Friday, May 11, 2007


Yesterday I wrote about an entire class that came together to shoot Jerry Lewis. Today, as I have my last class of the semester, I am going to talk about a few individual students and their accomplishments. While I would like to say I have had students who have gone on to win Oscars and become important filmmakers, I can't because they haven't- neither has their teacher.

The most successful students to me are the ones that come away from school with a better understanding of who they are and where they fit into the world. I have written before about second acts in lives and I am sure many of my students who graduate this weekend will be doing something totally different in five or ten years time. I think this is all part of the process of growing and developing as a person.

So, this is a partial list of students who pop into my mind when I think about their accomplishments outside of the classroom. There are no favorites, and this list is chronological.

Yoon Chun. Yoon was a quiet, shy young woman who didn't like hearing criticism or watching her work in front of others. At the end of the semester the class voted on the two best films of the semester. Yoon's two films were selected best of the class - a first. She didn't attend the final screening and only later did she learn about what her peers thought of her. Yoon went to graduate school in New York and today is back in Korea where she is a filmmaker, graphic artist and college teacher.

Hyup Kim. He was the only other student to have both his films selected by his classmates as best in class. Coincidently, he is Yoon's cousin. Today, Hyup is ending his first year at the AFI graduate film program. I have seen the work he has done at AFI and it is outstanding. On a side note, I attending his wedding as one of perhaps four westerners in the room. It was one of my favorite wedding experiences ever, as if I was dropped into the middle of a film of a Korean wedding with no subtitles. It was a blast.

Andrew Hodges. Andrew is first and foremost an animator. I have hired him to do animation for Rainbow Soup, my program about arts and world culture for kids. Andrew created a 37 second long full cel animation of a character we call Lil' Will- based on Shakespeare- which we used as a transition. Will was voiced by the film director Stephen Frears (The Queen) and he takes us from The Globe Theater to Studs Terkel reading a children's book. Perhaps you saw Andrew's stop motion cartoon for Saturday Night Live's Christmas show where Darlene Love sings "Christmastime for the Jews." It's hysterical and brilliant. Andrew finished the piece just a few hours before air time. Track it down, I am sure it's on You Tube.

David McElroy. I don't know if I have ever had a student more driven to become a success in Hollywood than David. He eats, breathes and sleeps big budget Hollywood films. Of course he tried to make those films as a student and they weren't very good- no money, no gear, no stars. But David stuck with it. Today he is in Los Angeles where he works for a production company called Independent Media, which features big name directors such as Sydney Pollack. David just sent me his own TV commercial reel which features some very nice work- take a look.

Finally, a current student who is about to graduate, Cezil Reed. Like all the good students Cezil can be a real pain in the tuchus. We recently had an argument about why the school couldn't give him more money for his film. I won, I always win. Yet, I later found myself arguing on his behalf for more money. His previous film was a regional finalist for a student academy award. It's really beautiful, 3 minutes long and I would have been proud to have made it. When he screened it for the class everyone was amazed. His new film, which just finished shooting, will be done later this summer, and I am sure it will be just as terrific.

At the end of every semester I say the same thing, "It has been my pleasure to be your teacher." I mean this because, you do know, I learn more from my students than they could ever learn from me. The students mentioned above are just a few of the dozens who have taught me over the years.


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Shooting Jerry Lewis

In the summer of 1996 I taught a Film Tech I class. This class is truly filmmaking101- the first production class students take. As a teacher I try to encourage my students and place the least amount of limitations on them as possible. I don't want them to make a good Tech I film, or student film, but a good film by anyone' s standards.

That summer, done the street from school, Jerry Lewis was starring in a revival of Damn Yankees. A group of those students decide dto make a film (a comedy,16mm, black and white, silent) about a hit man who has to kill Jerry Lewis. I read the treatment and saw the comic possibilities, BUT, I asked, wouldn't this be a better film if Jerry Lewis was in it?

They laughed and I stared back at them. He's just down the street, why can't he be in the film, I said.

From that moment on the class was united in getting Jerry. They sent letters to his theater, they learned the hotel he was staying in, they dogged him. A student was riding a bus and saw Jerry walking down Michigan Avenue. He hopped off the bus and chased him. Very quickly my students were making a real life King of Comedy. Just as they were about to give up, school announced Jerry Lewis was going to lecture on campus. Suddenly, Jerry was coming to them.

I need to explain that, despite what you think about him, Jerry Lewis is a an excellent film director.
He invented video assist- the device that allowed him to act and direct in his films. Despite today's image of him, those early Jerry Lewis films- The Bell Boy, Nutty Professor among them, and his work with Dean Martin are really brilliant pieces of 20th century American art. He was coming to school to talk about his ground breaking work as a film director.

When Jerry came to school there were a series of ground rules. Tickets were required and it was a sold out house. No cameras were allowed. I encouraged my students to do whatever it takes to shoot Jerry. I told them I would back them up. If they got pinched, they could blame me. I told them if they are kicked out of the theater, shoot that it could be in the film too. So, three students smuggled 16mm spring-wound Bolex cameras into the theater. They shot as much of Jerry as they could without being busted and got some really good footage.

When he spoke, Jerry was wearing a red v-neck sweater, sneakers and white tennis shorts. To "kill" him for the film, they decided to have their "hit man" wear reflector sunglasses and have a double in v-neck seater and tennis shorts appear in the reflection of the lenses. The sequence cut together perfectly and in my opinion it was the best Film Tech I film ever made.

I share this story because I want my current students, as well as my future ones, to know that despite limitations a class might put on them, there are far more possibilities. This is film, anything can happen.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I am not breaking any new ground here by saying teaching is a tough, thankless, low-paying job. Their value is huge, their compensation minimal. Yet, who has a greater long-term impact on young people- a caring teacher or a celebrity? Today I am going to share some thoughts on teachers who had a great influence on me.

I was fortunate. As a kid I went to private schools. My dad was a teacher, a good one, and the headmaster of the schools I attended. From Montessori through my senior year of high school we went to school together. My dad was my 8th grade algebra teacher and my physics teacher my junior year. I never got higher than an A-, and no, it wasn’t weird that he was my teacher or headmaster; I had no other frame of reference.

My 4th and 5th grade teachers, Mrs. And Mr. Hackworth were (and still are) married to each other. Mrs. Hackworth taught us poetry. Each weekend we would have to memorize I poem of her selection and be prepared to recite it aloud on Monday. It was hell, but I learned a lot. Honestly, I don’t remember much of what Mr. Hackworth taught us. I mostly remember him. He had a reputation as a tough, mean teacher, but to me he was just a good man. I really enjoyed 5th grade, despite not remembering much of what I learned.

As a freshman in high school I had a writing teacher called Bernice Hopkins. She also ran the school newspaper and encouraged me to write for it. My first assignment was to interview the school’s new soccer coach. I had no idea what to do so I basically transcribed my Q &A with him and that ran on the front page of the paper. My lack of style became my style. It was just what I did with the post about my friend Stephan and Veoh last week.

More important to my writing development was Dan Frank, a teacher I had as a sophomore in high school. He showed me structure- an introduction, a middle and a conclusion. So simple now, yet I guess I had to learn it some time. Today, Dan is the headmaster of the Francis Parker school here in Chicago, one of the top private schools in the city.

It’s often hard to find good teachers in college. So many academics are researchers first, teachers second. Despite this I had a handful. Alfred Appel I mentioned yesterday. (As I type this I can hear him in my ear lecturing about Lolita- he translated it and was a student of Nabokov’s). I was a teaching assistant for Irv Rein. He is a communications professor who studied a wide variety of topics ranging from celebrity to the rhetoric of supermarkets. In many ways he taught me how to be a college teacher. Like Appel, Irv showed me the performative nature of being a teacher. Both men could command your attention even when delivering dry material.

Anyone who has taken an Art History course at Northwestern knows about Hollis Clayson. She was and still is the best art history teacher I ever had. When I was a junior she was denied tenure and left school. Students were outraged, but years later she returned to N.U. I used to take my lunch and sit in the darkened lecture hall as she showed slides and spoke. She had a tremendous vocabulary, but then could turn on a dime and describe a Goya painting as “icky.”

Graduate school was full of great professors. David Tracy, my thesis advisor, had to cancel two meetings with me. One time he had to go to Rome to meet with the Pope. The other time he went to the White House to meet with the president. I was happy just to be in David’s presence. The funny thing is every time we met he wanted to talk about movies, while I wanted to talk about my thesis.

As a teacher I hope I live up to the standards set by the men and women mentioned above.


Monday, May 7, 2007

Teaching in the Arts

I teach college film courses, but I never was a film student. The first film production class I took was the first one I taught. I learned how to make films by doing. As an undergraduate at Northwestern I hung out around the film department. I took all the film theory classes I could- those fun ones where you screen a film and write an essay about it. I took two great film classes that weren’t even in the film department. One was English Lit. class which combined film and literature. We would read Hemingway’s Nick Adams story, The Killers and see the Burt Lancaster film by the same name. We read Heart of Darkness and saw Apocalypse Now. It was a great class taught by one of my favorite teachers, Alfred Appel, that’s him at the top of the page. I run into Appel (all the students referred to him by his last name only) every few years and always tell him how much I enjoyed his classes.

The other terrific film class I took was run through the Art History department. It combined 20th century American art with literature and film. We would look at abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House and see a film like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a great class and I learned a lot about a lot of things during those 12 weeks.

I can only say what works for me, but I wasn’t hurt by not taking filmmaking101. I certainly benefited from taking a wide variety of courses. I also got to learn film production by doing, rather than theorizing. It is something I try to teach my students today.

Recently I was asked to write a teaching philosophy. It’s a hard thing to do because I don’t like getting stuck in a pedagogical trap. If I have a philosophy it is "get out there and do it and learn from your mistakes. " Unfortunately, “just do it,” might sell a lot of sneakers, but it doesn’t look so good in academic circles, so I use phrases such as “experiential learning,” and the like. But what I really mean is just do it.

When I am asked about my teaching style I never know what to say. When I first began teaching I got a great piece of advice from a friend. She said, “You’ve got the job, now just do what you think is right.” And that’s what I try to do. No two of my classes are ever the same because the students are always different. I am reminded of baseball great Dizzy Dean when he asked about his pitching style, he responded, “You gotta dance with the girl that brung ya.” That’s what I do, teach to the students I have in front of me.

Teachers of the arts cannot make students any more creative than they are, just as a coach can’t make Michael Jordan a better basketball player. You can’t teach talent, but you can shape it and perhaps guide it. I know I aim to create an environment so students can learn from their mistakes and not be afraid of taking risks. As teachers, we must help students develop awareness about their own artistic process and their art. There is no correlation between being the best film student and the best filmmaker.


Sunday, May 6, 2007

Teachers and Students

This is the last week of the school year, graduation is this weekend, so I am going to devote a few posts about teaching and films, teaching in the arts, what little I know about the art of teaching and some of my students' successes. Closer to graduation I will share some thoughts on job prospects and some of the good and bad jobs out there. I’ll begin the week with teachers in films.

In short I think films about teachers stink. They fall into a handful of categories and play the same themes to death. There is the against all odds films- underachievers, overachieve thanks to a brilliant teacher (Stand and Deliver and others.) Then there are the fish out of water films. Radical teacher comes into conservative boarding school and makes a difference. (Dead Poets Society- did anyone say Carpe Diem before that film?) Or strict, conservative teacher shows rowdy school kids they aren’t as dumb as they thought. (To Sir With Love and others.) In all of these films a parent will raise some sort of objection to the methods used by the teacher. Been there done that. No more, please.

Even when I like the films- and I am a sucker for sentimentality as much as anyone, I liked last years’ The History Boys (radical teacher, conservative school, etc…)- I usually remember the music more than anything else. What do you remember about To Sir With Love? LuLu singing the title song, right? Mr. Holland’s Opus- the version of Beautiful Boy with sign language. Blackboard Jungle- Rock Around the Clock.

I think films about teachers don’t work mostly because teaching is a rather dry, boring profession that moves very slowly. I love teaching, but watching teachers teach is dull. I have almost never had a car chase, gun play or a sex scene in my classroom and of course these are staples of Hollywood films. There are also not many good films about dentists doing dentistry or actuarians, actualarizing.

So here are a few films that to me get to the core of what teaching is about- imparting knowledge to someone in a meaningful, caring way- while still having fun.

1) The Sting. Henry Gondorff teaches Johnny Hooker (and the audience) how to run the big con. Is there a better teacher/student combo than Newman and Redford.
Henry Gondorff: Glad to meet you, kid, you're a real horse's ass. Is Lonnegan after you too?
Johnny Hooker: I dunno... I ain't seen anybody.
Henry Gondorff: You never do, kid.

2) Bull Durham. Kevin Costner's Crash Davis teaches Tim Robbins' Nuke LaLoush how to be a professional baseball player.

Crash Davis: Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.

3) A River Runs Through It. Written by a teacher, Norman Maclean. The scenes where Tom Skerritt teaches his sons how to write and then how to fish are real life lessons. He teaches his boys how to be men.

Voice over- Old Norman: My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.

I look forward to your comments.