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The Allegory of the Cave
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Before we had drive-ins, projectors, film, or movie houses, there was the first philosopher of cinema. Born in the 4th Century BC, his name was Plato and he was one of the three most influential philosophers to ever come from the philosophy mecca of Athens, Greece.

His master, Socrates, would be credited with much of what we consider the science of investigation and deductive reasoning, as his system of research was known as the Socratic Method—a method of uncovering clues and hidden deceits that is still practiced today by detectives the world over. His student, Aristotle, is often credited with being the father of modern science, writing countless tomes on all manner of scientific investigation, and personally instructing arguably the most successful conqueror to ever live: Alexander the Great. (He may have had a short life, but his amazing military campaigns and his rigorous policy of Helenization reworked the entire face of the known world and prepared the way for Rome like a red carpet.)

So, it should come as no surprise, with a teacher like Socrates and an inheritor like Aristotle, that Plato was also a fierce intellect. Interestingly, Plato was perhaps the most cerebral of his group, as both Socrates and Aristotle focused on the fairly firmly rooted observational and physical world. Plato believed that the world we perceive as "physical" was actually a blend of "non-physical" properties. (This where the term "platonic" comes from when referring to people who are not sexually—or, to use less modern parlance, "physically"--involved with one another.)

If one were to see a mahogany table, one was actually seeing an object that reflects purified qualities: "hardness", "lustre", "opacity", "grain", etc. (Strangely enough, his concepts are perfect reflections of later technology, most notably HTML—which contains no actual pictures, but only "reflections" of pictures from another source—and 3D design--in which many of these "platonic" attributes are tabs that can be filled in with materials, reflections, and the like of your choice. ) The objects themselves were not purified but, like a crystal ball, they reflected something other than what was innately possessed within them.

While this may be a fascinating look at modern technology from nearly 2500 years ago, this is not what made Plato the first philosopher of cinema. No, for that, we must look at perhaps his most famous story: The Allegory of the Cave. (For those unfamiliar with the term, an "allegory" is a representational story, sort of like a parable or a fable.)

To paraphrase the allegory, Plato spoke of a group of people seated in front of a cave wall, chained together. They could feel the presence of those around them, but the people were shrouded in darkness. On the cavern wall before them flickered images of shadow and light. So mesmerized with these images were these residents of the cave that they were unaware that they were chained together and would live their lives believing that this play of light and shadows were the real world. However, every so often, one person would start to notice that their backs were warmer than their fronts, and this disparity would nag at them until, painfully, they turned their heads backwards and suddenly regarded a flaming bonfire. So painful is this to the eye that has never regarded bright light that they're almost immediately forced to turn back to the wall. (By this point, many of you are already starting to suspect that the Bible wasn't the only ancient book the Wachowski brothers pillaged in creating the first Matrix film. "Why do my eyes hurt?" "Because you've never used them before...")

However, except for the most self-deluded, they can no longer stare at the wall as they once did because the belief that this as reality has now been shattered. They know that there is a greater world beyond their shackles and this wall and, even if they wished to forget it, they are now incapable of living within the confines that they used to believe was normal. They have been corrupted, as it were—forced to become a seeker of the real world because they now know the world they had accepted was a lie.

(One of the brilliant engineers that is helping us with the special effects for the upcoming Depleted feature film is also an amazingly talented inventor. A couple years ago he invented a personal surround sound chair that is so cutting edge that it allows you to feel every single sound in a Blu-Ray film without being overwhelmed. One of my score composer friends who watched the Blu-Ray of the 2nd Transformers film in this engineer's private cinematic studio said that the level of sensory immersion this sonic chair creates dwarfs the best stereographic film by an order of magnitude! As such, those who've watched films in this chair can't ever go back to watching films without it and not feel strangely deprived. Unfortunately, my engineer friend is racking up a list of sworn enemies because the furniture company he sold the patent to for distribution is taking eight shades of forever to release it—thus leading all of his "corrupted" friends to curse him for letting them sit in the chair in the first place. But I digress...)

