Philosophy 281: Motion, Time, and Memory in the Movies / Spring 2011


Instructor Information

Instructor: Gary Zabel, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy, UMB

Office: Wheatley 5/040

Office Hours: Wed 2-4 and By Appointment


Cell Phone: 617-800-3188

Website 1:

Website 2:

Facebook site (add Gary Zabel as a friend)

Skype Name: Gary Zabel

Course Description

The past century has seen multiple revolutions in our understanding of time, associated with such thinkers as Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, Proust, Heidegger, Bergson, and Deleuze. These revolutions re-conceive time as the shifting kaleidoscopic coexistence of the fragments of an essentially timeless past (Freud, Proust); as a "nightmare that weighs on the brains of the living" that may nevertheless be brought to the point of explosion at certain privileged historical moments (Marx); as the "repetition" of a past that opens up new possibilities of individual freedom and authenticity (Kierkegaard, Heidegger); as a flow of events that is not cosmically uniform, but rather comprised of varying tempos relative to different frames of reference (Einstein); as a great circle of eternal return that may nevertheless transform what returns by liberating it from nihilism and resentment (Nietzsche); and as the flux of two fundamentally divergent streams, in one of which the present as the site of action flows unceasingly, but does not exist in the full and proper sense, and in the other of which the past piles up as a growing accumulation of that which has being, but is cut off from all possibility of acting (Bergson, Deleuze).

It is no accident that the same period that was shaken by these multiple revolutions in the understanding of time was also marked by the rise of an art form that brought time to the center of aesthetic experience. I am referring of course to motion pictures. In process of development since the Renaissance, motion pictures first became practical with the development of the chemical and mechanical processes associated with modern industry, processes unleashed in the same epoch that gave us our revolutions in the understanding of time, namely that of industrial capitalism in the core countries of Europe and the United States. (In similar fashion, Chinese film is now in its vibrant youth at the same China is undergoing its own accelerated version of an urbanizing industrial revolution.) Technologically the movies become possible only when photography discovers how to capture luminous images optically and fix them chemically in a material medium, when advances in chemistry discover translucent celluloid as one such medium, and when controlled mechanical generation of motion is able to move celluloid strips through photographic apparatuses at fixed speeds (24 frames per second is now standard), and subsequently at the same speeds through light-projection devices. For the spectator observing the finished product, the result is a moving image, first of all optical, and later capable of being paired with a variable aural image, a sound track. At each stage in this process, a certain manipulable "slack" emerges in apparatus or technique that enables the filmmaker to shape and control the moving image in such a way that the various dimensions of time can be explored.

Let's take some examples. Deviations from the 24 frames-per-second standard result either in fast or slow motion, acceleration or de-acceleration of the flow of time. More radically, the celluloid strip can be run through the projecting apparatus backwards, reversing the entropic arrow of time so that the glass fragments on the floor rise up to the top of the table and there reassemble into a whole vase. In the familiar technique of the flashback, the filmmaker reconstructs a segment of past time, breaking the linear progression that normally dominates "realist" film. But even linear progression turns out to be an artifact of the editing room since scenes are normally filmed out of sequence and then assembled into what only appears to be an original linear ordering. Such great practitioners of montage as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein built entire systems of cinematographic aesthetics around the principle that the film must be constructed from its fragments.

The motion of the camera introduces yet other dimensions of temporality into film, ranging from the dolly shot that moves slowly though purposefully through an empty room, to the tracking shot that follows a runner at his or her accelerated speed, to the elevation shot that floats languidly from the ground to the top of a building or into the sky. In this case, time in its various styles and degrees of speed and slowness seems to be generated by a mobile and disembodied perspective, by what the early Soviet director, Dziga Vertov called the “Kino Eye.” The last example demonstrates that even what often appears as a purely spatial technique has temporal significance. Consider for example the difference between shallow depth of field, which picks a single event or process out of all those occurring within the scope of vision, and full depth of field, which can bring several events or processes, sometimes with radically different tempos, within a common frame; the speeding train moves at a blur on the elevated tracks in the background, while the young woman seated on a bridge below in the foreground lazily stirs the water of the lake with her bare feet. These examples are not exhaustive by any means. The point I want to make is simply that the motion picture is unrivaled in its ability to probe the complex fabric of temporality, and for this reason is uniquely suited to exploring, in its own aesthetic idiom, the modern revolutions in our understanding of time.

