Windmoor Film Forum

Seeing Deeper Meaning in Movies

Windmoor Film Forum

movie projector

Fall 2017

Theme: Memory, Identity, and Morality in the Films of Christopher Nolan

MementoThursday, September 14
Batman BeginsThursday, October 6
The Dark KnightThursday, November 2
The Dark Knight RisesThursday, December 7

All films begin at 7:30 PM on the scheduled day, with discussion to follow.

What is the Windmoor Film Forum?

Films are interesting because they involve creating an alternative “world” modeled off of the real world shared by the filmmaker and his audience. As a result, many films grapple with a variety of questions salient to modern students.

 

Our ability to analyze a film’s world correlates with the same critical faculties we use to contemplate and understand the everyday activities of the real world. Building on this connection between the created alternative and the real, the Windmoor Film Forum seeks to nurture students’ ability to analyze films and acquire a deeper understanding of the world in which we live.

 

The heart of the Windmoor Film Forum is its quest to discover what a film is “really about,” helping students to watch films in a more reflective way. Learning to watch films in this way affords students new opportunities for meaningful interactions with their friends and fellow students.

Format

The Windmoor Film Forum discusses and analyzes films on selected evenings throughout the academic year.

 

The Forum begins with a short introduction of the important historical, cultural, and thematic features of the night’s film as well as some of its general contrasts with previous films discussed in the Forum.

 

After watching the film, the Forum concludes with an open discussion. Participants are encouraged to discuss the messages and meaning they find in the film’s composition and story, which helps everyone to understand more deeply the film they just saw. These discussions typically last no longer than an hour, but students are free to come and go as they wish.

Film Forums

Fall 2017: Memory, Identity, and Morality in the Films of Christopher Nolan

Memento

Director: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan's Memento represents a contemporary attempt at 'film noir.' Featuring an 'amateur sleuth' (Leonard, played by Guy Pearce) seeking to discover his wife's killer and take revenge made all the more difficult by the presence of a 'femme fatale' (Natalie, played by Carrie-Anne Moss) and a 'corrupt cop' (Teddy, played by Joe Pantoliano), each stock characters of the genre. The film is innovative in that Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss and so never has a clue what is going on in any one scene. The film accentuates Leonard's "condition" by progressing in reverse chronological order, opening with what would be the "last" scene of a conventional film and closing with the "first." One consequence of the film's structure is that the audience comes to identify with Leonard, who is equally "lost" to understand what function each scene has in relation to the whole story. Indeed, it is only at the end of the film that it becomes possible for the audience to take a critical distance from Leonard's perspective and make a judgment about his interpretation of the "facts" that led him to take his revenge. Memento poses the audience a complicated question: in a world without memory, but with plenty of "facts," can there be any room for judgment?  

Fall 2016: World War II Through Film

We will watch the evolution of filmic representations of World War II from Casablanca to Saving Private Ryan, identifying different ways in which the aims of the war as well as the depiction of the Axis and Allies shift over time.

Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz
The first film of our Fall 2016 Series is Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz. Released in the middle of the war, Casablanca is a “splendid piece of anti-Axis propaganda,” attempting to persuade its viewers of the worthiness of the Allies’ cause by surrounding it with a heartwarming story about one man’s (Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart) noble sacrifice for the woman he loves (Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman). Long touted as Hollywood’s greatest film, Casablanca marks a perfect entry-point to our exploration of filmic representations of World War II.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Director: David Lean
Released in 1957, the film explores the building of a bridge by American and British prisoners of war. The film won seven academy awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

The Great Escape

Director: John Sturges
Released in 1963, the film recounts a mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp in World War II. In contrast to the ambiguous harmony between prisoners and jailers that we saw in The Bridge on the River Kwai, this film places a greater stress on the duty of prisoners to escape, regardless of its consequences. This emphasis makes for a much different kind of film and a much different take on the Second World War.

Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Spielberg
Released in 1998, the film revolves around a platoon’s search for Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), who is slated to return home from the war due to the wartime deaths of all his brothers. Winner of five Academy Awards (including Best Director), many critics describe Saving Private Ryan as the definitive World War II film. The film subtly raises the question about whether war is “worth it” by situating it within the context of the platoon’s questioning the value of their mission to save Private Ryan. It is a fitting concluding film for our Fall series.

Fall 2015: Lost In Space

The theme for this year’s Film Forum is “Lost in Space.” We will view four films that revolve around this theme. Much like our previous exploration of the evolution of the “Western” genre, the films will be arranged chronologically so that we can see how the science fiction-space genre evolved over time.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Director: Stanley Kubrick
The first film of the year is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. Kubrick has steadfastly refused to explain the film in detail, although he has been equally insistent that the film does have a definite philosophical subtext. Indeed, he claims, “on the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God.” The question for the viewer is what kind of God does Kubrick envision and how does the film narrate man’s search for God?

Alien*

Director: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979. The film follows the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, which diverts its homeward course upon receiving a distress signal from a nearby planet. The film has been described an “intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship,” since it weaves together many elements of the horror and science fiction genres, but less attention has been paid to its convergence with certain themes common to those genres. Like Halloween (1978), Alien has a strong female protagonist (Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver) with a lot of feminine subtext—Nostromo’s autopilot is not “Hal” but “Mother,” among other things. With 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), it focuses on the perils of artificial intelligence and raises questions about the place of human beings on the evolutionary spectrum by explicitly raising the possibility that other, more evolved species exist, and may have greater value and staying power. The key motif, however, is the way in which the film constructs the figure of the ‘alien.’ While Alien, like many other horror films, portrays its monster as senselessly violent, it also deliberately undercuts attempts to distance the ‘alien’ from the crewmembers of the Nostromo. This point is underscored by the ambiguity of its title, which can function as a placeholder for an unknown extra-terrestrial species or else as a description of some unfamiliar and disturbing phenomena. The film makes use of both notions of the term, which allows us to ask which meaning of ‘alien’ drives the engine of this horror story—the unknown species or the unfamiliar and disturbing phenomena?

Blade Runner*

Director: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is considered by many critics to be one of the best science fiction films of all time. In a near-complete retreat from the narrative of human evolution and progress portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this film, which takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2019, envisions a dark, bleak future for humanity. Scott deliberately constructed the city of Los Angeles as so rundown that it would make sense to the viewer that its inhabitants travel in tank-like vehicles, board up their windows, and replace any view of the city with video feeds of more exotic and beautiful destinations. Like Alien (1979), which gave voice to an inherent distrust of the unseen “corporation” that sacrifices its crew in order to gain an alien specimen, Blade Runner also has a “corporate” enemy: the Tyrell Corporation. In the opening prologue to the film, it is related that the Tyrell Corporation “advanced robot evolution…to a being virtually identical with human know as a Replicant.” These Replicants were used as slaves “in the hazardous exploitation and colonization of other planets” until they engaged in a bloody revolt. Thereafter, they were “declared illegal on earth under penalty of death.” Echoing the real-life emergence of politically-motivated “death squads,” a group of police officers—known as Blade Runners—were charged with the task to kill, on sight, any trespassing Replicant. The prologue ends by noting that “this was not called execution, it was called retirement.” In this respect, the film opens itself with a strong indication of its broader exploration of mortality and the characteristically human ways we try to avoid or ignore the reality of death. While the plot of Blade Runner borrows heavily from film-noir genre (complete with the femme-fatale Rachael, played by Sean Young ), following Rich Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) hunt for four Replicants hiding out in Los Angeles, it also illustrates some central motifs of the futuristic scientific drama: the sinister uses and destructiveness of technology, the contrast between emotion (as an authentically human trait) and technical rationality (as a sign of moral indifference and corruption), and the possibility of transcending the limits of one’s nature.

Interstellar

Director: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan noted that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982) were among the primary influences for his own science-fiction undertaking in Interstellar (2014). Unlike his previous films, Nolan wanted Interstellar to be—like 2001: A Space Odyssey—a film in which the audience doesn’t primarily get lost in the lives of its characters, but rather in the world of space he created. Nevertheless, Nolan emphasized that the film is a reflection on human nature, on “what it means to be human,” going so far as to claim that the film tries to “dramatize ideas of human nature.” As we have seen in previous film forums, the attempt to paint a picture of human nature—whether its evolution or devolution—sits at the very heart of the science fiction genre. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned the positive possibilities of the future of human evolution, Alien revealed the ‘most perfectly evolved’ human-alien hybrid species to be an object of terror. In contrast to both of these visions, Blade Runner imagined a world in which the ‘created replicas’ of human beings become more human than their creators by virtue of their developing the capacity for empathy and an acceptance of their own mortality. The question for the viewer of Interstellar, then, is what aspects about human nature does Nolan wish to dramatize, and how does he dramatize them? Finally, we may ask ourselves: which of these aspects of human nature does Nolan want to identify as the ‘essence’ of humanity?

