Mark Demetrius takes a look at some films that have inspired to teach as well as titillate.
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18 Nov 2010 - 3:15 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 8:30 AM

Cinema has never exactly been a byword for intellectual substance. Far too many filmmakers – more perhaps now than at any point in the history of the art form – have pandered to the perceived lowest common denominator. But there have, happily, always been exceptions. A current example is the Spanish film Agora (pictured), about Hypatia, the extraordinary female philosopher, astronomer, mathematician and writer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Despite some justifiably spectacular content, Agora takes the time to explore Hypatia's groundbreaking theories and ideas. So its release is a pretty good pretext for taking a (very selective) look at the treatment of philosophical ideas in the movies.

One highly imaginative film about an actual philosopher is Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993). Based on the somewhat anguished life of the Austrian analytical linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein, it puts his emerging ideas across as digestibly as one could realistically hope from titles like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. His one-time colleague and friend, the great Bertrand Russell gets a look-in too.

Allen Ginsberg was of course a Beat poet rather than a philosopher, but he grappled relentlessly with the eternal issues, and so – in its kaleidoscopic way – does the new film Howl. It's essentially a tribute to the titular poem, and an inquisition into the meaning of literature, but Howl's astonishing animated sequences express Ginsberg's concepts of transcendence and nihilism in pictorial form.

Speaking of animation, Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001) is as dazzling in its content as in its (rotoscopic) visual form. And it deserves a tick for its championing of existentialism over the hollow posturing of the post-modernists. The protagonists talk – sometimes at breakneck speed – about the nature of reality and of consciousness, and their significance (if any). But they don't waffle. Waking Life is demanding, but it's worth it.

Not all filmic philosophising is of the knitted-brow variety. Witness Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), in which Michael Palin supposedly reveals the aforesaid meaning: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” OK, so it's not up there with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, but he could be on to something.

A less holistic branch of philosophy – epistemology, the study of knowledge – gets a guernsey in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). It may be hilarious, but it's also an allegory about the primacy of individual thought, and the futility and mental laziness inherent in seeking all the answers from a single ideology or 'expert'.

Woody Allen has always oscillated between the funny and the deeply serious and contemplative. (His hero is after all Ingmar Bergman, whose The Seventh Seal (1957) is about as darkly uncompromising and implicitly cerebral as it gets – chess game with Death not the least of it.) The tragic-comic Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) balance his twin impulses sublimely and add up to a fascinating cinematic essay on moral philosophy. The very title echoes Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a sort of latter day Raskolnikov.

Cinema being by definition a visual medium, it's a difficult one in which to depict ideas or the inner life. Compound this with hardwired expectations about plot and action, and it's remarkable that a film like My Dinner with Andre (1981) – consisting almost entirely of two people talking over a restaurant meal – should be so riveting and stimulating. But it's the nature of their wide-ranging conversation which does the trick, encompassing as it does aesthetics, the mind-body divide and (ironically enough) the beauty of simplicity.

Religion and philosophy are manifestly not synonymous – many philosophers have been atheists – but they often share common ground. This is especially true of Buddhism. Siddhartha (1973), based on the Herman Hesse novel, is a deceptively languid affair, but it's also an exploration of the character and limits of empirical experience and the imparting of knowledge. Then there's the Jewish cabbalistic tradition, which is a springboard for Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998), in which a brilliant, though paranoid, man attempts to comprehend the essential patterns of existence through a combination of mathematics and chaos theory.

Philosophers regularly try to assure us – and, I suspect, themselves – of the relevance of their endeavours to real life. They're not always successful, yet some milestones of cinema have derived their power, their impact and their very accessibility from philosophical underpinnings. Take A Clockwork Orange (1971). Whether you credit Stanley Kubrick's direction or the ideas in Anthony Burgess's original novel, the story of ultra-violent Alex and the state's attempts to reform him is at heart an inquiry into the nature of ethics, free will and determinism.

And then there's political philosophy, which should, since it addresses the actual running of society, be one of the more grounded branches. We all know, though, of the tragic chasm which can stretch between theory and practice – and nowhere more so than under totalitarianism. Animal Farm, George Orwell's satirical masterpiece on that subject, was brought to the screen in 1955, and the result was very potent indeed. The film is animated, and many of the characters are talking animals. That's two degrees of separation from reality right there. But we can learn a lot about reality from the unreal. It's hypothetical, and yet it can resonate powerfully – like philosophy.