Re: Teaching film [Was: Experimental films showing at various Universities]

From: Thomas McCormack (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Nov 28 2008 - 17:05:40 PST

"The first thing he did, before actually trying to make films, was to read
everything he could find by Eisenstein. (Sound like anyone you know today?
Not likely.)"
Come on Fred Camper, you sound pretty silly with that tone. I'm currently an
undergraduate and I can say that it does, in fact, sound like someone I
know. I can't account for the majority of my peers, but to ask if that
sounds like ANYBODY you know today is a little ridiculous.
You bring up a lot of interesting stuff, but I'm not sure that blaming one
group or generation or set of institutions gets anyone any closer to really
addressing these issues.
 One problem is that our culture simply doesn't reward intellectual labor.
Schools can encourage it (although they often don't do a very good job, as
I'll get to later) but really, it's a lifestyle and a kind of work that has
to be sustained and incorporated into daily tedium and so on and as long as
young people feel like there's no social impetus, it's unlikely that they're
going to make an identity where this kind of work is integral. It can sound
superficial to put it this way, but it's actually incredibly difficult to
read and view intensely in complete isolation, and as long as students feel
that they are not going to have friends and acquaintances to talk about this
stuff with, I think it's going to be incredibly psychologically difficult
for them to dedicate themselves to this kind of stuff on a regular basis.
The majority of undergrads I know are not uninterested; they just have
difficulty dedicating themselves in a day-to-day way. Again, it would be
easy to say that they're lazy and stupid, and I occasionally indulge myself
in that, but if I really pay attention to their attitudes and outlook I can
see that a large part of it is not feeling that what they're doing is going
to matter; and if the word "matter" here again seems superficial, I could
say they don't ever imagine themselves having a chance to talk through and
work through this stuff with their peers, or have any sense of community
around it; it feels too lonely and isolated for them.
Then we get to the problem of canons, and the lack thereof. Part of not
feeling any sense of community around intellectual labor is that our culture
no longer has any sense of shared, essential knowledge; meanwhile, every
academic tends to feel that their specialty IS a shared, essential
knowledge, which very often leads them to alienate their students. Take the
number of departments at any academic institution and multiply this by the
number of trends within that department and you get a sense of how many
professors greet their students with a little-hidden sense of contempt. Part
of this is PhD programs tend to decide on their own canons, and the
students, who then become teachers, tend to internalize this.
Obviously I have my own opinions about what's important to know; but I'm
saying that from many students point of view this becomes an incredibly
difficult thing to figure out, or decide upon. Even within film departments
you have auteurists and avant-gardists and silent cinema people and you have
European Art House specialists and then throw in cult/camp theorists and
about a thousand different trends in cultural studies, etc. Every professor,
of course, believes that their specialty is the number one priority (after
all, they're dedicating their lives to this stuff) and so throws scorn and
contempt on everything else, which is worsened by intra-departmental
arguing; and so then students, in deciding what to learn and how to go about
it, have to deal with the fact that no matter what they choose, some
authority figure is going to think they're stupid and wrong and under the
influence of some total charlatan. And so unless students are ALREADY
literate and hard working and knowledgeable, making decisions between
culturally sanctioned authority figures is incredibly difficult for them.
I like to fantasize that a lot of people on this listserv would agree that
film programs should focus more on close analysis of early film history and
increase coverage of the avant-garde cinema (the latter I'm pretty certain
of) But I'm sure there're plenty of theory-jockeys too and plenty other
totally different ideas. I think students really want canons, instead of
"opening their minds," they want professors to offer to focus their minds.
Ideally, every student would be strong-willed enough to decide for
themselves what's worth following up on; but it's easy to see why this isn't
the case.
One reaction to this is to call for schoolwork to be more intensive, which
I'm not sure would solve any of these problems. From what I've seen,
students who feel overworked (justifiably or not) tend to compartmentalize
even more, and to sanction off "school-work" from what they feel is really
vital and important to them. I would here note that the hard-working,
dedicated young man that Fred brought up wasn't a "student" at all, but a
drop out. You can push students into "knowing a lot," or more accurately
writing and testing well, but that's not necessarily the entire point and
often, I think, creates an anti-intellectual atmosphere where stress causes
competition causes academic "success" to be prized over actual knowledge.
Until we have a culture that, to a greater degree than it presently does,
supports and encourages being an intellectual, I'm not sure that young
people are going to be converted en masse. Hard-assed, no bullshit programs
like Fred suggested are going to come up against the same problems as
"caring and nurturing" programs, which is that neither can actually force
anybody to BE a particular way in the world; that has to come from somewhere
else. We can't really expect school to do that; I'm also not sure we can
completely blame students. However, both could be doing a whole lot

