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It might seem like an easy question. What do you see when you watch a movie?

But the question is deceptively difficult.

Even philosophers of film have not settled on one theory to describe the mental relation between the viewer and the characters on screen.

Does the viewer “see” (transparently see something, such as: I saw a mouse under the bed) or “imagine seeing” characters in a movie (I imagine that I am seeing Indiana Jones in order to remain entertained)?

Or are both of these choices inaccurate descriptions?

But if this is true, then our reaction to the lives of fictional characters should surprise us.

Why do we cry when a fictional person dies, for instance? Why do we flinch when characters are shot? After all, these are not people that we know or have met at any point in our lives.

These are nontrivial questions that have yet to be answered satisfactorily, despite many attempts by philosophers of film and others.

Perhaps we could put it this way. When writing stories, authors pretend to assert propositions about abstract objects, i.e. fictional characters.

Some philosophers consider the propositions asserted by the authors to be “true” propositions.

I, on the other hand, have referred to these propositions as “deception in good faith.”

We are both referring to the same phenomenon.

When acting in a film, actors enact this same set of propositions, as if they were true. Or, to put it another way, they perform the deception in good faith.

The viewer witnesses a performance that consists of this deception in good faith, in two ways:

We understand that these past assertions were recorded on film as they were performed. We also understand that many performances have been cut and chopped together for the purpose of forming a narrative.

As viewers, we witness the product of these past efforts.

Unlike in a play, we know that a film performance took place at some point in the past. Like photos of dead relatives, movies capture something real that happened in the past.

Plays, on the other hand, necessarily show life — but they don’t capture it.

Again, these performances occurred in the past. No one is engaged in making those propositions in the same moment that we witness them — unlike in the theater.

A play is one iteration of a set of imagined propositions — carried out in real time with people that are alive.

Once it is performed, that iteration is finished forever. Of course, there can be as many iterations as there are actors and directors who are willing to re-state them again and again.

Now the performance of the propositions is not determined by the actors in each moment of the performance, but by the editor of multiple performances.

The editor, the director, whoever “imagines” the narrative — has ultimate control over what is seen and what is not seen by the viewer.

This is why movies are so much more like real life than plays.

Philosophers make a big deal out of the fact that we cannot make true statements about fictional characters in the same way that we can about real people.

But maybe this mode of thinking misses the forest for the trees.

After all, philosophers do not claim to do the work of critics.

We “receive” the assertions which, by their very nature, are true in the sense that the author pretends to assert that they are true. Note that this is not equivalent to simply asserting that they are true.

Scott Soames in his book Beyond Rigidity, explains how sentences can meaningfully name objects that do no exist in reality. This explanation is important because it explains how film storytelling, even when entirely fictional, contains truth.

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Information that is carried in the narrative has semantic content, assertions, implications, and hopes all rolled into one “package”. That package is the final product that is the film itself.

After the narrative assertions have been uttered, the receiver (the audience) acquires an impression or understanding of that “package” of information.

It is an error, in other words, to equate a large set of possible meaning with an infinite set of possible meaning.

To assume, a priori, the nonexistence or relative unimportance of author intention (as some literary critics have done) is to willfully blind oneself to at least one useful clue to meaning that is at our disposal.

In fact, if we are to understand film narratives as types of assertive utterances, then the role of the speaker should be emphasized, not diminished.

A character like Sherlock Holmes can be “referred to” in two contexts, writes Soames: in the context of the story, and in real-life.

“Consider”, he says: “‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really exist.’”

This proposition, says Soames, has many different meanings that vary depending on how the speaker is using the name “Sherlock Holmes”.

In the real world, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist. This can be stated in three ways:

Real person or character? (Image from bakerstreet.fandom.com)
  1. There is no person in real life who has the properties that the character Sherlock Holmes has in the stories.
  2. The character Sherlock Holmes that appears in the stories does not refer to a real person.
  3. There is no one who both is the character Sherlock Holmes that appears in the stories and has the properties that he is portrayed to have there.

Soames continues by explaining the function of the author of Sherlock Holmes; that is, his relation to meaning-making:

“Conan Doyle was engaging in a kind of pretense; he was, in effect, pretending to assert the propositions that make up his stories.”

This idea of “pretending to assert” is the key to understanding an author’s complex mediated relation vis a vis a reader or viewer.

Do we need to think of movies as something that could occur — to willfully push our knowledge of reality out of our heads — in order to be entertained?

Some philosophers have theorized that viewers willfully engage in make-believe because they want to be entertained. That because it is in our best interest to remain engaged, we play along.

But this theory does not accurately describe the nature of the viewer’s agency.

Given that it is difficult — if not impossible — to forget something that we already know (that the movie is not “real”), we must engage in a different sort of mind trick.

If we are engaged in the story, the special effects aren’t too obvious, and we like the characters, we are more willing to imagine the author’s assertions.

Film-viewing can be an extremely passive experience, but it can also be an active one. Whether or not it is an active experience depends on our evaluation of the author’s initial imagined assertions.

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.

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