Finding Films for Courses

More and more college and university professors are using film in their courses. Makes sense. Students like film, and film can be an exceptionally stimulating way to introduce students to complex issues in the various disciplines.

My field is philosophy, with specializations in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and philosophy of religion. I use film in my courses in two ways. In some courses I use film to illustrate concepts, arguments, and the popular expression of “big ideas.” I also teach a course on faith, film and philosophy, which is all about the intersection of these three things. My primary textbook for that course is my own edited book Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen (2007). But I’m always trawling for new film connections for my courses and public lectures.

Today I read Chris Panza’s plea for suggestions for a philosophy course that he’s been planning. His question is very specific: What films from an Asian perspective would complement a course on Asian Ethics? My first thought, naturally, was to recommend a chapter in my book. Chapter 13, written by Winfried Corduan, is called “Bottled Water from the Fragrant Harbor: The Diluted Spiritual Elements of Hong Kong Films.” Win writes about specific films in this genre, and his analysis of spirituality portrayed in representative films touches on ethical issues. But Chris’s question is a special case of a more general question: How does one find films that serve the specific purposes of a course? Here are a few suggestions.

Since I know others who teach using film, I ask them about their practices and experiences. I also have a growing library of useful books:

  1. There are several books on film with material by philosophers or on philosophical topics. My own library includes the following examples: Philosophy Through Film, by Mary M. Litch, and Movies and the Meaning of Life, edited by Kimberly Blessing and Paul Tudico.
  2. St. Martin’s Griffin publishes an annual collection of essays on The Best American Movie Writing. The essays tend to be written by popular film critics and journalists of various types. Some are filmmakers. The 1999 volume was edited by Peter Bogdanovich and contains essays by Martin Scorcese, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Gore Vidal, Douglas Brinkley, Steven Spielberg, Phillip Lopate, Andrew Sarris, William Zinsser, Roger Ebert, E. L. Doctorow, and others. Titles sometimes provide clues about the potential philosophical relevance of specific essays and the films they discuss.
  3. Some books deal with a specific film or range of films from a philosophical perspective. A noteworthy example is the book Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy. Open Court and Blackwell have published popular culture book series with other titles like this one dealing with a specific film or film series.
  4. For films on religious themes with philosophical overtones, there is, for example, Catherine Barsotti and Robert Johnston’s Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith. The authors are Protestant ministers and theologians, with interests that overlap those of philosophers. Several books fall into this category.
  5. Some textbooks make use of film as a complement to the exposition of philosophical themes. Dean Kowalski has composed a textbook that is part exposition, part anthology, and part film criticism: Classic Questions and Contemporary Film: An Introduction to Philosophy. Nancy Wood makes topical film suggestions in her textbook (designed chiefly for nursing students) Perspectives on Argument.

It goes without saying that search engines will turn up valuable resources on the web. I’ve been collecting URLs for websites and blogs about film and films.

I also keep track of my own associations between philosophical themes and the films I watch. While viewing a film, I’ll often make notes in the small Moleskine notebook that I always keep handy (using my Bullet Space Pen, of course). With a little practice, I’ve even been able to make notes in the darkness of a movie theatre and find them legible later in the light of day. And I don’t mind pausing a DVD to make a note now and then.

I store my notes using a software application called Scrivener. For Mac users it’s a great improvement over word processors (like MS Word) for this sort of thing. With the application open to my film file, I can enter notes on separate “pages” under different headings that I can later arrange in any order I like. (The virtues of Scrivener deserve praise in a separate blog some other time.) In my Scrivener film file I have folders for individual films, and in each folder are individual notes of various kinds. Additions to existing notes and the creation of new notes are simple activities. Note categories include: General Impressions, Themes, Quotes/Favorite Lines, Pedagogical Ideas, etc. I’m not limited to my own observations when making notes with Scrivener. I can add anything that has turned up in my research, including informal film discussions, lecture ideas, class activities, contributions by students, recommendations by colleagues, web links, and citations from books, journals, and magazines.

Because of my book on film, people often ask, “Have you seen such-and-such a film? It’s loaded with philosophically interesting ideas.” When that happens, I encourage them to write a short piece that I can add to the website for my book: www.faith-film-philosophy.com. Now I find myself with essays to edit for eventual posting there.

Our students have fertile imaginations. They frequently come up with philosophy-film connections that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. For a paper assignment earlier this year, one student told me he wanted to write about the film Ratatouille. I asked him what kind of philosophical essay he thought he could write about this entertaining animated film. He made a compelling case that the film expressed deep ideas in the realm of taste and aesthetics. I approved, he wrote a great essay, and I learned something valuable from what he had to say.

I can’t conclude this post without inviting you to post comments with (a) your own methods of dredging up films that complement the goals of higher education (beyond the film studies department), and (2) specific suggestions for films and their philosophical content. And I want to thank Chris Panza, whom I’ve never met, for raising the question that became the subject of this post.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

6 Responses to Finding Films for Courses

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Thanks, Chris. We should trade notes and experiences. What sort of course do you teach?

    Like

  2. Chris says:

    Doug,

    I came upon your post by accident — but glad I found it. I’ll check out your book, and the chapter you’ve highlighted. It may be too late for this fall, but this is a course I’ll likely teach many times again, so I’ll check out the Hong Kong films recommended.

    Thanks again!

    Like

  3. Juan Carlos Baena says:

    I use in Ethics in University The celebration (Thomas Vinterberg), i use this because i want to my students think that many ethic positions could be hypocrisy and what could be an coherent ethical position like Christian in the movie try to live. Another films that I use are Krzysztof Kieślowski, The Decalogue, especially Eight: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. and Two: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. we discuss the problems in ethic that this films point. And in high school, ethics too, I use Mar Adentro, to discuss the problem of life and euthanasia, and pay it forward, to talk about the question if ethics and the subject could change the world or ethics are merely conservation of the society. This is the films that i use and i searching for more films for mi classes. This year i going to teach ethics, social studies and contemporary history in high school.

    Like

  4. douggeivett says:

    Hi Juan Carlos,

    I hope you’ll let me know of some films you’ve used in courses, and how you’ve related them to course topics.

    I’ve created a new post with links to film discussion guides by others. I’ll update this post periodically.

    -Doug

    Like

  5. Juan Carlos Baena says:

    I want to thank you for this post, I’m a teacher also and in my courses I use films to raise questions and to make to think. I find very useful the information that you give for link philosophy and films, and the method using your moleskine and scrivener is very useful, I use journaler for that kind of notes, but i feel very inspired to search for more information and films to use in my courses.

    Like

  6. Mike Austin says:

    In my introductory ethics courses, I have the students watch Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and then write a paper relating themes from the film to ethical egoism and virtue ethics.
    The University Press of Kentucky’s Philosophy of Popular Culture series might be a useful resource, as several of the books deal with specific directors and their films, e.g. The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, and The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. There are others in the series that deal with science fiction film, neo-noir, and television.

    Like

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