Thursday, May 19, 2005

Politics and the Movies: An Update

Thanks to everyone for the many great comments following my post on my plans to build a political theory class around movies this summer. Some excellent, as well as some truly off-the-wall, suggestions. Also, it was gratifying to see so many people willing to use Star Trek episodes to teach political ideas. But then, this is the internet, after all. Let me tell you where my thinking currently stands:

The class is going to open with a discussion of movies and politics, and specifically some of great examples of films inspiring, reflecting, or shaping political discourse in America; if possible, I'm going to show some clips from The Best Years of Our Lives (regarding America's postwar aspirations and supposed ideological "consensus") and Network (dealing, obviously, with the breakdown of such). (Thanks to David Salmanson for suggesting this idea.) Then I'm going to shift into talking about how we want to use films as texts to discuss basic political concepts, after which I'll introduce five general themes that we'll address through written material and films over the following few weeks (the class is only a month long). Right now the primary themes are going to be 1) democracy and populism; 2) violence and the law; 3) technology and freedom; 4) feminism and roles; and 5) conscience and consequentialism. That last is, obviously, a theme by no means particularly suited to a political theory class, but it allowed me to work in two of my favorite films, plus round out last few days of class. With all of these films I'll assign essays dealing with the films themselves, as well as some general political theory material.

In the first section, I plan on showing All the King's Men and Meet John Doe (though the latter will be difficult to get a copy of); the readings will focus on criticisms of democracy, both ancient and modern. Hopefully I'll be able to lead the class towards a discussion of present-day populist claims, as manifest both on the left and the right, maybe working in some stuff about California politics, the role of referendums and initiatives in a representative government, and (assuming it's still going on in July) the argument over filibusters in the U.S. Senate. The second section will include showings of Dirty Harry and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence; of course, the readings there will be from Hobbes and other social contract thinkers, and include some references to contemporary failed states and arguments over sovereignty and international law. The third section is one I'm still puzzling over. I definitely will show Gattaca (it's a great, stylish movie), but I don't know what to pair it with. I'm going to assign readings on genetic engineering and some broader stuff on technology in general, but I can't for the life of me think of any movies that present the "struggle with progress" in anything other than triumph-of-the-human-spirit terms. Simply put, Hollywood doesn't make movies which complicate our dependence upon technology; it's essentially invisible until it starts to actually shape or constrain our dealings with each other, at which point it becomes an enemy to be defeated. (In short, Gattaca, while only about a 100 times better and more subtle, does not take an essentially different approach to the problem of technology than the mostly awful I, Robot.) Any suggestions? I'm strongly tempted to bring in one of my all-time favorites, Brazil, but I'm afraid it may be just too confusing to get any good use out of, and is probably too long to watch in one class period to boot.

For the fourth section, I'll show Thelma & Louise and Adam's Rib. There's a ton of good feminist writing on the former; not as much on the latter, but I decided to focus more narrowly on the way feminism presents different alternatives for dealing with male dominance of the public sphere, rather than looking at power and gender in general, and that meant I needed to find a film which talked about "compromises" between the sexes. Besides, Adam's Rib is the movie Melissa and I watched on our very first date, and so it occupies an important place in my heart for that reason. Finally, to end on a more explicitly ethical and philosophical note, I'll show them Crimes and Misdemeanors and A Man for All Seasons--the latter, of course, being one of the great (if not the greatest) existentialist celebrations of integrity and deontological morality, the former being a superb consideration of consequentialism and the possibility of morality in the absence of a (feared) moral order. I'm going to require them to write a short paper for each section of the class, and I think I may make use of blogging as well; maybe set up a blog for the class where I'll post my lectures and encourage them to continue our discussions outside the classroom.

One theme that I wish I could work into the class, but I just don't think they'll be time for it, is a consideration of borders, and the way in which identity and citizenship is constructed and used politically. That would have allowed me to use Spanglish, a film which I thought was simply fabulous, as well as Lone Star, a film I've never seen but which was praised and recommended by several of those who commented on the previous post. Weirdly though, I just finally got around to seeing the recut version of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, which--besides being a terribly dated but still terrific noir film--I found to be filled with far more and far deeper echoes of and observations about life along the U.S.-Mexico border than I had remembered. A lot of ugly feeling is on stark display in that movie. I wonder if it and Lone Star would make an productive combination? I guess I'll have to rent the latter and find out.


Anonymous said...

As a counterpart to Gattaca, what about Blade Runner? None of the humans in that movie are actually good guys. True, the protagonist spends much of the movie being beaten up by a replicant, but that replicant's final speech is heroic, and the girl the hero runs off with is also a replicant. Use the Director's Cut if the original ending is too triumphal. 

Posted by andrew

Anonymous said...

