Hitchcock and Philosophy by David Baggett and William A. Drumin [Editors]

David Sterritt

To borrow a phrase from a filmmaker friend of mine, these books are ontic antics with a vengeance.

Hitchcock and Philosophy

Publisher: Open Court
Subtitle: Dial M for Metaphysics
Author: William A. Drumin
Price: $17.95
Display Artist: David Baggett and William A. Drumin [Editors]
Length: 273
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0812696166
US publication date: 2007-03

Is philosophy fun? If you think so, then Open Court's thriving Popular Culture and Philosophy series is definitely for you. But if you don't think so, give the enterprise a wide berth. It's based on the premise that philosophy is the most uproarious pursuit in the world, and it's determined to make you agree.

Since the editors and writers pursuing this endeavor are philosophers, you might expect them to make their case via formal logic and systematic reasoning alone. But when epistemological implications of popular culture are at stake, anything goes. Accordingly, the folks at Open Court have deployed a not-so-secret weapon in defense of their cause: whimsy. Or rather, whimsy!!! In just a few years of existence, the series has produced a long list of volumes with titles like The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think that Can't Be Thunk and The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am, not to mention South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating. New entries due this year take on Quentin Tarantino, the Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd, among other topics. To borrow a phrase from a filmmaker friend of mine, these books are ontic antics with a vengeance.

Although poking fun at these titles is easy, there's nothing wrong with using pop-culture subjects as the starting point for philosophical ruminations. Indeed, a number of important thinkers have done exactly that, including Stanley Cavell of Harvard University, whose The World Viewed is a key text in the philosophy of film, and the late Gilles Deleuze, whose twin volumes on Cinema have revolutionized moving-image studies in recent years. Alongside these major achievements, Hitchcock and Philosophy is something of a foothill. But if you can handle its sporadic bursts of whimsy!!! you'll find that the essays assembled by editors David Baggett and William A. Drumin are often engaging, entertaining, and enlightening.

Its subtitle notwithstanding, Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics doesn't mention Hitch's fine 1954 thriller Dial "M" for Murder, and more to the point, it doesn't privilege metaphysics over such other branches of philosophy as ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology. An essay about North by Northwest examines the nature of personal identity; one about Strangers on a Train looks at relationships between morality and the psychopathic mind; one links Rear Window with Plato's allegory of the cave; another finds "epistemological vertigo" in Hitchcock's eponymous movie; still another illuminates Hitchcock's most famous TV episode, "Breakdown," with ideas from Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre; and so on, covering Hitchcock films ranging from Sabotage of 1936 to Marnie of 1964.

The best of these essays are extremely good. One of the most interesting comes from Noël Carroll, a first-rate scholar whose writings have brought philosophical insights to bear on a broad array of cinematic subjects. He begins "Vertigo and the Pathologies of Romantic Love" by demolishing Vertigo as a mystery tale -- masterpiece though it is, the plot is anything but plausible -- and goes on to suggest that its real value lies in its use of a "double romance," between James Stewart's protagonist and the two incarnations of Kim Novak's character, to illustrate a complex of pathologies to which romantic love is prone by its very nature. Along the way Carroll touches on Aristotelian poetics, Jungian psychology, and psychiatrist R.D. Laing's concept of mental "knots," making productive use of them all. The essay's only real weakness arrives at the end, when Carroll overstates the educational value of Hitchcock's film, and then surprisingly asserts that "philosophizing-through-the-movies is for the general public and not for the graduate seminar of the research university," where students presumably don't need the sort of instruction that Vertigo effectively provides by the terms of Carroll's own argument. Tell it to Professor Cavell, Professor Carroll.

Another strong essay is Philip Tallon's exploration of theodicy -- which attempts to reconcile the existence of a benign deity with the presence of evil in the world -- via Psycho and the gratuitous horrors it posits as endemic to human experience. "Democracy Adrift in Lifeboat," by Randall E. Auxier, examines ethical outrage as a legitimate basis for decision making, and "Ethics or Film Theory?" by Thomas E. Wartenberg argues that North by Northwest is a meditation -- far darker than the movie's rollicking tone might lead one to expect -- on film's ability to reconcile the irreconcilable, not in reality but in the deluded realm of the cinematically dazzled imagination.

These and the book's other essays are written in a style appropriate to college undergrads and smart general readers; the arguments generally strive more for clarity than for sophistication, and writers are careful not to let words like "maieutic" and "Übermensch" and even "utopia" slide by without a quick definition. Back in the whimsy!!! department, even sympathetic readers may recoil when confronted with subheadings like "I Kant Tell a Lie" or "What Nietzsche Can Teach Ya," and some attempts at cuteness badly misfire, as when Auxier's effort to decorate his discussion of "lifeboat ethics" leads him to puns that insult the book's target audience, calling them "small fry" and "intellectual shrimp"!

But don't shudder too much, because such cringe-inducing moments are the exception rather than the rule. Connoisseurs of pop-culture scholarship won't find anything in Hitchcock and Philosophy to rival the analyses of a Cavell or a Deleuze or a Slavoj Žižek, but even savvy readers will find worthwhile perspectives and, yes, a bit of good fun within its pages.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.