2014-2015: The Great Director Series

The Great Director Series features a selection of films from some of cinema’s most influential filmmakers. The aim of this series is to introduce participants to the idea of “filmmaking” as a kind of profession, a profession that calls for a unique set of skills and standards of excellence. Over the course of the series, we will discuss the different ways in which each director showed his or her mastery of the skills required for filmmaking while at the same time making especially creative use of those skills in order to tell the kind of story the director wishes to tell. This means that we will discuss the thematic elements of the film as well as the ways in which they are given expression through the primary tools at the filmmaker’s disposal (e.g., camera shots and angles, pace, music, direction of actors, editing etc.). In doing so, participants should come to appreciate better the extent to which a filmmaker’s excellence as a storyteller requires an extraordinary breadth of technical prowess and ingenuity in the more mundane aspects of filmmaking.

Apocalypto*

Director: Mel Gibson
Spike Lee counts Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as “essential” to any student of film and Quentin Tarantino described Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as a “masterpiece…one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies since the talkies, as far as telling a story in pictures.” Gibson’s direction in Apocalytpo so impressed filmmakers because it manages to tell a gripping story even though half the movie lacks any kind of dialogue whatsoever. It is a story told through images, a “moving painting.” At the same time, the film opens with an ominous quote from Will Durant “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” which suggests that the film focuses on the causes that underlie the downfall of great civilizations. But the title of the film, which Gibson translates as ‘a new beginning or an unveiling, a revelation,’ points the viewer to a slightly different reading: the film explores the obstacles to and causes of ‘a new beginning, a revelation’ for individuals and civilizations alike.

The Game*

Director: David Fincher
David Fincher’s The Game is a cinematic precursor to many films that focus on the use of simulated ‘realities’ to deceive the film’s protagonist, e.g., The Truman Show, The Matrix. Unlike those films, however, The Game does not suppose that a return to the ‘real world’ is a cure for the character’s naiveté. Indeed, the protagonist Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is ‘blind’ to the ‘real world’ well before he is thrust into what every character ominously refers to as “the game.” The only clue given to Van Orton as to the content of this game is how it affects its participant, which one character describes by reference to John 9:25 (‘One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’). With that in mind, the viewer can understand the film as an exploration of the causes and kind of blindness symptomatic of our age, as well as the means by which one can regain their sight.

No Country for Old Men

Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
Although Fargo (1996) marked the emergence of the Coen brothers as a directorial tour-de-force, it is with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men that they became a household name. In brief, the story follows the stream of carnage that ensues after a failed drug deal. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the money leftover from the deal and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the hit man hired to reclaim that money. The film opens with a long shot of a barren, desolate landscape, accompanied by a voiceover by the film’s protagonist, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones). That monologue ends with Bell’s admission that he does not fear death, but refuses to “meet something I don’t understand,” since to do so one would need “to put his soul at hazard” and say “okay, I’ll be part of this world.” These musings follow upon his recalling a man he sent to the electric chair who claimed that he had “been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember.” The world that Sheriff Bell doesn’t understand is the world revealed to him throughout the course of the film. By the end of the film, Bell’s experiences have him wondering whether, in fact, the possibility of there being a “light at the end of the tunnel [i.e., this world]” is anything more than just a dream. Ultimately, the film asks us to reflect on different understandings of personal fate or destiny in this world: is it an expression of providence or arbitrariness?

There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood has been called Paul Thomas Anderson’s “masterpiece,” thanks in large part to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as the film’s protagonist, Daniel Plainview. The film traces Plainview’s quest to secure the rights to a large oil deposit in Little Boston, California. Along the way, however, the audience is introduced to nine-year old H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), Plainview’s adopted son, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a small-time preacher in Little Boston. Fundamentally, the film is a character piece. It is a story about the life of Daniel Plainview, with all its heroism and cruelty. And while many critics interpret the film as a full-throated critique of American capitalism and the oil industry, this temptation should be avoided. The “problem” posed by Anderson’s portrayal of the life of Daniel Plainview is not his cutthroat, relentless, and borderline fanatical, pursuit of economic success, but the fact that—in spite of some serious moral flaws—Plainview is still an inspiring character, even heroic. The complexities of Plainview allow the audience to forgive much of what he does in the course of the film. In the end, it is left to the audience to evaluate the life of Daniel Plainview in light of his relationships with H.W. and Eli. A further question is suggested, however, by the title of the film. Given that this film is about Daniel Plainview, why must it follow that ‘there will be blood?’

Vertigo

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
As one acclaimed filmmaker notes, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is about "obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again." Indeed, the protagonist of this tale—John "Scottie" Ferguson (played by Jimmy Stewart)—never claims to suffer from vertigo, but of acrophobia (extreme fear of heights). In other words, the film is not about the condition of vertigo, but rather makes use of Scottie's experience of the spinning sensation associated with vertigo in order to give visual expression to the "heart of obsession" as described above. The story revolves around Scottie's agreement to "spy" on the wife of Gavin Elster (played by Tom Helmore) at Gavin's request. The wife—Madeleine Elster (played by Kim Novak)—has developed, so it seems, an obsession with her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, who had committed suicide, and her husband is concerned for her safety. Madeleine goes to great lengths to recreate in herself the figure of Carlotta, at least as she is portrayed in an old portrait of her hanging in a local museum. As Scottie tracks Madeleine around the streets of San Francisco, he too begins to develop an obsession. For Scottie, however, it is not Carlotta as she hangs in the museum, but as she lives and breathes in Madeleine. From there, the film takes a few characteristically Hitchcock twists and turns, but not without displacing a central question for the audience of this "romantic thriller": how easily can love be confused with obsession, and what is necessary to rid oneself of the latter?

The Nights of Cabiria

Director: Federico Fellini
Cabiria is a wide-eyed waif, a streetwalker living in a poor section of Rome where she owns her little house, has a bank account, and dreams of a miracle. We follow her nights (and days): a boyfriend steals 40,000 lire from her and nearly drowns her, a movie star on the Via Veneto takes her home with him, at a local shrine she seeks the Madonna's intercession, then she meets an accountant who's seen her, hypnotized on a vaudeville stage, acting out her heart's longings. He courts her. Is it fate that led to their meeting? Is this finally a man who appreciates her for who she is?

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Midway through Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life one of the young boys, R.L., asks his mother before bed to "tell us a story from before we can remember." This phrase provides the cue to understand Malick's film. The film tells us a story from before we can remember, making use of deeply Augustinian notions of anamnesis and mimesis, remembrance and imitation in order to tell a story about how God brings a wayward sinner to the life of grace.

2013-2014: The Western Film Forum

The Western Film Forum features twelve films of the ‘Western’ genre. These films will be shown chronologically in order to show how the ‘Western’ genre evolved over time in response to changing cultural and historical circumstances—indeed, how it became a ‘genre’ upon which later ‘Western’ films could build upon and critique.

 

Focusing on one genre of film (the Western) allows participants to engage each film by being attentive to the way each filmmaker utilizes the cinematic and thematic features specific to that genre. In so doing, participants will be able to see how an analysis of the differences between each filmmaker’s methods of deploying these genre-specific tropes could help to reveal differences in the real story the filmmaker wants to tell his audience.

"Introducing the Western"

Movie(s): The Great Train Robbery (Dir. Edwin Porter) and Stagecoach (Dir. John Ford)
Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery was a silent film made in 1903. Although only twelve minutes long, it is considered by most critics to be the first "Western" film ever made. Indeed, a close viewing of the film reveals many of the themes explored by the "Western" genre as a whole. Our discussion will compare and contrast the thematic similarities and differences between Porter's film and John Ford's 1939 classic Stagecoach. By viewing these films side by side, we can identify some of the central themes of the "Western" genre, even in its contemporary adaptations.

"Introducing the Western"

Movie(s): The Great Train Robbery (Dir. Edwin Porter) and Stagecoach (Dir. John Ford)
Stagecoach is a 1939 American Western film directed by John Ford, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne in his breakthrough role. The screenplay, written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, is an adaptation of "The Stage to Lordsburg", a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox. The film follows a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.

"The Western: Critique or Propaganda?"

Movie: High Noon (Dir. Fred Zinneman)
Fred Zinneman's High Noon was released in 1952. It was huge success, but it was not without controversy. Carl Foreman, who wrote the screenplay, was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the production of the film. John Wayne described the film as "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life" and Carl Foreman was eventually blacklisted from working in Hollywood because of his designation as an "uncooperative witness" before the Congressional committee. Others criticized Zinneman's treatment of the genre, specifically of the western "hero". In High Noon, we see the beginnings of the 'Western' film as an instrument of both political critique and propaganda.

"The Western Hero: A Man with No Name?"

Movie: Shane (Dir. George Stevens)
The Western hero, at least as portrayed in Stagecoach and High Noon, had a backstory and a future. He had some reason to fight-revenge (in the case of Ringo in Stagecoach) or principle (in the case of Will Kane in High Noon). With Shane, the Western hero takes an entirely different turn. Set in the context of progressive "settling" by families on a lawless western frontier, Shane rides into town "out of nowhere." Who is Shane and why does he choose to protect the settlers? These questions are never definitively settled by the film, but they pave the way for an archetype of the western "hero" as a person whose actions, and the motivations behind them, are unconventional, morally ambiguous, and not easily explained.

