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Essay

Mimesis and Movies: Plato, Kurusawa & Kiarostami

Karan Tekwani discusses Rashomon and Certified Copy in light of Platonic Philosophy

“…what questions this will to truth has already laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions!”

“What in us really wants ‘truth’?”

“… we want truth: why not rather untruth?”

Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche begins his book, Beyond Good and Evil, with a series of questions challenging the “will to truth”. “Will to truth” can be defined as the human tendency to attach overriding importance to the quest of true knowledge. Perplexed by this obsession with truth, Nietzsche takes up in his later works a fierce critique at the “unconditional will to truth”.

Beyond Good and Evil opens with two important questions challenging the centrality and value of truth. The first question, “What in us really wants ‘truth’?”, concerns the psychological ground of human commitment to truth. The second question —  “Why not rather untruth?”–  is regarding the moral value man ascribes to truth over untruth. 

Plato banished all the poets from his ideal society.

The locus of this dramatic gesture can be found in the dialogues of Book X of Republic, where Plato has Socrates conclude, “we can admit no poetry in our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men” (471). The reasons poets cannot be admitted into the ideal society, “are both epistemological and moral, but whatever the reason they have a word in common: mimesis” (Melberg, 10). Poetry, argues Socrates delivers untrue knowledge, because it offers a second hand imitation of an already second hand imitation. When a carpenter makes his platonic bed, he takes a step away from the ideal form. When a painter paints this bed, he moves even further away. “This, then” settles Socrates, “will apply to the maker of tragedies also, if he is an imitator (mimetes) and is in his nature three removes from the king and the truth, as are all other imitator” (464). This theory of mimesis, that discredits the value of poetry, works at two ends. At the first end we have the assumption that a central “ideal truth” exists and at the final end we presume that an imitation is always of less value.

Nietzsche’s questions, that destabilize the authority and worth of truth, are in direct contrast with Plato’s assumptions, establishing the centrality and value of truth. The questions that Nietzsche asked challenge Plato’s assumptions, giving rise to a new set of possibilities. What if we do not want truth? What if there is no truth? What if untruth is the truth? What if untruth is as valuable as truth? The paper proposes to explore all of these possibilities.

This essay evaluates the fundamental assumptions of Plato’s theory of mimesis, in light of Nietzsche’s questions concerning the “will to truth”. It undertakes this examination through a discussion of two movies:  Rashomon (1950) and Certified Copy (2010). The use of films to critique the assumptions is in line with Plato’s use of the word mimesis “with a primarily visual significance; mimesis suggests image, a visual image related to imitation, re-presentation” (Melberg, 10). And concludes by discussing the influence that Plato’s assumptions have had throughout centuries since their conception.

The theory of mimesis rests on the idea that there exists an ideal form, that poetry cannot capture. This ideal truth is conceived by the God and every attempt of the artist, be it carpenter or painter or poet, takes him a step away from this true reality. This centrality of truth has had such a captive hold over human mind, that in the past few decades various search projects have been undertaken to ascertain the true form of numerous artistic imitations.

The British historian Geoffery Ashe in his The Discovery of King Arthur claims to have identified the “original Arthur” in the fifth-century King Riothamus. In his Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry, John G. Bellamy argues that the prototype of Robin Hood can be traced to thirteenth-century Robert Hode, a valet to Edward II. Abert Boime, professor of art history, in his paper presented at American Astronomical Society, stated that the night sky in Van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” corresponds to the astronomical facts of June 19, 1889. But what if all these search endeavours are futile? What if neither Riothamus nor Robert Hode nor the astronomical facts are the actual true forms? What if all these, supposedly, true forms are subjective versions of truth themselves? What if there is no central truth to hold authority? Building upon this lack of centrality of truth, Nietzsche in the section four of Beyond Good and Evil writes:

“…we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements are the most indispensable for us that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live — that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life.”

Nietzsche argues that most untrue forms occupy the positions of central truth. The evidence and argument mechanism, employed to verify facts, does not apply to these untrue truths because these untruths become the “conditions of life”. There is nothing like centrality of ideal truth, every real truth is just an unquestioned untruth. Therefore, Nietzsche questions, “What in us really wants ‘truth’?”

This absence of central truth is best exemplified by Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon. Rashomon literalizes the possibility of multiple untruths contesting to be the central true version.

Brimming with action, Rashomon is Kurosawa’s exploration into the idea that there is no absolute truth. The movie is about a rape and murder, and five different versions of the same incident. Influenced by their subjective perspectives, a priest, a bandit, a wife, a samurai (through a medium) and a woodcutter (who initially offers false story, the correct version), narrate their individual experiences. In absence of any significant clues, the audience cannot tell whose version is true. Kurosawa does not want the audience to decide who is telling the truth, the point is: truth is not absolute, it is relative. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines relativism as

“… the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them.”

Each of the characters in the movie espouse truth relative to their ethical, moral, cultural and social backgrounds. In the bandit’s version of the events, he is presented as a skilful fighter. The wife makes sure that her narrative showcases her as a devoted loyal wife. In the samurai’s story, told through a medium, the samurai is portrayed as a heroic man who kills himself when he disgraced by his wife. Though initially in his account the woodcutter does not confess, he later informs that he picked up the lady’s dagger and sold it in the market. Through this relativity of truth Kurosawa highlights that there is no central truth. The fundamental idea of Plato’s theory of mimesis, that there is an ideal true form, collapses when viewed in light of Rashomon’s belief in relativity of truth.

Another idea fundamental to Plato’s concept of mimesis is that only originals are valuable. The conclusion of the theory of mimesis is that since imitative poetry is thrice removed from reality, it is not valuable. According to Plato, any art form divorced from the stamp of truth is not worthy of appreciation. This idea that truth and value are sacrosanct has become prominent in past few decades when means of replication are easily available.

In 2010, the National Gallery of London staged an exhibition entitled Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries to showcase the various high-tech devices capable of attributing a work of art as authentic. But what if original work is missing? What if the value of fake is more than the original form? What if the fake displaces the original? Developing this argument regarding the value of fake, Nietzsche writes in section two of Beyond Good and Evil:

“For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to deception, selfishness and lust.”

Nietzsche’s challenges the supremacy sanctioned to truth, arguing that untruth may be equally valuable. The fake can exhibit quality deserving to an original. If untruth is as worthy as truth, “Why not rather untruth?”. This argument rings a scene from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, when Elle takes James to see a painting in a museum, that had long been considered authentic but was eventually revealed as a copy. Similar to this painting, Kiarostami’s movie blurs the difference between the original and fake.

Certified Copy, released in the same year as the National Gallery exhibition on fakes, unmasks the absurdity of the dichotomy of original and copy. Certified Copy deals with a mysterious relationship between a British writer James Miller (played by William Shimell) and a French art gallery owner Elle (Elle is French for she, played by Juliette Binoche).

James is on a visit in Italy to promote his non-fiction art history book, also called, Certified Copy and Elle invites him to spend a day with her. Elle drives James to Tuscany museum to see a painting called “original copy” that is related to the subject of his book. The museum guide explains, “This is the famous Muse Polimnia, the portrait of a woman, whose dramatic story is told on the cartel next to the painting. For years, this painting was believed to be Roman Art. It wasn’t until the 20th century about 50 years ago, that it was revealed to be the work of a skilled forger from Naples. However, the museum decided to conserve this fabulous portrait as an original. It is actually as beautiful as the original.”

However, contrary to Elle’s expectations, James does not seem captivated. On being asked what did he earn James responds, “They say how much they adore the picture. But they say it is a copy and the original is somewhere around”. James is upset that the painting’s status as a copy, denies acknowledgement of its artistic merit. After this museum visit, James and Elle go for a coffee to café, where the film’s key moment in terms of narrative twist takes place. While James steps outside to attend a call a call, the café owner an old lady, addresses James and Elle as married and Elle does nothing to correct her. Elle keeps up the pretence as they talk of marriage, work and fidelity.

Eventually, a subtle but a meaningful gesture occurs, the old lady steps in front of the seated Elle, blocking her from audience’s view, bends over and whispers something into her ear. After this moment, the distinctions between the real and fake are blurred in the movie. When James returns, both James and Elle act as if they have been married for fifteen years.

It becomes nearly impossible to decipher if the couple are strangers pretending to be married or spouses role-playing strangers. Just as the fake painting had been considered original, the audience realises that what they had believed to be reality was pretence. And now seems to be pretence can be the true reality. Unlike Plato, who works with neat distinctions between the original and the fake to ascribe value to the original, Kiarostami merges the difference between the real and fake to illustrate that untruth can be equally valuable as truth.

Plato’s idea of mimesis marked a turning point in the history of Greek ideas. The assumptions made by Plato: the centrality of truth and the value of truth, were unprecedented in Western thought. Jean Pierre Vernant notes, “Prior to Plato Greek culture regarded images as an actualization or ‘presentification’ of what they represent. Archaic statues of Gods, for example, were understood not simply as illusionistic depictions of a deity but as an actual revelation of a divinity that otherwise be invisible” (Mathew).

This is similar to what James said in his lecture in the movie, “The copy leads us to a better understanding of the original” (Certified Copy). The ancient Greek art, before Plato, was not regarded as derogatory imitation but a means to achieve the immaterial. However, Plato’s idea of mimesis brings a fundamental shift in this trend, by introducing the central authority of truth. Art now becomes a periphery to this centre; whose value is always inferior to the true form.

The true form becomes the standard against which the merit of art is judged. In spite of these changes, the universal appeal of mimesis cannot be denied. Plato’s idea has been discussed, adopted and even challenged, both directly and indirectly, by writers, film directors and critics, throughout the centuries. Its universality is evident in the case studies of this paper: an Iranian director in his French movie of 2010, uses a concept discussed by a Japanese director in his 1950 movie. Plato’s concept of mimesis with its assumptions, has percolated centuries, nationalities and even art forms.

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Acknowledgement

The idea of this paper came from the classroom discussions with Mr. Naveen Panniker in his Literary Criticism classes on Plato’s Book X.

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Karan Tekwani is a postgraduate student at Delhi University. He is passionate about world cinema and wishes to pursue cinema studies in future. 

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