity to the human situation, promoting the dignity of all.
  4. “As appropriate to the film’s subject matter, the film shall foster ecological responsibility.
  5. “The film shall cultivate a realistic hope of creative transformation.”

The list is vague enough to be acceptable to most liberals (and even many conservatives), yet — unlike the world of film reviewers — is also refreshingly upfront about values beyond the aesthetic and recreational.

But what does it mean for a film to “promote the common good,” “exhibit sensitivity to the human situation,” “foster ecological responsibility,” and “cultivate” a “hope of creative transformation”?  For instance, can the common good be promoted without critiquing systems that harm the common good?  And is there a better form of critique than the honest depiction of circumstances faced by individuals and communities that are subject to systems that fail to promote the common good (etc.)?

What I’m getting at is that the promotion/fostering/cultivation of these things (the common good, ecological responsibility, creative transformation) might not be something that’s easily discernible in a single film, or that a film can do in and of itself. But effects such as these might be generated through the insights and conversations triggered and encouraged by certain films. By showing us things that make other people’s worlds tangible to us, and thereby evoking concern for situations different from ours — while demonstrating some of the connections and mutual dependencies between those worlds and ours — a film could contribute to the building of a common world that is more just and sustainable than the present one.

That’s what I think the organizers are getting at, but they seem to focus their Whiteheadian gaze at films themselves. I prefer to focus mine on the broader ecologies of film making, viewing, interpreting, and so on. Which is why my film theory is not a theory of “the ecology of films,” but one of the “ecologies of the moving image” — ecologies of image-movement, image-in-movement, and movement-in-image.

In any case, the schedule looks very interesting, so if you’re anywhere near Claremont, I recommend seeing what you can.



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