Michael J. Smith / Politics

My proposal to the Endowment grows out of the experience of teaching my Political & social Thought seminar over the past ten years, and follows a suggestion from the students themselves. On many occasions we would be discussing a book or an historical event, and I’d say something like “this reminds me of the scene from Casablanca,” or I’d ask if anyone had seen a classic anti-war film like The Grand illusion or a classic political thriller like Z or the original Manchurian candidate.

I used to try to convey Kant’s idea of history from a “cosmopolitan point of view” by referring to the scene in The African Queen in which the grumbling and leech-covered Humphrey Bogart exhausted from pulling his boat bearing missionary Katherine Hepburn through thicker and thicker mud and marsh grass just about gives up. Then we get a very long, slow-tracking camera shot that gradually expands the perspective—until we see that the boat is just about 20 yards from the open water of Lake Tanganyika.  This broader view, I would explain, can be a metaphor for the way Kant wants us to understand history: not the view of those pushing through the mud and reeds, but the longer view that shows us the patterns and destinations. But then I realized that virtually no student has seen The African Queen, so the image did not help. And almost invariably, when I mentioned “classic films” I would get blank stares or a bemused reply along the lines of “the movies you mention are always so ancient!” in a post-class discussion I had with some students this past spring, the idea of an informal “classic and political film night” emerged. Though they could, these students, did not really want to take a full cinema class (and in any case the films I would mention would not always be ones treated in such a class) but they were interested in seeing, and discussing together in a relaxed non-class setting, a range of such films. They also thought I could invite some faculty friends to join in.

So this, in a nutshell, is my idea: a series of about 16-18 films over the course of next year that I could show with a small (perhaps 8-12) group of students in a comfortable place with media capability like the Kaleidoscope lounge in Newcomb Hall. Everyone thought we should offer pizza and soda (or similarly easy and deliverable food) and pick a night (Wednesday or Thursday) on a fairly regular basis, commencing after the early term rush and ending before exam crunch. Students from PST and my other human rights seminar (this is a group of about 60 students) would provide a core from which a varying group could attend. We could widen the net to friends and the broader affinity groups among the many organizations these students belong to. What films would we watch? I have a broad group in mind, but would keep things open. The magnificent Robertson library in Clemons has most of what I’d like to show, and the few it doesn’t either I own personally or can be ordered. I list possibilities here, among which I would choose in consultation with the students. Part of the fun would be choosing which films to show! “art House” classics: Rashomon, Throne of Blood, seventh seal, Wild strawberries, The Grand illusion, rules of the Game, 400 Blows, selections from “The Decalogue,” 81/2 Hollywood classics all Quiet on the Western front (1930), Casablanca, The African Queen, Paths of Glory, The Thirty-nine steps, North by Northwest,  Patton, Dr Strangelove. Political Thrillers or “Message Movies” Z, state of siege, The Battle of Algiers, la Guerre est. finie, East-West, The last Metro, Europa-Europa, The lost Honor of Katherina Blum dystopian Visions 1984, Gattaca, Minority report, a clockwork Orange, Brazil, solaris classic (and  ‘screwball’) comedies Bringing up Baby, Kind Hearts and coronets, The Man in the White suit, The Mouse that roared, Being There as is evident, even this preliminary list is about double what could be shown in a year—but I hope it gives a flavor of what I have in mind. It seems to me noteworthy that our media-soaked students generally have so little experience of films like these, which, in the days before DVDs, used to be shown in earnest college film societies. My idea is to strike a modest blow for cultural literacy while enjoying some rich and informal discussion with our students about films I loved and found influential. These films could occasion some wonderful interaction with students, very much in the tradition of Professor Mead.

Cost: in my experience of holding gatherings at my home, enough pizza and soft drinks for about 20 students, delivered, runs to about $100. So for 16-18 meeting the total would amount to $1600-1800, with perhaps the balance reserve for purchasing the occasional DVD not owned, or immediately able to be acquired, by Clemons. So the whole program should be quite possible to achieve for a cost under $2,000.00.  Thank you for honoring me as a Mead fellow, and for offering the opportunity to pursue greater and richer interaction with my students.