Funderstanding film for free

A different piece of cinematic history you were previously unaware of.

A different piece of cinematic history you were previously unaware of.

If you’re looking for an entertaining way to mess about on the ol’ interwebz while getting a bit of an education on films, I have three YouTube channels that I recommend. The sites are satirical to varying degrees, but I think satire is a powerful pedagogical tool. Besides, who wants to sit and watch some academic explain that the non-diegetic soundtrack of Top Gun is used to evoke a mindless endorsement of Cold War jingoistic militarism in the audience?

ScreenJunkies

Which brings us to our first film commentary. The ScreenJunkies channel has a feature called “Honest Trailers,” which they describe as trailers “that tell you the TRUTH about your favorite movies and TV shows.” Rather than use $20 words to critique films, they let the media speak for itself. Here’s the “Honest Trailer” for Top Gun:

If only YouTube and these videos existed, I could have saved myself 106 of the minutes I wasted in my youth on Top Gun. I’m sure I would have wasted the time in some other way, but, you know.

CinemaSins

A slightly different approach to film criticism is taken by CinemaSins. Their series, “Everything Wrong with in X Minutes or Less,” runs through a film noting more than just run of the mill gaffes; the series highlights problems with narration, story, and characterization as well. Here’s one for a film I enjoy, “Everything Wrong With The Dark Knight In 4 Minutes”:

And, yes, since we’re through the looking glass of self-referential irony, CinemaSins does an “Everything Wrong with CinemaSins in 3 Minutes or Less” episode.

Red Letter Media

The final recommendation comes with a caveat up front. This series is told from the perspective of a “Mr. Plinkett,” who we discover is a psychopath. He has brief (< 1 second) flashbacks of the bloody bathroom where he apparently killed his wife, and he has various women locked in his basement. That latter bit in, particular, is both disturbing and gratuitous—which is a shame, because the series highlights interesting and important elements of film making. The point that RLM tries to make is that even someone with an intermittent grasp on reality can understand the fundamentals of storytelling better than the makers of the Star Wars prequels, but removing these scenes wouldn’t undercut that message in the least.

That said, RedLetterMedia’s Mr. Plinkett series offers a thorough takedown of episodes 1–3 of the Star Wars series. I know that isn’t exactly a challenge; those films are utterly terrible in almost every single respect, and there’s been lots of commentary to that effect. Nonetheless, the analysis here is so detailed and insightful that it is worth the ride if you have the time.

There are also Mr. Plinkett reviews of Avatar, Titanic, and some of the pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, but I’m partial to the Star Wars material.

Bonus: Everthing is a Remix

Let me close by recommending one serious series of videos: “Everything is a Remix.” The series makes clear the way intertextuality works through adaptation, allusion, homage, and the like. Though it isn’t limited to film—it also covers music—it offers a powerful and deep understanding of the way that texts and their authors are related to one another.

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Philosophy & Film: an annotated syllabus

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In the last few decades, there has been an increase in interest in using film (and popular culture, more generally) to teach philosophy. In addition, there has been some effort to use film and popular culture in philosophical work, and there have been philosophically-minded film makers. Given my own obsessive consumption of popular culture and philosophy, a “Philosophy & Film” course was all but inevitable.

Overview of the course

The course began as a series of conversations with David Magill; at the time, we were both at Pitt-Johnstown, and we thought it would be great to team teach a course on this material. Although that course never came to fruition, the courses brought together as a composite in this syllabus eventually did.

The class has three major sections:

  1. Philosophy through film: how have film makers explored traditional questions in or highlighted problems from the history of philosophy? Topics in this section include: truth, knowledge, mindedness, and personal identity.
  2. Social thought through film: how film can illustrate, reinforce, and critique norms of femininity, masculinity, and race?
  3. Film as literary pursuit: how does a mass medium like film stand up to analysis using standard tools from literary analysis? Topics in this section include the nature of adaptation, satire, authorship, and the morality of cinematic representations.

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Talking films, too: electric boogaloo

In my previous post, I suggested that I distinguish between the following sorts of reactions to films:

  1. Enjoying a film
  2. Recognizing the cinematic virtues of a film (i.e., its being a “good” film)
  3. Acknowledging the cultural significance of a film

I think a bit more should be said here, so let’s talk about some examples.

