Friday, May 3, 2013

Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education

On another page of this site (see "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," available in the side menu) I describe four months of meetings organized and presided over by the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television during which, with the Chairman's leadership and encouragement, members of the Film and Television Department shouted at me, called me names, and attacked my character and morals for having published certain essays or said particular things in interviews. I was told in no uncertain terms that I should not have said the things I had; that I was to remove the publications from the Boston University server (I had posted the texts on my BU faculty web site); and that I was being put on notice that I would be punished for expressing the views I had. (The verbal abuse inflicted on me at the meetings in question was itself a pretty strong form of punishment; but the shouts and name-calling would be followed by more tangible hits on my performance evaluations and pay.) In a subsequent department meeting, I was told that removing the offending material was not enough. Everything I had written would have to be removed from the university server. I was told to take down my entire faculty web site, and leave nothing behind. The Chairman proposed and the department passed a resolution demanding that I take down the entire site before the date of the next meeting. Though he demanded my "voluntary" cooperation with the motion of self-censorship, the Chairman emphasized that if I did not "voluntarily" comply, he had been authorized to tell me that the university Provost approved of all of the actions being taken against me (including the meetings to abuse and berate me presumably), and had personally assured him that, if I did not do what the Chairman was demanding "voluntarily," the university would "bring in the lawyers" and force me to take down the entire site--whether I agreed or not (a different sense of the word "voluntarily" than the one usually given to it).  The point of that last threat was to put me on notice that the university was prepared to bankrupt me financially with legal actions and maneuvers if I didn't immediately comply with their censorship demand. (In case the preceding punishments were not enough, it is worth noting that I was also given formal notice in writing that my professional reputation and standing would be destroyed by means of a public posting on the university web site attacking me for what I had said.) Nice guys, eh? Nice way to treat your faculty. I have the unique distinction of being the only faculty member in America who has been forbidden to have a faculty web site. (At least I hope I am the only one.)

On the "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston" page I quote one of the texts that was most strenuously objected to by my colleagues. It was an interview I gave with a reporter for the UCLA Daily Bruin facetiously titled "A Modest Proposal: Let’s Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics," in which I discuss the lamentable effects of staffing film programs with film and television "insiders." 

An excerpt from another interview that my Chairman and colleagues vehemently objected to follows ("vehemently objected to" is my polite circumlocution for being screamed at, called names, and told I was mentally ill and morally corrupt by twelve or thirteen other people, many of them yelling at the same time, with their eyes bugged out and spittle jumping off their lips as they hurled nasty epithets at me). The interviewer was Shelley Friedman. She has worked in New York City as a film editor, an associate producer in documentary television, a contributing writer for MovieMaker Magazine and SolPix, and as an independent filmmaker.

The complete interview text runs to something like 30,000 words (the length of a short book), but the passages that my Chairman and colleagues objected to and criticized me for most vehemently appear near the end. That is the section of the interview I reprint below. (Since the interview was given nine years ago, and is dated and incorrect in places, I have revised a few of the references, restored a small amount of material cut from the published version, and corrected a small number of typos.)

In the view of the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, in the view of the Dean of the College of Communication (who independently chewed me out for having published what I had and ordered me to remove it from the university server), and in the view of the university Provost (who later verified that he had indeed authorized and approved all of the Chairman's actions), I was absolutely not to have said the things I had; I was to be punished for having said them; and I was to have my ideas suppressed so no student would be exposed to them. Welcome to BU.   -- Ray Carney

P.S.  The control of expression at BU extends beyond the interviews faculty members give, and continues up into the present. My Dean, Chairman, and Provost have tried to control many other things I have said or written, and continued doing it in the years since this interview was published. I have been told what I should and should not say in my classes; what I can and cannot say when I give television interviews; and what I can and cannot say in emails to my students. For an illustration of the last kind of control, which involved my Dean vehemently criticizing a series of emails I sent to my students in the summer of 2011 suggesting, among other things, that they read an article about film education in The New York Times and a posting on responding to the Times article, see the following site page: “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students--Or Suggest That They Read at Boston University.”

Making a Life

In this time of economic hardship, what do you recommend for people just entering a career in filmmaking?

I’m always uncomfortable with the notion of a “career” in anything. American society is structured so that it opulently rewards certain roles (lawyers, doctors, celebrity actors and athletes, wheeler-dealer businessmen, con-man stockbrokers, big-talking producers) and ignores or financially penalizes others (teachers, nurses, mothers, caregivers, ministers, artists). That never changes, in good times or bad.
We focus too much on the financial side. That’s Hollywood thinking. If you are a real artist, you can make art with no money. Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I know a guy, Freddie Curchack, who made finger-shadows on a sheet as his art. An artist who complains about not having enough money is not an artist, but a businessman.
The only reason to make a movie, paint a painting, or write a poem is to try to understand something that matters to you that you don’t understand. God knows, it’s only the reason I write my books. If I were in it for the money, the fame, or the glory, I would have thrown in the towel and declared bankruptcy a long time ago! [Laughs] You do it for the challenge and fun of picking your way through a jungle of unresolved ideas and feelings. The filmmakers I know who don’t have the twenty thousand dollars it takes to make a movie are busy writing short stories or putting on plays with their friends. The beauty of that is that when they are able to get things together to make a movie, they already have a head start on something to film. They have tested it by tinkering with it and writing it out. They have workshopped it and seen where it needs to be revised. I tell students who say they can’t afford a digital camera and sound equipment to put on a play in their living rooms or hide out in their basements and write a novel. If they tell me they’re not interested in doing that, then I know they’re not artists. They are more interested in having a career than a life.

 But they have to make a living.

I know that, but all I can deal with is the education side of it, and education is not about making a living, but making a life. A deep, spiritually meaningful life. It is a time for exploration and discovery. You’re right. Every day after my students graduate, the world will be demanding its pound of flesh from them. There will be pressures placed on them to compromise, to put their values aside and do things the established way, the way that makes money, the way that makes for worldly success. That’s why a university is such a special place. It is their one opportunity to do something for truth. Not for money. Not to get ahead. Not to curry favor with someone. Not to please anyone but themselves. It is a special time of life, a unique opportunity to go as far as they can, to dig as deep as they dare into the meaning of life. It is a time to study their hearts and souls and not worry about the ridiculous, wasteful, stupid things the world wants them to care about. To go to school to try build a resume, or to learn secrets about how to get rich or famous is to waste this glorious opportunity to break free from that oppressive system. The only right reason to go to school or to make art or to study art is to begin to understand truths the world suppresses and denies, and eventually to be able to share your understandings with others in acts of love and giving.
Just this afternoon I just spoke at a Boston U. open house "visiting day" for grad students who were visiting a number of different schools and told them if some teacher or Dean stood up in a meeting and told them that if they got a degree from their school they could be rich or famous some day, they should run for the door. I told them that the only reason to go to grad school was to have a chance to explore themselves and our crazy, messed up culture so that they might begin to understand themselves and it – and eventually be able to communicate that understanding to others. To do anything else is to waste your education, and ultimately to waste your life. It is to sell your soul to the devil. Life is not about making money or getting famous or being successful. In our brief time here we must try to understand who we are and what really matters, and try to bring our feelings of love and kindness and understanding to others to change the world for the better in some way. That's what school is about – or what it should be about. Starting out on – or continuing – that great adventure of discovery and self-discovery.

Film School

Sometimes it seems like we have a very “everyone for themselves” attitude in the film industry in the U.S., which leaves little room for cultivating a master-student relationship. Also, to be unique and progressive as an artist often seems to imply to trash, not build upon, the past. Do you agree with this observation, and if you do, do you see any filmmakers out there trying to build upon a sense of film tradition and history in their individual styles?

Rob Nilsson said something very interesting in a Res column. He said that film schools should be abolished and all the young people should go find some low-budget independent filmmaker whose works they loved, apprentice themselves to him or her, and give their tuition money to the filmmaker. Of course, the proposal was tongue in cheek. He knows it will never happen, and that it sounds insane to most people. But I would love to have young filmmakers take him seriously. It could change the history of American film. I’ve given my students this advice, but they always think I’m joking.
Film school is a waste of time for most students. In fact, it’s counter-productive in most cases because the wrong things are taught – like explaining away your characters’ mysteries by providing unnecessary background information, and how to keep the stupid plot moving along. Why should every movie look like every other movie? Even children’s books are more different from one another than Hollywood films are. Who says you have to have establishing shots or over-the-shoulder shots? Who says a scene has to be lighted or edited in a certain way? It really shows contempt for the art. You’d never tell a musician he had to compose for particular instruments and play in certain keys, or a painter what colors to use or what size canvas to paint on. And what happens at the end of the process? Another class of know-nothings is turned loose in the world to compete with each other for a Hollywood distribution deal.
To tell the truth, most of the students I teach give up on film after they leave school. They go into something else. It’s the open secret of most film programs. The faculty tell the parents all these tall-tales about careers in film on visiting day before their children enroll, but most of the film students stop doing film the day they graduate. And the ones who go to LA and fight to get a job and starve for a while end up pushing a dolly or stringing wires on some big budget production that no one involved with gives a damn about. Those are the lucky ones! For that you went to four years of film school? To learn how to push a dolly or answer the phone for some producer?
Each of these students could have made their own feature their own way if they had taken Nilsson’s advice and apprenticed themselves to an indie filmmaker. Instead they go off to work in a factory every morning, and become a tiny cog in an enormous studio machine. What a waste of an education. What a waste of a life. They had it right in the sixteenth century. The guild system was a much better way to learn art.

