Philosophy 326: Philosophy and Film     Summer 2013 (Dr. Ezio Vailati)
Where to reach me: PB 2212; phone: x3376; home page: (click on "Courses" and then on "Philosophy and Film");
Office Hours: MW 10:00 – 11:00, and by appointment if needed.

Course Description
This course analyzes a group of movies in the light of the philosophical themes they embody. Most of the movies shown in this class have not being selected only because they illustrate a philosophical position or problem: many mediocre films do that. Rather, they have been chosen because they are great works with a significant philosophical component. 

Because of the very high quality of the movies we study, by and large we don’t watch movies to do philosophy but we do philosophy to understand movies.
We shall focus on movies centered on normative issues and therefore by and large we shall not deal with metaphysics or epistemology, at least not directly. 

The philosophical investigation of a movie requires, of course, some knowledge of philosophical issues.  Consequently, we shall acquire some familiarity with a few traditional philosophical topics such as: the problem of evil; the nature of faith; the role of miracles in religious belief; autonomy; the relation between individual and society; false consciousness; the meaning of life; moral and political responsibility.

1) Denise-Peterfreund-White, Great Traditions in Ethics.  Twelfth Edition (Rental text) [G].
2) Handouts
3) Material to be accessed from my home page.

Although not required for the class, you might want to get an introductory texts about film; an especially good one is D. Bordwell and K. Thompson, Film Art. An Introduction.  You can get it cheaply (older editions are fine).


Some movies will be shown in class, and some you’ll watch elsewhere using the provided web links.

Course Outline

May 20. Intro to course.

Handout on movies. Film analysis guide.

Earliest movies and the double nature of movies: the Lumiere Brothers’ Exiting the Factory; The Arrival of the Train (1895); Melies’ Voyage to the Moon (1902).

An almost “modern” movie: E. S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), with cross cutting and pan/tilt shots.

Mise-en-scene: The end of Ivan the Terrible part 1 (1:36:29 to end), and an early section of part 2 (10:50-17:38) in which Ivan recalls his boyhood. 

Standard Three Point Lighting.

Camera movements.  The earliest trucking shot from a major movie in Pastrone's Cabiria (1914).  A famous crane shot: High Noon. See also the beginning of The Last Laugh and of A Touch of Evil below.

Standard editing: continuity editing.  More on the 180 Degrees Rule.

Breaking continuity editing: intellectual montage with ideological juxtaposition of shots and breach of 180 rule in Eisenstein's October (1927).  For examples of rhythmic or graphic editing, see the prologue to Olympia in the next lecture.

The long take: the opening of Welles' A Touch of Evil (1958); last scene of Sokurov’ Russian Ark (2002) –the whole movie is one long take!


May 22. Finishing material from previous class: Tree great examples of montage: the second diving scene from Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938); the bridge scene from Eisenstein’s October; the train arrival from Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952).

Propaganda, ideology, and participation: Olympia.  Watch movie at home (just focus on the prologue, 0:00-23:10).

Time permitting, begin lecture of May 24.


May 24. Long lecture: Lecture on Kierkegaard; the Problem of Evil; Locke on religion and faith; the meaning of life.


May 27. Memorial Day.  No class, but watch Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). Look for staging, camera movements, and in general for what you studied in the first two classes.


God, evil, and the meaning of life

May 29. Babette's Feast (Denmark, 1987).

Readings: Kierkegaard, G, 172-86; section from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; essay on the knight of faith; Abraham arguing with God about morality; Abraham on Mount Moriah.

May 31. The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957). Watch movie at home.

Readings: Nagel on the meaning of life; Wielenberg on God and the meaning of life.

A detailed analysis of the church scene.


June 3. Shadowlands (Great Britain, 1993).

Readings: handout from C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. 

At home, watch Winter Light (Sweden, 1963). On youtube, the movie is broken into 8 parts; make sure you start with part1. Reading: handout on Deus absconditus.


Religion and oppression
June 5. Devi (India, 1960).  Watch the movie at home (for English subtitles, click on CC at bottom right of movie screen). 

Readings: handouts on Hindu women and marriage; Locke on faith, reason, and enthusiasm: download-1 and download-2.

At home, watch The Passion of Joan of Arc (Denmark-France, 1928). The soundtrack is contemporary; if you can’t stand it, simply turn it off.


False consciousness, self-serving lies, individual and society.
June 7. Long lecture on Fascism; Mill's On Liberty; Hobbes' State of Nature; Autonomy; Compassion.


June 10. A Special Day (Italy, 1977).

Readings: Kant's "What is Enlightenment;" false consciousness; the enforcement of morality; download-1; download-2; download-3.
First paper due


June 12. Amarcord (Italy, 1973).

Readings: Fellini's interview on the movie.

At home, watch Woman in the Dunes1 and Woman in the Dunes2 (Japan, 1964).


June 14. Rashomon (Japan, 1950). Watch movie at home. Readings: section from Kurosawa's autobiography. G 88-101. The debate at the Rashomon Gate.  Handout on compassion. 

Uniform and dignity: The Last Laugh (Germany, 1924).  Watch movie at home (all 4 parts); by the way, notice the camera movements!


Morality and integrity

June 17. Long lecture on Existentialism; why be moral; God, morality, and religion; integrity. 


June 19. Crimes and Misdemeanors. (US, 1989)

Readings: Sartre, G, 277-287; Plato, G, 7-20.

June 21. High Noon (US, 1952).

Readings: handout on the virtue of integrity.

Second paper due

Course Requirements
In addition to watching all the movies (you’ll be tested on this!), doing the readings, and thinking about the material, the course has the following formal requirements:

  1. Class attendance for the whole period: I shall call roll.  Every missed class will result in a loss of 5% of the course grade.
  2. Participation: you start with 10% of the course grade; active participation to discussion will add up to 10% of the course grade; lack of participation will lose up to 10% of the course grade. 
  3. Several unannounced pop multiple choice quizzes or one-page summaries cumulatively worth 50% of the course grade.  Some will be take home, some in class.  They will test your knowledge of the readings, lectures, and movies.
  4. Two papers, 4 double-spaced pages long, each worth 15% of the course grade. Do not e-mail your paper to me unless in extreme circumstances. A successful paper must:

A detailed analysis of a scene especially relevant to your interpretation is welcome but not required. For an example of a detailed analysis, you may look at the one provided above for The Seventh Seal.


Academic policies
1) Cheating of any kind will be dealt with according to the draconian CAS rules.
2) Students are responsible for knowing what has been said in class, especially announcements concerning reading assignments. If for any reason you miss some classes, make sure to find out what went on.

3) Even when animated, class discussion is to be conducted with civility.