On Fri, Nov 28, 2008 at 4:34 PM, Beth Capper <email suppressed> wrote:

> haha, well I would certainly blame some of the students. But I think
> it has more to do with the fact that people only begin to specialize
> their interests in undergrad (whereas in the UK they do it at 16).
> Students in the US aren't challenged from an early age to develop
> their interests and think about what they'd like to study. Although, I
> have to say that everything I know about film mostly comes from
> watching them, and thinking about them, as well as one elective class
> in post-war european cinema and an outstanding teacher in my final
> year of undergrad.
> Plus, while its sad to think of students as customers, how else can
> you think when you're paying 30,000 up a year? While I want to get a
> lot out of my MA program, I'm also terrified of what happens after...
> I mean, there has to be a balence between results and education. If I
> were american, there is no way I would have gone to university at all.
> It's not worth the money - especially not in the arts or humanities,
> especially not at art school where you basically spend that much just
> for the privilege of time and facilities, and occasionally an amazing
> teacher, but even they are few and far between now (maybe they were
> good once, but a lot seem jaded with the whole process now).
> I still think one can blame the school and education system more than
> the students and teachers. I mean, some people take initiative to do
> things on their own (and they are mostly the ones that end up
> succeeding) but you can't write off students who don't do that -
> otherwise, why even bother having an art school system? They need to
> be forced by the school to do courses in film history and theory, they
> need to understand WHY it will make them better artists/ smarter
> people.
> - Beth x
> On 11/28/08, Fred Camper <email suppressed> wrote:
> > Beth Capper wrote:
> >
> >
> > > The main problem, in my humble opinion (as a student at the Art
> Institute
> > of Chicago) is that art schools don't require that students be
> > intellectually challenged.
> > >
> >
> > I'd say something related but not identical. The majority (not all) art
> > students are shockingly, stupefyingly ignorant of the history of their
> > media.
> >
> > Oh, a painting student might have to take a few art history courses, and
> > thus some might actually be able to identify Giotto or Direr or Delacroix
> or
> > Cézanne or Mondrian on a test -- but how many have the genuine aesthetic
> > knowledge that comes from a deep involvement with looking, and looking
> > again, at the actual works?
> >
> > In cinema it's even worse. How many MFA film students have a deep
> awareness
> > of and involvement with, say, Méliès, or Griffith, or Eisenstein, or
> Dreyer,
> > or even Deren or Anger? Yet these are among our founders.
> >
> > A true story I like to tell involves a young man who, in the early
> 1950s,
> > having decided that poetry and theater, which he had been involved in,
> were
> > not for him, decided instead, at 18, to become a filmmaker. The first
> thing
> > he did, before actually trying to make films, was to read everything he
> > could find by Eisenstein. (Sound like anyone you know today? Not likely.)
> > Later, he obtained a print of "Potemkin" and viewed it again and again
> and
> > again.
> >
> > His name was Stan Brakhage. And in fact, one can see echoes of
> > Eisensteinian montage in his cinema up through "Dog Star Man." And guess
> > which four filmmakers from my list above were the subjects of his early
> > lectures, when he was hired to teach, collected in the book "The Brakhage
> > Lectures"?
> >
> >
> > > ...The problem is the school...
> > >
> >
> > I'm not sure I agree with this. I think one could make a case for
> blaming
> > the students themselves, or some of them.
> >
> > Were I to design a filmmaking MFA program, it would take three or more
> > years, and include extremely extensive film viewing, reading the writings
> of
> > filmmakers, and viewing their films again and again. Some films would be
> > required of all, while each student would have the option to also choose
> > others to explore in depth. And there would be an alternative way to do
> the
> > program in two years, by seeing and studying films on one's own, IF one
> > could past a difficult test before entering.
> >
> > I doubt that my program would do very well competing for students (who
> see
> > themselves, as has been correctly said here, as customers rather than
> > students) against those caring and nurturing programs that stress not the
> > quality of the work but "the personal growth of the student" (a long-ago
> > quote from a professor in the filmmaking department in Beth's own school)
> > and that feature critiques with questions like "Tell us how your work has
> > evolved since last semester" (a quote from an MFA photography critique I
> > once attended).
> >
> > Of course, people whose last names begin "Ca" are almost invariably
> > profound artists and thinkers who are exempt from my above comments...
> >
> > Fred Camper
> > Chicago
> >
> >
> > __________________________________________________________________
> > For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.
> >
> __________________________________________________________________
> For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.