Connection

Lucy Bolton

Current location

Mile End, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, Greater London, England, E3 4PB, United Kingdom

Interest (School teacher)

Iris Murdoch

Research

IP: 
How did you originally get interested in Iris Murdoch?
 
LB: 
My mum read all Murdoch's novels, that she'd written by then, when she was pregnant with me. So I was brought up by someone who spoke about Murdochian characters and Murdochian novels. And then I've dipped in and out of her novels over the years; but I've always really loved The Sovereignty of Good, her three essays, and I've returned to them. And when I came to be looking for a new philosopher to think about in relation to film, because my previous book had been on Luce Irigaray, the French feminist philosopher, I thought: why has no-one thought about Murdoch and attention and vision in relation to film? So I reread The Sovereignty of Good, and went through Existentialists and Mystics, and I found 'Vision and Choice in Morality', and 'The Existentialist Hero', and I started thinking, this is gold dust for film philosophy. My way of working is to start small. So I took a film that I thought was about challenging moral vision, and I had a different understanding of the world or moral perspective after the film from before I started it. And I thought about it in conjunction with 'Vision and Choice in Morality' and it just worked brilliantly. 
 
IP: 
What film was that?
 
LB:
Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan. I wrote that up as an article which is in the journal 'Film and Philosophy', and then I developed it and I wrote in relation to a different film as well, Blue Jasmine, a Woody Allen film. And then I came up with a book proposal based on Murdochian themes, goodness, love, art, morality, women, metaphysics; and built a body of 24 or 25 films to think about in relation to those. It grew out of realising there was a connection between what I do now, and this philosophical work which I had always loved and found really contemplative and important. 
 
IP:
So how did you choose the particular films you wanted to analyse? 
 
LB: 
Oh, good question. I wanted it to be contemporary and recent because I wanted Murdoch to speak to film philosophers and film scholars now; and I thought about the themes and then I thought about films that I'd seen over the last ten years that were relevant, and then tested them out. I often find--quite happily--that as I'm watching films I think to myself, 'What's going on in this film, what am I being asked to do?' So when I came to think about films about love, for example, even quite specific examples like the mother who loves her delinquent son, or the mother trying to decide between dotty aunt and the rest of her family, I could think of films that were pertinent to that. And I wanted it to be about international cinema so I've got Turkish, German, American, British, French films that engage with those sorts of questions. So for example for the chapter on comedy and tragedy I thought about three very difficult films from the last few years: The Death of Stalin, Elle, and Manchester By the Sea, another Lonergan film which is desperately sad. I thought there were a couple of moments of levity in Manchester By the Sea, there's a lot of humour in The Death of Stalin and there's a very difficult combination of comedy and tragedy in Elle, so I was able to work that out in relation to those three films. And it does enable me to understand Murdoch more fully, by seeing--by thinking through--her philosophy in these contexts. 
 
IP: 
So you said you thought of what films you could see connections with, and 'tested them out'; were there any films you thought there might be connections with, watched them and analysed them, and didn't find there were any fruitful comparisons to be made?
 
LB:
One of the joys of it was finding that there were so many films that do work. I suppose the nearest, that would be Clouds of Sils Maria, the Olivier Assayas film with Juliette Binoche, that I thought was going to be—having just seen it once— a wonderful depiction of somebody growing and changing through attention to nature. But in fact she doesn't change enough: hardly at all in fact. So I thought through it in a different context. I thought through it in relation to Murdoch's writing about the existential hero (heroine) and the fat relentless ego and the failure to grow, and what happens to the existential hero who is untouched, who is the centre of their own world, and it worked well for that. It's called Clouds of Sils Maria, which is this amazing natural cloud formation, and at in fact at the end of the film she hasn't seen it, even though at one point it's there right behind her - 
 
IP:
[laughing]
 
LB: 
because she's too busy thinking of herself. 
 
IP:
Failure to attend is a big theme in her novels.
 
LB: 
Exactly.
 
IP: 
So, your main thing is philosophy and film - why philosophy & film?
 
LB: 
My BA is in philosophy and theology, my MA was in film studies, my PhD was in film and philosophy. And I am a lifelong cine-file I guess you'd say, with a pretty encyclopedic memory for film. I've always found them to be my most conscious reference point for thinking about the world and learning about people, thinking about people, thinking about society, thinking about nature. For me films are innately philosophically expressive.
 
IP:
What do you think are the most obvious points of connection between what you're working on in Murdoch and film, and what other people are working on in terms of Murdoch on visual art and music; or any other, maybe other totally oblique, connections you might draw with what other people are up to?
 
LB:
Work on the visual arts tends to be either on the role of painting or the visual arts in her novels; and I'm far more concerned with the role of philosophical pictures in her philosophical writing, and how they might be considered as visionary examples on screens. So it links to work about her interest in painting, her interest in sound and in silence. I don't know anybody else who's specifically working on the cinema or who's worked on her essay on the cinema from 1956 - my paper was on that today and I'm pretty sure most people hadn't read it. 
 
IP: 
[we confess we haven't read it] 
 
LB: 
It's in British Vogue from 1956. It's absolutely wonderful to a film scholar, because she's writing about film in a way that suggests she's done a film studies degree. The examples she chooses, like Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Ambersons, Brief Encounter, The Blood of a Poet, Charlie Chaplin, are so cinematically informed, but she is thinking about sound as well, and emotion and the body and consciousness. It's incredible on film form, and also film language, what film can do that no other art form can. So it is quite specific. 
 
I suppose the strongest point of connection is the idea of looking, attention, and the gaze as something that you can of practice through attending to art. And I think I would say that you can practice by attending to film, but as an art form film is more likely to actually effect change in you. 
 
IP:
Do you think film can make you a better person? 
 
LB:
Yes. That's one of the questions that I ask in my book, I say, primarily this book asks 'Can film make one a better person?' – I think Iris would want to address that, because she thinks philosophy should be concerned with that; and I think it can, through attending to the character, the character's experience, but also the breadth and depth and ramifications of that character's experience. Films don't have to tell you a story, they show you a world in which things happen. So you see a journey as well, and a state of affairs and a world-view, and you can certainly learn from that.
 
IP:
Do you think your life has been changed by films? 
 
LB: 
Yes, and is consistently - I love Hannah Marie Altorf's work on Michèle Le Dœuff's idea of the philosophical imaginary, that philosophers have basically a range of ideas, pictures, images, sort of like parables, like Plato had, that they use to illustrate or think through things. I think Murdoch definitely has that, and I think that we all definitely have our own, and she would say that as well. We have our own set of images, ideas, things that we turn to; and some of those could be filmic, I would say. 
 
So the image I have on the cover of my book is a face, a smiling face, which Murdoch says was the most incredible object for film to depict. And that face is a moment from a film, a Turkish German film by Fatih Akin, where the woman is actually dead, but she's appearing to her mother as this smiling beautifully lit face. Murdoch talks about faces as where spirit and matter are most identically fused; so what cinema is showing here is sort of spirit and non-matter, film can take it even further and show you that. 
 
IP: 
How would you say Murdoch influenced you as a thinker, as a philosopher? 
 
LB: 
Three ways. Firstly, I really admire her work ethic. As a scholar I think she was devoted to developing her thinking and inhabiting her philosophy and I identify with that. I very rarely switch off from my thinking and my work, so I feel I live my work a bit. I'm not sure her work life balance was terribly good but that's fine by me.
 
It's enabled me to reconsider a lot of what might be considered old fashioned, traditional perspectives in moral philosophy, that have been about goodness and leading a good life, that have not been picked up by the film and ethics field, where ethics is far more about relations between people, relations of looking. So addressing film to fundamental questions of goodness is something that Murdoch's really enabled me to do. 
 
Thirdly, I think she's broken down this overstated divide between continental and analytic philosophy with a really genuinely original voice. She says, 'that's what's wrong with that, that's what's wrong with that, there's a bit of okay in that, there's a lot of okay in that, so I'm thinking this.' She doesn't blindly follow anybody, and I love the way she basically works her way through the history of philosophy, moving away from any one totalising position. So intellectual bravery is something I think I get from her as well, I think she's a very honest, genuine thinker, and that means you have to be a brave thinker. 
 
IP: 
Are there any other things you want to say, anything else you want on record? 
 
LB:
I will feel that what I've been doing is worth it if, over the next couple of years hopefully, when I go to the film and philosophy conference there’ll be a Murdoch panel. I would really really love to see that happen.
 
IP: 
Good ambition.
 
LB: 
I think there's huge potential for film studies and film philosophy in the work of iris Murdoch, huge potential, and I hope that what I've tried to do in my book is just indicate how that might work, as well as ending with possibilities for future work, of which there's tons: obviously the novels; but also annotations in the library books, her annotations; she mentions cinema sometimes; correspondence; all sorts of things. And Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is a limitless resource for philosophical pictures. 
 
IP:
Thank you, very much.
 
LB:
Thank you. 

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