The University

Why do you think so many filmmakers are drawn to teaching, besides the schedule flexibilities?

[Laughs] Well, they have to pay the rent somehow, and the hourly rate is a few cents better than McDonald’s! Lots of filmmakers become teachers so they can use equipment for free or get students to help them with their films. But I’d like to think there is a higher, nobler reason – the dream of being part of a community of like-minded, soulful, spiritual searchers. Universities are the last of the monasteries – the last shelter from the capitalist way of measuring everything in terms of popularity and profit. That makes them a wonderful place to be.
Of course I’m talking about an ideal university. There are so few of them left. Most academic film programs – all of the best-known ones, NYU, UCLA, USC, and the others – do not represent an alternative to the business sickness of our culture, but are devoted to training people to enter and compete within it. The students don’t ask questions about the meaning of art and life. They major in vocational ed – no different from studying auto mechanics or farming or being in beautician school. Like I was saying, they’d rather give their students a job than a life.
I get emails every week from students who have spent four years majoring in film at UCLA or USC or NYU, and have never heard the name of a single one of the art filmmakers I write or speak about mentioned in their classes. The so-called independent films shown in their courses are by mainstream directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Baz Luhrmann, and John Sayles. Artistic expression is represented by someone like Hitchcock or David Lynch. And films like Memento and Suture and Run, Lola, Run. Kitsch. Fake Art. Imitation profundity. And the makers of kitsch. The students should be awarded degrees in advertising and promotion when they graduate. That’s the only area the work of these filmmakers represents. They’re not studying art but commerce.
The reason I’m so familiar with these problems is that they are not taking place in a galaxy far away from me. The Boston University film program is no different from the UCLA one in this respect, maybe it’s worse. Just because I am in it doesn’t mean that the program reflects my personal values. I have to remind saucer-eyed students about this when they write me and say they want to come to Boston University “to study with me.” Like I was Yoda! I tell them that they will also have to study with a lot of people who disagree with me, who argue with me, who think I’m a pain in the neck. Boston U. churns out worker bee drones for the studio hive the same as other programs do.
As far as my own personal effort to present alternatives to Hollywood values in my course offerings goes, it’s pretty puny. And I’m losing the battle. For a year or two now, I’ve been getting constant criticism from a newly appointed administrator at Boston University – I don’t want to embarrass him by giving his name or title – about the elitism and smallness of the film studies graduate program, as well as the fact that the curriculum downplays – or outright ignores – Hollywood movies. [A postscript: At this point, I might as well reveal that the Boston University administrator I am talking about in this and the following paragraphs is the College of Communication Dean, who made no bones about radically lowering admission standards and admitting significantly less qualified graduate students throughout the College in order to bring in more tuition dollars. Many other site pages go into detail about how I was one of only four or five faculty members in the College of Communication who was able to speak up and argue against the changes the Dean proposed, since I was one of only a small number of faculty who were tenured, and  (presumably) would not be fired for taking a principled stand. Beyond that, I was (and for ten years had been) Director of Film Studies and Chair of the Film Studies graduate admissions committee, and it was my professional responsibility to speak up about policy changes I believed to be deeply destructive of existing academic standards and values. However, the Dean did not take principled stands--or principled faculty members--kindly. In the years following the date of this interview, he went to enormous lengths to attempt to force me and several other individuals he had identified as "faculty enemies" to quit, and in my case also attempted to "dig up dirt" about my personal life, compromising information of some sort, to attempt to get me fired; and, in the same years and later ones, he and other College of Communication administrators held a series of secret meetings with my students to try to turn them against me and to pressure them to submit complaints about my publications and teaching. But at the point I was giving this interview, I did not know about the dirty tricks the Dean was already embarked on, and the years of secret meetings to poison my students' minds and attempt to turn them against me lay in the future. For more information about these and many other forms of administrative misconduct at BU in the 2003-2013 period, see "Part 1: Ten years of Administrative Retaliation" and "Lynch Mobs--Secret and Surreptitious Meetings to Foment Students Against a Teacher," and the other site pages that those two sections of the site make reference to.] This guy has applied terrific pressure to make the admission process less selective, the course content more pop-culturish, and the grading standards easier. He’s told me he wants me to admit three or four times the number of students I have in the past and not to have such high standards in terms of their writing and thinking ability. And he’s told me over and over again that he thinks the courses should take a less critical stance toward Hollywood.
I’ve sat down with him and tried to explain the value of the program as it presently exists. I’ve told him how few jobs there are, how tight the Ph.D. field is, and how irresponsible it is to be turning out large numbers of degree-recipients who won’t be able to do anything with their degree. But he just doesn’t get it. His academic background is in a completely different field, and he knows nothing about film or film criticism. He has no idea how bad most film criticism is, and no clue why a small, high-quality artistic program might be preferable to a big, schlocky, pop-culture one. In terms of Hollywood film, as far as I can tell, he thinks I’m out of my mind not to be teaching movies that are playing at the malls and metroplexes and not to be admitting students who want to devote their lives to watching them or writing about them.
A few months ago, after a year of tussling, as I balked at his suggestions to make voluntary changes, he took matters into his own hands and laid down graduate admissions guidelines that effectively take the admissions process out of my control and force the program to admit large numbers of academically less qualified and more Hollywood-oriented students.