Among the relative handful of philosophers who have written about film, there is one above all who has grasped this point, making it the focus of his efforts in a major work. The philosopher is Gilles Deleuze, and the work is his two-volume Cinema, first published in 1982. Though Deleuze draws from the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce in attempting to develop what he calls a “typology” of film images, his work is far more deeply inspired by the work of the early twentieth century French thinker, Henri Berson. In the first half of his career, Deleuze wrote a series of brilliant expositions of the thinking of other philosophers, including Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, and Spinoza, among which was a treatise titled Bergsonism. A thin book of only around 130 pages, Bergsonism was single- handedly responsible for the revival of interest in Henri Bergsonʼs work in contemporary French philosophy after an eclipse of nearly a century.

What interests Deleuze about Bergson is Bergsonʼs determined attempted to focus on what he calls “duration,” namely the character of human experience (but also of material reality) as a flowing and cumulative development. Bergson is convinced that both ancient philosophy and modern science have distorted the experience of time by “spatializing” it, in other words, by first breaking it down into a series of static moments, snapshots, or instants, and then by attempting to reconstruct the flow of time by treating these elements as the phases of a uniformly advancing progression. But, according to Bergson, once we have broken time down into a set of stationary elements, we will never be able to recapture its concrete flowing character by stringing these elements together along some mechanically moving mechanism. In his book, Creative Evolution, Bergson calls such a distorted, “spatialized” treatment of time the “cinematographic illusion.” What Bergson is referring to of course is the fact that our experience of motion pictures is the result of the uniform mechanical movement of stationary frames, or snapshots, embedded in the celluloid strip. In his discussion, it is as though the distorting approach to time of both ancient philosophy and modern science had adopted the perspective of cinema before it had been invented.

We can see from this that Bergsonʼs conception of cinema is by no means a positive one. But, according to Deleuze, this conception is a mistake. When we read Cinema 1, we will see that Deleuze argues that our experience of cinema is not that of a series of mechanically advancing snapshots, as Bergson suggests, but rather that of “an intermediary image” in motion, an image caught up in duration, or flux, like the images of ordinary perceptual experience. If he was so fundamentally mistaken, why then concern ourselves with Bergson at all? According to Deleuze, for two reasons. The first is that Bergson’s conception of time as concrete duration identifies the main theme of cinema, whether he realizes it or not. The second reason, according to Deleuze, is that Bergsonʼs treatment of time in his early book, Matter and Memory (the topic of  our first weekʼs reading), provides us with the tools for developing a powerful philosophy of cinema.

In this course we will investigate the treatment of time in motion pictures by means of a close reading of works by Bergson and Deleuze, as well as by viewing and discussing thirteen films relevant to those works.: Memento (Nolan), Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov),  Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein), Nosferatu (Murnau), Exterminating Angel (Bunel), Seven Samurai (Kurosawa), Vertigo (Hitchcock), L’aaventura (Resnais) , Citizen Kane (Welles), Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais),  Mirror (Tarkovsky),  Alphaville (Godard) and Mullholland Drive (Lynch).


1. Each week students will read the assigned book chapters and view the assigned films.  the Course Session modules. The readings can be accessed through links on this website, and the films can be accessed either as streaming videos or as mailed DVDs through Netflix. Therefore you will need to get a Netflix account for the duration of the course. The first month is free. After that, the charge is $8.95 per month. You can of course cancel at the end of the term. There are no book costs for the course. Though four months of a Netflix account will cost you $27 dollars, this is the only cost for the course beyond tuition and fees. (If you have access to a very good video store or public library, it may be possible to access the films without Netflix.)

2, Each week students will participate in written discussions of the course material in an electronic discussion group hosted by our Black Board site. Each student will write at least three paragraphs on a topic to be assigned each week, as well as respond in writing to the postings of at least two other students.

3. Each week students will listen to or read a lecture by the instructor on the readings and relevant films, archived as podcasts or short papers on our Black Board site.

4. Students will write a midterm essay (approximately 6 double-spaced pages) based on the readings.

5. Students will produce a final paper (15 to 20 double-spaced pages) addressing questions in the philosophy of cinema based on the course readings, lectures, films, and discussions.


The course requirements have the following weight in determining the final grade for the course:

Midterm exam = 30%

Participation in group discussions = 20%

Final paper = 50%