Siskel, Ebert and Socrates | A Critique of Cinematic Imitation

So many contemporary filmmakers set out to honestly reflect the human condition in their stories, yet most of them instead reflect the fabricated spirit of humankind that has been portrayed in prior successful films. Mainstream filmmakers have developed a formula for capturing the human experience and, because of its lucrative prosperity, an immeasurable number of movies have subsequently embraced it as the bedrock for storytelling.

We often recognize that the feelings conveyed in this archetypical movie feel familiar, but they are familiar not of what it is like to be human. They are reminiscent of what it is like to be human in a movie. Clearly there is confusion here between consistency of style and an accurate representation of life. Of course, we need not assert that there is a singular, “objective” method for representing humankind. Instead there are universal, common modes of being that ought to be recognized in filmmaking. So long as the filmmaker seeks to manifest their work in these realities. This frequent tendency to make a movie that feels like a movie, which is to say, to imitate an imitation, is precisely what the philosopher Socrates (as translated by Plato) condemned in the Republic.

Socrates’ Critique

Plato’s foremost priority in the Republic was to unpack the Socratic conception of the ideal state. Specifically, Socrates appeared to believe that the success of any given art depended upon its relation to the moral expectations of the state, and to the “goodness” of god. Moreover, because the well-being of the society was nested in the hands of the state’s guardians, he particularly did not want the guardians to imitate any further walks of life: “No one man can imitate many things as well as he would imitate a single one.” In addition, Socrates famously repudiated Homer- an influential voice indeed, for his failure to accurately represent life and the “goodness” of god.

Socrates -
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787) Source


Despite his reluctance towards many of the creative works that surfaced in his time, Socrates recognized the enormous power of art and its ability to manipulate the viewer’s understanding of truth. While the specific premises of Socrates’ distaste for imitation are unimportant to a survey of contemporary filmmaking, (particularly because most of them are incompatible with modern culture) the notion of both truths and non-truths filtering through imitation prevails as a salient lesson for cinematic critique.

Filmmakers’ Responsibilities

Before Socrates’ disdain for imitation can be further mapped onto filmmaking, we ought to remind ourselves that filmmakers need not tell the truth all the time. They do not owe anyone their service of truth telling. In fact, filmmakers do not have an obligation to tell the truth in the first place. However, when a filmmaker blatantly builds upon reality’s overall understanding of human emotion and interaction in order to perpetuate an organized version of it, they ought to strive for accuracy if they intend on creating a positive viewing experience. Of course, however, unlike Socrates’ assertions in the Republic, a failure to do so is not catastrophic to the maintenance of society. But in the very least, this all too common shortcoming in cinema can completely undermine the intent and potential success of a film.

Upon watching movies that try to represent a slice of “reality,” many of us naturally find ourselves enthralled with both the relatable narrative and the captivating characters that navigate throughout it. That is, until one line, one bad performance, one something that simply feels “off” emerges as the coup de grâce to our momentary suspension of disbelief. This is because, in that moment, we realize that this film is no longer a representation of life. It immediately becomes recognized as a reflection of constructed life. This disinformation is an unfortunate circumstance that Socrates explicitly refuted in Plato’s text: “Deception, or being deceived or uninformed about the highest realities in the highest part of themselves, which is the soul, and in that part of them to have and to hold the lie, is what mankind least like; that, I say, is what they utterly detest.”

American Beauty

While director Sam Mendes’ American Beauty is a critically acclaimed contribution to the cinematic scope, it is not unsullied nor spared from the previously stated reaction. Specifically, Socrates would give the following line from American Beauty two thumbs down: “Sometimes… there’s so much beauty in the world… I feel like I can’t take it and my heart is just going to cave in.” This line, coupled with its inauthentic, self-aware delivery is regularly critiqued for being painfully trite.

This is because movies that intend to seem “real” are only effective if they completely seduce us into their fiction. We need to forget the film is wholly fictitious and temporarily view it as an extension of reality itself. For their fiction, as Socrates would assert, bears power for communication of truth- and often in the case of cinema, metaphorical truth. Although metaphorical, interpretive truths may not be personally appreciated by Socrates, his formula for recognizing conspicuous imitation is still applicable.

Taxi Driver

While a film like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver incorporates a type of life that most of us find no relation to, the mode of being and internal conflicts of the protagonist exist as compelling, relatable feelings of a universally troubled mind. Moreover, the film, unlike American Beauty, seems to reliably convey dialogue that feels natural through authentic performances. For these reasons, Taxi Driver can be described as an entirely successful, metaphorical, first-person character study- despite the surface level, unorthodox events that the protagonist encounters. In short, Scorsese succeeded at developing his piece through the Socratic form because “the real artist,” in the words of Socrates, “knew what he was imitating, and is interested in realities and not in imitations.”

Both American Beauty and Taxi Driver set out to be predicated on a “realistic” sense of being, but the latter seems to be more appropriately aligned with reality, while the former often slips into an imitation of the cinematic formula. Even though the premises for the Socratic evaluation of imitation may differ from this contemporary usage, its overall sentiment remains relevant and informative.

American Beauty and Taxi Driver are but two small examples in the breath of filmmaking. Yet, the described framework for critique can be mapped onto mainstream cinema in its entirety. As movie watchers, we have an instinctual ability to discern that which imitates our world from that which imitates an imitation of our world. We need look no further than to Plato’s Republic to understand why this operative difference should continue to be contemplated: “Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful.”

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