From NYC to Clemson, Chris Grau’s love of film and philosophy has made for a perfect pairing
By Heidi Coryell Williams
College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities
Associate professor of philosophy Chris Grau estimates that he has watched thousands of movies in his 40-some-odd years — many in the name of research about the ethical relevance of film.
But for as many as he’s watched for work, he’s probably seen even more for the pure fun of it. And, truth be told, sometimes a bad zombie flick is exactly what he’s craving — if for no other reason than a little mental respite.
That’s because for Grau, who joined Clemson in 2007, movies aren’t just about entertainment: They’re a springboard for philosophical deliberation — both in the classroom and outside it.
Conversational kick-starters are a godsend for natural introverts like him, Grau says. This has become even more important since he signed on for a two-year stint to live in one of Clemson’s residence halls, with his wife, Susan, and lovable Jack Russell Terrier, Emma, as a part of Clemson’s Faculty in Residence program.
Faculty members, including Grau, have agreed to be placed in select residence halls, where they live and work alongside college students. For Grau, that often means letting students borrow from his vast collection of DVDs, many of which are stored in the third-floor, former lounge of Holmes (which was converted to an office for him). “I wonder if I got all those back,” Grau offers, only half joking.
In truth, Grau has always loved film. He took several classes in the subject as an undergrad at New York University. But it wasn’t until he got to graduate school that he gave much credence to the philosophical aspects of film. Then, he met an inspirational professor, George Wilson (recently retired from the University of Southern California), and Grau subsequently signed up for every course he taught.
“That ended up including a couple about philosophy of film,” Grau recalls. He was skeptical at first. As a grad student, he found much of the post-modern, post-structuralist film theory he came across to be a bit pretentious. So, he had written it off.
But Wilson’s class opened his eyes, and now Grau does the same for his Clemson students. “It’s really fun to see these students get so excited about philosophy, especially in my 101 class,” he explains. Given that very few have ever been exposed to philosophy teachings prior to college, he says he enjoys making the introduction to them. Movies, he explains, are an ideal way to do it.
“They don’t quite know what the subject of philosophy is, but they know about movies,” he says. “This is our first opportunity to get them interested.”
A friend from Grau’s NYU days ended up going on to work with the Wachowski brothers, who directed the box office blockbuster The Matrix. Shortly after the film was finalized, his friend sent him a script and asked Grau if he could assemble a philosophy section for the brothers’ website. Grau’s work didn’t actually publish until sequels of The Matrix were in production, but to accommodate his work, he moved back to Manhattan briefly so that he could complete the project and help with other, non-philosophy parts of The Matrix site.
Grau eventually took on other film and website work, including some for O Brother, Where Art Thou? before he stopped to complete his dissertation for his Ph.D. in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.
Now, Grau combines his research in the ethical relevance of film and his background in the movie industry to get students asking questions about things like free will in Groundhog Day, memory and identity in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the nature and value of reality in The Matrix.
Whether he’s talking personal identity in Memento or utilitarianism in I, Robot, it’s all pretty deep stuff. What’s even more impressive is that Clemson students are engaging in this kind of thoughtful study, not just outside the classroom, but outside the discipline, as well. Nursing majors, engineering students and others across campus have been participants in his 100-level course. And as the faculty in residence, he’s also sparked conversations about philosophy and film in the place he calls home. He uses an Optima HD projector to project movies in the dorm’s basement-level lounge, showing them on a portable screen that he purchased with his Faculty in Residence budget for Holmes.
“It’s so easy to find films that raise philosophical questions,” Grau explains. “It’s a very accessible way to introduce philosophy.”
Chris Grau is under contract with Oxford University Press for a book that explores ethical issues through film.