From big screen to Big Problems
Sometimes a film is so engrossing, so all-encompassing,
that it doesn’t dissipate when the lights come up.
Like a hallucination or a fever dream, the film leaves its
audience disoriented, disturbed, changed.
Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s
Red (1994), screened at Doc Films as part of the
Big Problems film and lecture series this winter quarter,
is one such intoxicating experience. Red begins
by tracking the path of an international phone call, the
camera traveling at terrifying speed along cables and under
the ocean, but at the journey’s end no one answers
the shrill, persistent ring. Poor communication, eavesdropping,
missed connections, coincidences, and near-coincidences
mark the entire film, while the screen is saturated in the
title color—crimson to maroon to amber—a world
even more seductive on a dark gray February afternoon.
After the screening about 20 people—undergraduates,
grad students, and community members—gathered in the
Ida Noyes library, where Peter Homans, AM’62, PhD’64,
professor emeritus in the Divinity School and social sciences,
softly asked, “What might be happening in this film?
What is going on?” The deceptively simple questions
were even harder to answer because the film did not seem
to have ended; behind Homans hung deep orange-red curtains,
while in the foyer a Folk Festival enthusiast sang a melancholy,
off-key version of “Loving You.”
The discussion spiraled around the character
Joseph Kern, a retired judge who monitors his neighbors’
phone conversations. Does he possess godlike power? Does
he force model Valentine Dussaut and aspiring judge Auguste
Bruner, lonely young people whose paths cross often but
who do not know each other, into what becomes a dangerous
situation so they will meet?
“I don’t buy that interpretation,”
said fourth-year Isaac Yonemoto, arguing that “mystical
coincidence” or “fate” is responsible.
“He didn’t have total agency.”
“You can choose your interpretation,”
fourth-year student Irina Curca disagreed. “If you’re
a fatalist, you can believe that fate brought them together.
If you’re not a fatalist, then the judge made them
Homans chose Red to illustrate
Rewriting the Past, a Big Problems course he is team-teaching
this spring with Bertram Cohler, AB’61, professor
in social sciences, psychology, psychiatry, and human development.
The eclectic class will cover, among other topics, the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial, the construction of the Israeli national
tradition, and high-school and college reunions.
“All of Kieslowski’s films
work with the idea of loss,” Homans told the audience
at the screening. “I’m interested in loss as
a historical, not just a psychological process. There’s
been so much loss in the 20th century—the Holocaust,
World War I, World War II, the Cold War. Artists understand
that, and they make something out of the emptiness.”
The Big Problems program, cofounded in
1999 by philosophy and biology professor William Wimsatt
and now-emeritus English professor J. Paul Hunter, offers
a range of experimental elective courses for third- and
fourth-year students—“the generation inheriting
the world that we are sometimes screwing up,” Wimsatt
says in an interview. When proposing the program, Wimsatt
was influenced by his son, social activist William Upski
Wimsatt, who wrote Bomb the Suburbs: Graffiti, Freight-hopping,
Race, and the Search for Hip-hop’s Moral Center (1994).
Big Problems courses center on complex global issues that
lack simple solutions—or any solution at all.
All Big Problems classes are team-taught
by two or three faculty members from different disciplines,
who often “argue back and forth,” Wimsatt says.
“That in itself helps students understand how open
these subjects are.” Among the seven courses offered
this year are On Love: Text and Context, taught by humanities
professor Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61, and
social-sciences professor David Orlinsky, AB’54, PhD’62;
War, taught by Slavic languages and literatures professor
Milton Ehre and Sinaiko; and Psychoneuroimmunology: Links
between the Nervous and Immune Systems, taught by psychology
professor Martha McClintock and pathology professor José
The five-week film series was a first
for the program, which has sponsored a public-lecture series
every year since its founding. “People go to a film
expecting to enjoy it,” says Big Problems executive
director Margot Browning, AM’78, PhD’89, who
organized the series. “The screen offers a different
dimension, an accessible way to raise these topics for discussion.”
This year the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation
was impressed enough with the Big Problems program to award
it a $200,000 grant. Wimsatt hopes to spend the money on
new curriculum development; a conference on teaching the
courses; an expanded public-lecture series; and fellowship
support for visiting faculty.
Also planned are increased collaboration
with other College programs, such as Human Rights and Environmental
Studies, and developing Big Problems internships. While
the main goal of Big Problems is to help College students
understand the complexity of global issues, “I personally
wouldn’t mind,” Wimsatt says, “if a few
social activists came out of this program.”
—Carrie Golus, AB’91,