  • Let’s start with a film that I enjoy, is good, and is culturally significant. I take Citizen Kane to be a relatively uncontroversial choice for this category; its satisfaction of (2) and (3) are generally accepted, and I do enjoy the film on many levels.
  • A film that I enjoy, is culturally important, but that is not good: Glen or Glenda is a terrible film in many ways, but it also is quite a hoot and fairly groundbreaking for its day in thinking about gender.
  • A film that I enjoy, is good, but is not culturally important: Fletch Lives was a fairly funny and well-put-together film, but it wasn’t as good or important (or quotable) as the original film.
  • A film that I enjoy, but that is neither good nor important: Petey Wheatstraw is better made than Dolemite or The Human Tornado, but that isn’t exactly saying much. Nonetheless, its arrival on the scene in 1977 puts it at the tail end of the blaxploitation period, and so had less cultural uptake than the films with the Dolemite character.
  • A film that I do not enjoy, but that is good and important—so, someone interested in film ought to watch it: Olympia is Leni Reifenstahl’s celebration of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It features techniques that were way ahead of their time and it is beautifully shot, but it runs about 226 minutes.
  • A film that I don’t enjoy and isn’t culturally significant, but which is a good film: Man Bites Dog is a well-made, often funny mockumentary about a film crew following a serial killer. It has a fairly grotesque scene that is supposed to make the audience feel . . . ashamed? uncomfortable? about its having laughed its way through the film up to that point. I found the scene difficult to watch, but I didn’t agree with the intended critique. (It isn’t particularly culturally important because it didn’t break any new ground in film, and very few people saw it.)
  • A film that I do not like and isn’t a good movie, but which is culturally significant: there are probably a lot of these, but perhaps the one to choose for this list is Reefer Madness—which is just a terrible, boring film that has played a role as propaganda in the early part of the American drug war and as counter-cultural humor among stoners.

A few of my favorite films

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people see so many movies that when they finally see one not so bad as the others, they think it’s great. an Academy Award means that you don’t stink quite as much as your cousin. — Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems

My film students frequently ask about my “favorite” film (yes, usually singular), and, honestly, I don’t have one. Indeed, one of the things I try to convey to my students is that there may be a gap between the films one enjoys, ones that a person recognizes as being excellent in one way or another, and ones that a person recognizes as being culturally important. So, I reply by asking which of these sorts of categories are they interested in and why. Sometimes I mention a film or two in each category, but I try to make the questions the topic rather than my particular tastes.

So, this list is an “arbitrary 15” (i.e., rather than a “top 10”) list of films from some combination of the aforementioned criteria.1

  1. Point Blank (Boorman, 1967)
  2. The Human Tornado (Roquemore, 1976)
  3. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
  4. Pink Flamingos (Waters, 1972)
  5. La Jetee (Marker, 1962)
  6. Death Race 2000 (Bartel, 1975)
  7. Tales from the Hood (Cundieff, 1995)
  8. Key Largo (Huston, 1948)
  9. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Lee, 2006)
  10. Shaolin Soccer (Chow, 2001)
  11. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
  12. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
  13. Master of the Flying Guillotine (Wang, 1976)
  14. Vanishing Point (Sarafian, 1971)
  15. Schizopolis (Soderbergh, 1996)

  1. The films aren’t completely arbitrarily chosen from within the broad criteria listed above. I have left off films from my “Philosophy and Film” course, and I have generally included films that have stuck with me, inspired multiple viewings, and the like. I’ve also left off fairly popular films like Fight Club or Fletch

Jiro’s dreams in my class

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In my “Philosophy and Film” class, one of the documentaries I show is 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro depicts the life and work of Jiro Ono, who is the proprietor of the Michelin 3 star winning sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Kicked out of his house in first grade, he spent the subsequent seven decades mastering the art of sushi preparation. He has been relentless in pursuing excellence. The advice he gives the film’s audience provides a flavor of his work ethic:

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.

I’ve resolved that I will require students in all of my classes to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi before the first day of class. Then I will announce in class on the first day:

If you aren’t working “Jiro-hard” on your schoolwork, then do not report that you “worked really hard” on a project.

It strikes me as a potentially effective way to communicate expectations to students from a media-saturated, No Child Left Behind/Common Core, everyone gets an award educational culture. . . .