The philosophical side of cinema

MIT students examine movies, art, and ethics from both the producer and audience perspectives

Associate Professor of Philosophy Justin Khoo teaches Philosophy of Film. Photo by Jon Sachs.

"What I'm trying to do is have the students simultaneously engage with the philosophical topics, but also just engage with the film on its own and try to articulate what they're thinking about the film,” says Khoo. “What's going on, whether they like it, and the choices that are being made.”

What makes a movie sad? Is there even such a thing as a sad movie? 

Those are the questions students explored during a meeting of 24.213 Philosophy of Film, a new version of the course offered this spring by Associate Professor of Philosophy Justin Khoo.

On this particular afternoon, the case study was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a 2003 film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in which the characters erase the painful memories of their relationship, only to end up together again.

Quncy Cantu ‘24, a computer science and engineering major, argued whether a movie like Eternal Sunshine is sad depends on one’s individual experience. 

"Having a rough breakup is a very universal experience. It’s a situation a lot of people can relate to, which is why for a majority of people, it is a sad movie,” Quincy said.

Khoo expanded on Cantu’s perspective.

"So based on that view, there really isn’t such a thing as a sad movie, right?” added Khoo. “Because a movie might be sad for X. It’s sad for you, but not for me.”

Cameron White ‘24, also a computer science and engineering major, offered a counter argument, saying there are certain movies where feeling sadness is essential to the emotional payoff.

"Every movie has a central message, and those central messages have emotions associated with them,” White said.

"That’s good,” Khoo said. “Another way of thinking about it is that it's all about the creator. The creator intends for the viewer to have a certain experience by watching the film. That’s what makes it sad, as long as a sad experience is intended.” 

Looking at film from all angles

Anna S Bair listens to a classmate during a meeting of Philosophy of Film. Photo by Jon Sachs.

These are the types of philosophical debates Khoo envisioned when he designed the course.

"What I'm trying to do is have the students simultaneously engage with the philosophical topics, but also just engage with the film on its own and try to articulate what they're thinking about the film,” he says. “What's going on, whether they like it, and the choices that are being made.”

Khoo’s primary area of research is in philosophy of language, and that’s been his focus since arriving at MIT in 2013. He earned tenure in 2021, and published his book The Meaning of If in 2022. 

Khoo also has a love for movies and film analysis. He co-hosts the podcast Cows in the Field, with his wife Laura, where they dive into conversation about a film per episode, from Encino Man to The Exorcist.

"I always felt that if I could bring these two passions together, I should do it,” he said.

Khoo spent last summer drafting a syllabus for Philosophy of Film, which hadn’t been taught at MIT since 2007. Khoo took a completely new approach to the subject, and divided the course into six different areas.

"Our starting point is old but useful: the question whether there can be a distinctive art of film,” says Khoo. “Which is a sort of puzzling question to us, I think, because we think, obviously, film is an art form. But there's actually interesting challenges to that, one of which comes from philosopher Roger Scruton, which is basically that film is just photography. And photography is just a mechanical reproduction of something. And a mechanical reproduction of something can't be art.”

Students discussed film and film-viewing from several angles: the film itself, the story of the film, the narrator, the audience, the critics, and the consumers.

In the section of the course focused on critics, students were assigned to watch Twilight and Battlefield Earth, films generally panned by critics, and also read “Why It’s OK To Love Bad Movies” by Matthew Strohl, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana.

"We discuss how there's value to engaging positively with movies which have quite a bit of conventional badness to them,” said Khoo. “Part of what makes these bad movies ultimately good, according to Strohl, is that they violate these conventional norms in interesting ways.”

When directors cause harm, what should the audience do?

Justin Khoo listens as students discuss film in his Philosophy of Film course. Photo by Jon Sachs.

At a meeting of the course later in the semester, students discussed how to approach films produced by artists with troubled pasts. Their case studies were Woody Allen and Bryan Singer, both acclaimed directors, and both accused of sexual assault.

For this discussion, students read “Why We Should Avoid Artists Who Cause Harm,” by Bradley Elicker, a philosophy professor at Rowan University.

"Elicker’s thesis is that when you publicly or financially support someone who has been credibly accused of using their wealth and influence to engage in harmful behavior, you risk enabling them to engage in that harmful behavior by contributing to their wealth and influence,” Khoo told the students.

Khoo presented various ethical dilemmas to the students, serving as analogies to the concept of individual actions - like paying to see a movie by a director accused of doing harm - contributing to harmful behavior.

"In each case, there is a very low risk of your individual action being the tipping point of actually enabling the harm, but by doing that action, you have a high chance of participating in a collective action of enabling harm,” Khoo said.

In one scenario, ten cars were connected to a net holding up a boulder over a person; if a certain number of cars drove away, the boulder fell on the person.

"You’re in this situation where your action makes it slightly more likely that you will be enabling harm,” Khoo said. “Even though it’s unlikely that your driving away will be the tipping point, if it’s likely that others will also drive away then you risk participating in a collective action that leads to the person being crushed by the boulder.”

In the next class, students discussed a counter argument, using Weber State University philosophy professor Mary Beth Willard’s book “Why It’s OK To Enjoy The Work Of Immoral Artists” as their prompt.

Willard argues that aesthetic value is non-fungible, meaning that (unlike money, for example) you can’t make up for what you lose in not watching a movie you love by watching some other movie you love. This means that there are serious aesthetic costs to refraining from engaging with the work of immoral artists.

As part of the course, students also had to write a 500-1,000 word paper critically discussing a film in the course, intended for a general audience, along with a final 3,000 word paper.

Cameron White, who is also minoring in philosophy, signed up for the course because he’s always loved movies. He says it’s been a fun environment to think critically about films.

"And a lot of this connects to computer science, where you have to think about abstract ideas. And arguments are a big part of computer science,” he said.

Anna S Bair, a chemistry major who graduated this spring, had taken philosophy courses in the past and enjoyed them, and was intrigued by a class that focused on movies.

"It certainly applies to my studies, especially when we’re talking a lot about emotional appeal and objectivity. And it helps with communication skills when you’re trying to convey your science,” she said. 

At the close of the semester, Khoo reflected on the course’s inaugural run.

"Teaching the course for the first time was a challenging experience, in part because we were all learning this material together. But the students were really engaged with the material, and I learned so much from our interactions in class. I am excited to try new ways of teaching it in the future.”

Michael Brindley | MIT Philosophy