I had a number of teachers of film throughout my formal education. If I was feeling generous I’d call them all mentors, but that’s not very accurate.
I’ll just give them some generic nicknames to refer to them. My film teachers were Miss Arty, Mister Tech, Mister Burnt, The Life, and Dr. Antichrist Fuckface.
I got Miss Arty in High School. I forgot why I wanted exactly to take a film course, but I did, and I was very lucky to attend a nice school that had such things as film courses, flexible schedules, and other niceties that didn’t involve wishing I could afford my lunch. I was in 11th grade, a Junior.
We watched a bunch of classic films, such as Psycho, some “Italian Realist” thing I remember involving three people and a bathtub, The King of Comedy, and a few other variant productions. We’d watch the film one class and then talk/report on it the next one.
Miss Arty taught the class, a smug little writing teacher who had obviously wanted to enrich our lives with discussions of frame composition, juxtaposition of shots, alternate views towards the cinematic structure (this was where the Italian Realist Bathtub Threesome film came in) and a host of other way-out-there let’s-blow-minds kind of stuff. Bear in mind, however, I’d already been to film school by this point. From when I was about 10 to when I was 13, I watched The Movie Channel almost straight. That may sound trite, but I saw something in the range of about 1,000 films in that period, and I actually watched them. Since The Movie Channel (it’s now called TMC) was easily the remainder bin of the “we play movies all day” channels of the time (HBO and Cinemax were the other choices, and Mom didn’t buy those), I got to see some really whacked out productions, well outside Hollywood or even independent norms. I learned structure, “film grammar”, what worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, that there really were no rules as long as everything got wrapped up before the credits started rolling.
Anyway, Miss Arty got what she wanted (a captive audience of people reading up on her version of 1970′s-era film structure analysis) and the students mostly got what they wanted (movies in school). I’m sure some of them were displeased about getting nothing too modern in there, but you take the good with the bad.
The big deal was that at the end, you could choose to make your own movie. To my great surprise, only about 5 of the 20 students chose to go this route. At the time, we had access to, basically, Super 8 film and cameras, and we were expected to make something in the range of a five minute film. You will be shocked to know I was one of the five students who chose to go the route of making a film.
In a move similar to what I did with the BBS Documentary, instead of coming up with a film project and then figuring out how to get something like what I wanted out of the equipment, I looked at the equipment I’d have and back-engineer a film that could possibly be created using it, that would be at all watchable. It’s all well and good to want to make a full-on professional production, but if you don’t have the means, you’re going to make something horrible, and all you’ll feel is disappointment. That was my thinking, anyway.
So I looked at the sound capabilities of the Super 8 camera (which were at best anaemic), and its abilities to show a lot of stuff in frame (which were none), and my abilities to write something compelling that would be silent, and show maybe one person at a time (which was not all that likely).
So instead, I made a film called “Headrush”, which would show, as I described it, “The experience of our high school after you hit your head.”
It had stop motion shots through the school, swirling colors and shapes as I ran by offices and classes, and a whole host of bizzare framing that came from me walking around and pressing the little trigger on the super 8 camera at whatever caught my fancy. I used “in-camera editing”, which is a fancy term for “whatever I shot, I shot, and I’m not cutting it up”. Again, this was because I took one look at the “workbench” for cutting up Super 8 film and knew it was a non-starter for a film that, ultimately, had over 500 shots in 3 minutes.
I knew I could never sync up the film to any piece of music, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I chose a piece of music that would defy syncing, called “G-Spot Tornado” by Frank Zappa (Amazon has a sample of the song available, if you don’t know it). It’s a very fast song, resplendent with lots of little bursts and notes, and it fit well with my work.
Anyway, you know where this is going; I got a C for the course. I still have the graded report from Miss Arty explaining to me, in paraphrase, that while I was aiming for the nonsensical drift of (insert arty film name here) or the crashing juxtapositions of (insert other arty film name here), I had fallen short and produced an unwatchable mess, and that I shouldn’t consider a career in film.
So I went to film school.
Considering that I graduated from high school with a 1.7 Grade Point Average, I’d like to thank Emerson College for being more interested in my $16,000 a year tuition than whether I was cut out for college. As it turned out, I was in fact cut out for college, because I graduated with a 2.1, a nearly 25% improvement over my previous grade point average!
At film school we had actual film teachers with both real-world and academic experience, who were more than happy to provide me with a track of classes and labs to learn about the cinematic arts. (We also had a bunch of stuff that wasn’t film classes, and I took advantage of that, working at the school newspaper, school radio stations, humor magazine, stage productions, and whatever else I could get my hands on.)
Mister Tech was one of my first teachers at the school in any class; he taught Film I. I had to wait until the second semester of my freshman year to get into a film course because I had to sit through pre-requisites, but finally I got my film class.
