Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sentimental Education- Part 2

Flaubert's Sentimental Education (that's him to the left) is a ironic and pessimistic novel, but what would you expect from the man who wrote Madame Bovary. I would like to think I am not that dark (I am an Optimist's son after all) but there are certainly some aspects of schooling that drive me mad.

As a teacher I think I draw on all the formal learning from my youth and distill it somehow into my own approach to teaching. I would like to believe I take the best of how I was taught and leave the rest behind. The following are some general things one would find in my classes. It is up to you to decide how Draconian I am.

Attendance- Come to my class. Columbia and now Flashpoint have these serious attendance polices- X number of absences means a drop of a letter grade, more means an automatic F, 15 minutes late is half an absence. (Fourteen minutes late is OK I guess?) I don't get it and don't care. One of the appeals of going to college for me was that I didn't have to go to class if I didn't want to. Just show up to my class on time and everything's cool.

Tests- I don't like them. I prefer oral exams and practical tests- show me you know how to do it. In the film business rarely is there one right answer, usually there are several ways to reach the same conclusion. A standard test doesn't allow for options.

Writing- We will write a lot, tear it up and write some more. You have to be able to express yourself through the written word.

Class participation- Critical. For starters it takes the pressure off the dumb teacher to fill up the time, but more importantly, when we start having a dialog in class as opposed to me talking at you, the class is better.

Presentation- Almost all of my classes have components of students making a presentation to the rest of the class and defending their position. You can not manage in today's workplace with out being able to speak well and concisely.

As I read over these last three topics (I tend to blog in stream of consciousness) it is clear to me that developing good communication skills is a driving force behind my teaching. Being in the communication business, I guess this makes sense.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Sentimental Education- Part 1

School resumed this week in Chicago and the big yellow buses are a reminder of just how much I hated going to school. While I was a good student and had lots of friends and did lots of extracurricular activities I just plain hated going to school. All those rules and regulations, do this and do that- who needs it? But now I am a college teacher so go figure.

From Montessori until I graduated from high school I went to school everyday with my father. Each morning we would get up and have breakfast- the same thing, cereal. After 1700 of these breakfasts before my 18th birthday I now refuse to eat cereal. (The last time was in England a few years ago when my alternative was a “healthy” full English breakfast.)

Our conversation consisted of this: Dad: Eat your flakes. Me: OK.

The sum total of 14 years of weekday morning conversation- 4 words.

Several of those years my dad had a Volkswagon I had to push to get it started and then run to catch up to the car a la Little Miss Sunshine. These moments with my dad were often the highlight of my school day. It was downhill - literally from that start- from there.

So with apologies to Gustave Flaubert below are a series of highlights (lowlights?) of my early education.

Montessori- My grandmother, Kakky, picked me up and asked me what I learned today. I said, “I don’t know.” She said you were in school all day and didn’t learn anything? Oh to have been able to shift into my adult head and say, “You know it was all that 2+2 is 4 and ABC bullshit. Give me a break grandma!.” Instead I said something like “we used crayons” and hoped for unconditional grandmotherly love.

Second grade- Luckily I was allowed to skip first grade, I don’t think I could have handled any more rudimentary education. However, skipping a grade made me forever the youngest in my class.

Fourth grade- Each weekend Mrs. Hackworth (a sometime reader of this page) made the class memorize a poem and be prepared to recite it in front of the class on Monday morning. Now as every fourth grader knows poems rhyme, that’s the definition of poetry, right? Evidently not. Mrs. H. gave us “real poetry” the crap that doesn’t rhyme or make any sense. Poetry and public speaking- I’m in fourth grade this is not Victorian England! Note to Mrs. Hackworth, thanks to you I still have trouble sleeping on Sunday nights in anticipation of failing my poetry reading.

Fifth grade- An insane woman comes to our class room and speaks only in French to us. She refuses to allow any English. This is funny for the first five minutes, then we think she is seriously disturbed. This continues for days and weeks. Finally I burst out, “Je vais a la salle de bains.” Where this comes from even surprises me but my point is made and I was allowed to escape to the bathroom. (I know it really means “I go to the bathroom” but we had covered “May I” yet.)

Seventh Grade- By now I am thoroughly ensconced in the third ring of education Hell. Our assignment is to write a science report and make an oral presentation to the rest of the seventh grade on a topic picked randomly from a hat. My pick: the reproductive process of amphibians. No, nothing safe an easy like the Big Bang (at least my school believed in that) . Being good (strict?) parents I had to rehearse my speech in front of them. I do not know what is worse, talking about frog sperm in front of my parents or in front of 50 7th graders.

Ninth Grade- What is with this incessant need for my teachers to insist on memorization and public speaking? Draconian Mr. Grunwald makes the class memorize the Declaration of Independence from the preamble through the charges section. (Even then I was certain this is something that I would never need to do at any time of my life.) Then, over the course of a month he randomly picked students to recite passages to the class. So I memorized the damn thing and he never called on me!

That’s enough for now I am having bad flashbacks.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Hard at Work

Labor Day got me thinking about hard work- something I try to avoid at all costs. Aren't p.a.s and t.a.s supposed to do the hard stuff while directors and "professors" do the "Big Picture" work?

One of those cliches (if I knew how to do one of those accent things over the e in cliche I would do it, so you grammar police leave me alone) every bad football coach likes to trot out is "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." Yuck! As bad sports cliches go I much prefer "There is no 'I' in team,"but that is for another post.

But those bad coaches are on to something and I have seen first hand truly great performers bust their butts rehearsing when other mere mortals (or dumb filmmakers) would have been off doing something more fun. I am going to share a few of those stories here and you can infer what you want.

1) In 2001 I was making a TV show for kids called Rainbow Soup about art and world culture and got to observe a lot of different artists in their process. As part of this I had the chance to see and interview Peter Gabriel (pictured here) as he played his first concert in eight years. It was a rather sudden appearance- he was going to headline the Womad Festival in Seattle after Robert Plant had to back out. Originally Peter was going to place a simple acoustic set, but two days before the show he decided to go all out with a band. At 7am on a Sunday morning, twelve hours before he was to go on stage, there is Gabriel and band in a park in Seattle working their assess off rehearsing for the show. At 7 that night he walked on stage and 30,000 people went crazy. He proceeded to play, by his own admission, a very mediocre set. As part of our arrangement I spoke with him on camera just after he walked off stage. He shook his head and looked into the camera and said, "That's what you get when you only rehearse for two days." I'll never forget it, or him really working hard when he didn't have to. The crowd loved him anyway.

2) At the end of our commercial reel there is a spot for where Michael Jordan looks into the camera and asks, "Any Questions?" Jim shot him at a Bulls practice, Michael was staying late, by himself shooting free throws. The six-time NBA champ and MVP was in the gym by himself practicing. Did he need to do that? He thought so.

3) Years ago I had to go on a location scout at a local Chicago nightclub. When the manager met us at the door and let us in and in there was loud music playing in the background. It sounded like Elvis Costello to me- he was in the middle of a three or four day stop in Chicago. We round the corner and there on stage was Elvis and the Attractions rehearsing. The manager of the venue asked me if I minded them rehearsing while we were there. What was I going to say, "No! Elvis give it a rest we need to talk here." Of course he could play, however I needed to get on the stage so Elvis stopped what he was doing and invited us up. He was very gentlemanly, asked us what we were about to shoot and if it was OK if he could continue his rehearsal. When I was finished with my work he paused and asked if everything was OK. I said sure and asked if I could watch for a while. He said yes, and proceeded to tear into Pump it Up. My question is this. In the thousands of shows Elvis has played since the mid 1970s how many times has he played Pump it Up? Thousands? Did they really need to rehearse that badly? I guess so.

Practice makes perfect. (Sorry for the cliche.)