Sunday, December 02, 2012

Concepts in Motion (or, Why You Should Assign Short-Films in Philosophy Courses)

"I say that I do philosophy, which is to say that I try to invent concepts.  What if I say, to you who do cinema: what do you do?"
--Gilles Deleuze

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously speculated in Cinema 1 (1983) that what he called the "movement-image," a unique creative product of cinema, makes it possible for us to "think the production of the new."  According to Deleuze (and his longtime collaborator, Felix Guattari) what cinema creates (movement-images) is different than what science creates (functions) or what art creates (blocs of sensation, percepts and affects), and all three are different than what philosophy creates (concepts).  Each of these modes of thinking are what Deleuze calls "disciplines of creative activity" and, despite their differences, they not only can but must speak to one another.  The details of Deleuze's account of the relationships between science, art, cinema and philosophy are complex-- I can't unpack them all here-- but I wanted to emphasize Deleuze's fundamental insight about the productive conversation that can be had between philosophy and film as a preface to what follows.

Three years ago, I began incorporating a short-film assignment (first for extra credit, now as a requirement) in my classes.  I've given some account of the why I began assigning short-films on this blog before (here and here), and there is much more to say about that, but since several of my friends and colleagues have asked me about the how, I thought I'd try to shed a little light on the advantages and challenges of the assignment.  First, though, I think it's helpful to look at some of the final products produced by students, which vary widely.  Now three years into it, I find that most student films are of roughly four types: (1) documentary, (2) mockumentary, (3) stop-motion/animation and (4) what I might call "confessional" (a la, reality television-style confessionals).  Of course, these aren't always mutually-exclusive categories and the content of the course tends to influence heavily the style/genre of the films produced, but in my experience this is a useful taxonomy.  What is noticeably missing is the standard "narrative" dramatic film form.  (I can only think of a few cases in which students wrote a script and employed actors to film a narrative story.)  The films that I do get are no less "creative" than your standard fictional accounts, to be sure, but they aren't, as a rule, driven by character or metaphor.

That said, let me begin with two of the *most impressive* film I've ever seen by students, both of which are narrative/dramatic films.  The first was made by Tim Garton for my Feminism and Queer Theory course, and the second was made by Zach Pless for my Existentialism course:


I'll say more about the details of the assignment below, but before viewing the following genre examples it's important to know that the assignment requires them to make a (roughly) 6-minute film.  That may not seem long if you're thinking of these films in comparison to, say, a 10- or 15-page paper, or if you've never tried to create a film yourself, but you'll just have to trust me that 6 minutes *IS* long and requires a tremendous amount of work.  (By my students' accounts, I've learned that there is, on average, about 2.5 hours of work behind every minute of film.  I've never tried to figure out the "hours-worked : pages-written" ratio, but my guess is that it takes students at least as much time to make a 6-minute film as it does for them to write a 12-page paper.  Probably more.)  The examples below are from three different courses:  Existentialism, Feminist and Queer Theory and the final semester of a three-semester core-humanities course sequence that Rhodes calls the Search for Values.  (I'm leaving out the films from an advanced seminar that I taught on "Humanism and Human Rights" because all of those films were documentary, as per the assignment.)  So, here are examples of the four genre-types above:

1.  Documentary: The example below is a documentary-style critical treatment of "Horror Films and Sexualized Violence" produced for my Feminist and Queer Theory course.  The technical skill employed here is truly impressive, but not as much as the philosophical skill.


Other excellent examples of (more traditional) documentary style student films are: "Queer at Rhodes" and "What's The Difference?" (both for Feminist and Queer Theory, Spring '12).

2.  Mockumentary:  Here are two examples of mockumentary student-films, the first is David Pettiette's film for my Search for Values course and the second is one produced by a group of students (Patrick Harris, Phong Lam and Tanner Evins) for the Existentialism course:

I don't know why the mockumentary-style is so attractive to students, but I imagine it can be partly explained by this generation's hipster/Stewart-Colbert aesthetic and partly by the difficulty of combining philosophy and art.

3.  Stop-motion/Animation:  As with any other assignment, there are students who arrive in class already possessing more skills for doing good work than others.  That is to say, in the same way that some students are more familiar and adept with the resources available to them for research, some students are more familiar and adept with the resources available to them for manipulating images.  Animation requires some serious technical skill (not to mention artistic ability), but I've learned over the last few years that stop-motion (although time-consuming) doesn't require an unreasonable amount of technical skill.  I mean, after all, you only need a camera and an editing program and A WHOLE LOT OF TIME to create a stop-motion film.  Anyway, here's a couple of the better stop-motion/animation films I've received from students.  Below are examples of both stop-motion and animation, first by Andrea Tedesco, second by Brianna Xu, and third by Patrick Cudahy (all for Search for Values, Spring '12):




Other interesting examples of stop-motion were submitted by Manali Kulkarni and Courtney Martin (here) and Brannen Vick and Sarah Knowles (here), both for the Existentialism course.

