When I teach “Philosophy and Film,” as I shall be doing again this fall in our honors program, I like to break the ice with something that is a bit different, but not too immediately culturally challenging. That means no silent films and no subtitles. We get to those later—I usually show Carl Dreyer’s great silent flick The Passion of Joan of Arc (Philosophical question: Is sainthood always something that is conferred later, in the light of history?) and Akira Kurosawa’s great Japanese film Rashomon (Philosophical question: Is there such a thing as truth?). But I like to start in the 1950s with an American movie, preferably one in black and white. Different but not too unsettling.
On the Waterfront is a great favorite of mine. (Philosophical question: Where does one’s loyalty lie? To one’s friends or one’s society.) I always thrill at that great exchange between Marlon Brando, playing the ex-boxer Terry, and Rod Steiger, playing his criminal brother Charley. Talking about a fight that he should have won but was paid to throw, Terry puzzles at his brother just treating him as a commodity, rather than someone whose well-being he cherished. Why did he let it happen? Why didn’t he promote his brother? “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”
I have always felt a little bit this way about my own life. On occasions I have been faced with a choice between the easy path and the more difficult. For instance, should I publish with a commercial press that will take basically anything I offer because they know they will make money or should I go with a university press, even though it involves refereeing and possible rejection, something I hate and fear as much today as I did 40 years ago. (“It’s easy for you, Mike. You’ve got a thick skin.” Nonsense! There is no such thing as a thick skin. It is just that some of us learn to live with our thin skins.) I just don’t want to end up on my deathbed and feel that I could have done better. I coulda been a contender. (Of course whether or not I am going to end as a contender, whatever I do, is perhaps a moot point. But here I am blogging for the CHE. Who says that after four billion years of evolution there is no progress?)
But, back to my film course. This year, as I often do, I will start with 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet, who died over the weekend. It seems to me that in its way, like Shane (which I shall also show in the course—Philosophical question: Why does a man have to do what a man has to do?), it is a perfect movie. Not a step out of place, and a tremendously good hour and a half of entertainment. (Sorry. I am not a big fan of art films that require heavy duty lifting. That’s why I liked The King’s Speech. Rattling good entertainment. Same with Macbeth and Rigoletto.)
The story is simple. It is about a jury deliberating. A young man—a kid really, and a punk—is accused of murder of his father. It looks like an open and shut case. But one of the jurors is not quite so sure, and in the face of the opposition of the others insists that the case be looked at carefully and discussed. One by one, the others come over to his worry that the case has not been made definitively, and in the end the jurors vote “Not guilty.” The acting is tremendous, starting with Henry Fonda as the stand-out juror, going through Martin Balsam as the worried foreman (worried not just about the truth but also about keeping order among his peers), and ending with one of the greatest actors of his time, Lee J. Cobb. He plays the corrupt union boss in On the Waterfront, and here he plays the final-objecting juror who reveals at the end that his opposition has more to do with his troubled relationship with his own son than with the case being discussed.
Philosophical question: How do you determine the facts when you were not around? (Basically not that different from Rashomon, except there I am not sure that there are any definitive facts whereas here I think the assumption is that there are.) But really I am trying to do a lot more, starting with the fact that I live in a place that makes a regular practice of executing people like the accused in the movie—people on the fringe of society, not very nice or moral, but also not defended as well as the comfortable middle class. Could the moral justification of the death penalty be a bit more complex than most Floridians assume?
My main intent however is to introduce a bunch of nice, bright, but rather naïve and uninformed young people to their history and their country’s cultural legacy. And the great American movies are right up there in that legacy.
Ultimately who cares about being a contender? There are some jobs that (as my grandmother used to say) I wouldn’t swap for all the tea in china. Teaching “Philosophy and Film” is one such job.