When I started this blog, which is ostensibly about philosophy in popular culture, one thing that I’d planned to do is film reviews.
Kind of like Men on Film. But from a philosophical point of view.
And they weren’t going to be just film reviews. I was going to write commentaries.
I didn’t have to watch too many movies until I realized that there really aren’t that many movies to write about.
Ok, I hear ya. You’re asking how can I say, given the thousands of movies that have made since the creation of the motion picture, that there aren’t any movies worth writing about.
I say to you, take a look out there. Take a good look at our movie choice out there. What movies am I supposed to write deep philosophical commentaries about: the latest Tyler Perry movie? The latest installment of the Final Destination franchise? Adam Sandler’s next flick? Or Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance?
Oh God, Ghost Rider.
Listen: most major (mainstream) films are crap. And most “philosophical” movies are overly long, pretentious, needlessly convoluted, and have the philosophical depth of a philosophy 101 class.
Yes, Larry and Lana Wachowski. I’m talking about you.
Worse yet, many truly philosophical movies are foreign. And that requires reading subtitles.
And that just ain’t happening.
Besides, with the advent of On Demand and Netflix, I rarely see first-run films anymore. Why pay to see a movie during its theatrical run once for fifteen bucks when I can watch the same movie two months later for 24 straight hours for only $6.99?
After all, if given the choice between going out and watching a lousy movie and staying home and watching a
shi lousy movie, I’d rather stay home.
Unfortunately for my philosophical commentary writing, as much as I enjoy any technology that re-enforces my budding sense of agoraphobia, the lag time between a film’s theatrical release and my writing an adequate philosophical review means I’d be posting a topical commentary a little late.
And if there’s anything the internet hates, it’s those who arrive late.
Hey, that rhymed!
Still, the movie choices, whether in the theatres or on Netflix, are pretty dismal.
Especially if one intends to comment on them from a philosophical point of view.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve decided to lower my cinematic standards.
Fortunately for the philosopher suffering from a case of shut-inism, doing one’s job rarely requires one to leave the house. Thinking can be done just about anywhere.
And as I discovered, about anything.
Even about shitty made-for-TV movies.
Listen: you don’t have to watch Woody Allen movies or trudge through a subtitled Truffaut film to get into the habit of thinking philosophically about cinema. And really, announcing to your friends and neighbors that you just bought the Criterion Collection edition of Hannah and Her Sisters won’t impress everyone you know.
If you ask me, all that fancy film watching is overdoing it.
You too can master the art of philosophical cinema critique from the comfort of your own home, without the bother of finding your local indie theater or reading a single subtitle.
All it takes is a comfy sofa and your television remote.
…and maybe a bit of intestinal fortitude.
Any viewer of too much television knows that Saturdays are not merely the first day of the weekend, it’s the prime viewing day for the overabundance of made-for-TV schlock generated by the too-numerous-to-count basic cable television networks. Some networks are devoted exclusively to airing a 24-hour cycle of made-for-TV original programming.
The Hallmark Channel has a made-for-TV movie network. As does the Lifetime Network.
And other basic cable channels, SyFy, Chiller, USA Network, ABC Family, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, OWN (that’s the Oprah Winfrey Network), Fox Movie Channel, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), A&E, Oxygen Network, LOGO, and American Movie Classics (AMC) (and their never-ending Steven Segal movie marathons and airings of Gone In 60 Seconds – Damn! That Nicolas Cage!), air enough beyond awful movies to keep any television watcher, let alone anyone intent on reviewing movies from a philosophical point of view, awash in less-than-quality direct-to-video and made-for-TV cinema to last one longer than the average American life span.
Wait, if a movie is made for TV does it qualify as “cinema”?
Figuring it wouldn’t make any difference (a bad made-for-TV movie is as good as any movie released in the theaters these days), I decided to randomly pick one of the many Saturday afternoon schlockfests to watch and analyze from a philosophical point of view.
I literally closed my eyes and pushed random buttons on my cable box remote.
The movie I randomly chose was Pterodactyl, starring made-for-Lifetime-movie regular Cameron Daddo and – wait for it – Coolio.
That’s right. Coolio.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” Coolio.
Mind you, I’m not knocking Coolio. He was the only thing worth watching in the movie.
Ok… the plot of this movie was thin enough to make a supermodel jealous, but from what I gather, the movie was about a grad student expedition along the Turkish-Albanian border, that, unfortunately for the professor and his too-old-looking-to-be-convincing-grad-students-students, just so happens to be a war zone. Joining the mix, is a ragtag band of American soldiers (headed by Coolio), a group of Albanian (or were they Turkish?) paramilitary types with bad Eastern European accents, and, of course, man-eating, would-be-extinct, flying dinosaurs.
As you can see, this is a very philosophical movie.
It is… In that kind of squint your eyes while staring at the sun kind of way of seeing things.
If watching the whole movie would be too painful for you to endure (and it will be), I’ve saved you the two hours excruciating made-for-TV movie watching and made a short list of my philosophical observations while watching the movie Pterodactyl:
Philosophers are nice like that.
