Monday, May 02, 2005

Politics and the Movies: A Bleg

And so, on to the summer. (Assuming I survive the usual finals week grading chaos, that is.) Second summer term, starting in July, I'm going to be teaching a political theory course on politics and film; specifically, I want to look at certain movies which have advanced or contributed to political arguments and ideas, and use those films (and whatever writings and reviews I can dig up on them) as a springboard to discuss the arguments and ideas which they communicate or assume. In short, this isn't going to be a "the politics of film"-type of class. I'm not interested in forcing a bunch of political science students to acquaint themselves with film and cultural criticism so as to be able to interrogate what movies do (as worthy a subject as that is); rather, I'm looking to make use of what any number of movies have said about this or that political or social subject. (Is it just an excuse to watch movies in class during the summer and thus escape lecturing? Or is it an honest attempt to teach students how to respond intellectually to the art form they are most often exposed to anyway? Why, a little bit of both, of course.)

The primary question, of course, is what films to watch? We probably won't watch more than eight, because I want ample class time to remain for discussing various readings which I will assign both before and after we watch any given film. But I can't start collecting those readings until I'm sure what films to include. Ideally I'd like the class to be able to watch a couple of films in a row that bring up, in a significant way, a single theme or cluster of themes and would be able to serve more or less as antipodes to our discussion. Perhaps that won't be possible, but that's what I'm aiming for at the moment. So I'm looking for recommendations. Remember, what I'm searching for here are movies with some provocative political content or which lend themselves to conflicting political interpretations, not films that are, in themselves, political works (i.e., no Fahrenheit 9/11, no Triumph of the Will), or movies that are entirely about political events (i.e., no All the President's Men). And simply to make obtaining and viewing these movies easier, and to increase the likelihood that there are some good theoretical writing out there discussing them, I'd like to stick with major, English-language releases. So far the films I'm seriously thinking about including are Dirty Harry and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (addressing violence and the social contract); and Thelma & Louise and In the Company of Men (addressing gender and power), though I could probably be talked out of those. Other films I'd really like to include, but I'm uncertain about how to best frame them, are Meet John Doe, Gattaca, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Any suggestions or criticisms would be welcome.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lars von Trier's Dogville   is a wonderfully didactic. The point of the film is that, given the opportunity, people will take full advantage of others. Attempts at redeeming them through enlightened instruction are arrogant and will not yield much fruit. But the kind of compassion that excuses evil action by blaming circumstances is also disrespectful.

The last scene is especially compelling, as it pits an ethic based on compassion and optimism about the human condition against what I take to be a particularly harsh interpretation of Kantianism.  

Posted by Victor M. Muniz-Fraticelli

Victor said...

Lars von Trier's Dogville is wonderfully didactic. The point of the film is that, given the opportunity, people will take full advantage of others. Attempts at redeeming them through enlightened instruction are arrogant and will not yield much fruit. But the kind of compassion that excuses evil action by blaming circumstances is also disrespectful.

The last scene is especially compelling, as it pits an ethic based on compassion and optimism about the human condition against what I take to be a particularly harsh interpretation of Kantianism.

Anonymous said...

How about Spies Like Us? 

Posted by Mr. Poon

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's too much "entirely about a political event", and it turns out to be not that easy to get, but "Judgment at Nuremberg" is excellent, full of very interesting moral complexity, especially considering how soon after WWII it was made. I also got a kick out of seeing a very young William Shatner, though maybe undergrads now won't. It would be timely for discussions of responsibility for complicty with evil (torture and the like) as well as for discussion of war crimes.  

Posted by Matt

Anthony Rickey said...

Maybe I'm just interjecting my favorite film for the heck of it, but Miller's Crossing  might go well as a kind of "realist" counterpoint to Dirty Harry  and Liberty Valance. My favorite part of that movie is when Reagan tells Leo (a mob boss) that he only runs this town "because people think you run it. When they stop thinking it, you stop running it." 

Posted by A. Rickey

Anonymous said...

Well, my only claim to fame is that I appear in Bread and Roses, which was Ken Loach's first Hollywwod movie. It is the fictionalised story of the Justice for Janitors campaign in the late 90's in LA. It is, frankly, very close to reality in the political part -- you'd be giving the students a real sense of what the politics of an organising campaign is like. You might also get the SIEU Justice for Janitors Si Se Puede video, which is a highly dramatic version of the 1990 campaign (I'm in that video, part of which gets shown in the movie, hence my odd appearance), the story of a massively successful campaign. Frankly, though I like Loach, I found the fictional part of Bread and Roses overly melodramatic and rather disturbing -- can't say why because that'll give it away. 

