Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Philosophy's Next Generation of Auteurs

Once again this semester, I assigned short-film projects to the students in my Existentialism course.  And once again, the products of that assignment (which I only just finished grading) were amazing.  I've employed this assignment in select courses for the last several years and each year the students' films have gotten more and more impressive.  Only four years ago, when I first tried out the idea in a class, the students were both terrified and completely at a loss as to how to go about producing their own short-films, but now... well, they're nothing short of a bunch of little auteurs.  One can hardly blink these days before technology, access to technology and familiarity with technology jumps ahead of you at the speed of a micro-blink.

If you're interested in reading about how I developed this assignment, as well as some of my pedagogical reasons for doing so, I've written about it several times before on this blog.  (Check out my posts Philosophy Done Another Way from Fall '09, Thinking In Images from Fall '10, and Concepts in Motion: Why You Should Assign Short-Films in Philosophy Courses from Fall '12.)  As I explain in those posts, and perhaps despite what you may be inclined to think, my short-film assignment is not an "easy" assignment.  It's really, really not a strategy for avoiding work on my part or on the part of students. As has been repeatedly (and vociferously!) confirmed by my students, this assignment requires just as much time and thought as writing a paper, probably more editing-time and editing-work than a paper, as well as a lot of other skills that students don't typically employ in more traditionally-formatted compositions: creativity, imagination, digital literacy, synthetic thinking and the courage to put oneself and one's work "on display" in a way that most students fear dreadfully.  Because this is a non-traditional assignment, I admit that students do tend to engage it with far more enthusiasm then that with which I've seen them engage essays.  Just because something is fun and enjoyable doesn't mean it isn't also difficult and valuable, though.

At any rate, we're at the end of another semester, which means that I get to share again some of the best of this term's student films. (If you're interested, all of the films from this course can be viewed here.)  They were all impressive in their own way, but three stood out from the rest this semester, and I'll tell you why in what follows.

The first of my three favorite student-films this semester is by Grace Mosley and James Rigney entitled I Am Not An Inkwell.  A little philosophical background may be necessary for this one: the title of this film is a play on Jean-Paul Sartre's description of the difference between être-pour-soi (being-for-itself) and être-en-soi (being-in-itself).  In his 1943 text Being and Nothingness, Sartre argued that human beings, because they are free, do not exist in the same way as objects, which are determined entirely by their facticity.  That is to say, in semi-plain talk, a human being cannot "be" a human being, to use Sartre's formulation, in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell.   That ought to be enough preliminary philosophical background, I hope, to understand and enjoy this:

What I particularly like about this film is that it gives us a real, real-time glimpse into how Millennials ask existential questions.  And also to whom (or in this case what) they ask those questions, namely: Hollywood, Google, Facebook, Twitter and the billions of other digital iterations of human beings that make up the Internet.  Another thing I like about this film is that I can use it, in the future, to show just how little "technical" resources one needs in order to complete this assignment.  You don't necessarily need sophisticated editing software, or even a camera, to make a short film like this one. Almost the entirety of I Am Not An Inkwell was made with one of the many and widely-available screenshot/screencapture programs, which are easy to use and which any student can download for free.  Philosophically speaking, I'm also impressed with the film's implicit suggestion that, when attempting to "define ourselves" or answer existential questions, we remain ever susceptible to falling into yet another of (what Sartre called) "patterns of bad faith."  The lingering irony of I Am Not An Inkwell is, of course, that the protagonist undertakes the project of defining herself throughout as if she were an inkwell, as if there were some set of propositions that could accurately capture the definition of her being-for-herself, when all the while it ought to have been clear to her that the activity of undertaking the project itself is the answer the she is seeking.

The second of my favorite student-films is by Sophie Osella and Hannah Chimowitz, entitled Billy Tripp's Mindfield, a short documentary about real-life Tennessee sculptor Billy Tripp, creator of the (equal parts bizarre and fascinating) art-installation-cum-autobiography that he's been working on for years and has dubbed "The Mindfield." (For some background, and in advance of watching this film, you should read the brief explanation of his project on Billy Tripp's Wikipedia page.) Both Hannah and Sophie are Philosophy majors, so I had (very) high expectations from them for this assignment.  They did not disappoint.  Sophie is also one of Rhodes' budding student-filmmakers (she and I worked on a documentary together last summer) and this film is evidence of the kind of subtle and reflective camerawork that characterizes her cinematic style.

Billy Tripp is as much an enigma as his Mindfield, and I especially like that Sophie and Hannah's interview with him (and their careful editing of that interview) did not entirely vacate this man and his work of mystery or absurdity. When I give my Existentialism students the short-film assignment, I tell them: "if you want to film a man sitting on a park bench for six minutes, that's fine with me, as long as you can explain why and how that is somehow representative of what we've learned in this class."  Interestingly, this project is more than a little bit like filming-a-man-on-a-park-bench-for-six-minutes, though Sophie and Hannah somehow managed-- through brilliantly minimalist, incomplete and only barely explanatory first-person narration-- to make its deeply existentialist import abundantly evident.  Conventional filmmaking wisdom advises against working with children and animals, as they are notoriously unpredictable and unreliable, and I'm sure the same must also apply to eccentric, rural, uncategorizable and unknown installation-artists. Of all the student films I've seen in the last several years, this was by far the most risky project and deserves a special kind of congratulations for its eminently successful execution.

The last of my favorite student-films (and, at the risk of playing favorites, I'll nevertheless admit that this was my favorite) is the one submitted by Chris Lemanski, Ben Smith and Schaeffer Mallory entitled Raising A Child As An Existentialist.  This film is hilarious, but it references far too many thinkers and too much material for me to provide an adequate set-up, so you'll just have to trust me that there are quite literally dozens of existentialist "inside" jokes packed in here that are nothing short of comedy gold.  I lost count at some point, but this film explicitly or implicitly references all of the following philosophers: Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, Kafka and Beauvoir, Seriously, impressive.

There are too many things to love about this film.  Aside from the astoundingly comprehensive amount of material that it (in every instance, correctly) references, the film's more general frame of "raising a child as an existentialist" is really a brilliant narrative structure.  As every educator knows, after all, nothing demonstrates one's comprehension of material better than being able to teach it effectively.  And what is the project of raising a child if not one very perilous, very protracted and very difficult exercise in teaching?   From the thrown-into-the-world opening scene to the thrown-into-another-world finale, these guys have hit the mark throughout.  Extra kudos for what also may be the best subversion of heteronormativity I've ever seen in any student's work, ever.  And, cinematically speaking, that shot of the young Søren trapped and raging in the Underground is plucked right out of the Tarantino Handbook.  Not for nothing, but the assignment only requires a six-minute film, and as everyone who's ever undertaken such a project will attest, every minute of film requires hours upon hours of work.  This is just a little over a fourteen-minute film, without a second of boredom in it at all.  I mean, seriously, whoa. Perhaps the greatest of this film's virtues, of which there are many, is its creators willingness to just really engage its own vision and story, with a balls-to-the-wall, friends'-judgment-be-damned, bordering-on-possible-humiliaton-inspiring uninhibitedness. Would that it were the case that students wrote papers with the same commitment and abandon!

For all the doubting Thomases out there, let me just register again and for the record my complete endorsement of short student films as a pedagogically-valuable assignment.  And, not for nothing, one of the most eminently enjoyable things to grade!

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