Mister Tech taught us how to use the equipment, which is both important and non-important. While I currently possess the skill-set to replace a magazine of 16mm film inside a black bag (to prevent exposure) into a variety of film camera models (none of which are in use anymore), I also know how to use a light meter and to do a variety of light setups that highlight the subject while making the background into a painterly haze. When you look at the BBS Documentary and can see both the person and his office setup, and your first thought isn’t “damn, that’s dark” or “what am I looking at”, that’s Mister Tech‘s influence. He made it clear that you could be any artistic pioneer you wanted, but if you didn’t light stuff right, you weren’t going to eat. So thank you, Mister Tech. Emerson College, ultimately, fired Mister Tech because they wanted a number of academic-related materials and writings from him, and Mister Tech focused on just teaching classes and helping with student productions. But I haven’t forgotten him!
(Any time I look at the shots in my documentary that are in fact not set up properly or in a way I think is sub-par, it’s usually because of two situations; Either the camera had been mis-set because of packing and I didn’t notice until it was too late, or the circumstances of the interview were such that we were in a hell of a hurry. It was, of course, more important to sit the person down and get their words than focus too much on if the shot was 100 percent perfect. I’d say that out of the 140 setups in the documentary, three of them well and truly suck. Again, thanks Mister Tech.)
Skipping ahead, one of my last film teachers was Mister Burnt. He gets that name because that’s what he was. Years and years in the film school, he’d seen it all, and not much interested him. He was unevocative as a teacher, uninspiring as a speaker, and while he (theoretically) knew his shit, he was horrible at getting it across to us. He liked to sit in the back while people presented their works or reports, just another student dazedly watching the proceedings, with not a lot to contribute to the experience. He also had tenure, which I think in this case didn’t work out in the school’s favor. Maybe he was doing something important elsewhere, but by the time I’d become a student of Mister Burnt, all I saw was a wrecked shell that taught very, very little. I have to strain to even remember Mister Burnt’s features and voice, he was so ineffectual. The world is full of guys like this, punching the clock, even if the clock is at an incredible candy factory of dreams, and sloughing along until time and decay throw them into a dirt nap. These days, thanks to my experiences under him, I just note off people like Mister Burnt as one might put up a small plastic yellow sign near a spilled bucket of water: Danger: Passion-Loss Hazard. And then I move on. So thanks, Mister Burnt, even if your life is serving as a warning to others.
I’ll put things out of order further with the mention of Dr. Antichrist Fuckface. He taught film theory, and whatever I did to deserve sitting through his class, I apologize heartily and promise that whatever it was, I’ll never do it again.
I strongly dislike people who talk about subjects where it is obvious that all, that is, one hundred percent of their knowledge comes from the writing of others. It’s perfectly OK and understandable to consider yourself informed in some fashion about a subject because you’ve read up, but to turn around and consider yourself not just an expert, but someone who should guide others in their knowledge… it’s a flaw, a sin, a mistake. It’s something I’ve certainly done, and a lot of people do it, but a lot of people make mistakes and move on; they don’t make a career of it.
Dr. Antichrist Fuckface was part of that vile pool of humanity, that little sliver of mold in the meat that takes the most joy in simply tearing down the work of others, providing nothing other than the harshness of their words as the coin of their realm. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with going “man, that sucky thing really sucked”, it’s another to trip-trap happily over piles of work, work that represents that very thing, work, and then go “Unbalanced portrayal”, “Meandering secondary character” and a host of self-important jargon where you’ve made yourself the hero who sees it all with a striking clarity and awareness that the rest of humanity and the arts just haven’t caught up to you.
I had a full semester of the Doctor Antichrist Fuckface Experience, where I almost fell for some of his themes: none of us are in any way special, there are no distinct leaders or great minds in film, everything can be ratcheted down to a series of hero myths and sexual game theory… and any learned student of film theory and criticism can pierce through the veil of “talent” and “skill” that is being shown to show that everything is in fact the same baked potato of predictable story.
Now, fine. Like any school, you had your good eggs and your bad eggs, and like Mister Burnt I could take my beating and move on.
However, the school would assign academic advisors in the same field of study as your major, and of course the people most available to be advisors would be those who spent their time awash in theory and not helping with student productions.
And you likely see where this is going. The school assigned Doctor Antichrist Fuckface to be my academic advisor.
The point of an academic advisor is to work with a student to help them see the larger framework of their efforts, to take the ideals presented in the classes and in the grades and so on, and mold all of it into plans for the student. What classes should be focused on, what minors might be dropped, what majors changed… basically, a learned guide explaining to you the roads ahead and what your choices might be.
We locked horns almost immediately. When people say “screaming matches”, they usually mean “we didn’t agree, and ultimately, we spent a lot of time not agreeing and couldn’t come to a conclusion”. In my case, I mean we had actual screaming matches, involving actual screaming.
He simply wouldn’t sign off on my choices of classes, taking production courses over theory courses, not doing additional media criticism courses, and so on.
And here it is 14 years later, and I still remember, almost to the word, his reason for fighting this.
“Jason,” he explained, “you don’t have any skills as a filmmaker, and you’ll never produce a film that people will watch. But you have skills as a writer, and I think you should go into film theory.”
When you apply for each semester’s courses, you have to have your Academic Advisor sign off on your choices. Within a short time, I went to the head of the film department, and told them to either sign off on my choices, or I would start my Independent Study Program in Film School Combustibility Rates. They rubber-stamped my choices, and I never let the Doctor darken my destiny or breathing space again, save a chance meeting in the streets of Boston a couple years later that was brief but regardless did not go very well at all. By that time, of course, he was now the head of the film department.
If I have anything to credit Doctor Antichrist Fuckface with, it’s that I had five thousand copies of the BBS Documentary made instead of the minimum of one thousand.
This leaves The Life. Time has made me forget the first time I found out about him (I heard about him before I knew him), but I don’t forget, for a moment, his way of teaching.
There was a book of cinematography that was very important, which had, in a small pocket-sized tome, all of the information you would need on set. The way that I recall this book is because The Life held it up in class and said “Let me show you what this book does”, and proceeded to shove it down the back of his own pants.
“It covers your ass.”
I loved this guy.
And the thing is, looking back, he didn’t teach a lot about film. That wasn’t what he did. What he did was so much more special; he taught us about how to look at life in a way that we would know how to capture it on film. He knew the world was filled with Mister Techs who could tell you what the current sliders did on the control board and how many buttons to press and what clicks you heard meant what the aperture was. But what, ultimately, was the point of all that if you didn’t realize that the position of an actor’s hands, even as they said nothing, were where the real story of the shot was?
The Life was almost Zen in how he approached film; he encouraged knowledge of lenses, lights, cameras… and make no mistake, he stressed how just a few small stickers in the right place on the equipment would save you precious minutes in setting up shots, and let you get the good light before the sun went down. But he also would talk about sexual politics, the way eyes were the enter of communication, and why you wanted to buy the best clothing for your actors, even if it didn’t come out in the shot, because the actor would know and would feel that much better. He shot across all the academic and theoretical subjects, because it was all one subject to The Life.
I loved this guy so much, I took three classes with him. And hung out with him. Of those three classes, one of those was the same class. You can imagine how much this broke the Registrar; the system would never expect you to take the same course twice. But the fact remains that taking the same course twice with the life was the same as taking two different (excellent courses), since he changed it up all the time.
In the BBS Documentary, there are influences from The Life all over the place, enriching it in the same way that a blood system does in a body, and with just as much pervasiveness. That there could be “powerful moments” in a film about bulletin boards surprises a lot of people who write to me; I knew from The Life that there were powerful moments in all things and it was just a matter of helping them come to light. Backgrounds and objects in frame of many of the interviews tell the story of the person’s life far beyond what their words do, and while some shots were done out of expediency or with limited options, dozens and dozens more are short stories in themselves.
I get fan mail all the time about the DVDs. I did a lot of the work, but knowing what work needed to be done and in what way, I credit to my mentor, The Life.
He still works at the same film school to this day, except now he works in video production. It’s not the tools, it’s knowing what way to use them. He does the same magic with video that he did with film, and I assume that the right students who listen to him know this. He’s a treasure, and he’s thanked in the inside packaging of the DVD set, one of only three names who get a special thanks.
So we come to the end of my little history, a small glimpse into my academic career, one which is well over a decade past and fading with each passing day. Why mention all this at all?
Well, for one thing, I suffer from chronic insomnia. But more importantly, I get letters from people who are starting out in making films, making productions, trying new stuff, and they all see that somehow I “did it”, and finished not just one, but eight short films, all wrapped up in a massive package that contains, ostensibly, some amount of learned skill in it. And they’d like to know where that skill came from.
I hope I’ve shown, in this essay, that some of it came from learning what to do, but also what not to do. I hope people see that love and hate can both drive us into new directions. Even those who would do my dreams harm simply made me strengthen them that much further. And others showed me where to make those dreams, now strengthened, into reality.
We are, rarely, monolithic blocks of singular drives. We are patchwork mosaics, the products of a thousand interactions and conversations and teachers and friends, and the ways in which we reach with both hands into this soup of life and pull out what we wish from it… that is what makes us us.
All that said, I hope Miss Arty and Doctor Antichrist Fuckface each get a kidney stone. On a plane.
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