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Friday, June 13, 2008

Consciousness: The Movie

+Stranger than fiction, written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster, is a film about a character called Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) who, as he brushes his teeth one morning, starts to hear a voice-over that describes everything he does. This is the dawning of consciousness. His life is being narrated in story-form; but is he determining the story or is the story determining him? A touching love theme develops, with a young woman (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who bakes cookies and runs a small café. But Harold starts to worry, and consults a specialist in stories, a professor of literature (played by Dustin Hoffman), who works with him to find out what kind of story he is in. If it's a tragedy, he'd better watch out. Eventually, Harold discovers he really is in a story. He is a character being written about by novelist Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), and she is indeed wondering how to kill him off.

Helm and Forster seem to have been reading the philosopher Daniel Dennett (for instance his 1991 book Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown & Co) because their film offers Dennett's model of consciousness as post-hoc verbal commentary on action. But fiction is very much about consciousness, and the film also raises the question of what it might enable. Does it enable us to act more voluntarily, or to experience our lives more vividly, or to guide ourselves better in relation to love? We can compare the film's model of consciousness as voice-over with the poetic consciousness of William Shakespeare, the ironic consciousness of Jane Austen, the thoughtful consciousness of George Eliot, or the associative consciousness of Virginia Woolf. Can models of consciousness in fiction affect our experience? What kind of consciousness might we aspire to?

It is hard not to like this film. Its tone is droll, and its characters are appealing. It doesn't, perhaps, go as far as it might, but you can imagine your own implications. On a five-point scale I give it three-and-a-half. That is to say it's a pretty good film. You can access a fuller review by clicking here.

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