Doubt (Film): A Discussion Guide


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Doubt (USA, 2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep put in great performances in the new film Doubt, based on a play of the same title written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Here are some discussion questions for the film. (These are based on an assignment I’ve developed for my course Faith, Film and Philosophy.)

  1. Why is Doubt a suitable title for this film? There may be several reasons.
  2. This film is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Have you read the play? Have you seen the play performed? If you’ve read or seen the play, what is your evaluation of the film as an adaptation?
  3. What is the opening scene of the film? Having seen the whole film, what makes this a fitting start?
  4. Where does Father Flynn get his ideas for his sermons? What is the theme of his first sermon? His second sermon? His farewell sermon? What is the source of each of these sermons?
  5. Sister James asks Father Flynn if the sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular? He replies with a question, “What do you think?” Neither question is answered directly. So, what do you think?
  6. doubt-hoffmanWhat do you think of Father Flynn’s description of gossip and his method of illustrating this vice? Is it effective? Does it give you greater insight into the nature of this common but malicious practice? Have you ever been the victim of gossip? Did it have an unfair effect on your reputation? How did you respond? Did you do something about it? What should a person do when someone with influence has spread rumors about him or her to others?
  7. What does Sister Aloysius think Father Flynn has done wrong? Does she have a specific allegation of wrongdoing? What is it? If Sister Aloysius candidly agrees that she has no evidence and cannot prove her allegations against Father Flynn, why is she so certain that he has done something wrong? Is it true that she has no evidence? Are there moments when you suspect that Sister Aloysius is right to suspect Father Flynn? If so, when, during the film, do you feel this way?
  8. Sister Aloysius walks with Mrs. Miller in the cold weather toward the place where Mrs. Miller works as a cleaning lady. What do we learn about Mrs. Miller’s son, James, from their conversation? What effect does this have on the Sister’s suspicions about Father Flynn?
  9. Immediately following the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, there’s a gust of wind that vehemently lifts and swirls the fall leaves around the Sister. There is something unnatural about this. Perhaps it is symbolic. Can you relate this occurrence to any other features of the film that explain it significance?
  10. While coaching the boys in basketball, Father Flynn notices that some of the boys have dirty fingernails. He stresses the importance of having clean nails and shows them his own, saying, “I like mine a little long.” What’s significant about this moment in the film? Recall that Sister Aloysius later orders Father Flynn to cut his nails. What does this business about Father Flynn’s nails have to do with the themes of the film?
  11. Father Flynn thinks things should be a little more relaxed and friendly at the school. You might suspect that his theological views are also more lax and progressive. Is this accurate? Are there indications that Father Flynn’s theological beliefs are traditional or more progressive (i.e., liberal)?
  12. Ultimately, Father Flynn leaves the parish to become pastor of another congregation. Why does he leave? Does his departure mean that he is guilty of wrongdoing? Sister Aloysius remarks that his resignation is proof of his guilt. Do you think she might be right? Suppose Father Flynn has done nothing wrong in his relationship with the boy named James. And suppose he’s done nothing wrong with other boys at other parishes.
  13. How does Sister Aloysius justify her lie about speaking with a nun about Father Flynn’s behavior at his previous parish? Could a lie of this sort ever be justified for a person in her position? Why hasn’t Sister Aloysius made the phone call she claims she has made?
  14. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, especially one of a depreciatory kind.” Consider the role of innuendo in this film. The accusations of Sister Aloysius are indirect and yet pointed and insistent. Father Flynn’s response is often diffident and cautious. Sister James is coy. Why are the themes of the film handled in this way, rather than more directly?
  15. How does the film end? Are you surprised by the confession made by Sister Aloysius? Is this a satisfying ending? Is there any sense in which Sister Aloysius, stern as she is, is a sympathetic character? Explain.
  16. What does this film say about doubt? What else is this film about? What lessons does this film have for the viewer?
  17. Are there people you know who would enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would enjoy it? Are there people you know who would not enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would not enjoy it?
  18. doubt-streepList other films you’ve seen starring Meryl Streep in a lead role. Compare Streep’s performance in Doubt with her performance in these other films. On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate her performance in Doubt in comparison with her performance in other films? Alternatively, rank her performance in this and other films by placing them in order, starting with the best and working down the scale.
  19. Do the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman that you did for Streep in the previous question.

For the highly-touted play from Amazon, click here.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

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Performing on a Guitar—The Milke Way


Amanda Milke imagines musical instruments in the bright colors of acrylic. Maybe I should say she re-imagines instruments in acrylic.

An artist living in Alberta, Canada, Milke specializes in painting with acrylic. Her subjects include musical instruments. That is, she paints musical instruments. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But when Amanda paints a musical instrument, the instrument is her canvas. The result isn’t just an object with paint on it, but a painting, albeit in an unconventional form.

For example, her painting “Guitar” is a guitar. But it’s also a painting. It’s a three-dimensional work of art whose dimensions are determined by an actual guitar. The guitar itself has been reconfigured. It is a painting. As a painting, it is perhaps no longer a guitar. At the very least, it is more than a guitar.

The “Guitar” may well have been a work of art in its pristine condition, when it was also, functionally, a musical instrument. But it was not a painting. It was a thing of beauty intended to produce more beauty. It began life as a visually beautiful artifact designed as a tool for making beauty with sound. The guitar, it can be said, was meant to be a canvas, but only in a metaphorical sense. The first artist in the history of this single artifact—a guitar maker in Paracho, Mexico, perhaps—never imagined his instrument as a painting. But a maker of guitars knows not what art will be performed by his work of art—or on his work.

Milke has performed a work of art on the guitar. But it isn’t music that she performs, at least not literally. Her performance is a transformance of the guitar. Maybe the music performed on a guitar can also be regarded as a transformance of the guitar. If the guitar was used to compose original great music, that makes the guitar special in a way it wasn’t before. If the guitar was played to soothe anxious hearts, its function is compounded and the guitar has “changed.” If the guitar came to be owned and used by Elvis Presley or Roy Rogers or Andre Segovia, it isn’t the guitar is used to be. These are all ways to regard the transformation of the original guitar.

Milke’s transformation is more radical. It is a representation of a guitar in a way that past musical performances on the guitar were not. The medium of representation is acrylic paint. (I’m not suggesting that a guitar could not be used to play a melody that sounds like a guitar.) Milke’s representation differs from other paintings of guitars. Her representation is enhanced by the infrastructure of the canvas. The object as canvas becomes a painting of a guitar, and not just painting on a guitar. This particular canvas, though, is guitar-ish. And that informs the effect of the painting.

Milke’s painting may be more than the representation of a guitar. It may be a representation of this guitar. There’s a trivial sense in which it has to be. But there’s a non-trivial sense in which the painting may or may not be a representation of this guitar. The guitar-as-canvas has an individual history as a guitar. Milke creates a painting of a guitar on a guitar, a particular guitar. And this particularity may be embedded in the representation of the guitar by the painting Milke calls “Guitar.” This painting may evoke feelings (through memories, for example) about the guitar as it was. It may say something about this particular guitar—how it was played, what sort of person played this guitar, the spirit of the music played, the audience for whom it was played.

If the guitar was her own, the painting may mean something different to Milke than if the guitar belonged to someone she knows and cares about. Her past experiences with the guitar as guitar may inform her present representation of it in the painting “Guitar.” This representation may further particularize the representation, narrowing it down from a range of possible representations, each of which might have meaning for her. The importance of this representation, whatever it is, may override whatever value the other representations would have had for Milke. Comparing this representation with alternative possibilities might enable a firmer grasp of the envisioned representation by the painting.

Consider “Guitar” as a public artifact, viewed by others with no experience of that particular guitar. It is meaningful to ask, “What is represented for them by this painting?” The answer lies in the experiences that are evoked. Who can say what they are or will be? It would no doubt difficult enough for one viewer to express in words the effect this painting has on him. Even the artist may not be able to express this meaning for herself in words. For her, the expression of meaning may be contained in the painting, so that the painting expresses the unutterable, evokes memories too grand for words, reconstructs experiences of the guitar and its music that cannot be repeated in their original fashion, or (and?) produces altogether new and pleasing experiences.

Milke’s imagining of the guitar—the original musical instrument—as a canvas has itself become a part of the guitar’s history. The potential for this imagining was there from the beginning. But it was an unnatural potential. Every guitar has this potential, but this potential is not always actualized. Why was such unnatural potential realized in the case of this particular guitar? Whatever the answer, it sets this guitar apart from all others.

So this particular guitar has a three-phased history. There was the guitar as musical instrument, the guitar behind the “Guitar.” There was (and still is?) the guitar as canvas, the locus of re-creation. And there is now the “Guitar,” a painting.

***

It may not seem so, but what I’ve said about Milke’s “Guitar” reflects a personal response to the painting. The abstractions I’ve expressed are the fruit of my engagement with this work of art. But they are barely “existential.” They say little about my own experiential contact with the object. They do not answer the question, “What resonance does this painting have for me?”

I could leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be very daring.

It has to be said that my experience of the painting is limited. It is mediated by a digital foto of the painting. The foto is of the painting hanging on a wall. It is part of a room. Being present in that room and beholding the painting would no doubt inform my experience of “Guitar.” So my actual experience is conditioned by imagining what that might be like.

Milke is a working artist. She depends on the patronage of others who commission paintings that bear the stamp of her imagination and creativity. So the abstraction from context by this foto may be unavoidable if not deliberate. It indicates what can be done to or for an old musical instrument “The Milke Way.” And it invites, if it pleases, viewers to consider enlisting Milke’s artistic talent to perform something on one or more of their own instruments.

Considered in this perspective, I wonder what instrument I would be willing to surrender to such aesthetic playfulness. Mind you, I have a trumpet and a guitar. Full disclosure requires that I confess to having both a banjo and a harmonica, as well. The harmonica, though a good one, I could relinquish. But I cannot imagine it as a canvas. And it doesn’t have enough meaning for me to memorialize it as a work of art. I would be more inclined to mount it in a shadow box for display on a wall in my study, like a pair of 19th-century pistols.

I still entertain dreams of playing the banjo well enough to please my ear, if not the ears of others. So painting it is out of the question.

I do feel some nostalgia for my trumpet and for my guitar (which, as it happens, was crafted in Michoacan, Mexico). These, I suppose, are conditions conducive to the Milke method of memorialization. But it is also in precisely this regard that I balk. The probability that I will “play the trumpet” is incredibly low. No one in my immediate family has the slightest inclination to learn it. It has sat in its original case, unopened for who-knows-how-long under a section of my desk at home. The chrome latches and hinges on the case have rusted and the lid sports a ghastly sticker that meant nothing to me when I applied it when I was in fifth grade. I don’t even know what “Flying-O” refers to. But I had a casual friend who had a vast collection of stickers and he was willing to part with this one. Maybe I thought it would solidify an unlikely bond if I accepted his gift and displayed it with suitable prominence. I can’t remember.

Have I wandered far from describing my personal encounter with Milke’s “Guitar”? No. These are thoughts dredged up by my contemplation of the painting. The painting caused me to wonder, “Would I do that to one of my own instruments, languishing in a dark corner, but somehow deserving permanent possession and renewed appreciation? The trumpet would seem a good candidate, if acrylic would adhere.

I think I could be talked into a painting of my trumpet. But I would have to be talked into it. I like the idea of displaying it. But I wouldn’t like doing so with it in its present condition. It’s just a trumpet, after all, and everybody’s seen a trumpet. Maybe I just can’t imagine a painting that would evoke the few precious memories I have of playing it.

You see, I’m still talking about Milke’s painting “Guitar.” This is where her painting has led me.

What about my own guitar? Nothin’ doin’. I can’t believe now that I once was able to pluck out a handful of classical numbers. The presence of my guitar is the only remaining stimulus to my memory of those days.
There it is. It’s my guitar. I must have had one for a reason. Oh, yes. I took lessons. I even did a couple of recitals. Hmm. That feels like someone else’s life. Why not paint it and hang it on the wall? No way. My younger daughter plays electric guitar. Who knows? Maybe she’ll mellow and take an interest . . . .

Under what conditions, then, would I yield an instrument of my own to the aesthetic mutations we’ve been talking about?

It would have to be one I’ve owned for some time. It would have to be one I’ve played. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be meaningful. Maybe the instrument would have to carry more meaning than any of the instruments I have. Maybe I would feel silly memorializing a thing I abandoned for lack of discipline. Maybe I don’t want to memorialize my musical lassitude.

Then again, maybe I should. Maybe it would be therapeutic to have before me a brash reminder that my values were skewed. Maybe it would goad me toward greater discipline in new undertakings. After all, the banjo still beckons.

Maybe.

***

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Amanda Milke’s “Guitar” really a painting?
  2. Is “Guitar” still a guitar?
  3. Is it useful to think of the guitar painted in “Guitar” as a canvas? Can you think of another object that might be a suitable but unlikely canvas for painting? What makes a object of this kind suitable as a canvas?
  4. Which instruments are good candidates for this sort of aesthetic transformation? What are the artistic possibilities? Is there another medium besides acrylic that might be effective?
  5. Imagine yourself as the guitar maker. How would you feel if you knew that a guitar you made had been painted in this way?
  6. What kind of meaning would the painting “Guitar” have for you if was a gift to you by a casual friend? How does this compare with other kinds of art you admire or would be willing to display?
  7. If you were to display “Guitar” in your own digs, where would it hang? What would guests say about it?
  8. Do you think it’s possible for a guitar to play a melody that suggests “guitar-ness”? What would instrumental music played on a guitar about a guitar sound like? Compare this with the potentialities for saying something about a guitar by painting it.
  9. Do you have a musical instrument that you don’t play that you’d still like to keep? If so, how strong is your feeling about the instrument? Why do you wish to hold on to it? Would painting it “the Milke way” be an appealing possibility?
  10. If you were to paint an old guitar of your own, what would you want it to look like? What feelings would you wish to evoke? Would you be more likely to commission someone else, like Amanda Milke, or paint it yourself?
  11. If you have an old instrument with a rich history and nostalgic significance, imagine painting it in a way that would represent that richness. What instrument would it be and what would the painting look like?
  12. If you’ve seen the movie The Red Violin, imagine painting it so that the painting reflected the “personal history” of the violin. What do you visualize? Imagine owning a violin and compare the treatment of the “Red Violin” by its various owners throughout its history with the brief history and solitary ownership of your violin. Now suppose you were to paint them both and hang them side-by-side. How would you paint each one and how might you paint them in order to capture meaningful similarities and differences between the two violins?

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