Movies play a large role in modern life. We enjoy watching them; we idolize the actors and actresses who appear in them; we analyze the directors.
Joe: Hey Blow, I hear that Philosophy Talk is giving out it's Second Annual Dionysus Awards. That's such a cool award. My favorite of the year. I'm psyched.
Blow: You do seem extraordinarily psyched, Joe. But what's the big deal? There are dozens of movie awards show every year.
Joe: Well, Blow,the Dionysus Awards may not have achieved quite the cache of the Oscars just yet, but,they may be having some effect. Just look at the crop of philosophically interesting movies Hollywood produced this year -- a year after Philosophy Talk gave the first Dionysus Awards. There were some really interesting movies from a philosophical perspective released by Hollywood this year: District 9,A Serious Man, Up in the Air, Avatar – to name just a few. Those are all both good movies and philosophically rich movies. It’s like that line in A Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come!”
Joe: I’m game. Why don’t you start us out by telling me what the difference is between just an ordinarily compelling movie and a movie that’s philosophically compelling.
Blow: The first thing a philosophically compelling movie should be is a good movie. I suppose that I can imagine a movie that was philosophically rich, but just not very good as a movie. But those aren’t the kinds of movies that Philosophy Talk seeks to honor with Dionysus Awards.
Joe: And I take it that they also aren’t particularly interested in honoring movies that though they are perfectly fine, even great, examples of film making don’t have much philosophical content. An example from last year was Slum Dog Millionaire. I remember John and Ken both loving that movie, but saying that it did not deserve a Dionysus Award.
Blow: But be careful. A movie can be worth looking at and analyzing from a philosophical perspective even if the filmmaker isn’t really trying to make a philosophical point of his or her own. Like life itself, the movies, at their best, confront us with situations, characters, and events, that invite us to reflect deeply about things like the nature of love, the morality of betrayal, hope, fear, ambition and on and on. A movie can be philosophically compelling just because it compels us to think hard about human life.
Joe: I totally agree with you there, but there's also a different way in which a movie can be philosophically compelling. The filmmaker him or herself can have a philosophical agenda and can be using the film as sort of a vehicle for working through that agenda. We might distinguish movies as meat for philosophical thought and movies as vehicles for philosophical thought -- usually as vehicles for either the director or the screenwriter. Many movies make good meat for philosophical thought. Fewer are real vehicles for philosophical thought. Really good fiction movies often serve as vehicles for philosophical thought. have this character. A filmmaker wants to make a philosophical point about freedom or about the nature of the self and they present us with a elaborately constructed alternative universes explicitly designed to get us to think in a certain way.
Blow: Of course, these aren't mutually exclusive categories. Some movies are both meat for philosophy and vehicles by which the director or screenwriter pursues her/his own philosophical ideas. Take a film like the Reader -- one of last year’s Dionysus Award Winners. It did both the things we’re talking about. It presented us with a both emotionally compelling and philosophically picture of human life. But I it also served as a sort of vehicle for the filmmaker to make certain philosophical points about moral luck and moral responsibility.
Joe: Among this year’s crop of potential Dionysus Award nominees, we find a mixture of all these ways for a movie to be philosophically compelling – from compelling stories of men at war, to imaginatively constructed alternative universes, to extended and deep reflection philosophical reflections about the meaning of life. It’s all there.
Blow: We'll let's get on with it. Let's tune in to Philosophy Talk's Live broadcast Sunday Morning at 10 AM PST, on KALW 91.7 in San Francisco. If you're not near a radio, you can still join in via the internet of via the Public Radio Player on your iPhone.