Can he make you change what you teach or who you admit into the program? What about academic freedom?

A university is no different from the larger culture. There’s a first amendment out there too. That means in theory you can say or do almost anything. But theory is different from practice. Capitalism prevents you from doing a lot of what the first amendment allows. In academia, no one will hire you or publish your writing if your ideas are too original or different. And if you self-publish your work – I’ve done that – and can’t afford to advertise and distribute the result, no one will buy it because no one will know it exists. The power of the purse makes sure we don’t get too frisky with our freedoms.
To answer your question: after he saw I wouldn’t budge, this guy called a meeting of the film studies faculty and said that he intended to cut back funding if we didn’t do things his way. Then he told us we should meet and take a vote on what we wanted to do. Do you see how clever that is? “I’m going to take away your money if you don’t go along with me. Now go off and tell me what you’ve decided to do.” Might as well be in North Korea. That’s how Kim Jong Il governs! [Laughs]
Don’t forget, I’m not Napoleon or a third-world dictator. No matter what I think, I have to consult with my faculty. So we had our meeting. I urged taking a stand to defend our stringent admissions standards, our small class sizes, our focus on art film, and our demanding grading, but I got outvoted. In fact, I was the only one on that side of any of the issues. Everyone else voted to go along with the administrator. No surprise there. He had told us what he preferred and that our budget was at stake if we went against his wishes. Some of the others are angling for promotions. All of them are aware that future pay raises will be determined by this guy. It was an easy decision for them.
When personal considerations are at risk, abstract intellectual issues suddenly become a little less clearly defined in peoples’ minds. As Bush’s election shows, people vote their self-interest, even as they tell you – and are absolutely convinced that – they are voting their morals.
It was a good experience for me to have. A good lesson to learn. Everyone had wonderful reasons for why they decided to go along with this guy. Great justifications. And they were completely sincere. They all really, truly, deeply believed that they were making the right decision. That includes this administrator. He is convinced that he is improving the program by “broadening” it. He is proud of what he is doing. Every time I see him, he reminds me how unrealistic and elitist my vision of the film program was, and teases me about how Boston University is “not Oxford or Cambridge.”  
The whole process has been fascinating to live through, a real life-lesson. It’s amazing to see how people can fool themselves. What makes filmmakers like Cassavetes and Noonan and Kramer so deep is that they find ways to dramatize these states of well-intentioned self-delusion. It’s never the way Hollywood presents it. No one has bad intentions. No one ever thinks they are doing wrong. People who make awful decisions never realize they are awful. They are convinced down to the soles of their shoes that they are doing the correct thing. That applies to this administrator. Heck, it even applies to Bin Laden. I’m not equating the two! [Laughs]

The University as Supermarket

What about the students? Won’t they object?