I'm not a movie watcher, so my input is not really based on movies--but for Technology and Freedom, what about a movie about people who choose to eschew technology because of it's freeing effects? The Amish come to mind (altho Witness was remarkably inaccurate)--maybe the will get an actual movie-watcher to suggest something.

On the general question of technology--if there were a good movie version of Tad Williams "Otherland" series, I would recommend it--I guess I'll just recommend the books instead.  

Posted by SamChevre

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the props. Best Years and Liberty Valance are highly gendered films and can be referenced in your gender discussion. Jane Tompkins has some very interesting (although not necessarily right) work on Westerns. A friend commented on Tompkins that "nobody gets it wrong better than her."  

Posted by David Salmanson

Anonymous said...

There was a pretty terrible movie starring Robin Williams in which he was an android that fought for his own human rights. I can't remember the name of it. It brought up some intersting points, but I did not think much of the movie itself. That may have been tainted by my general distaste for Robin Williams. 

Posted by Brent T

Anonymous said...

Bicentennial Man. It was the final film in Robin Williams four-film career self-immolation, following the success of Good Will Hunting:

What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Jakob The Liar, Bicentennial Man. Ugh.

(Course looks great, Russell, and I think Lone Star would pair up wonderfully with Touch of Evil. And Strictly Ballroom, for that matter! The borders theme could expand pretty quickly if you allowed the films to get less American and more metaphorical, so maybe a good one to leave out) 

Posted by djw

Anonymous said...

While I was initially opposed to Blade Runner as lacking much by way of philosophy, it probably is a nice counterpoint to Gattaca. While I think Gattaca is a good movie, the end and the whole "triumph of the will" bit really irks me. That's a common Hollywood theme. Humans can always do better than machines. (Even when they demonstrably can't) It happens quite regularly from Star Wars where Luke gets rid of the targeting computer to Star Trek where humans somehow do better than computers (despite the whole complication of an android - but the android wants to be human) Whenever there is a man vs. machine issue, men are *always* shown to be superior. One would wish for a bit more from Hollywood. Only Blade Runner has any more complications to it.

Of course you might show AI. While a lot of people didn't like it, I loved it. It is fairly easy to analyze. Further it is interesting because in many ways, the machines are more human than the humans. 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

Oh, what Clark said about AI. I understand the reasons to dislike the last 30 minutes or so, but there are so many different directions to take it in a class like this, and if I ever get to teach my technology and politics class again I'll be using it. It's easily Speilberg's most interesting (and for me at least, rewarding) film. 

Posted by djw

Anonymous said...

Why not pair Gattaca with the best film ever made about demography: Soylent Green  ?

The opening sequence (beginning with black and white pictures of farming and rural life, then cities and mass production, then pollution and overcrowding) is probably one of the best uses of still photos in a non-documentary film. It's also a great example of how films (and books, for that matter) about the future often have to make claims about the past and the nature of historical change in order to make their imagined worlds seem plausible. I've always wanted to pair it with William Cronon's book Nature's Metropolis, but have never had the chance to do so.

As for its relevance to politics, let's just say it gives new meaning to the phrase "of the people, by the people, for the people." 

Posted by eb

Anonymous said...

Another pairing with Gattaca could be Michael Winterbottom's Code 46. Just as stylish, I'd say and packs a "privacy" punch as well [that was the most interesting theme in Gattaca for me] 

Posted by sepoy

Anonymous said...

How about using the ultimate anti-machine movie, Chaplin's Modern Times? 

Posted by Michael Cross

Anonymous said...

For Gattaca, the Director's Cut of Bladerunner was one of the first to come to mind. Given that there's no good film version of Brave New World, Demolition Man is an entertaining movie that attempts to capture a couple of its themes, even if clumsily and simply (though no less so than Thelma & Louise). If you want to go for a surprising film combo, what about Babe?

I think Metropolis does a better job than Modern Times in many ways.

If you need a copy of Meet John Doe, I have one I can send you on VHS. I also have the director's cut of Bladerunner if you need it. 

Posted by ExtraMSG

Anonymous said...

Blade Runner  is not, in my view, bereft of philosophical context. It has:

• a surfeit of Christian allegorical content
• commentary on Achilleus' choice (see Roy's final speech)
• and, of course, lots of commentary on memory, humanity, and the Cartesian self (particularly if one uses the much superior Director's Cut)

Terminator 2 is the other good choice to pair with Gattica. There's a lot to work with here: time, feminism, Christianity, and so forth. In the end, both films will get you your key thematic and so much more. Plus, Blade Runner is culturally important with respect to its vision of the future urban landscape. 

Posted by Dan Nexon

Anonymous said...

Russell, a couple others to consider in there: 9 to 5 and Tootsie. 

Posted by ExtraMSG