Film and Process Philosophy: Movies as Lures for Creative Transformation

As we begin preparing for the 22nd annual Common Good International Film Festival, I figure a word on the relationship between process philosophy and cinema is in order. Can films really “celebrate the wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead,” as our tagline proclaims? Process thinkers respond with a resounding “YES!”—and also Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” may provide some helpful pointers for understanding why great films are able to be so impactful and transformative.

What Makes Cinema Unique?

Film is a unique artform as it exists in time as well as space, a feature it shares with music and theater. As a result, development and transformation are essential features of films. As we watch a movie, we experience shifting moods, maturation of characters, and cycles of tension and release within the unfolding of the narrative. Though a movie may also be considered as a singular, cohesive, and whole work of art, each individual scene and each particular character contribute something unique and essential to the progression of the story.

This means that the viewer of the film goes on journeys of transformation with the characters. Rather than having a privileged position seemingly outside of time and space, we the viewers are constantly alongside the characters with each new development, each shift in narrative, each realization and inner transformation.

This closeness provides an insider’s perspective to the experience of various characters and allows us to get a real sense of what it would be like to go through similar challenges and explore similar questions. In some sense the art of film involves presenting viewers with an array of standpoints for empathy and insight, evoking new perspectives and spurring visceral realizations.

A Whiteheadian Perspective

In the language of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, these various standpoints give us unique prehensions of actualities and the relationships between them, and these prehensions in turn become incorporated within our own being in our own process of becoming and development.

Films aren’t merely storehouses of factual information presented in video format. Many films are purely fictional, yet often such stories are able to present truths that are felt to be deeply real. The prehensions we get from films are open-ended, and irreducible to a simple binary of true or false. Indeed, Whitehead thinks that this type of analytical judgment is a special and limited subset of the much broader and more fundamental category of feeling.

And these feelings can be extremely powerful. The visceral experiences provided from a great movie may inspire transformations—from apathy to engagement, from anger to empathy, from disregard to gratitude, from ignorance to insight. In this way films and their individual artistic components—narrative, acting, cinematography, sound design—all come together as lures for the viewer; invitations to open to novel relationships and new possibilities not previously considered.

Film reel stock photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Cinema, Creative Transformation, and the Common Good

So what does this have to do with the “common good?” Well, to start, the lures of cinema have the power to inspire an ethical transformation and renew commitments to particular aims. In our era, films which explore topics of race or otherwise present experiences and struggles of various marginalized peoples provide a much needed bridge to the “lived experiences” of such peoples. Being able to empathize with these experiences through artful exploration in films allows for a deeply felt connection which can provide the basis for real solidarity in social, political, and economic life.

Likewise ecological cinema is able to give a voice to those creatures who otherwise do not have access to communication in language. In powerful films of this genre, the trees, the bears, the fish, the algae—indeed, even entire ecosystems, watersheds, and the biosphere—enter into the diverse tapestry of feelings which constitute our being according to process thinkers.

In Whitehead’s famous line, “the many become one, and are increased by one” (Process and Reality, 21), and in engaging deeply with great films we are able to take in a multiplicity of perspectives, feelings, insights, and convictions and integrate these into our being as engaged human agents. Through this process, we come away transformed, with something added to our internal resources, something we can draw on to promote the common good in the midst of our interconnected lives.

Jared Morningstar is a writer and educator with academic interests in philosophy of religion, Islamic studies, comparative religion, metamodern spirituality, and interfaith dialogue whose work in these areas seeks to offer robust responses to issues of inter-religious conflict, contemporary nihilism, and the “meaning crisis” among other things. Jared works for the Center for Process Studies and the Cobb Institute where he supports these organizations in promoting a process-relational worldview. He holds BAs in Religion and Scandinavian Studies from Gustavus Adolphus College, where he graduated in the spring of 2018.

Want to keep thinking about film and process philosophy? Check out this article on Open Horizons by Jay McDaniel and ​Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat: Spiritual Literacy through Films.