Posted by harry

Anonymous said...

I'd be seriously tempted to screen Strictly Ballroom  and assign Honig's commentary on it along with book 2, chapter 7 from Rousseau's Social Contract. I imangine you've read Honig's book Democracy and the Foreigner, Russell, but if you haven't you're in for a treat. She also has excellent commentary on Shane and The Wizard of Oz and the ongoing process of foreign-founding.

I'm planning to use Sayles' Lone Star in my American POlitical Thought class this summer; he hits on so many themes central to the American experience (the problem of the twin phenomenons of white guilt and white entitlement, the challenge of holding communities together despite racial tension, confronting political myths and the politicization of history, etc.) 

Posted by djw

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I TA'd for a course on modern American political history that made extensive use of movies.

As I recall, we watched Tin Men as a discussion of the building of the regulatory state (literally - there are congressional hearings going on while carpenters are building the scaffolding around the proceedings.)

But, this is a movie made about past political debates, not a movie that popularized political ideas.

_Dave_, a thoroughly mediocre movie, did address the general dissatisfaction with politics as usual, and would pair up nicely with something like Dionne's _Why Americans Hate Politics._

_Rebel Without a Cause_ was itself a blow in the culture wars, arguing that failing parents and not Hollywood productions were to blame for the crisis of teenage delinquincy in the 1950s. You might want to do something with Jim Gilbert's _Cycle of Outrage_.

_The China Syndrome_ is similarly a political manifesto that helped crystallize a political moment.

You could do something with _Rambo_ and _MASH_. I have not watched the first, and despise the second, but nothing says that only good movies are politically effective movies.

Final thought, _Wall Street_ and whatever that sports movie was that had "Show me the Money". Perhaps add "9 to 5" and make it a trifecta.


 

Posted by Ted K

Anonymous said...

The _Big Lebowski_ has serious political undertones, including the those dealing with the contemporary cultural dichotomy between those who supported and opposed the Vietnam War. This film would also pair well with _Why Americans Hate Politics_, mentioned above.

 

Posted by Atticus Finch

Anonymous said...

I had a very similar idea in the fall and nearly did it as an independent study course (but my student wanted to study Southern politics instead... equally rewarding, but she probably would have preferred movies to V.O. Key in retrospect).

I probably would approach it more broadly and without the explicit tie to political theory--but certainly the depictions  of politics in film are very interesting to look at. I planned to include depictions from TV as well... everything from Yes, Minister to NewsRadio to even sci-fi (my original thought was to use an episode of Babylon 5 with its "UN in space" aspects, but there's some really powerful political stuff in the new Battlestar Galactica). 

Posted by Chris Lawrence

Anonymous said...

"All the King's Men" based on the novel of the same title by Robert Penn Warren. I would think "Deadwood" would work pretty well, unfortunately it's a bit on the long side.  

Posted by a

Anonymous said...

Also, "Seven Days in May" by John Frankenheimer. It is sort of explicitly political, though it deals with the relations of the executive to things like the military, which is rare in american cinema. 

Posted by a

Anonymous said...

Seconds on "All the King's Men" and "Meet John Doe," because they are two I remember from a similar college class a hundred years ago (more or less).

Plus a vote for "The Grapes of Wrath." 

Posted by cc

Anonymous said...

The obvious choice is 1984. I'm partial to the 1984 version, Richard Burton's last film. I've also had great success using the following (not all at the same time):
Breaker Morant
Paths of Glory
A Man for All Seasons
High Noon
Julius Caesar (Brando version)
Henry V (Branagh version)
Plus: any episode of "The Prisoner," esp. "Free for All" or "Dance of the Dead."
Plus: the classic Star Trek episodes "Errand of Mercy" and "Patterns of Force."
Geeky bonus: The Day the Earth Stood Still 

Posted by Aeon J. Skoble

Anonymous said...

Kramer vs. Kramer would be another good one to put on your list.

Also the movie Contact. (The clash between science and religion, politics and research, etc.) 

Posted by red

Anonymous said...

I strongly recommend "Life of Brian" for this exercise. I can go on about why, if necessary; meanwhile, I'll say that the discussions in a philosophy class I took years ago about this movie were extremely good on exactly the counts you're discussing.

As for Sayles' movies, I'd throw in "Matewan," which is more politically complex than "Lone Star," though the latter is probably a slightly better movie qua movie. It gets to some of the union issues. And, hey, while we're at it, "Brother from Another Planet" is also extremely good, as is "City of Hope." Actually, the last one is probably the best for your purposes. 

Posted by emma goldman

Anonymous said...