"The Western: History or Legend?"

Movie: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Dir. John Ford)
John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released in 1962. In a sense, it marks the end of an era of 'western' stories that began with Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Unlike George Steven's Shane, the title of this western leaves some ambiguity as to its intended hero. As we saw, Shane introduced its audience to a western hero whose motivations were not easily explained, even morally ambiguous. By contrast, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance focuses its audience, not on the moral ambiguity of the western hero, but on the moral ambiguity of the western 'legend.' In this film, Ford tries to show how the 'legend' itself, rather than its hero, achieves the aim traditionally ascribed to the western hero, i.e., the defense of or transition to a world of "law and order."

"A New Kind of Western Hero"

Movie: The Searchers (Dir. John Ford)
John Ford's The Searchers was released in 1956. Although this film is chronologically prior to our most recent film (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), it represents the beginning of a different trajectory in the Western genre. In this Western, the hero is not primarily concerned to protect or enable a new kind of society to take root. Instead, he is driven by an obsession with vengeance. The Searchers opened the door for a Western that explored a fundamental tension in the "self-sacrifice" of the western hero: is it grounded in love or vengeance? As the title suggests, the viewer must constantly ask himself, "which of these aims—love or vengeance—motivate 'the searchers'?"

"The Spaghetti Western"

Movie: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Dir. Sergio Leone)
Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was released in 1968. The film was the final installation in the 'Man with No Name' (played by Clint Eastwood) trilogy. By the mid-60s, the traditional Western—a la John Ford—had waned in popularity. It took Italian directors like Leone and Sergio Corbucci to revive it. True to their roots, these directors treated the Western like an opera. The violence and characters typical of the western—not to mention the musical score—are deliberately exaggerated for dramatic effect. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Leone makes his understanding of the each of the characters explicit by naming each of the characters as "good," "bad," and "ugly." Accordingly, the viewer must ask himself what kind of 'good' the 'Man with no Name' represents—is it moral (opposite of bad) or aesthetic (opposite of ugly)? What does Leone gain by making such contrasts explicit and how does it affect our understanding of the "hero" and the "villain" of the Spaghetti Western?

"The Spaghetti Western Redux"

Movie: Once Upon a Time in the West (Dir. Sergio Leone)
Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was released in 1968. Although its U.S. release coincides with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it is actually a later film. One important feature of this film is its representation of a genuine heroine: the prostitute-turned-aspiring-homemaker Jill McBain. Together with another nameless hero (Harmonica), a common bandit / Indian (Cheyenne), and a cruel villain (Frank), this film explores the fate of each of the stock characters central to the 'Western.' While Leone remains true to form in keeping his audience focused on the synergy of the story's "heroes" and "villains," he also makes a more explicit attempt to appropriate as well as challenge the 'myth' of the 'West' in the 'Western.' The title of the film suggests that it tells a story that only "takes place" in the 'West.' This should lead the viewer to ask about the film's larger aim—what point is Leone trying to make through the 'Western?'

"The Western Heroine?"

Movie: Cat Ballou (Dir. Elliot Silverstein)
Eliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou was released in 1965 and starred Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou) in her breakout role. While by no means a serious western (a la John Ford), Cat Ballou plays on many of genre's conventions. Indeed, much like the spaghetti westerns of the mid 1960s, it aims to upend some of those conventions. For instance, the film follows a woman-led band of outlaws. In this western, the woman is not a source of domestication, but criminalization. Indeed, one could interpret Cat Ballou as utilizing the western genre precisely to critique its highly traditional view of the "feminine" by turning the western outlaw hero into a western outlaw heroine—a motif Quentin Tarantino used to much fanfare in his samurai-cum-spaghetti western Kill Bill.

"The Western Sacrifice"

Movie: True Grit (Dirs. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
What does it mean to be a man of “true grit”? This is the question that stands at the heart of the Coen Brothers 2010 film True Grit, based on Charles Portis’ novel of the same name. True Grit centers on a fourteen-year old Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) quest to avenge her father’s death. The film opens with a passage from Proverbs (28:1): “the wicked flee when none pursueth”, which can lead the viewer to understand the story as a quest for the fulfillment of divine justice in a world that lacks the “grit” necessary to enact it. Such is the role of the western "hero." It is up to the viewer to ask whether a different interpretation, and so a different kind of western hero, emerges by the end of the film.

* Edited for general audiences.