Unable to bear the flat world they've been shackled in front of, the seekers begins to turn back around to look at the fire once more, now more prepared for the brightness. At first, they believe the fire must be the real world, since it is so much more alive than anything they've ever seen. However, after their eyes grow more accustomed to the flames, they realize that there are shadows passing in front of the flames. The shadows in the flames must surely be the real world. While some seekers are willing to be mesmerized by this new phenomena, others decide that they must now get up for a closer look.

Of course, to get up and do this, the seeker must remove his or her shackles. Some give in to the belief that the shackles are too strong for them without really trying to remove them and, disgusted with their helplessness, return to their shadowplay, attempting to forget their awareness. However, those seekers who actually look down at the shackles, intent on freedom, realize that they aren't nearly as secure as they had thought. With a little experimentation they are able to free themselves and, somewhat nervously, they arise and walk toward the flames.

It's much hotter as these seekers approach and they start to skew to the side of the fire, to lessen the heat. As they do, they begin to see what the shadows actually are. Not a world unto themselves, but an army of puppets and shapes. As they get still closer, they see that these puppets and shapes are tied to poles that are being moved around by people, not unlike themselves. Some seekers are mesmerized by this concept, and stop their search. However, others, as they regard the ballet of puppets and shapes in front of the flames have a sudden epiphany, and turn to see that this dance is what creates the shadow play they once believed was the real world.

These seekers then turn back to their objective and skirt the flames to get closer to the people manipulating the puppets. As they do, they notice that people are continuously arriving and relieving others from their "animation" duties, so that none of the dances are animated by the same people for more than a few minutes. Those who are relieved pass those who are arriving to head away from the flames in the opposite direction. Curious to see where these people come from, the smaller band of seekers follow them from the cavern into the daylight world of the forest. Sheltered from bright light for so long, however, these seekers make an initial mis-assumption about the outside world when they first wander outside. They look at the ground and see the more vivid byplay of the tree's shadows and the brilliant sunlight and believe that this must be the real world. They flicker their hands in front of them and notice the new shadows they can now see on the ground below. Some remain fascinated by this, starting robust arguments about the nature of shadows with others who are also fascinated, without ever altering their gaze. However, a few seekers finally move on to the hardest thing in awareness: to look up.

Only by looking up does the seeker finally get a full understanding of the real, three-dimesional world. While the sun is too bright to look directly into, the light it casts permits the eye that grows accustomed to daylight to see a world unlike any that he could imagine.

To Plato, the enlightened seekers who now realize the reality of a greater world, should feel compelled to go back into the cave and try to entice those they once sat beside to also make the journey into reality. Some would choose to try to go and physically pull friends acquaintances away from the wall, but, for those who believe the shadowplay is reality, most would find stubborn resistance. As such, the most clever seeker would fashion his own shadow puppets and make his way back into the cave, to take his place in front of the fire—his shadowplay would hopefully encourage those who would otherwise believe the real world to be the shadowplay to look beyond its borders.

Thus he describes the heart of most filmmakers—to show others a part of life or the outside world that they might not otherwise be acquainted with and to inspire them to remove the shackles they are bound with to explore a new world. While many will ignore the tale the filmmaker tells, a few will see the message in the moving pictures and be inspired to step away from the wall.

Remember when you think about the allegory of the cave that you don't have to command thousands of eyes at a single setting with your tales, but a well told tale even to a small group of people can radically change the world—even if it's only for a couple of minutes! (Of course, for filmmakers who're still outside making shadow pictures with their fingers to amuse themselves and/or arguing with other shadow finger filmmakers, they should probably realize that, if they're going to go back in to the fire to tell a tale, the tale they tell needs to appeal to some sort of audience that is greater than themselves.)


God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

JeremyHankePicture The director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.

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