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?


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.


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.

Queer Theory: an annotated syllabus


Consider three familiar categories that structure so much of life: sex, gender, and desire. Standardly, we assume that sex is the biological fact that determines our gender, and our gender, in turn, determines our sexual desires. In this course, we critically examine this “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self, with a special focus on the elaborate efforts societies make in creating and reinforcing conditions that are supposed by those societies to be “natural.” Is the “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self correct, and, if not, what does it mean for sex, gender, and desire—and for practices, institutions, and societies built upon the logic of that conception?

Overview of the course

This course began as an outgrowth of my scholarly interest in gender (especially masculinity) and as a response to the heterosexism I was noticing both on and off campus. Since that first class, I’ve taught various versions of the course, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, at several universities. This syllabus reflects a refinement of the material I have used over the years.

The arc of the course can be understood as a (mis)reading of the history of feminism; in particular, we look at how queer theory is a part of the reaction to the perceived centering of second-wave feminism on the experiences of white, middle-class, straight women.1 To that end, we posit a basic distinction between sex and gender, and we examine “gender norms.” We then examine how these gender norms assume either (implicitly or explicitly) that their objects are heterosexual. From there, we highlight how raising that particular criticism threatens to undermine undermine both feminism (for a lack of a single subject that is “woman”) and the sex/gender distinction itself. We then look to the consequences of this “queer theory” critique for various social institutions.

In all, the course proceeds through five major sections:

  1. Framing: examining Foucault’s account of institutions, the internalization of norms, and the production of a self.
  2. A first go at the sex/gender distinction: developing the basic move in our theoretical repertoire, the distinction between sex (a function of biology) and gender (a function of social norms).
  3. Feminism’s gender trouble: critiquing the picture of gender as envisioning a “universal” woman when there is not—with a focus on sexuality and feminism.
  4. Biopolitics and sex/gender/desire: rethinking various institutions that are built up around a logic of “sex/gender/desire,” including scientific inquiry into human biology and the medicalization of trans persons.
  5. Heterosexism and cissexism: understanding how the foregoing leads to systems of oppression and privilege.

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Moral Dimensions of Power: An annotated syllabus


We are quite familiar with many of the obvious ways in which power operates: a campus police officer confiscates a case of beer, a professor assigns grades, one boxer defeats another, someone lifts a heavy object, a commuter avails herself of a secret shortcut, and the like. Are these forms of power “the same”? Who has power? Are there constraints on what one may do with one’s power, however it is constituted? This is the subject matter of my course, “Moral Dimensions of Power.”

Overview of the course

I’ve taught several versions of this course since 2002 or so. Its first incarnation was as “The Moral Dimensions of Wealth and Power,” which was a surprisingly popular course.1 Much of the same material appeared as “Social Philosophy” at Pitt-Johnstown and as “Moral Dimensions of Power” at Washington and Lee. This syllabus reflects the totality of material that I’ve taught plus some material that I’ve been interested in and had queued up but lacked the time to use.

The course covers themes I’ve been exploring in my (unpublished) scholarly work during the last few years: determining the extent and manner in which power, institutions, and norms create persons. The class has three sections:

  1. Philosophical analyses of power: accounts of power provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.
  2. Applications of these analyses: examining the how the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault play out in various contexts. Topics that we look at include wealth, gender, race, ability, size, discourse, classrooms, and software distribution.
  3. Understanding transgression: in the shortest of the three sections, we start to think about how one might go about resisting morally problematic institutions and forms of power.

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Philosophy & Film: an annotated syllabus


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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How not to write a trigger policy


There has been much press about the growing movement to mandate (either as formal requirements or as “strong encouragement”) the addition of trigger warnings to syllabi. I think that we ought to resist allowing colleges and universities to set trigger warning policies, though I am supportive of the use of such warnings by individual faculty members. I have used such warnings myself over the years, though never specifically under the description of “trigger warning.” Here, I will not defend the stronger claim that we ought to resist such policies; instead, I want to highlight the profound failures of the actual proposal that has been put forward.

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Things I’m surprised I’ve had to tell students

The following items are quotes (or very close paraphrases) of things I’ve actually had to say to students over the years.

  • No, I cannot give you a hint on the exam question. Even if you ask three times. And, yes, I know that you probably would have gotten the answer if I had given you a hint.

  • Just because you worked really hard doesn’t mean that you will do well on an assignment.

  • It is spelled ‘ludicrous’, not ‘ludacris’—unless you’re talking about the hip hop artist.

  • Please do not use sms abbreviations in your papers.

  • I don’t think invoking the abortion debate will clarify people’s positions on [this unrelated debate].

  • You aren’t required to put my name on your paper, but if you do, please spell it correctly.

  • “It is safe to assume” does not mean “I really need this to be true, but I don’t have any justification for it.”

  • We don’t refer to human reproduction as “breeding,” so maybe “if we feed them, they will breed” is a problematic response to an argument about famine relief.

  • Since you didn’t actually address the question, what grade do you think you should get on this paper?

  • Other than X being cruel and immoral, no, I guess I don’t have any objections to it.

  • Getting a B+ on this one exam in “Intro to Philosophy” won’t preclude you from succeeding in life.

  • If I needed a [insert better grade than one about to be received] to [achieve some important end like keep a scholarship], I probably would have treated my schoolwork as if my [important end] depended on my getting a [high grade].

A few of my favorite films


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. . . .