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.

Advertisements

Faith, Film and Philosophy—The Evolution of an Idea


A book I did with James Spiegel, Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, was released late last fall by InterVarsity Press. Today I heard from Cindy Gould, leader of a reading group called “Verbivores” (suggesting an appetite for words). Cindy asked about the origin of the book, how we decided on films to write about and how we selected contributors. Here’s the answer to that question.

Jim and I are college professors who teach philosophy and enjoy film. We decided we wanted to bring these interests together into a book. When big ideas are packaged in a compelling film, they have great potential to influence culture. We wanted to test this thesis by inviting other philosophers who like film to share their perspectives. We wanted this to be fun, so we thought about friends of ours who share this interest and asked them to participate.

We had an idea how long we wanted the book to be and decided we could manage about a dozen chapters. We ended up with fourteen. We didn’t start with a detailed structure for the book and then recruit authors to fit into that structure. Instead, we began with a list of people we knew we would enjoy working with. They also had to be people with talent for thinking about cultural trends and a gift for writing with wisdom and an engaging style. With list in hand, we approached each one with the basic idea and asked this question, “If you were to write a chapter for this book, what film or films would you want to write about, and what ideas would you like to discuss?” We picked the authors; they picked the films.

Now I have to qualify. We knew that if we were going to do a book of this kind, we had to include a chapter on The Matrix. Some people think of this film and its sequels as the most philosophical of relatively recent films. A potential reader couldn’t pick the book up expecting to find a discussion of The Matrix and be disappointed. Instantly we knew who we needed to get for this chapter. We just hoped he would agree. He did.

When we had chapter proposals from everyone, we recognized there was this remarkable range of film coverage that included the classic and the contemporary, the familiar and the intriguing, the safe and the edgy. On top of that, our hoped-for contributors had all settled on different topics and issues, resulting in a surprising balance of treatment of themes in philosophy. With chapter ideas set side-by-side, a natural structure for the book emerged. People who liked film could read this book and learn more than a smattering of philosophy—philosophy made (almost) painless.

I’m anxious to hear how the Verbivores respond to the book during their discussion on Wednesday. Maybe some of them will post their comments here.

%d bloggers like this: