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From film school to film's cool: a manifesto.

Film schools have received little attention over the years largely because they operate behind the scenes of a very flashy industry. The assumption is that instruction is going on pretty much the way it has always been, with no second thought given to what exactly is being taught, by whom, in what kind of environment, and with what goal in mind. However, as Jacques Derrida reminds us, education tends to reflect the continuous struggle between opposing forces operating in society at any given time. (1) These last few years for instance, many film schools have quietly remade themselves from the inside out, officially embracing the practice and ideology associated with Hollywood filmmaking. In other words, films are now considered mere entertaining commodities and alternative modes of production are no longer on the menu. Seen from a wider perspective, this development is but a skirmish in the long-standing struggle between the two currents exerting influence on the American university: should it be dedicated to education or instruction? Because film school graduates will continue to dominate the screens for years to come, the impact of the changes will be felt not only in the medium but in the culture in general. Obviously, what I am discussing here is a general tendency: not every school has been impacted, nor does every single program want to follow suit. But the trend is clear and it is irreversible.

Broadly speaking three groups of students have attended film school over the years. From the early thirties to the late fifties, few institutions offered courses in cinema and only a handful of students enrolled in them. This lack of interest made sense as high stockades protected the studios at the time. One needed to know somebody inside in order to be invited past the gate. Everybody else was simply out of luck. One could not even join a union. Anyhow, with their B movies, the studios were already running their own training program. No wonder then that little, if anything at all, is known about this first group of students for their degree was essentially meaningless. After graduating, their only avenue was to look for a job in ancillary fields, mainly in industrial and educational filmmaking.


To help legitimize their presence on campus, the existing programs were eventually integrated within more traditional liberal arts venues, such as theater or fine arts. Emphasis was thus placed on developing minds at least as much as on teaching specific skills. That is to say, making films and thinking about them had not yet been split into different disciplines. In a history class for example, production students could be introduced to German expressionism, Soviet montage, Italian neo-realism, etc. In an "aesthetics" class (as it was called back then), a discussion could involve the contrasting ideas about the medium found in the work of Rudolf Arnheim, Lev Kuleshov, and Andre Bazin. Through such courses, budding filmmakers became exposed to the heterogeneousness at the core of the cinematic culture. Codes and conventions could be seen for what they are: guidelines one could adopt or reject. Neither narrative nor visual strategies had to follow a single model. And that in turn led students to recognize that the director was in fact the author of the film, a development not yet acknowledged by the Hollywood establishment.

Adding to this eclecticism, film instructors originated from all works of life. Some were retired professionals of course but others came from theater, still photography, fine arts, the documentary field, and the English department. This diversity in the teaching corps helped present cinema as a "public sphere" where all kinds of films were welcome: Hollywood films to be sure but also foreign films, documentaries, the avant-garde, etc. (2) Every contribution to the art was welcome regardless of where it came from. Although it was never spelled out quite this way, cinema was in effect construed as a mystique more than a medium. It was regarded in the same spirit that Konstantin Stanislavki spoke of theater, as something bigger than any one individual: an altar one approached with awe and reverence. (3) You served cinema, you did not use it for your own aggrandizement. Maybe one's contribution to the field would never achieve greatness but the quest itself was worthy of one's life.


Students entering film school in the sixties would have suffered the same fate as their predecessors had unforeseen events not changed the world around them: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights campaign, the drugs, the sexual revolution, the free speech movement, in other words the entire counterculture phenomenon. All of a sudden, Hollywood's traditional fare--the Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies--no longer spoke to the immediate concerns of anyone under thirty. As the business went sour, the lock the studios had on film production and distribution disintegrated practically overnight. Art houses popped up everywhere, packing audiences for the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and many others. Admittedly, more than anything else, it was the franker treatment of sexual situations that clinched the commercial success of these films. Still there was also the novelty of being exposed to visuals flaunting their directors' command over film language. The stylistic liberties of the New Wave films in particular convinced the fresh arrivals in film school that traditional moviemaking was now obsolete. At the same time, producers like Roger Corman were quick to take advantage of Hollywood's debacle to make and distribute cheap movies exploiting sex, horror, or violence. Essentially these motion pictures were B-movies but, being produced outside the system, a union card was not required. They thus offered eager newcomers the kind of opening they had been hoping for. All that was needed was some basic visual literacy something the school programs were good at providing. After graduating (or even before it), students could work on these low-budget features to learn the trade, then (at least, that was the idea) move on and do better work. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese pioneered the approach, clinching the tactic for everyone else. With other ambitious individuals originating from television, theater and elsewhere, film school graduates thus laid the foundation for the American Film Renaissance. What united all these filmmakers was their desire to usher in a more mature, more contemporary, and more thoughtful cinema.

As we know, the anti-establishment spirit of the sixties lasted barely a decade. In the theaters, the anti-heroes, the defiant spirit, and the questioning of America's values found in post-classical films were not to everyone's taste. Films like Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), and Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), to recall just a few landmark pictures, were unusually demanding for audiences accustomed to lighter fare. Eventually the unmet demand for pure escapist entertainment reasserted itself. Two films in particular--Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), led the way in showing Hollywood what needed to be done to recapture a global audience and the rest, as we know, is history.


Little mention however has been made of Star Wars' direct impact on film schools. Starting in the late eighties, practically every applicant to USC, UCLA, and NYU mentioned in their personal statement the importance of that film for their career choice. Having seen it time and time again as children or teenagers, they were now anxious to produce similar entertainment. Although it was probably not spelled out in application forms, the bonanza associated with that film and its sequels also contributed to convince a cross section of young people, who years before would never have considered a movie career, that they were destined for a life of glamour, riches, and everlasting celebrity status. By the hundreds at first, then by the thousands, a brand new generation, shaped by Star Wars, applied to film schools. Far from abating over time, this gold rush mentality has only intensified since then.

This new group was thus cast in a different mold when compared to their immediate predecessors. First, whereas it was Hollywood's failure of imagination that drove the sixties' students toward serious filmmaking, the new arrivals embraced the world of action, fantasy and special effects that was now the trademark of a re-invigorated tinsel town. Second, they had no time for older movies, serious movies, more demanding movies in general. These films were slow and boring: how could they compare to the new, dazzling entertainment that moves you viscerally? Third, this was the first generation to have been immersed in visuals (via television) since childhood. Today, visuals translate as speed, fast action, rapid cutting, the GoPro camera, video games, music videos, 3D, virtual reality, and computer generated imagery. Anything to do with reading and conceptual thinking is by contrast perceived as burdensome. In time, this cultural shift was bound to become a problem for liberal arts programs founded on critical thinking and historical perspectives. Ray Carney of Boston University for instance doesn't mince his words when describing the educational level of applicants to his school this way: "They don't want to have to read anything. Write anything. Think about anything. Study anything. All they want to do is hit the streets and start filming. These are people who, almost without exception, haven't even seen the important films of the past ... They are cinema illiterates." (4) Notice that Carney doesn't say these students are lacking talent. Because some of them (the same percentage as always) are accomplished filmmakers. What they produce just does not resemble the kind of films those of us who have been raised in an altogether different era are valuing.

To accommodate the new entrants, film schools realized they had to change their teaching methodology. In a nutshell, doing was emphasized over thinking. Learning by doing of course is nothing new. John Dewey long ago brought attention to the fact that a bored, inactive or distracted student was unlikely to learn anything. (5) To allow students to handle one on one the object under discussion helps turn them into participants in their own learning. Still, in film school, having each student load an Arriflex camera could take a toll on an expensive device. So what tipped film instruction toward pure hands-on learning was the shift from 16mm to digital technology. If something goes wrong with a consumer-level camera, another can be had quickly for little expense. Furthermore, for some time now, most students arriving in film schools already have their own equipment, camera as well as some editing software. Being familiar with their use, not much additional training is needed indeed before they can start shooting. No wonder then that "learning by doing," "immersive education," and "a camera by day one" are found over and over on the home page of many film schools' websites.

Another consistent theme of these websites is that classes are taught by working professionals. As a matter of fact, industry people have gradually replaced the odd bunch that was employed before them. At USC for instance, only those "with significant body of work or those who are [presently] working in the industry now will be teaching." (6) The idea here is that specialists would by definition be better than generalists at teaching specific skills. What made the change of personnel possible? As is well-known, chairs like to plan ahead. They resent having to look for substitutes in the middle of a semester as that brings complaints from students. Professionals however like to remain open if the phone rings and they are offered a job on a film. In the past, they were thus limited to spending an evening on campus during which they could bring a whiff of the "real world" to the classroom. In the last ten years however, more and more professionals have made themselves available for teaching. Maybe the sheer number of young people entering the field has made competition so tough that many pros have suddenly quite a bit of free time on their hands. It may also be that a meager but regular paycheck is no longer something to dismiss lightly. Whatever the reason, colleges and universities couldn't be happier as the schools' websites can now list the famous (and not so famous) films of their new instructors. "Our faculty has a filmography of over one hundred feature films ... You're mentored by people who have this phenomenal experience, people who have been doing it for decades ...," Dean Robert Bassett of Chapman's Dodge College proclaims in a P.R. video. (7) A "name" teacher is thus exploited as a marketable brand counted on to attract customers to the school. The ability to recruit personnel from the studios also helps explain why so many film programs from around the country have recently established branches in the Los Angeles area: Austin, Boston, Emerson, Ithaca, Syracuse and Temple among them.

The appearance of modern technologies in the classroom certainly helped the faculty changeover. For a long time, a three hour lecture class was, well, just that. No visual bells and whistles were available, films being too expensive to rent. Three hours however is a long time to fill. A lot of work and research must be carried out to come up with a teaching plan that does the job week after week. The amount of time involved and the difficulty of organizing a huge, disparate material into a meaningful narrative constituted an impassable barrier for those in the industry who might otherwise have been interested. This all changed in the seventies with the appearance in the classroom of VHS, followed by DVD discs, YouTube offerings, and the possibility of streaming movies online. Today, anyone really can organize a "lecture" around a series of movie clips illustrating this or that point. In other words, genuine teaching skills are much less important than before.

Last but not least, the shift from film to digital equipment also contributed to the demise of the generalists. For example, it was not imperative that one cut film for a living in order to teach editing. Most of the teaching would take place in a classroom discussing, say, the contrasting views about editing offered by Griffith, Eisenstein and Bazin. When it was time to go to the editing room, a teaching assistant could be counted on to demonstrate the use of the splicer and the Moviola to the students. Today, the situation could not be more different: one meets in a lab and the teacher's job is to get students become quickly familiar with the most useful functions of the Avid Media Composer software. And who but professionals are likely to be utterly conversant with that operating system? As for Eisenstein's theory of dialectical montage, good luck bringing it in when students are engrossed in the images on their computer screen. More generally, it goes without saying that only specialists are able to teach Flame or any other complex software used in compositing or special effects.

Film schools have thus managed a perfect match between a generation of students interested only in learning how to do things and a teaching corps which is not asked anything more than rehearse with students what they normally do in their professional life.

Practical learning however has historically been aligned with the needs of employers in manufacturing industries. As Paul Tillich reminds us, in such training, one "must learn those skills most useful for success in the mechanism of production ...," which means that each pupil is indoctrinated in "the ideals and norms of the dominant system." (8) Such scheme therefore is never neutral. It is not disinterested. In other words, one learns the "it" Dean Bassett talked about: the conventional filmmaking his professionals are familiar with, that and nothing else. To deliver such program--an agenda based on imitation and efficiency--the specialists now teaching on campus have perfected an easy-to-duplicate model for each area of production. In effect, what is at core a highly individualistic creative process has been reduced to a basic prototype that is offered to students as if it were an iron law. Instead of rejoicing at the diversity of contents and forms in cinema, each craft was pared down till a single, soulless, and depersonalized model emerged. In effect classroom teaching now emulates the kind of training favored by supervisors in machine-tooling plants to bring the newly hired up to speed. There, an employee is taught only the skills needed to do his/her part on the assembly line. Here, students are provided with uncomplicated, well-oiled templates for each of the various crafts. What is storytelling but the journey of a character who wants something and meets resistance on her way? How to stage the action? Cover the scene from multiple angles: an establishing shot, some medium ones, and plenty of close-ups. How to handle actors? Remind them of their objectives, circumstances, etc., and always ask for an adjustment after a take. Even lighting can be made simple: just motivate it through sources normally expected in everyday life, sunlight showing up through a window or a lamp placed next to the couch.

For all his support for a vibrant, active education, Dewey himself was keenly aware of the dangers inherent in compressing too much the learning experience. Fancy, he writes, an apprentice working "for and with a master carpenter who believes in only one kind of house with a fixed design, and his aim is not only to teach his apprentice to make just that one kind of house, but to accept it with all its soul, heart and mind as the only kind of house that should ever be built ..." (9) In addition, there is something rather insidious about this "Hollywood for Beginners" presentation in that it makes students believe that what they are learning is actually the open sesame guaranteeing them a successful career later on. Even though they may hear from teachers that a lot more is needed (talent, personality, luck, connections, imagination, stamina, etc.), the fact they are mastering the models in their own projects convinces them they are on their way.


If they were not already familiar with the Hollywood dogma, incoming students are thus quickly initiated in it. In learning by doing, one cannot indeed "do" something in general, one must act on something concrete. In directing classes, scenes from well-known movies are staged anew with student actors, then critiqued in line with the norms that rule commercial features. In a lighting class, the assumption is that key, fill, backlight and other lights must be arranged around the actors in a way that duplicates on a small scale the kind of lighting that is revered in American Cinematographer. So, by repeating the same procedures over and over again, bodies are trained to perform what will soon become second nature. "With every gesture," Theodor Adorno writes, "the pupil is given to understand that what is most important is understanding the demands of 'real life' and fitting oneself properly for the competitive realm ..." (10) Hence, through relentless conditioning, film students are led to adopt what is only one approach to filmmaking as the approach. All in all, the making of films ends up domesticated, rationalized, systematized, with clear procedures to follow through the entire process. This is how things are done in the industry. Here are the ten ingredients, proceed in that order and you'll get the same results. Lacking the cultural dimension, techniques are presented as if they had developed organically through the simple process of evolving practice. In other words, the connection between certain kinds of films and the ideological requirements of the capitalist economic system is left out. Somehow the platitude that distracting viewers from the very real preoccupations in their life is a good thing is never questioned. Is it any surprise then that in most student films, the focus remains squarely on individual lives disconnected from the social, political, and economic world in which we live? Paulo Freire perfectly capsulized this state of affairs, calling it "the disconnectedness of practice." (11)

Lastly, a paradox underlies this pedagogical model. Even though the ostensible goal is to eliminate any hint of academic "lecturing" from instruction, what has taken its place is the worst kind of academicism. Indeed, what historically defines academic instruction, Albert Boime tells us, is the insistence that students copy blindly the masters' techniques. (12) Here however the standards are not Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick or Jean Renoir. They are certainly not Jim Jarmush, Hal Hartley or Richard Linklater. They are merely the prototypical methods found in average movies. Each student is thus made to alter the unique live event in front of the camera till it matches a dull archetype. Everything goes through the sieve of rigid working rules and all-purpose formulas. Making a film this way ends up as exciting as a day at the office. The magic is gone. The creative madness that is a vital component of filmmaking is no more.

To smooth the way for the new entrants--teachers as well as students--history and theory courses got partitioned in a separate section aimed solely at the study of moving images. Whether called "Film Studies," "Cinema Studies," "Media Studies," or "Critical Studies," it is in that division alone that a straightforward liberal arts program in film can still be found. The sleight of hand achieved two things. First, it made it possible for the film department to maintain its academic facade. Second, it protected production students from being contaminated by quirky ideas about filmmaking emanating from "academics." Production students of course couldn't be happier about the arrangement. Having already fulfilled their humanities requirements in other disciplines, they are probably asked to take an intro class in the history of film or television and maybe a course on Hitchcock or Spielberg as an elective. Few bother to go beyond that. This indifference should not surprise us for, as Jean-Frangois Lyotard made clear in his essay on postmodern mentality, knowledge for itself is no longer worth shooting for: what matters most is whether any piece of information has immediate and practical relevance for the individual. (13) What indeed is the benefit for an aspiring filmmaker today of spending time studying the great classics of the twentieth century? The past of cinema is no longer predictive of its future: the medium has changed, storytelling has evolved, and the technology is brand-new. Things are moving so fast, one no longer has time to deal with vestiges of the past. In the same vein, why bother with Christian Metz or Gilles Deleuze? It's just academic mumbo jumbo, "abstract" stuff that doesn't tell you what to do. That kind of knowledge unnecessarily burdens ambitious individuals, keeping them from jumping in and creating their own masterpieces. In short: the partitioning of film into two separate divisions has resulted in production students not being exposed to a questioning of norms and values in filmmaking. Carney is even blunter. "There is virtually no intellectual content to the [production] course[s], "he writes, "it's like learning to be an auto mechanic or a plumber or a carpenter." (14) To my recollection Florida State University was the first film school to openly drop history and theory from its production program. "There is, in fact, very little academic study of film history, theory and genres, and very little emphasis on experimentation," acknowledged Raymond Fielding, the Dean in 2003. (15) Other schools, including some famous ones, have followed suit. (16) In view of this, is there any difference left between programs at major institutions and those found in trade schools? Is anything distinguishing any longer a college film education from the kind of instruction offered in for-profit career colleges: the New York Film Academy, the Los Angeles Film School, the Dov Simens 2-Day Film School, etc.?

What else got changed in film school? Whereas young people were once willing to go along with a college's idiosyncrasies, students now look at it as just another marketplace where consumers are kings. Specifically, students now perceive the college or university as a mere provider of credentials. In exchange for a certain amount of money, they expect to receive at the end the goods they believe they are paying for: a degree certifying they are competent to work in the field. In response, schools have adopted a more mercantile approach to higher education. Starting in the late eighties, the huge inflow of students combined with the decline in equipment cost has filled the schools' coffers. To further help the bottom line, it is now taken for granted that, once admitted, no one ever fails film school. It makes no difference whether an individual is talented or not, whether one's work shows any promise or not. Everybody gets moved from beginning classes to more advanced classes, from term to term, through the entire program. In fact, the most popular film schools--NYU, UCLA, and USC--have literally become student factories: both in the sense of students producing films in a factory-like environment and in the sense of the students themselves being the manufactured products on the assembly line. There is no end in sight either for these schools presently accept only one out of ten applicants. Looking further ahead, the pool of candidates is bound to grow even larger as more and more foreigners, especially from China, are convinced that studying film in the US will give them a head start in their home countries. And, for those who hesitate to make the trip, a number of famous programs are establishing branches abroad, from Jordan to Singapore, picking up even more students that way. (17)

On our campuses, the buildings housing film schools look the same as ever. They still present the facade one expects in a college environment. The red brick, ivy covered buildings, the doric or ionic columns supporting them, the Latin words one discovers when looking up a structure (USC has "Limes Regiones Rerum" engraved on top of its new cinema facility, which roughly translates as "the frontier regions of the art," something the school couldn't be further from), all this plus the regalia at graduation gives students, parents, and occasional visitors the impression of continuity with the university of Cardinal Newman. Nothing betrays what has actually happened: the substitution of thinking by doing. Does anybody care? In fact, I suspect that, if told of the take-over by the Hollywood hegemon, most people would applaud the conversion: isn't it where movies are made after all?

For the studios, the operation made plenty of sense. First, by outsourcing their training programs to colleges and universities, they didn't have to set up their own organization nor incur any expense toward the trainees' education. Second, they secured for themselves an endless supply of enthusiastic workers. Third, they quashed in the bud whatever spirit of dissensus might still have been alive in the schools. This said, it is not certain that the studios will actually get what they need from this arrangement. Historically, businesses grow through mergers and acquisitions rather than internally. In other words, they depend for survival on inventions carried outside their own walls. Hollywood is no exception to the rule, having generally deployed techniques long after they had been tested elsewhere. To take the New Wave as a single example, the jump cut, the handholding of the camera, the flash cut, the long tracking shots, the abandonment of establishing shots, etc., have all ended up as standard techniques in contemporary Hollywood movies. What made the New Wave such a fount of filmic ideas however was the fact that it involved directors with very different sensitivity and imagination. But this diversity in voices and ideas is precisely what is being stifled in film schools today.

Are film schools nevertheless still indispensable? Many film professionals are skeptical. For Paul Thomas Anderson, "film school is a complete con. You can learn more from John Sturges' audio track on the 'Bad Day at Black Rock' [DVD] disc than you can in 20 years of film school." (18) Steven Soderbergh is no less forthright. After attending a screening of student films at "one of Los Angeles's most respected film schools," (USC? UCLA?), he complained: "I was stunned by how pedestrian and formulaic they were. It was depressing. They felt secondhand. There was no imagination ... I was taken aback by the lack of originality and personality ...." (19) Despite these ominous forewarnings, the great majority of aspiring filmmakers still choose to enroll in film programs largely, I believe, because most people do not trust themselves with their own education.

Although film schools remain the default option today, one must remember that they established themselves as the gateways to professional filmmaking at a time when there was no other way to learn about the medium. This is no longer the case: there is nothing that is taught in film school today that is not already online. The best thing the schools actually deliver is a community of likeminded film lovers. In fact, I suspect that, in addition to a degree, students are counting on the schools to supply them with connections--connections you make in school which you hope will last a lifetime and connections when you meet someone for an interview and both of you have taken the same class or had the same professor at a famous institution. No doubt this helps but the only thing that matters ultimately is whether the applicant can deliver. So it all comes down to portfolio work. And this is where the work done in school no longer pays off: the practice there is restricted to short films and short films are no longer the stepping stones they once were. First of all, the competition in that format--the consequence of film being replaced by digital technology--is intense with more than eight thousand shorts submitted to the latest Sundance. Second, short subjects simply do not furnish evidence that their directors can sustain the interest of viewers over ninety minutes. So it is no surprise that relatively few student academy winners--allegedly the most talented among young filmmakers--have been able to parlay their award into a directorial career. On the podium, each filmmaker imagines: this is it, I made it, yet little if anything is heard from them afterwards.

Despite this, most students enter film school with the expectation of becoming big Hollywood directors. Privately, each one trusts he or she will make it to the top regardless of what happens to the others. With more than 1,500 students thinking this way, how could USC for instance possibly deliver on such wishful thinking? Fearful of class action lawsuits, department chairs started deemphasizing the notion of the complete author. Dean Elizabeth Daley of the USC School of Cinematic Arts admitted as much when she explained that "it was unrealistic for the school to focus on training great filmmakers." (20) Students are thus pushed early on toward an area of expertise: cinematography, sound, editing, etc. In effect, they are made to accept the class/labor division at the core of the Hollywood establishment. Of course, the idea behind the move is that specialists will have more luck getting a job after graduation. If we listen to the president of the American Society of Cinematographers however, the odds of making it to the big league after film school are no better than those of joining the NBA or the NFL. Very candidly, he suggests that ninety five per cent of film students no longer work in the field five years after graduation. (21) Even though that number may be more of a hunch than the result of an actual survey, it remains that the industry simply cannot absorb the thousands who graduate in the field each year. Everybody knows that the competition for jobs is intense, especially in the Los Angeles area, with one hundred people showing up for any advertised position. And if one manages to find work after all, it is unlikely to be a job worth writing friends about. What Balzac noted about young fortune hunters in the nineteenth century remains relevant today for film graduates: "There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment," he wrote, but "there are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot." (22) For many students then, life after graduation resembles a nightmare scenario in which, after training to become a surgeon, he or she finds work as an orderly in a hospital wheeling a patient to the MRI room. Let us summarize: those working in B movies during the classical age not only enjoyed defined benefits while training, they also had a good chance of a steady career afterwards. Students nowadays pay defined contributions to their schools without much hope of a job later on.

And these defined contributions often amount to a lot of money. The "best" colleges and universities think nothing of charging $100,000+ for a film education. At first, students pay no attention to the numbers. As they get closer to graduation however, they realize that their loans have accumulated and that eventually this money will have to be repaid. This, in turn, puts enormous pressure on them to make the kind of films they imagine producers want to see. Inevitably that translates into taking less creative risks, in the end coming up with mediocre projects that satisfy no one.

For the few who still believe that cinema is more than escapist entertainment, the answer must be to stay away from film schools. This does not mean avoiding a college education, only that one should major in a field that still provides the cultural background missing from film schools. When he taught at VGIK in Moscow for instance, Eisenstein "pushed his students to explore all areas of knowledge, all the arts, all facets of life, to examine what makes us human, to pore over culture, politics, social life, science ...." (23) To focus exclusively on film in film school, as it is the norm today, is bound to leave much behind. How can one pretend to be on top of things creatively when ignoring the extraordinary work that is presently being done in theater and opera throughout the world? How can one so totally ignore other approaches to filmmaking and other film cultures? How does one dare set up characters without a deep understanding of the social and political system that structures the world in which we live? Reaching out is therefore a must. Without it, students are likely to stick to ersatz concoctions, producing but feeble echoes of other films.

