On Monday, I had the pleasure of sitting down with fellow cinephile, Dr. James Conlon, a Philosophy Professor at Mount Mary University, who has taught a course entitle, Philosophy and Film. I had the chance to discuss the association of philosophy and films and contemporary films. Check out the interview below.
Dr. Conlon, thank you for meeting with me. First off, could you tell me about the course, Philosophy and Film?
Basically, what we do in the class is see a film together. I believe very much in communal viewing. I know that people today have private access to films but I like to see them with other…I mean not just with a friend; I like to see [films] in a public place. Plus, I think [films] are made to be seen on the big screen. Rather than have students see a film on their own and come [to class] and talk about it, I like to have them all see it together. Usually there is an hour after the film to talk about it. Then, we read an article on the film, and then we come and talk about it again. It is usually a film a week.
I try and get students interested in the philosophical questions that the film raises. For example, let me take the film like, Her (2013). That [film] is about whether you can fall in love with a computer, an operating system, and what would love would mean in that circumstance. Can a person be a person without a body? Samantha doesn’t have a body in that film. So, those are the kinds of films I choose. I think films are natural discussing points.
I think most people just go to [see] films for entertainment, they don’t realize the ways in which film is working on them to get them to believe certain things and to understand what the film is getting them to think. I try to make sure they become more conscience of that and I think a good way to do that is by talking about [films] with others.
What are some ways an audience can experience or understand a film?
One way to try to understand a film is to see who the creator is and see what other works that creator has done, but also who wrote the script. Films are a very complex art. It is important to understand all the pieces. The visuals, the dialogue, the music, how are they integrated in the meaning of the film? Students will sometimes say to me, well…don’t you ever go to the movies just for fun?’ And I say, that’s the only reason I go to the movies. Nobody has more fun at the movies than I do. The fun is only increased the more you understand what is happening in front of you. I do not like special effects, I think pure cinema as people in front of a camera. I don’t need strong in animated film, I have never been attracted to it. I can see its beauty, but I think the power of cinema is the power of real people and the camera, not digital.
You mentioned Her (2012) as one of the film you see in that course, what others films are seen in that course?
I try give students, not just a contemporary experience, but classical experiences. We watch Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanor (1989), for example. In terms of a 30’s, 40’s films, we watch Max Ophüls, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Even though our film experience, unfortunately, is very Americanized, “Hollywoodized,” I think it’s very important to see films from other countries. For example, the Spanish film, Talk to Her (2002), even though the subtitling is often off-putting to students, I think it’s good for students to get used to it, because once you get used to it, it’s very second natured. A film that I end the class with the Italian film, Cinema Paradiso (1989), which is a great film about film.
I am currently writing a series about some of my favorite directors on my blog, so I wanted to ask you, what are some of your favorite directors and why?
I guess I’m interest in directors who write their own stuff. I particular like the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Right now, I am interested in Richard Linklater.
What is a current film you have seen that you would recommend and why?
Manchester by Sea (2016) was a film that affected me. The notion of whether there are things one can’t recover from, whether there are things that one can’t forgive oneself for, and what that says about a meaningful life. I think it was interestingly against the American grain of sense that one can recover from anything and that there is always a bright side. I thought that that film dealt with stuff that American cinema often doesn’t deal with and it was tragic in a beautiful way.
Who did you think deserve the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, La La Land or Moonlight?
I think La La Land in some ways was tragic too, but not in the deep way that Moonlight was, and I know that part of its appeal was that everybody has a song and dance in them, but Ryan Gosling can’t dance nor can Emma Stone. I thought Moonlight was a much better film. I was intrigue by La La Land’s [effort] to bring back the musical [genre] but I didn’t think it was at the stature of the other films.
I wrote a post about Moonlight as being a revolutionary film because it tackles new concepts, what are some films that you find revolutions that tackle new concepts, new ideas, or new writing or directing styles?
Well, take something like Alien (1979), I mean you have a powerful woman, action figure, that’s a new concept in film, so that’s exciting and interesting. I mean precisely because we see the black experience primarily through white eyes. Seeing black film makers, themselves, is exciting. What counts as revolutionary depends on what your revolting against, in some sense La La Land was a revolt against the “super, action figure, 3-D, Hollywood” stuff, but in another way it was very much in the Hollywood tradition.
Absolutely, well my blog is called The Cinephile, which refers to a person that is found of films…
Well, Phil is the Greek word for love
Right, Cine, film and phile, love. Overall, would you consider yourself to be a “cinephile?”
I am certain passionate about films. If I don’t see a film once a week in the theater, I start to get “antsy.” Would that count as a [characteristic of a] cinephile?
Absolutely. So, as a “cinephile,” this can be a difficult to as a “cinephile,” what is your favorite film?
That’s a hard question. I mean usually, the way I start the film class, as a mode of introduction to each other, I ask them to give me: the film they most recently saw in the theater, the film they have seen the most times, and then the film that they would consider their most cherished film. The last time I did that, I think I gave The Wizard of Oz as my most favorite film, because it is about film. Dorothy goes from her black-in-white world to cinematic world of Oz and why leaves it, I’ll never know. So, I think the film is about film, about woman, and leadership. That is the film I choose, but whether that will change next week, I’m not sure.
Of course, well, thank you so much for you time and answers.
Dr. Conlon gave a meaningful understand of the definition of a “cinephile.” He also was able to provide us with philosophical insight about films and recommend some beautiful films for our entertainment. I hope you go and check out the films mentioned. Dr. Conlon and I really hope you enjoy reading this insightful interview that comes to show how the passion for film can be found in any field.
About the Professor
James Conlon, Ph.D is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Seattle University in 1970; M.A. in Philosophy at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI in 1974; amd his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Marquette University, in 1975. He has an article in the Internternational Journal of Philosophy entitled, “Against Ineffability, in 2010. He is a member of American Philosophical Association and the Society for the Philosophical Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts.