Monday, April 6, 2015

Youth, Beauty, Idealism, Hopes, Dreams

The following page continues my series of reflections on emails I have received and questions I have answered. (See the heading to “A Summary—Ten Years at Boston University,” available in the side menu under June 2014, for the first installment in the series.) In this case, the emails come from high school students thinking of applying to the Boston University College of Communication Department of Film and Television who ask me about my views on film or express interest in sitting in on one of my classes. I spend many hours responding to their emails, and am glad to do it. — Ray Carney

It’s that season again. I am writing this the first week in April. From October through February of each year I receive hundreds of emails from young people requesting advice on what to look for and what to avoid when applying to film school or questions to ask and things to notice when attending Open House and Visiting Day events. Then from the end of March through September, I hear from a younger group of students—mainly high-schoolers making “the tour” prior to deciding where to apply as undergraduates. They ask me questions about film programs at dozens of different colleges and universities, and more than a few of them ask if they can sit in on one of my classes in order to get an idea of what is going on at Boston University. In the past week alone, I have received inquiries from students who live in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts who are thinking of visiting Boston University in the next few months, or are on their way to or from visits to Syracuse, Emerson, Wesleyan, Brown, NYU, Columbia, or similar schools, and have questions about their film programs.

It’s a delight to hear from these students. Their youth, their idealism, and their enthusiasm about what lies ahead is inspiring. Their excitement gets me excited. I spend many hours of my time answering their questions and sharing my thoughts about film programs. It is not at all unusual for me and my correspondents—especially the most eager, curious, and knowledgeable ones—to go back and forth five or six times via email. One of the questions they almost always ask is what films I personally like and recommend, and what I show in my courses. In the most recent flurry of emails, I have described my Mumblecore course, my International Masterworks course, and my American Independent Film course. Several of my correspondents have asked for copies of a syllabus or for viewing suggestions.

I genuinely love receiving these emails and have a rollicking good time comparing notes with these students about what films they themselves have seen and enjoyed. It doesn’t surprise or disappoint me that most of them have seen (or even heard of) virtually none of the films I show in my classes. They are only in high school after all, and most of them have simply not known anyone who could direct them to anything outside the mainstream, or the films that get the most attention on the internet. When they ask me for viewing recommendations, I love being the first one to tell them about the excitements of Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was and The Wife, Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives, Ten Tiny Love Stories, and Things You Can Tell By Looking at Her, Mary Bronstein’s Yeast, So Yong Kim’s In Between Days and Treeless Mountain, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax, Jay Rosenblatt’s Human Remains and King of the Jews, Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Mark and Jay Duplass's Puffy Chair, Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones, Paul Morrissey's Trash, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Vince Gallo's Buffalo 66, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Todd Haynes’s Safe, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and Nights and Weekends, Frank Ross’s, Audrey the Train Wreck and Present Company, Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherries and Life Goes On, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, Peter Hall's The Homecoming, Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud, Robert Bresson’s Femme Douce and The Devil, Probably, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and Life is Sweet, and twenty or thirty other works. It’s an honor to be their tour guide into new territory. I know that, whichever works they chose from the lists I provide, they are in for mind-bending, consciousness-expanding viewing experiences. They have a great adventure ahead of them and I am thrilled to be able to point them in the right direction.

But, as much as I love these exchanges, and participate in them with gusto, I have to admit that I am extremely conflicted about the mistaken impression I am giving these potential applicants to the Boston University film program. When they write back, as many of them do, and tell me that this is exactly the kind of film program they want to become part of, I have to do a delicate dance and make clear to them that my values and tastes are emphatically not shared by other teachers in the Boston University film program. I have to tell them that that the other teachers at BU are not only not interested in the kinds of works I screen in my classes and am recommending, but that, with the fewest of exceptions, the other teachers in the program haven’t even heard of these films, let alone hold them up as examples to emulate. I have to tell my young correspondents that if they came to BU they would have an entirely different experience from the impression I am giving them with my lists of favorites and my course syllabi.

I try to break the news to them, as gently and kindly as I can, that the Boston University film program is extremely traditional and conservative in its values and methods. Extremely. Production courses are anchored in industrial (Hollywood studio) models of how to make movies, where filmmaking is not personal but corporate, where films are not made to express the interests, visions, concerns, and insights of a small group of passionate, possessed, half-crazy artists, but are made the way other commercial products in our culture are, with the goal of entertaining and pleasing the largest number of people possible. I have to tell them that the BU program does not aspire to turn out idiosyncratic DIY artists, but cogs in a mass-production filmmaking machine that, as far as I can tell, exists only in the imagination of the production teachers—with the screenwriters in one room, the actors in another, the cinematographers in another, the directors in another, and so on. No surprise that years of experience have demonstrated that the more artistic incoming students are, the bigger and more ambitious visions they have, the worse problems they are going to have with their production teachers (virtually none of whom have any artistic interests or knowledge at all, though of course they themselves don't realize that—since that's the nature of all ignorance; it doesn't know what it doesn't know; it doesn't know it is ignorant).

Personal expression is not just discouraged in Boston University film production courses; everything possible is done to stamp it out. No different from a factory assembly line or a chain restaurant kitchen, the goal is to standardize the end-product. Students are given rules on how to write, direct, and edit their films, and classes consist almost entirely of critiques that involve telling someone that they have violated some rule or formula, not done things the “correct” way, or not made something sufficiently entertaining or clear. Students are taught to write three-act scripts with inciting incidents. They are told their films should have protagonists who struggle against antagonists. They are taught to story-board and block to keep the focus sharp. They are taught to explain everything, to background situations, to use establishing shots, medium-shots, shot-reverse-shots, and over-the-shoulder-shots for conversations. They are told it is all about telling a great story, and that "story-telling" is what filmmaking is about. It is terrible advice. Embarrassingly bad advice. Stylistically, everything is blandified, homogenized, normalized, standardized. Narratively, everything personal, all the creativity, is filtered out of the work. It is the way Hollywood movies were written, shot, and edited fifty years ago—bad Hollywood movies; it is not the way movies are made today—certainly not the way the works of any of the filmmakers I am recommending were made.

The only reason the BU students don’t mutiny, or laugh their teachers out of the room, as far as I can tell based on what they tell me, is that they don’t realize how they are being misled. They are young; they trust their teachers; they have faith that they know better than they do; they don’t realize what bad advice they are getting. They don’t realize how they are being cheated out of their tuition dollars. They don't realize how little their faculty have themselves done and how little they know about film. (The BU production faculty is full of teachers who have themselves done almost nothing in terms of actually making real movies. See my "Pretend Filmmakers" entry—available via the side menu under the listings for January 2014. But the students don't know that and their teachers are not about to tell them.)

Want to hear how weirdly unreal and cynically exploitative the administration's and the department faculty's attitude toward artistic creation can be? The President of Boston University told me in a meeting a few years back that every student who used an “F-word” in a film should get a failing grade. He was not asking, he was telling. He thought it was bad for PR and alumni fund-raising. The worst part of the conversation, to my mind, was not the loony prohibition on allowing film characters to talk the way people really talk, but the fact that this guy saw nothing wrong with injecting himself into the teaching and evaluation process, with telling me how to grade students. Filmmaking was not about filmmaking; it was about PR and holding screening events to get alumni to give money. His conversation with me was not only stupid and cynical, but a major administrative ethical violation—but as every other page of this blog illustrates, I am apparently the only faculty member in the Department of Film and Television who understands the concept of ethical violations. There are so many ethical issues in my College that it’s hard to keep track of them. Want to hear another—this time about ripping-off students and cynically exploiting their lack of knowledge and blind trust in their faculty? BU film faculty pad their resumes, with the goal of getting undeserved pay raises, by demanding fraudulent producer credits on students’ post-graduation work so they can list the credits on their annual reports. No one seems to have an ethical problem with that either, as long as they keep getting their raises.

So that’s the conflict I feel. Everything I am telling these potential applicants, all of the examples I am giving them, all of the ideas about film and filmmaking I am extolling will be trampled on, mocked, and criticized in their courses. All of their artistic hopes and dreams will only get them into hot water if they actually came to BU. Here I am telling them how great Swanberg’s, Bronstein’s, and Kim’s work is, and how inspiring they can be as models and examples to emulate, but the fact is that if Swanberg, Bronstein, and Kim were Boston University students, they’d be failed out of the film production program. Their working methods, their ideas, their styles, their films would not be allowed. Where are their scripts? Where are their storyboards? Where are their establishing shots, shot-reverse-shots, and over-the-shoulder shots? Where are their protagonists and antagonists?! Where are their story-telling skills? If a BU student actually proposed making a film the way Kim does, they’d be told they couldn’t do it, and if they insisted on working the way she does, they’d be told they weren’t welcome in the program. And they’d get absolutely nowhere telling their teachers they were doing something like Yeast, In Between Days, or Nights and Weekends—since their teachers would have no idea what they were talking about. I’d put money on it that not a single production teacher has ever seen those three films. They don’t watch the kinds of movies that are on my list. They aren’t interested in art.

There are so many things I don’t want to be the one to have to tell the students who write me. They are just too discouraging and demoralizing. They are young, they are idealistic, they are inspired by and excited at the idea of being an artist. Why should I be the one to burst the bubble? I don’t tell them how I invited a really amazing low-budget independent filmmaker, one whose work I sometimes show in my courses and sometimes recommend, to apply for a job in the department, and following a screening of one of his films for the hiring committee, sat and listened to a discussion in which the production faculty objected to the “softness” of his focus, the “badness” of his framing, and the “jiggliness” of his camera. They said his work would set “a terrible example” for the students. That was the end of his application. I don’t tell them about two other absolutely stunning independent filmmakers who had brief appointments to teach in the department, both of whom told me they felt so alienated from what other teachers were doing that they had no desire to stay. They went on to other film programs.

And simple tact prevents me from telling the students who write about my own situation, which most of them seem unaware of. They are writing to me as a representative of the Boston University film program; they have seen one of my books in a bookstore or my name on a web site. They never imagine how I have been screamed at, called names, and had my morals and character attacked by my colleagues (all those film production teachers they will end up studying with if they come to BU) for my views. They are unaware that my faculty web site was censored by my Dean for years because it expressed views similar to the ones on this page, and was ultimately banned by the university altogether. They don’t know how senior BU administrators threatened to make internet postings to destroy my reputation and to bankrupt me with legal actions if I resisted the banning. And they couldn’t possibly imagine that I have been forbidden to express some of the things I write in my emails to them to my own students in my classroom—or that I have had my pay docked by my Dean for writing emails to my students similar to the ones I am sending them. I’m certain that they could never imagine that my Chairman, my Dean, and the university Provost have done everything in their power to force me to quit (including some completely awful dirty tricks)—with the Provost actually offering me money if I would renounce my tenure.

Fact is, I’m not sure the young people who write me would even believe me, if I told them about these and other events, since it is hard for anyone with a drop of idealism in their heart (and, thank the Lord, the young people who write me are all wonderfully, beautifully, inspiringly idealistic) to believe that people are capable of these sorts of actions. Heck, I have more than a few drops of idealism left in my own heart, and it’s hard for me to believe that highly educated individuals are capable of such low-down and at times downright thuggish behavior.

So to summarize: This posting is for all of the high school students who write me. I am delighted to hear from you. I am tickled to give you my advice. I am flattered to be asked for my opinions on film schools, filmmakers, films, and filmmaking. I am happy to send you copies of my course syllabi. But please, never forget that I am not the Boston University film program, and that in fact most of what takes place in it is the absolute reverse of what I personally believe. And, it’s worth mentioning that if you come to study at Boston University under the illusion that you can study with me, it won’t be easy. My courses have been deliberately scheduled either to conflict with other courses you will be required to take or to meet at undesirable times to discourage students from taking them. I get the times that are left after all of the other teachers, even the most junior and the adjunct faculty, have made their selections. And, as I hope I have made clear, if you attempt to do the things that I recommend in your production courses, you will be eaten alive by your teachers. I believe, passionately, in what I am doing, but my values are emphatically not the values of the BU program.

If the preceding isn’t enough to persuade you, click here. Or look at almost any other page on this blog. It’s the truth, I’m sorry to say. —Ray Carney

[Postscript: Due to the overwhelming response this page elicted from readers of the blog, I added a follow-up page amplifying the preceding points, adding much additional information, summarizing the hundreds of emails I received in response to the above posting, and referring the reader to other sections of the site with more inside information about the study of film at the university level and the educational process in general. To read the follow-up posting, please go to the next page on the blog, titled: "To My Students, and to Film Students Everywhere."  —R.C.]