PHILOSOPHICAL OBSERVATION NO. 1: THE BAD TEACHER-STUDENT RELATIONSHIP
Ok. You don’t have to be a philosopher or Sting to realize that there’s something more than a little pervy about a teacher who diddles a student. For starters, if such a relationship is going on, it’s a pretty good way for a professor to lose his or her job.
HAVING SEX WITH A STUDENT IS A NO-NO. UNLESS YOU’RE STING. YOU CAN WRITE A SONG ABOUT IT AND IT’S TOTALLY COOL.
You see, the reason why this is so is because it’s considered unethical for a professor to make it with his student (or students), is because: a) an older teacher or professor can take advantage of a young student who lacks to maturity to understand the they are being exploited, b) risk of favoritism (i.e. good lay = good grades), c) potential conflicts between both and other parties (like other students and faculty) who either know of or suspect an improper relationship, or d) either or both parties invariably compromise something called “integrity”.
In the movie, Professor what’s-his-name (I never actually learned what any of the character’s names were) and one of his female students are in a romantic relationship. Not only is he forced to hide this fact from the other students on the expedition (in case you didn’t know, lying and hiding the truth are both moral no-nos), but when the student is carried away by a pterodactyl, Professor missed-his-name’s inappropriate feelings for his student lady love leads him to carry out a rescue mission where, you guessed it – other people die.
Was her life worth risking the lives of others? Did Professor nevermind-what-his-name-is value her as a mere means to his end – namely, his want to engage in illicit sex with his beyond the age of consent, yet naïve student?
PHILOSOPHICAL OBSERVATION NO. 2: YOU’RE NOT INVITED ON COOLIO’S FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Generally speaking, in most movies, when the military shows up, characters need not worry about anything dangerous. This is not the case in the movie Pterodactyl.
Captain Bergen (played by Coolio) shows absolutely no interest in helping the pterodactylly-besieged group of grad students until he learns that one of the students is the daughter of a beloved general. Bergen is obviously motivated by his own self-interests. He agrees to help the professor and his students, not because he is concerned about the general’s daughter, but because of his feelings towards her father. If he saves the girl he’s sure to earn a few extra brownie points with the general.
Concern for one’s own interests above and beyond the interests of others is the moral position that most adheres to ethical egoism, the moral theory that holds that an act is morally right (or permissible) if it increases the happiness of the agent. That is, if doing something makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what happens to other people.
This point of view is most associated with the Russian-born, American philosopher, Ayn Rand (1905-82). Rand wrote:
… he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
Obviously, if you ever find yourself tasked to save the general’s daughter, Randian “rational self-interest” (i.e. ethical egoism) might not be the principle that would best enable you to fulfill your mission.
Because if you’re any kind of a Randian egoist, your main (in fact, only) priority is saving your own butt.
If the pterodactyl kills the general’s daughter, that’s their problem, not yours.
The fact that Bergen ignored ethical egoism’s primary principle is exactly why Captain Bergen is dead by the time the end credits roll.
PHILOSOPHICAL OBSERVATION NO. 3: JURASSIC REDSHIRTS
If you watch enough made-for-TV movies (particularly the ones with monsters in them), you’ll realize something: no one ever thinks about the bad guy.
I mean, they think about the bad guy as exactly that – a bad guy (or in the case of Pterodactyl, a flying extinct dinosaur). The bad guy is important to the plot, but he, she, or in this case, it, isn’t important morally. No one in the movie even once considers the discovery of a thought-to-be-extinct dinosaur species important enough to at least attempt to not kill the pterodactyl.
Ok, I know, the pterodactyls were dangerous. They killed people. But so do lions. So do killer whales, bees, and some breeds of dogs. The fact that an animal is dangerous or even deadly doesn’t necessarily mean that it should lose it’s moral value. I know that the human lives are important, but shouldn’t we consider the scientific value of finding a life form that was thought to be extinct? To simply dismiss the pterodactyls as nothing more than mere beasts without any moral value would demonstrate speciesism, which is, according to the philosopher, Peter Singer:
… a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.
The fact that a winged monster has wiped out a group of Albanian(?) militia men, an elite Army unit, and most of your grad student expeditionary crew (including swooping up your would-be girlfriend-if-she-wasn’t-your-student to feed to its young) shouldn’t excuse you from having at least one serious thought about the well being or moral standing of the pterodactyl.
Ok. I’m going to be honest. I didn’t make it all the way through the movie. But given how most of these movies end, I assume I’m free to assume that they kill the pterodactyls and the professor and his student/girlfriend live happily ever after without any negative consequence to legitimacy of her final grade or his career in academia.
I’m also guessing that there’s some sort of twist ending.
Like the last shot of the movie is the camera focusing on a nest of eggs or something.
If so, that’s good.
That means I won’t have to get off the sofa.
To do philosophy, anyway.
1) Peter Singer. Writings On An Ethical Life. 2002. NY: Ecco. p 33.
2) “Reader’s Guide to the Writings and Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. From The Fountainhead. 1952 [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet.