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Movies and Philosophy Go Together Like Popcorn and Butter

Professors Use Popular Films to Discuss Big Ideas

Students and community members filled the Luna Theater for the first Photo by K. Webster
Students and the public are welcome at the Philosophy and Film series at the Luna Theater, which features a free movie and a discussion led by a UML philosophy professor.

10/07/2019
By Katharine Webster

Silence your cellphone, Spinoza. 

Pass the popcorn, Plato. 

Before talking philosophy, we’re going to watch a movie together because, as you once so wisely said, Plato, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” 

That’s the idea behind the Philosophy Department’s “Philosophy and Film” series at the Luna Theater in downtown Lowell, which invites students and members of the public to watch a popular movie for free and then discuss it with a philosophy professor afterward.

The Philosophy and Film series, now in its third year, has featured recent movies like “Get Out,” followed by a conversation on race and the horror genre led by Assoc. Teaching Prof. Christa Hodapp, as well as older films like 1991’s Academy Award-winning “Thelma and Louise.” 

The series began three years ago when several philosophy professors who share a love of film decided it would be a great way to make philosophy more accessible for both students and the public. Former assistant teaching professor Heidi Furey was awarded a Chancellor’s 2020 Grant to start the series in spring 2017.

“The goal is to make philosophy fun with film,” says Hodapp, who now coordinates the series. “It’s great to have our students and faculty come into contact with the local community and to have the local community come into contact with us and see what we do. We’ve had such a positive response and great attendance.”
Asst. Prof. Jose Mendoza and philosophy major Armando Cruz outside Mill No. 5. Photo by K. webster
Asst. Prof. Jose Mendoza and senior philosophy major Armando Cruz outside Mill No. 5 downtown.

The Philosophy Department has continued to fund the series at the Luna Theater in Mill No. 5, a treasure trove of independent businesses in a renovated mill building on Jackson Street.

The movies, which are shown once a month during the academic year, draw philosophy majors and minors as well as other students and community members. Students in philosophy classes can get extra credit for attending, but many show up without that incentive. 

Ayse Sezen, a senior computer science major, says she came to the free movies last spring while taking a metaphysics class with Hodapp. Although Sezen isn’t taking any philosophy classes this semester, she arrived early to see the first film in the fall series, “The Wrestler.”

Sezen says she gets something different from each film and professor. She was especially moved by “The Fountain” last semester, with its themes of disease, death, Buddhism and reincarnation. 

“In Buddhism, they don’t view death as a bad thing. I lost my mom to cancer, so it was a nice way to think about it – that maybe death isn’t just an end, but also a beginning,” she said.
Student Ayse Sezen (top left) and Lowell residents Lena Maxwell and Maria Roach (front right) got to the theater early to get good seats. Photo by K. Webster
Student Ayse Sezen, top left, and Lowell residents Lena Maxwell and Maria Roach came early to get good seats for "The Wrestler."

Lena Maxwell, a city resident, said she came to “Being John Malkovich” last year and was fascinated by the discussion – “The dilemma was: Should you, just because you can, enter someone else’s body?” It was so enjoyable that she brought a friend, Maria Roach, to watch “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. 

“I said, ‘Let’s go out and do something intellectual,’” Maxwell said. “I like the discussion part a lot. It’s a great idea.”

Asst. Prof. José Mendoza, a political philosopher, chose “The Wrestler” and led the discussion afterward, asking provocative questions about the alienating and self-destructive working conditions for Rourke’s and Tomei’s characters – a wrestler who’s two decades past his prime and an exotic dancer whose years on the job are also starting to tell. 

“There’s a sense that we get enjoyment out of the destruction of other folks’ bodies. What does that say about us?” Mendoza asked. “How many of you watched the (Patriots-Bills) football game yesterday?”
The trailer for "The Wrestler," the first offering in this fall's Philosophy and Film series.

Philosophy major Armando Cruz, a senior who grew up in the Dominican Republic and New York City, said it was his first time attending the series because he lives in Boston and works and studies full time. 

“I was really curious about how you could make this movie into a philosophical message,” he said. “I like to hear what other people are thinking, as well – not just the crowd, but the professors, too.”

He particularly enjoyed “The Wrestler” because he could relate to a major theme. Wrestling is a very popular sport in both places where he grew up, where many people also look at sports as a way up and out to a better life. 

Cruz said his takeaway was that “The Wrestler” is about each character’s struggle with identity. Rourke’s character ultimately decides he belongs in the ring as Randy the Ram, even though he knows it might kill him, while Tomei’s character focuses on her life outside the club.

“They’re both able to figure out their identity, what defines them,” Cruz said.

And that, according to Spinoza, should set them on the path to liberation: “To understand is to be free.”

For more information on the series, visit the Luna Theater website and look for movies tagged “Philosophy and Film,” usually on the last Monday of the month.