The Rittenhouse Coincidence


Here’s another one for the books. When things like this happen, I have to wonder, is there a conspiracy of coincidences?

Last night I saw the movie The Martian. I liked it, but this post is not about potatoes and slingshots (you’ll have to see the movie). It’s about what happened later, in a sequence of events leading up to tonight.

b29f467fef4559042e682c14b9ea8fffAfter the movie last night, I did some of the usual post-movie internet surfing and landed on the odd story of Tallulah Bankhead. Her best film performance, it was said, was in the under-rated Alfred Hitchcock film Lifeboat. So I read about Lifeboat. The story for the film was written by John Steinbeck. The film was released in 1944.

So tonight I thought I’d see if I can rent Lifeboat through my cable service. Turns out I can. I watched the trailer. In the brief clip viewers are meant to notice that the guy who’s appointed himself in charge is a “Mr. Rittenhouse.” One guy remarks to another, with sarcasm, that he should call Mr Rittenhouse “Rit.” Not too remarkable. So far.

As often happens, I clicked some more, looking for other classic movies. In less than a minute I came across the Randolph Scott movie Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend. This caught my attention because it features Scott and two other actors I like: James Garner (of “The Rockford Files”) and Angie Dickinson (you know, “Police Woman”).

 

So I played the two-minute trailer for Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend.

The clip doesn’t reveal much of the story line. Randolph Scott is Captain Buck Devlin, recently mustered out of the cavalry. Sgt. John Maitland (played by James Garner) appears to be his sidekick. Devlin rides out of a small town heading west, with plans to return. Mshootout-medicine-bend-hs-sizedaitland stays behind for the time being.

After Devlin leaves, Maitland is seen managing some sort of transaction with the townspeople—swapping trinkets and such for weapons and ammo, it appears. A minor character steps up to the table where this is happening. He’s familiar to Sgt. Maitland. His name? “Mr. Rittenhouse.”

What are the chances that within two minutes of each other, I’d see brief clips of two completely unrelated movies, where in both a “Mr. Rittenhouse” is addressed by another character?

Maybe I have a name, finally, for the kinds of coincidences I sometimes write about here: “The Rittenhouse Coincidence.”

“Where Is Everybody?”—Exploring the First Episode of “The Twilight Zone”—Part 2


The popular TV series The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first episode of the series. It was broadcast October 2, 1959. I’ve used it in philosophy classes to foster discussion about knowledge and justified belief.

The Twilight Zone-Where Is EverybodyI use a two-part handout with questions for guided discussion. In an earlier post, I listed the questions in Part 1. Those questions are designed to draw viewers into the story and help them recall and think about the events that transpire. In this post I list the questions used in Part 2 to facilitate reflection and discussion of themes in philosophy.

I screen the episode in class, then lead discussion around a selection of these questions. There are more questions here than can be used during a class period. So I encourage students to take some time with the rest of the questions on their own. I mix it up a little by having students get into small groups to share ideas that are prompted by two or three of the questions. Then we discuss a few of the more philosophically technical aspects of the story as a whole group. This allows me to include some lecturing. At the end I may allow time for students to write their thoughts about a wrap-up question. Students then turn in their notes, taken while viewing the story and during discussion.

You’re welcome to experiment with this exercise in your own teaching. Or you may want to view this episode of The Twilight Zone with some friends, then have a discussion around the issues raised in these questions. If you have suggestions of your own, feel free to write them in the comments box for this post. And if you do try these out in class, let us know how it goes.

Rod Serling-The Twilight Zone-image

Part II – Some Philosophical Questions

  1. At one point the main character says he has the strange feeling of being watched. Why does he think this? First, when he says this, what evidence does he have? Later it turns out that he is being watched. Does this explain why he thinks he’s being watched? And do those who are watching know what he is experiencing? Support your answers with evidence from the story.
  2. Why does the man think he’s suffering from amnesia? Is he suffering from amnesia? He thinks he might be dreaming? Is he dreaming? Explain your answers with evidence from the story.
  3. In the soda shop the man spins three bookracks. The fourth one he comes to is already spinning. What is significant about this? What is displayed on the rack? What does he make of it? Why, given how the story ends, would he have this particular experience?
  4. How does the man conclude that he’s in the US Air Force? Is he justified in believing this? Is his judgment based on memory? If so, what accounts for his remembering this? Does he have evidence? If he does have evidence, is it sufficient to justify his belief that he’s in the Air Force? Is he instead being caused somehow to believe that he’s in the Air Force? At this point in the episode, are we supposed to be convinced that he’s in the Air Force? Support your answers with evidence from the story.
  5. How does this story compare with the Brain in a Vat thought experiment? What are some key parallels? What are the most significant differences? Could this episode be used to make the same point intended by the BIV argument for skepticism? Why or why not? Does the story raise any other epistemological questions? What are they? (See below for Brain in a Vat argument.)
  6. At one point the man says, “I must be a very imaginative guy. Nobody in the whole bloody world can have a dream as complete as mine.” And his “dream” is remarkably vivid. But there are no other people in his dream. Why wouldn’t such a complete dream world include people, especially if there are signs of recent human activity all around him? How does this eventually connect with the theme of the story? Think about how this might make sense in the final scene and when the narrator says, “Up there, up there in the vastness of space, and the void that is the sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting, in the Twilight Zone”?

Brain in a Vat Argument for Skepticism

“The Brain in a Vat thought-experiment is most commonly used to illustrate global or Cartesian skepticism. You are told to imagine the possibility that at this very moment you are actually a brain hooked up to a sophisticated computer program that can perfectly simulate experiences of the outside world. Here is the skeptical argument. If you cannot now be sure that you are not a brain in a vat, then you cannot rule out the possibility that all of your beliefs about the external world are false. Or, to put it in terms of knowledge claims, we can construct the following skeptical argument. Let “P” stand for any belief or claim about the external world, say, that snow is white.

  1. If I know that P, then I know that I am not a brain in a vat
  2. I do not know that I am not a brain in a vat
  3. Thus, I do not know that P.”

– Lance P. Hickey, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/; viewed 23 September 2015)

Click here for discussion questions in Part 1.

“Where Is Everybody?”—Exploring the First Episode of “The Twilight Zone”—Part 1


The popular TV series The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first episode of the series. It was broadcast October 2, 1959. This story takes a fascinating look at themes of interest even today. I’ve used it in philosophy classes to foster discussion about knowledge and justified belief.

Rod Serling-The Twilight Zone-imageI use a two-part handout with questions for guided discussion. The questions in Part 1, reproduced in this post, draw viewers into the story and help them recall and think about the events that transpire. In a separate post I’ll list the questions used in Part 2 to facilitate reflection and discussion of themes in philosophy.

I screen the episode in class, then lead discussion around a selection of these questions. There are more questions here than can be used during a class period. So I encourage students to take some time with the rest of the questions on their own. I mix it up a little by having students get into small groups to share ideas that are prompted by two or three of the questions. Then we discuss a few of the more philosophically technical aspects of the story as a whole group. This allows me to include some lecturing. At the end I may allow time for students to write their thoughts about a wrap-up question. Students then turn in their notes, taken while viewing the story and during discussion.

You’re welcome to experiment with this exercise in your own teaching. Or you may want to view this episode of The Twilight Zone with some friends, then have a discussion around the issues raised in these questions. If you have suggestions of your own, feel free to write them in the comments box for this post. And if you do try these out in class, let us know how it goes.

Part I – Questions about Your Experience and Evaluation of this Episode

  1. The story begins with a man walking along a dusty road. The narrator says, “the journey we are about to watch could be our” What does this mean? How does this personalize the story? Notice, the narrator uses the first person plural (“we” and “our”), not the third person (“you” and “your”). Why might this matter?
  2. The man hears music playing and walks into a coffee shop. Thinking there’s someone in the back room, he calls out, “Say, I noticed there’s a town just up the road. What’s the name of it?” These are his first words in the story. Why would he ask this? Does it have anything to do with what he later begins to experience? Why would he want to know the name of the town? Does he ever learn its name? Why not? Later we find out that he can’t remember his own name. What is significant about this being a town with no name and his inability to remember his own name? (When does he realize that he can’t remember his name?)
  3. During the coffee shop scene, the man begins talking to himself. This happens when he pulls out a wad of cash and notices that it’s American money. When he then says, “I’m not sure who I am,” he’s still talking to whoever might be around. But we realize he’s actually talking to himself. This shift between direct address and self-address happens repeatedly throughout the story. For the story to work, we have to know what the man is experiencing. The episode depends on narration by the character himself, speaking aloud about what he’s experiencing. He’s reporting his thoughts and responses to what he encounters. But he transitions back and forth between talking to others and talking to himself. These transitions back and forth need to be smooth to move the story along and to keep us informed about what’s going on in the mind of this man. How effective is this device?
  4. What is significant about the following events:
  • breaking the clock in the coffee shop?
  • crashing into a mirror in the theater?
  • discovering that the “woman” in the passenger seat is a mannequin?Twilight Zone-Oakwood Telephone Booth-image
  • the man’s conversation with the mannequin when she tumbles into the street?
  • the telephone ringing?
  • getting trapped in the telephone booth?
  • the gong of the clock in the church tower?
  • the film clip scene in the movie theater?
  • the cigar still burning in the ashtray?

Is there any symbolism here? What do these events reveal about the character, once we know the real nature of the experiment? What would you add to this list?

  1. At the outset of the story, the man is relaxed and casual. When he discovers there are no people in the town he’s mystified. At times he seems to be humored by his circumstances. There’s his encounter with the mannequin, and the moment when he’s stuck in the phone booth and says, “This is an absolutely hysterical town, and I’m growing very fond of it.” In due course, however, his experience is increasingly disturbing, until he reaches the heights of desperation. What is happening to him? What is your sense of the explanation for this as things unfold? Does your understanding of his plight change at all by what is revealed at the end?
  2. How is the character delivered from his artificially manufactured experience? In his imagination he’s pressing a button labeled WALK, but in reality he seems to be pushing an actual button. What purpose is served by this button?
  3. Eventually we learn that the man’s name is Mike Ferris. And we learn the backstory. Why has Ferris been kept in an isolation booth? What was the purpose of the experiment?
  4. What did you experience as you watched this story unfold? When the man first discovered there was no one in the town, what did you think would happen next? Were you right? As the story went on, did you expect something dreadful might eventually happen to him? What did you think might happen?
  5. Describe what you were feeling as the man noticed there was a “woman” in the passenger seat of a car and he began to shout out to her? How did it make you feel when he opened the door and the mannequin tumbled out onto the street? Why would Ferris have imagined this?
  6. Movies often begin by giving viewers a reliable sense of what the story is about. This story doesn’t do that until the end, with only five minutes remaining. But the progression of events shapes our beliefs about the story and its meaning. Based on the clues provided in the story, we naturally seek to make sense of what is happening and what will happen next. How did your beliefs about these things shift as time went on? What did you think this episode was about when the man first walked into town? What did you think when he went looking for someone to find out what was going on? When he walked into the coffee shop and there was coffee brewing, but no one was around? When he ran into the jail? When the phone started ringing? When he got stuck in the phone booth? When he went into a movie theater and a film was playing, though no one was there? Why did you feel and believe the things you did? What elements of the story were the basis of your beliefs as they shifted over time?

Poll: 2012 Oscar Nominations


The 2012 Oscar Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards were announced earlier this week. Here are the nominees for Best Picture, with links to their official websites, are:

Here are two polls: (A) Which film do you think will win the award for Best Picture? and (B) which film do you think should win the award for Best Picture? You can add detail in support of your answer in the comment box for this post.

Trailer for the Movie “Shields”


A short trailer for the movie Shields, featuring my daughter Erin Geivett, has just been released on the director’s Facebook page. This is Erin’s debut in a live-action role. Hope you enjoy!

Shields, the Movie

Ranking Three Summer 2010 Action Movies


First Place: Knight and Day

Second Place: SALT

Third Place: The Expendables

Knight and Day are a romantic duo. Salt is a solo maverick. The Expendables? They’re a team . . . sorta. Neither Knight and Day nor The Expendables is serious; but Knight and Day is funny, and The Expendables isn’t. Knight and Day entertains on many levels, and has something for most audiences. The Expendables entertains on pretty much one frequency—violent action peppered with salty language.

Salt is less memorable weeks after seeing it, but engaging at the time. There are real surprises that swing this movie into the range of genuine suspense.

There is one salvageable line in The Expendables: “I’m Buddha; he’s Pest.” Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy, and he could have (should have) written and directed a better movie than this. The abiding question for audiences will be, “How old can you be and still do action figures?”

Most important prop in:

My choice of best actor for these three movies may surprise: Mickey O’Rourke, in . . . The Expendables. And it’s not because I’m a big O’Rourke fan. I’d have to confess to being more of an Angelina Jolie fan, though Cameron Diaz is pretty endearing opposite Tom Cruz. And Tom Cruz is the funniest he’s been, without stepping out of character, in Knight and Day.

Women can stay home from The Expendables, unless they really want to see what grown—and old—men look like playing the good bad guys against the odds. I will say that I’d rank The Expendables over Ghost Rider, which somehow comes to mind for comparison purposes. Go figure. The Expendables is more of a contemporary version of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. ‘Nuff said?

And Then There Were None: A Film Discussion Guide


And Then There Were None (USA, 1945), directed by René Clair, is the original film adaptation of the famed Agatha Christie novel. The novel is the best-selling mystery thriller of all time and one of the top 10 best-sellers among all books in English. The film is popular, too, on IMDb and Amazon.

Discussion Guide: Read more of this post

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