I didn't start out wanting to discuss audio-books in this blog; they deserve their own space. But I did want to produce, over time, a catalog of media that is important for philosophic reflection and teaching, and I can't think of anything more important than Seamus Heaney's recording of his translation of Beowulf. It provides new access. Previously, the general reader was forced into an unnatural relationship to the poem. It is about three big monsters and a lot of Vikings. That is not gripping Twenty First Century material. What makes the material come alive is the language, the crafting of sentences on a central axis of sound and meaning. Only a poet's translation, read aloud, has the power to get most general readers through to the end of this thing.
It is important to get through to the end. This monk's poem, honoring and qualifying the virtues and loyalties of an heroic era just passing away, is a treasure of moral and political thought, documenting on an epic scale how Beowulf's best features lead to his own destruction and the destruction of his community -- because he doesn't know when to stop and he can't think new thoughts. The monk, scribbling in his cell, surely thought he had a platform from which the narrowness of earlier times - the narrowness of custom and tradition and doing what comes naturally -- could be understood and set right.
That's the hope of every political philosophy.
Short Cuts is about who else is around. Any episode, banal or biting, can be read by itself or as part of the L.A. scene. The trick is: glimpses of the lives of 22 people who intersect with each other, mostly randomly. Woven through it all is a brutal murder, the kind of thing that people profess not to understand. I don't know if Short Cuts makes us understand the murder, but it places the murder on a continuum with a lot of other crummy things people are doing and it makes us read the murder as having a kind of LA style. The movie says: "This is how high they rise; this is how deep they fall."
Short Cuts raises all kinds of questions about what it is to understand a piece of human action, in something like the way that Capote's In Cold Blood raised such questions. It is the realization of a fantasy: what if we knew the story behind the random folks we meet. Would that amount to understanding them, ourselves, our community, our era, life, or would knowing the details just show us the mystery?
A while back, I tried to learn French in my car, with tapes. I remember my delight when I would stumble on some little bit of French I had heard in a movie. It was a little advantage, a head start, something I already knew. Movies and television can do that for us. The West Wing is particularly good about using real examples in its fictional drama: after 9/11, they dropped the fiction almost entirely for one episode and had the various characters simply tell people stuff about terrorism and fundamentalism and Islam. These ‘factoids’ are easy to dismiss: the picture they present is incomplete and skewed and soon outdated. But factoids give people starting points. There is something they know now about political polling, gun control, tax policy, nuclear containment – and the distance from “knowing something” to “knowing more” is not nearly so long as the distance from “knowing nothing” to anyplace interesting.
The new world information order, with Google at its center, adds very substantial value to such mini-lessons and factoids. If one knows what topic to ask about, one can easily find gradual introductions and multiple viewpoints and all the apparatus one needs for self-education. If the media provide some simple starting points, interested persons can take it from there, as far as they want to.
In the Republic, Plato tells the story of a guy passing some rotting bodies. The fellow is moved by his basest desires to go have a look, though his dignity and intellect both veto the project. He finally succumbs to curiosity, cursing his eyes all the while for dragging him to this demeaning spectacle.
I watched an episode of "Wife Swap" the other day: a woman of extreme neatnik, list-making, control-makes-life-possible disposition is traded to a household with 25 free ranging animals, including a wallaby, and no apparent pooper scoop. In the first scene, she enters the house and runs into the animals, one and two at a time. It was intriguing, fascinating, fun, demeaning, disgusting, totally beneath me.
Now that it has become clear that there is no depth to which reality tv will not descend, the question that Plato raises in passing, "What does it hurt us to look at, and why?" assumes a new urgency. We all know that curiosity does not literally kill cats. But, then, we are not cats.
I sent my friend Ramona, who needs more silliness in her life, off with two movies for the holidays -- from a short list of things I can stand to watch over and over: The American President and Broadcast News. Neither is great, but both do creditable movie-work. In each one, some important job is shown to be glamorous and fun and a place for interesting friendships. Each is a hand-crafted ornament of a movie, with lines and images massaged and burnished to give maximum delight. You just giggle to the see the writing and the direction and the acting done so consistently well -- in the service of a useful bit of public work, getting people interested in politics and journalism. That's just fine. That's what the day-to-day work of movies is, to get people to like life and want more of it. Beyond that, there is genius, and luck, and inspiration, and all that stuff that makes for greatness. But you can't live on greatness. These two are great movie dates, the "burger and fries" of the movie business.
This site is not the first and only to address philosophy and movies, and those interested enough to read my stuff should look around to see whether there's something different also, maybe better. Googling "philosophy movies" will produce some helpful lists. Also, for sure, google Roger Ebert, whose commentaries are usually very helpful in getting at the ideas under films (though he let me down with Dirty Dancing).
What I find, looking at the other sites in cursory way, is that they take the standard divisions of philosophical problems and topics as real and important, and sort movies as they fit into one or another such box. That doesn't appeal to me, though I will surely learn stuff from it. What appeals is to let the movie or television show talk first, to see whether it establishes a topic or project. It is so easy to lose track of one's own originality, and then of the originality of these productions, if one approaches them with categories in place.
Shopping yesterday, I saw Leaving Las Vegas on a shelf, cheap. I didn't buy it. I would have to be paid a lot to ever watch that thing again. And yet it is an utterly necessary part of the canon -- what one has to have seen to be morally literate. It is a picture of despair that conveys despair. It also carries the message that love in the most twisted circumstances is still love.
I own Smooth Talk. I haven't watched it in years. Laura Dern plays a confused and bored teenage girl, in a very bad relationship with her mother. Her character is raped, coerced into sex by the most violent verbal attack I have ever heard on the screen. Somehow the claustrophobia of the kid's life, the violence of the mother, the different but related violence of the sexual predator, get under the viewer's skin in this movie, in a way that doesn't happen with louder, more graphic, bloodier productions. The things a miracle. I don't intend to ever watch it again. I think everybody serious should go rent it and watch it once.
Would but some winged Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister, or quite obliterate!
Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits - and then
Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
These lines from Fitzgerald's Rubiyat express the premise of a cluster of movies, including The Butterfly Effect and The Lathe of Heaven. The hero gets to go back and change something in the past, to make something in the present better. The hero finds that making one thing better can make lots of other things worse; what initially seemed intolerable begins to look good, after several such experiments. These stories are meditations upon action conceived as "looking into the future, seeing how things will go if they continue as they are going, and then seeking to modify what we do now to forestall some of those consequences." Both stories are cautionary, about action.
The Butterfly Effect contains, at its end, the suggestion that one might sometimes understand a chain of causes leading to dreadful things well enough to interrupt the chain at its beginning, by doing something very simple. A lot of ethics-talk demands that one work directly on preventing what one hates, and that one work with great energy and vigor and drama. As a plea for understanding first and then acting, The Butterfly Effect is doing important suggestive work.
The movies and television have been good to me. They have helped me think. Yet people I respect want to kill their televisions -- or have already killed them -- for good reasons. In this record, I want to report on the images and scenes I have found important and valuable and provocative, reflecting as I go on the potential of movies and television as philosophic media in the way that Plato's dialogues and Wittenstein's investigations and Nietzsche's aphorisms are media. Occasionally, I expect to be outraged -- but lots of people are doing that work pretty well already.
I know some things, from watching for a long time, and have some hope of sorting the treasure out of the trash. That's what I'll try.