4. Confessional: Far and away, the "confessional"-style is the most popular genre employed by students for my short-film assignments.  In some way, it's the easiest to do-- inasmuch as it doesn't require much other than a camera and a speaker-- but, despite its technical simplicity, it's one of my favorite styles and it is definitely the one that most closely approximates writing a paper.  The confessional genre lends itself best to my Search for Values course, in which I require students to produce a film that "summarizes" the results of their experience in Rhodes' three-semester core-humanities "search for values" course sequence.  (Some very excellent examples here, here, and here.)  I like these films, in part, because they're so honest and often so earnest, but I also like them because they impose upon the students the responsibility of "authoring" their own thoughts, values and words so publicly.  The two examples below are not strictly (camera-in-front-of-subject) confessional-style, but the heart of them is.  Here are two of my favorites, both for this semester's Search for Values course.  The first is by Chandler Schneider (who, impressively, includes an original autbiographical song at the end) and the second is by Will Geitema:



The confessional films above clearly evidence the hybrid nature of many of the films that I receive from students in general, but they also exhibit (in my view, anyway) the manner in which this short-film assignment is very, very close to a more traditional paper-assignment.  Unlike a "real" confessional, which I (having never been in one) assume is more spontaneous in its narrative account, the confessional-film does require that some "script" be composed in advance.

For what it's worth, most of the students' films are some form of hybrid, involving one or more of the categories that I've listed above.  One of my favorite hybrid's is this one, by Karissa Bowley (for the Search for Values course):



All of my student films are available to view on their course blogs: here (Existentialism '09), here (Existentialism '11), here (Feminist and Queer Theory '11), here and here (Search for Values '12). So, at long last, let me get to the nuts-and-bolts of this assignment for those of you who may be in some part persuaded by the above that it's a better-than-average pedagogical idea.

First, I leave my short-film assignment intentionally-- and maddeningly to students-- vague. That is to say, in most of my classes the assignment does not have many more parameters than to "create a short (roughly 6 minutes) film about [the course material]."  In some of my courses (e.g., Existentialism and Feminist&Queer Theory), I require students to also turn in a short (2-4 page) "artist's statement" about their films.  (In my Existentialism course, I tell them: "If you want to film a man sitting on a park bench for 6 minutes, that's fine with me, as long as you can explain how that is existentialist.")  I don't require the "artist's statement" for my Search for Values course because the film itself is meant to be, in effect, an artist's statement.

Second, yes, it is the case that students FREAK OUT about this assignment.  They're worried (rightly so) that they don't know how to make a film, and they're worried (rightly so) that the assignment isn't entirely clear, and they're worried (rightly so) that they don't know how to achieve an "A" on the assignment.  I don't think there's any way to avoid these worries.  As I explain to them, and as I really do believe, there are host of skills involved in manipulating images that some people come into college knowing very little about... but no more, in the grand scheme of things, than doing traditional academic research.  That is to say, in the same way that some students come to college knowing how to navigate the library or JSTOR, or who come to college with sufficient facility with citation styles/techniques, some students come to college with animation skills or film/photography skills or editing skills. And just like with library/research resources, the ability to learn how to manipulate images/video is readily available to everyone... IFF they make some effort to learn how.

To wit, students do NOT need any special skills or equipment to complete this assignment.  Every single computer today comes with the editing programs Windows Movie Maker (for PCs) or iMovie (for Macs), and both programs are not only user-friendly but also free to download in the unlikely case that a student doesn't already have it, so the editing equipment is readily available.  For educational purposes, students are free use images/sound/video that they find on the Internet for the raw materials of their films (though it *is* important to discuss fair use and copyright issues with them).  If they have the impulse to be more creative, almost any standard smart-phone can shoot quality images and video.  And in most colleges/universities, higher-quality cameras and video-recording devices are readily available to check out from the library.  So, there's really no excuse for students who want to complain that they can't make a movie.  It's not that they can't; it's just that they don't know how.  And, as is the case with everything else that we do for the first time, learning how begins with making an effort.

Let me be completely honest here and say that, in my experience, assigning short-films requires (of the instructor) not only an incredible resolve and restraint-- in terms of not hand-holding students through the assignment, but rather letting them experience the inevitable angst that comes along with (in Deleuze's formulation) "thinking the production of the new"-- it also requires an incredible amount of patience.  My advice is to begin early-- like, ON THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS-- reminding students that this project will consume a tremendous and likely unanticipated amount of their time.  And then reiterating that reminder every couple of weeks for the rest of the term. I would also recommend, against the standard professor-instinct, not to "help" too much.  My experience thus far has been that the less prescriptive (and proscriptive) the assignment is, the better the final products are.  I'm comfortable enough at this point to tell my students that I know they're freaking out, but I am far more confident that they will be immeasurably proud of what they will, in the end, produce.  And I haven't been wrong about that yet.

As I recounted before here, the great advantage of the short-film assignment, as I see it, is that it capitalizes on a skill that students already come into our classrooms with-- even if unknowingly-- namely, the skill of thinking in images.  I think they have (ready-to-hand, so to speak) a capacity for thinking in images that is greater than their capacity for thinking in language, and the former is something that we can help them to make present-at-hand IFF we can find a way to creatively couple it with the latter. For those of us old folks, among which I reluctantly include myself, that mean relaxing the pedagogical reins a bit.  The short-film assignment has managed to accomplish that in a way that I can live with and that doesn't sacrifice what it is that I mean to accomplish in a philosophy class. 

What I mean to accomplish in every philosophy class, I like to think anyway, is to put concepts in motion.  That is, I want to make it possible for students to integrate new concepts in their lived-experience, or in what Deleuze might call space-time.  To that end, I'm incredibly thankful for cinema, for the movement-image, in helping to facilitate the thinking (and the learning) of the new.

1 comment:

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