Unfortunately not. The ones admitted who would have been rejected in previous years, which is two thirds of them, are delighted to get in. And, in terms of the course content, all but a very small number of students will probably be happier with more Hollywood movies in the curriculum. It’s not hard to understand. What do they know? They come into school having been brainwashed by the media into believing figures like Scorsese and Tarantino and the Coen Brothers are as good as film gets. They’ve never heard of Tarkovsky or Ozu or Bresson or Kiarostami. They don’t know the great works of art. They’ll never realize what they are missing.
Of course everything that I am saying goes against the grain of post-60s cultural assumptions that students should have the final say about what they study. We live in a democracy where things are supposed to be decided by popularity. That’s how we elect our leaders. What’s popular is what’s stocked in stores and what gets reported in our newspapers. But that’s not how a university should work. It’s a mistake to teach films that the students want you to teach. It’s a mistake to put works on the syllabus because they are popular or will get a large enrollment. If you teach what the students have heard of and want to see, you might as well open a movie theater in the mall. My job is to show the students movies that they haven’t heard of, movies they don’t know they want to see, movies that do things in ways they’ve never even imagined a work can do them.
The music department knows this. The art department knows this. The English department knows this. The physics and math departments know this. They don’t consult students’ wishes when they create a syllabus. They aren’t afraid to force students to do things they’d never do on their own. But the film department is always, at least implicitly, playing to the audience – organizing courses around films that have gotten the most attention over the years, and giving the students a kind of vote on what should be taught by evaluating courses in terms of their popularity and enrollment.
At the point they show up on campus, very few students have any conception of what art does. Half of them come into my classes treating film as a form of sociology or cultural history. They look at a movie to study the depiction of women or minority groups or gays or whatever, and they evaluate it based on how politically correct or incorrect it is. They take out their clipboards and work down the race/class/gender/ideology checklist.
The other half profess to care about artistic expression, but their understanding is based on these bogus pop culture notions of art. Many think art involves glamorous photography, lush sound effects, and beautiful settings. Some think it is about creating powerful emotions. If it makes you feel something, it must be great art. Others think works of art are always “unrealistic” in some way – that art involves creating visionary– or dream-states by using fancy lighting effects, weird music, or jumpy editing. Others think art is about employing metaphors and various kinds of color or shape symbolism. Others think art is about telling stories in convoluted, non-chronological ways. Others think it’s about sneaking in hidden meanings and surprise endings. I understand where both groups are coming from. It’s what they’ve been taught. They’ve learned this stuff from teachers and from viewing a lot of bad movies. Movies by Hitchcock, Welles, Spielberg, Lucas, Lynch, Stone, DePalma, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers.
And I don’t want to seem to be picking on students. A lot of people have the same limited views of art. Artistic appreciation is a very rare thing in our culture because exposure to art is a very rare thing in our culture. Look at the books people read, the music they listen to, the movies they enjoy! I travel a lot and almost always ask the person sitting next to me what they are reading or what kind of music they like. Maybe one in a hundred people has any interest in or familiarity with art. Maybe it’s fewer than that. It doesn’t matter how many years they have attended school, what they majored in, or what degrees they hold.

Fear of Flying

My painful, awkward, fun job – it really is a lot of fun! – is to force my students to let go of their limited understandings of art. Classes are great, exciting, crazy tugs-of-war. They try to stay on their feet and I try to pull the rug out from under them. To show them works that don’t yield to their ways of understanding, works of real art that do much more complex, slippery, challenging things. But it’s an uphill battle. The force of the whole culture is arrayed against it. The students generally don’t appreciate the works I show or begin to understand how they function until we have put in a lot of time together. It can take months. One of my courses runs 70 hours over fourteen weeks, and that’s frequently not enough time to do what I want to do. I get emails every week from students who have been out of school for a few years who tell me that only then are they finally beginning to see what I was trying to show them.

What about the grad students? They must be more sophisticated.