At the core of serious filmmaking, one finds indeed, to make use of Freire's ideas, "an attitude toward the world." (24) This must precede the making of a film. The artist feels something is missing from the portrayal of life. This gap starts off a search for offsetting images. Vague at first, substitute figures eventually emerge in the mind of the filmmaker. In the final film, a brand-new, unfamiliar world arises that clashes with our assumptions. Far from requiring a boisterous display of technique, the creative unfolding can be generated very simply. It is enough to compare the best student work in recent years to Two Men and a Wardrobe (Roman Polanski, 1958) to see what is now missing. Whereas the former have all the polish of professional productions, in his student film Polanski's rich metaphorical as well as poetic style reveals the lie at the core of the Polish People's Republic. Instead of replicating a familiar landscape, his film is world-forming. Still today it ranks as a one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

R. G. Collingwood makes yet another point. Unlike the craftsman who knows ahead of time what he or she wants to achieve and deploys the appropriate means to bring it about, the artist, he writes, "has no idea what the experience is which demands expression until he has expressed it. What he wants to say is not present to him as an end towards which means have to be devised; it becomes clear to him only as the poem takes shape in his mind, or the clay in his fingers." (25) The screenplay in other words is not the blue print of the film. Rather the film is made to discover what exactly is drawing the director to that story or that character, that location or that light. Sometimes, rarely, this approach manifests itself early on--as with Polanski. Most often it grows over time. For it takes time to realize that the visible, everyday world we take for granted is not reality per se but a facade produced by society, a plastic construct that can be tweaked, altered or totally re-formed through art as well as politics. It also takes time to nurture within oneself the substitute figures that may one day come alive in a film. And finally it takes guts to put them out there, exposing them to the scrutiny of everyone else. What is certain is that the subconscious rumbling that starts the ball rolling is too personal, too tenuous and too unpredictable to be welcome or fostered in our film schools today. In the new environment, all the answers are in the script and the crew knows how to shoot it. So yes, indeed, the only way to become a filmmaker is by making films, but it must be your films, not theirs.

Kierkegaard was concerned with existential issues when he wrote the following sentence, yet his warning very much applies to film students today: "The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all." (26) What one learns in film school today is to become what T. S. Eliot called "hollow men," cogs in the machine. (27) To become a full-fledged filmmaker, you now have got to do it on your own.


(1) Jacques Derrida, "Ou commence et comment finit un corps enseignant?" in Politiques de la philosophie, ed. Dominique Grisoni (Paris : Grasset ,1976), 74.

(2) Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989).

(3) Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor's Work: A Student's Diary, trans. Jean Benedetti. (London: Routledge, 2008), 558.

(4) Ray Carney, "A Modest Proposal: Let's Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics." Accessed January 28, 2015.

(5) John Dewey, On Education., ed. Reginald D. Archambault. (New York: Random House, 1966), 116.

(6) Judy Irola, head of the cinematography division, e-mail message to author, March 04, 2009.

(7) The school's website now trumpets 300 films. Accessed January 30, 2015. undergraduate/bfa-film-production.aspx

(8) Paul Tillich, The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society, ed. J. Mark Thomas (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1988), 16.

(9) John Dewey, 151.

(10) Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 53.

(11) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 2002), 19.

(12) Albert Boime, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century (London: Phaidon, 1971), 4.

(13) Jean-Frangois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 1984), 51.

(14) Ray Carney, "A Modest Proposal."

(15) Quoted in Florida State University Research in Review, 2003, 24.

(16) Talking about his degree track, the head of the producing division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts conceded: "I treat it a little like a trade school." Sharon Waxman, "At U.S.C., a Practical Emphasis in Film," New York Times, Jan 31, 2006. Accessed January 30, 2015. http://www.nytimes. com/2006/01/31/movies/31film.html?pagewanted=1

(17) The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts is a joint venture between the Royal Film Commission of Jordan, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. As for Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, it has partnered with Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore to offer a two-year degree program in creative producing at the Ngee Ann campus in Singapore.

(18) Patrick Goldstein, "The New, New Wave," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1999, Sunday Calendar, 104.

(19) Dalya Alberge, "Director Says Film Schools Face the End," The Times, November 6, 1999, 2w.

(20) Sharon Waxman, "At U.S.C., a Practical Emphasis in Film." Accessed January 30, 2015. http://www.nytimes. com/2006/01/31/movies/31film.html?pagewanted=1.

(21) Richard P. Crudo, "President's Desk," American Cinematographer, March. 2005,10.

(22) Honore de Balzac, Old Goriot, trans. Ellen Marriage (New York: Heritage, 1949), 102.

(23) Quoted in Sophia Collet and Mathieu Macheret, << Y a-t-il une cinephilie de la lumiere? >>, Cahiers du Cinema, May 2004, 24.

(24) Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation, trans. Donaldo Macedo (South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1985), 3.

(25) R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 29.

(26) Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 165.

(27) Eliot, T. S. The Hollow Men. Accessed January 30, 2015. http://
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Author:Geuens, Jean-Pierre
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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