What about the Godfather movies, particularly part II that deals in part with the rise of Don Corlioni? You could introduce the idea of government as a protection racket a la Hobbes. Other gangster movies might make a similar point even better, but I can't think of any off hand.

Also, my wife just took a law in literature class in which Roshamon was assigned viewing. To our shame, we watched the dubbed version, but the view of justice and uncertainty was interesting. 

Posted by catfish

Anonymous said...

To Kill a Mockingbird, about the limits of the judicial process, difficulty of securing minority rights, and so forth.

The Manchurian Candidate, perhaps. Spartacus, maybe?  

Posted by Kaimi

Anonymous said...

Wag the Dog
Manchurian Candidate
Unforgiven

And, if they can stand foreign films, Kurosawa's Ikuru.

 

Posted by clark

Anonymous said...

High Noon and its rebuttal, Rio Bravo. 

Posted by John Mansfield

Anonymous said...

Triumph of the Will is the Nazi Germany propaganda film, right?

Gattaca would be a brilliant choice; with good discussion revolving around privacy, cloning, genetic manipulation, discrimination, etc. Not to mention free will vs. genetic determinism.

The first Matrix movie has alot to offer.

What about the movie about the Atomic Bomb (Can't remember name...with the guy riding the bomb like a cowboy). Or is that too overly political?



Not to get one blogernaclite riled up; but...Star Trek episodes (New Generation series at least) seem to have alot of political issues discussed. You asked for movies though...
 

Posted by lyle stamps

Anonymous said...

Lyle is thinking of "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." And, yes, that's an excellent choice, particularly if it's paired with the (serious) book on which it's based, IIRC, "Failsafe." I second "Wag the Dog," too, and "Unforgiven" or (even better, IMHO) "A Perfect World." What I'd do, were I teaching this class (and o how I wish I were), is choose movies that don't necessarily solve all problems or give easy answers. Hell, Sayles' "Sunshine State" works on that count, too. 

Posted by emma goldman

Anonymous said...

Unforgiven is a great idea; you can take that in any number of different directions.

I second Aeon's suggestion of a Prisoner episode, in particular, "Free For All." I've screened this in intro political theory classes regularly, and I've had excellent papers on it, putting the episode in conversation with theorists and diverse as Locke, Marx, Rousseau, Nietzsche. 

Posted by djw

Anonymous said...

I would argue that Thelma and Louise is as upfront political as F9/11, although it is fiction. There certainly is no ambiguity about the politics. But if that is what you are looking for, then you might consider movies of questionable quality (or downright bad) that influenced debate. That would make the ultimate cheese-whiz film of all time, Billyjack, a candidate.  

Posted by Brad

Anonymous said...

I would argue that Thelma and Louise is as upfront political as F9/11, although it is fiction. There certainly is no ambiguity about the politics. But if that is what you are looking for, then you might consider movies of questionable quality (or downright bad) that influenced debate. That would make the ultimate cheese-whiz film of all time, Billyjack, a candidate.  

Posted by Brad

Anonymous said...

As others have mentioned, The China Syndrome. Because the 3-Mile Island incident occurred mere weeks (2, perhaps?) after its opening, the movie was a smash. I think that for more than a generation, a vast majority of Americans have reflexively agreed with this comment from imdb.com: "nuclear power can NEVER be made safe because people can NEVER be perfect. "

Triumph of the Will paired with Shindler's List or another Holocaust movie. The Sorrow and the Pity is too long. Triumph is phenomonally compelling -- it certainly should provoke discussion around where art and propaganda diverge. 

Posted by Edmundo

Anonymous said...

Looking back at your original intent there is an ambiguity. There are certain films that are made to conciously intervene or shape a debate in that group I would put:

the nuclear trifecta of Failsafe, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Beach.

or the later daily double Silkwood and China Syndrome.

My absolute first choice would be for The Best Years of Our Lives. It is the key statement of American post-war aspriations. Myrna Loy is fantastic. And it features the only actor to ever win two oscars for the same role. His name is Harold Russell and I'll make you watch the movie to find out why he got two Oscars. The Spencer Tracy vehicle State of the Union is also quite good for getting at certain post-war predicaments. Of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington is good too if you are going the straight politcal genre.

But there is also the zietgiest movie: Rambo, which is polticially silly but gets at an increasingly larger social truth "Vietnam vets, were screwed, we could have won the war, etc." even though such "truths" may not be true at all.

Finally there are the films that aren't political that are put to political purposes. Star Wars comes to mind with both SDI and Evil Empire references.

The Matrix is a film that tries to be all three and isn't anything. I would find it hard to take it seriously. Blade Runner (director's cut) would work better if you are looking for a "the future is gonna suck" film.

I like the suggestion of Rebel without a Cause paired with Cycles of Outrage. A bit obvious but there ain't nothing wrong with that.

Chinatown might be a more complex choice here to get at the feelings of deception and betrayal of the 70s although Network seems more a blatant choice (and the dilemmas it raises remain vitally important).

 

Posted by David Salmanson

Anonymous said...

Triumph of the Will is, indeed, astounding. There is also a rvietting documentary about the life of Leni Riefenstahl; she denies any desire to have produced a propaganda film, and it is stark after seeing Triumph. 

Posted by harry

Anonymous said...

You could throw in A Clockwork Orange, while you're at it--pair it with Cuckoo's Nest, perhaps, or Rebel w/o a Cause? Or w/ Blade Runner. (A local movie reviewer has concluded, apropos of Blade Runner and its spawn, that, in the future, the plumbing will suck, which explains why everything's always wet.) A Boy & His Dog  would make an interesting addition to Blade Runner and/or Orange and/or the nuclear movies. It's funny and sly, IIRC. 

Posted by emma goldman

Anonymous said...

As far as gender/power/sexual harrasment, I think Mamet's Oleanna could provoke classroom discussion. It's stagey, though, which may be a turn-off. 

Posted by laconic

Anonymous said...

Walter Hill's 'The Warriors' might be good as a way of launching a discussion about the State of Nature, as it a) is basically the story of what happens in the aftermath of a failed attempt to agree to a social contract b) has a nice line in showing how even in the State of Nature explicitly normative conventions are required and c) is really good. 

Posted by Rob

Anonymous said...

Russell,

I hope I'm not too late to recommend one of my favorites (Finding Forrester). Maybe it's just because the movie is laced with Miles Davis' music or maybe it's because I have desire to be a writer (I'd better hurry because I'm 51 years old) but I can never watch this movie too many times. A reclusive writer and a young black teenager find each other in unexpected places and together they make beautiful music. 

Posted by Lamonte

Anonymous said...

How about Spiderman? With great power comes great repsonsibility. Could be an interesting examination of the responsibility we have to use the our resources/talents to help our fellow man. How do we balance our own wants/desires with our social responsibilty? Are we obligated to help our fellow man just because we can even it means fundamentally changing our lives in a way that we do not desire?

Lots of good suggestions here, but many are fairly obscure. I would make sure I include a good mix of movies the students will be familiar with. I know were I a student and I had never heard of any of the films, I would question the extent to which the movies I am actually likely to watch on my own can be examined from the perspective of political theory. On the other hand I would include some obscure gems to broaden their horizons. 

Posted by Brent T

Daniel Nexon said...

Hero (2002)  is potentially very useful for any discussion concerning Machiavelli and political ethics. What is the responsibility of rulers to behave ethically? That sort of thing. If you're willing to move on the English-language requirement, there are a wealth of Japanese and Chinese films that would work well.

Sling Blade is surprisingly good for discussions of ethics and morality.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan has all sorts of interesting content in terms of the state of nature, the noble savage, and so forth.

I had excellent results from using The Matrix as a way of discussing Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Showing the Star Trek episode Darmok in the context of discussions about encountering "The Other" was less successful, but I think it could work in the right context. If you're willing to do Star Trek episodes, and want to do more recent ones, there are three Deep Space Nine episodes that have great potential: Rocks and Shoals, In the Pale Moonlight, and Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges - particularly the last two, all raise really pertinent questions about reason of state and ethics in the context of warfare. The problem with Star Trek, or any other serialized show, is, of course, that the costs of entry for undegreaduates unfamiliar with the series can be quite high.

 

Posted by Dan Nexon

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention Harold and Maude (also cheesy, and you get the bonus discussion of Cat Stevens! 

Posted by Brad

Anonymous said...

I am no doubt way too late for this conversation, but if you are looking for movies about the politics of the market, I would suggest, in addition (or in place of) Wallstreet:

Other People's Money (one of my favorites; you simultaneously love and despise Larry the Liquidator)
Tucker (entrepreneur as hero)
Rising Sun (a great bit about trade and xenophobia) 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...

I screened two movies in a political theory course that went over quite well:

1. "L'Enfant Sauvage" (Wild Child) by Trufaut - great for questions like what is Enlightenment? and how do these ideas relate to subjectivity and what it means to be human? Really good to mix with some Foucault readings.

2. "Secret Ballot" which is an Iranian film that demonstrates some of the problems/absurdities of liberal democracy in certain geographical and cultural locales. It brings up interesting questions about religion and gender in relation to electoral politics. A must see!