My program doesn't have any real Film Studies grad courses. The grad students are just thrown into undergrad courses and get grad credit for being there. They're getting cheated but don't realize it. So most of the students I teach, at both levels, are film production or screenwriting students. There are plenty of exceptions, but most of the production and screenwriting grad students are worse than the undergrads in this respect. Some of them have a lot of time and effort – a lot of ego – invested in their admiration of Mulholland Drive and Raging Bull and Apocalypse Now and Vertigo and Blue Velvet and Pulp Fiction, and fight me tooth and nail when I try to show them the limitations of those sorts of works. What I am doing threatens their whole world view. It makes me understand the Marine Corps commitment to getting them when they are 18. [Laughs] An 18-year-old is a lot easier to teach – to inspire or scare into thinking in new ways. People in their mid-twenties or thirties don’t want to have to think new ideas. They dig in their heels when you try to move them in a new direction.
Do you know the quote by Guillaume Apollinaire? “‘Come to the edge,’ he said. ‘We are afraid,’ they said. ‘Come to the edge,’ he said; and slowly, reluctantly, they came. He pushed them. And they flew.” It’s hard to overcome the fear of falling. I mean the fear of flying.
You also have to take into account who goes into grad school to make a film--in America at least. There are exceptions, thank God, but in general a student who decides to get a graduate degree in film is someone who took a lot of film courses as an undergrad and did well at them. They are people who chose to take courses dealing with The Godfather, Blade Runner, and Psycho rather than the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Bach, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, or the prose of Henry James. What does that tell you? It tells me a lot, and it’s borne out by my experience when they come into my courses. A significant number of them are not readers, not deep thinkers, not interested in serious art, and generally not independent intellects in any sense – or they wouldn’t have done so well in those undergraduate film courses writing papers about 2001 and Citizen Kane. They spent their college careers watching junky movies and writing junky papers in praise of them. It sounds like a horrible thing for a film professor to say, but having been a film major is generally not a very high recommendation for the state of their emotional development and intellectual potential. You can’t be a very sophisticated person and take Kill Bill, Schindler’s List, or Boogie Nights seriously or want to devote your life to viewing works like these. That’s why I often try to admit people who have majored in things other than film as undergraduates.
I should say, tried. Those days are past. I recently tendered my resignation as director of the program. I’ll step down this summer. It’s funny. It was another illustration of how Hollywood gets it all wrong. Resigning wasn’t some kind of big moral victory. The guy I’ve been jousting with didn’t take my resignation as a courageous stand or a principled response to the changes he had made. He took it as my concession that he had won the battle and I was surrendering. He was absolutely delighted to have me step down.

A fun question: If you could make one film required curriculum for American film students, what would it be and why? Why is this film innovative or unique?

If I were limited to teaching one two- or three-hour film class for all eternity, one shot to change the history of American film, I wouldn’t show any movies! I’d have the students listen to Bach’s D-minor Double Violin Concerto or his Goldberg Variations and ask them to try to get that into their work. Or discuss some Eudora Welty or Alice Munro or Edna O'Brien short stories. Or read some Stanley Elkin. Or some of D.H. Lawrence’s criticism. He is the greatest critic of any art in the last hundred years, but I defy you to find a single film theory class that reads him. They’d rather read Jonathan Culler or David Bordwell or Lacan! Or I’d have them look at Degas. Those are things I already do in my classes and I’m convinced that many of the students learn more from doing them than they do from looking at any movie.
If you absolutely required me to screen something, I’d use my three hours to show short films. They are better than most features, and would at least demonstrate that a movie doesn’t necessarily have to tell a stupid “story,” be “entertaining,” or any of that other rot Hollywood would make us believe.

What would you show?

Fran Rizzo’s Sullivan’s Last Call; Bruce Conner’s Permian Strata, Valse Triste, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, and A Movie; Jay Rosenblatt’s Human Remains, Pregnant Moment, I Used to be a Filmmaker, and Restricted; Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road; Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason; Mike Leigh’s Afternoon, Sense of History, and The Short and Curlies; Charlie Weiner’s Rumba. And ten minutes from Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was, Caveh Zahedi’s A Little Stiff, Mark Rappaport’s Local Color or Scenic Route, and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. That’s should be about three or four hours of stuff. If there was a little more time, I’d add selected chunks from Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake or Femme Douce, Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice or Stalker, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, John Korty’s Crazy Quilt, Ozu’s Late Spring, or the last ten minutes of his Flavor of Green Tea over Rice.
The least the students would learn is that a film doesn’t have to look like a Hollywood movie. That, no matter how much Entertainment Tonight and the New York Times try to persuade us otherwise, Hollywood is a tiny and ultimately unimportant rivulet flowing away from the great sea of art. The smart ones would learn something about artistic structure and how the greatest movies use something other than action to keep us caring and in the moment – that the worst way to make a movie is to organize it around a gripping, suspenseful plot. Plot, actions, and narrative events are the biggest lies we can tell about what life is really about. As Tom Noonan said to my students, just the way you say hello to a friend or shake someone’s hand is enough to build a scene around. Life is a string of those kinds of moments. Why are we always looking for something else to happen? Why do we feel our lives are not already interesting enough to make art out of?