This week I’m moving from film industry hub Los Angeles to Houston where I will be a college philosophy professor. In honor of my move, I’m posting my entry for “5ive Things“, a blog sponsored by L.A.’s wonderful public radio station KCRW. Here is my list of five Texas movies directed by philosophy majors. These are five of my favorite movies of any kind, but they all also happen to take place in Texas and to have been directed by someone who majored in philosophy.
1. Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978) – Besides being one of the greatest living directors, Terrence Malick is the best philosopher to have given up academia for Hollywood. After getting an undergrad degree in philosophy from Harvard (where he studied with seminal film-philosopher Stanley Cavell), Malick began graduate studies in philosophy at Oxford. He didn’t finish his PhD, but Malick did go on to be perhaps the greatest filmmaking philosopher. And he’s a Texan. His film Days of Heaven is a masterpiece of cinematic spirituality. It’s not only heartbreakingly beautiful, but it gives you a good idea what the Old Testament would have looked like if it had taken place in Texas.
2. Bottle Rocket (Anderson, 1996) – After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a philosophy degree, Houston native Wes Anderson went on to make Bottle Rocket with Luke and Owen Wilson, a movie Martin Scorsese called “transcendent”. I don’t know about “transcendent”, but it sure is funny, and I would agree with Scorsese that it is one of the best films of the 1990s.
3. Blood Simple (Coen, 1984) – The Coen Brothers‘ first film gets as close to the joys of pure cinema as a Hollywood movie can. The Coens are often remembered for their quirky dialogue, but they are just as much masters of nonverbal cinematic storytelling. Here, in the unbridled enthusiasm of a first film, their cinematic virtuosity is on display via long wordless scenes of Hitchockian suspense. The younger brother Ethan studied Wittgenstein as a philosophy major at Princeton, and he has learned well how to translate the great philosopher’s ideas to film: “What can be shown, cannot be said” and “what can be said at all can be said clearly” and “what cannot be said must be passed over in silence” (my paraphrase). Blood Simple is only the first of three Coen movies that takes in Texas. See also No Country for Old Men and the upcoming True Grit.
4. The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988) – Errol Morris was a history major undergrad, but he did briefly enroll in the philosophy graduate program at U.C. Berkeley. And many of his films, The Thin Blue Line above all, brilliantly raise philosophical questions about doubt, certainty, and self-deception. Morris’s film not only reinvents the documentary genre and engages thoughtfully with the ethics of law enforcement, it is also almost a college practicum on epistemology.
5. Primer (Carruth, 2004). Okay, so director Shane Carruth was a math major, not a philosophy major, but if you believe Plato then philosophy and math are not very different. Carruth’s incredibly low-budget film (shot for $7000!) blends mathematical theory, physics, philosophy of time, and computer engineering to create a surprisingly moving drama about friendship and morality.
P.S. The quote for the title of this post comes from an episode of the animated TV series The Critic.