Itching for a Fight!

It’s only just October, but lately my mind has been wandering to next semester and The Cinema of Adventure and Action. This is one of the first classes I taught here at Wesleyan and I return to it every few years without fail. I love action films because they seem so fundamentally cinematic — a genre that no other medium could do better. At their best, they sweep viewers up in a kind of rhythmic perception, where movement becomes emotion — visual and visceral music.

Teaching the class led me to write my most recent book, a study of a small but formative slice of action-film history — the sound-era serial. Among other things, these quick and dirty productions from the 1930s – 1950s refined a cinematic vocabulary for depicting physical combat. Today’s super-hero blockbusters have humble origins indeed. Since it will be months before I get to leap back into action, I thought I’d share a video-lecture on the art of staging and cutting fight scenes. Consider it a down payment on Spring semester:

What’s Steve Collins up to?

By Steve Collins

This Fall I’m teaching two sections of our introduction to film production course, Sight and Sound. Every year I see something that surprises me. It’s a class where we make a series of small exercises and one of the advantages of this is that we can focus on doing something truly cinematic with absolute precision and not have the burden of an entire film to finish. We put all our energy into doing a small thing very well and year after year, I find the profound in these little bite-sized films the students make.

As I’ve been preparing to return, and finishing up work on my own film, I am reminded again, how maddening the filmmaking process is. The pursuit of a film where everything is exactly in its place, every composition, every movement, every cut, every sound, and to have all that in place without sucking the life and spontaneity out of the work, it’s can make you drop your head and bang it on the editing table. And yet… I would do it again, and again, and again.

Filmmaking is hard, and I think our job as teachers (in whatever our subject) is to present students with an impossible task and say, here are some tools to solve it; you are going to fail in some respects, but you are going to move forward. We have to learn to embrace impossible tasks, tasks that test our whole intellectual and emotional being. How else can we deal with the world we live in – its beauty, grace and promise, tangled up in injustice, tragedy and suffering?

I try to focus on what I can do to help. I prepare my lectures on how complicated it really is to get across the feelings and ideas in your head onto that screen. Art is about connection (artist to audience) and connection is our only refuge from a broken world. In class this semester, we’re going to struggle and sweat and try, and every year I get to bear witness to the beauty of growth, progress, change. I do not care if it is perfect, I’m hooked.

Documentary: The Other Kind of Visual Storytelling

Four of our CFILM Podcasts speak to a lesser-known but vitally important component of Wesleyan Film: Documentary Storytelling. Though fiction has dominated the past few years of our Senior Thesis Screenings, the film department’s dedication to teaching and making documentary stretches back to its origins. From the outset, Professor Ákos Östör, both a practitioner and scholar of documentary, offered courses in the form, cross-listed with Anthropology. In the early 00’s we pioneered co-taught science documentary courses with Biology, and our production professors regularly move between fiction and documentary in their own work. We also devote time to documentary history in FILM 304 The History of World Cinema and our elective FILM 385 The Documentary Film. In general, we think of documentary and fiction as two points on a continuum of visual storytelling. Both are narrative forms and both can make use of the same techniques. But while fiction films use cinema to create imaginary worlds, documentary refers to the real.

Wesleyan has an enviable roster of documentarians among its alumni, including James Longley (Iraq in Fragments), Douglas and Roger Kass (Emptying the Skies), Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), Roger Weisberg (Dream On), Jessica Sanders (After Innocence), Martha Shane (After Tiller), Shannon Sun Higginson (GTFO) and many many others (apologies to all I’ve not mentioned!).  Over the past year, we’ve welcomed back distinguished documentary filmmakers to share their experiences on our podcast. You can find out about Mary Robertson’s Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time and her related projects on American political culture in PODCAST EPISODE 4. Over the summer, we posted EPISODE 7 featuring Tracy Strain and Randall MacLowry, and EPISODE 8 with Lana Wilson, followed by our season opener, EPISODE 9 featuring Sadia Shepard. Together, these interviews reveal the richness of contemporary nonfiction film and Wesleyan’s contribution to it.

Wesleyan graduate Randall MacLowry and his partner Tracy Strain are consummate professionals who have produced nearly 20 documentaries through their company Film Posse. They visited last spring to discuss Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart (2017) the first feature documentary about African American author and activist Lorraine Hansberry.  Tracy, who wrote and directed the film, explains how Hansberry’s story inspired her to become a filmmaker and led to a decades-long project that culminated with Sighted Eyes. Randy, producer and editor, takes us through the process of shaping the movie for the marketplace. Together, they offer insight into the art of crafting a story from documents, the necessity of building trusting relationships with interview subjects, and the importance of tenacity for any filmmaker. They also give our students invaluable advice along the way.

There’s no better proof of the continuity between fiction and documentary than Lana Wilson’s profoundly touching film The Departure (2017), the subject of CFILM PODCAST EPISODE 8. As a student, Lana focused on movies like Douglas Sirk’s ravishing 1950s Melodramas and Aki Kaurismäki’s sublimely dry Finnish comedies. As a filmmaker, she’s made her name in non-fiction, beginning with the Emmy-winning After Tiller (2013) a film about abortion rights that she made with fellow alum Martha Shane, and most recently with The Departure which follows the suicide prevention efforts of Japanese Buddhist Priest. When she visited campus last year, Lana talked about her career journey, how she went about creating The Departure, and how that film was inspired by lessons she learned from filmmakers she studied here. After a highly successful American tour, the film opened in Japan in September. Her latest work A Cure for Fear just premiered at the Camden International Film Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our latest podcast (EPISODE 9) we catch up with filmmaker, producer, and author Sadia Shepard (In Search of the Bene Israel) who is inspiring the next generation of Wesleyan documentarians in her course Documentary Filmmaking: An Introduction to Project Learning.  Each year, she leads a group of first-year students through the process of developing, shooting, and post-producing short documentaries about Middletown and the surrounding area. CFILM hosts a showing of the films at Middletown’s art center The Buttonwood Tree each spring. On the podcast, you will hear excerpts from the discussion that followed last year’s screening, featuring the students themselves. The class combines an introduction to the history of the form with intensive practice, and it was an instant success. This fall, Sadia added a second section to help meet the demand, and some of her former students are now making documentaries for their senior theses.

Encouraged by our students and alumni, CFILM plans to expand opportunities for documentary filmmaking and study over the next few years. Our world needs honest, responsible, and compelling non-fiction storytellers more than ever. We are committed to helping them find their voices.

 

The 45th Telluride Film Festival with Wes Students Abound

Contributed by Richard Parkin

In 2005, as an undergraduate, I had my first experience attending the Telluride Film Festival as a member of the Student Symposium, a rigorous four-day screening and seminar program for students from around the world. I was completely unfamiliar with the festival and had no idea what to expect. This is partly by design. Telluride does not announce its program until the day before the festival begins. As I made the long journey into a remote hamlet in the Colorado Rockies, the sense of anticipation kept building and the festival did not disappoint. I participated in seminars with Michael Haneke, the Dardenne Brothers, and Don Delillo; caught U.S premieres of contemporary classics such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times; and formed lasting friendships rooted in a shared love of cinema. It was a formative experience that has become an annual retreat for the past thirteen years. Attending the festival now as a staff member, the highlight for me is to cross paths with Wesleyan students and witness their own unique festival experience.

Shortly after arriving in town, I happened upon Ezra Scott-Henning (’18) at Telluride’s Elks Park and caught up on his post-graduation endeavors. Across the street were Minu Jun (’19) and Ruby Lanet (’18), fresh from their Student Symposium orientation. They shared their upcoming schedule of filmmaker seminars which included discussions with Hirokazu Kore-eda and Werner Herzog. We snapped a quick photo on Telluride’s historic main street with its old mining town flare. Justin Kim (’19) joined us for a screening of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. During my post-screening walk down Colorado Avenue, I crossed paths with Ryan Gardner (’15) who assists with the Festival’s Development team. I then rushed to catch Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, a gritty LA noir starring a near unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in a superb performance.

I began the second day of the Festival with a 9am Tribute to Alfonso Cuarón followed by a screening of his excellent new film Roma. Cuarón discussed the autobiographical nature of his 1970s Mexico City set drama that draws on his childhood memories. Later that day, Justin and I made a failed attempt to attend a sold-out screening of the Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, although Henry Kinder (’17) was fortunate enough to gain entry. We instead sprinted across town to an archival screening of Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels. A special selection by Festival Guest Director Jonathan Lethem, The Tarnished Angels quickly became my favorite screening of this year’s program. Silvery black-and-white Cinemascope paired with dynamic camerawork, all in service of a William Faulkner based script. It was a cinematic delight. After the film, Lethem took the stage for a conversation with Christopher Olsen who played Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone’s son in the film. Olsen shared behind-the-scenes stories with Sirk and accounts of Vincent Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock from his brief yet prolific time as a young actor in Hollywood.

After the screening, Noah Sellman (’17) joined Minu, Ruby, Justin and myself for a late-night meal and conversation. Joe Garrity, a longtime festival friend and lead editor on Watergate – Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President, dropped in and shared his experience cutting the 261-minute documentary.

The rush of a four-day film festival can feel like a blur and it wasn’t before long that I found myself on the flight back to Connecticut filled with the memories of films, warm encounters with friends, and – of course – a long list of titles that I missed (Cold War, Birds of Passage, Non-Fiction, and Shoplifters to name a few). The brief yet enriching visit to Telluride is a wonderful way to rediscover the power of cinema alongside a community of like-minded cineastes. The perfect mindset to begin the academic year at the Center for Film Studies.

Back to (film) School

Ben Model accompanies DOCKS OF NEW YORK in FILM 307

 

Well, it’s over! We started courses on Monday and already the Summer seems lightyears away. Not that Middletown has suddenly turned autumnal, we’ve had a sweltering week, but on the syllabus, in the classrooms, and here on our BLOG it is definitely fall. After a brief August hiatus, the CFILM social media team are back and ready to share. If all goes according to plan, you can check in here for bi-weekly blog entries, bi-monthly Podcasts, and a regular feed of nonsense (umm, vitally important intellectual exchange) on Facebook and Instagram.

If you’ve been monitoring the Instagram feed (or following the trades), you already know that CFILM started this school year with the distinction of being ranked #9 on the Hollywood Reporter’s Top 25 American Film Schools.

The first 8 schools are big fish on the West and East coasts, all with graduate programs in filmmaking. It’s a true testament to our alumni and to the little program that Jeanine Basinger founded in the early 1970s that CFILM manages to make a showing year after year. We are the only exclusively undergraduate program to make the rankings, and the only liberal arts institution on the list. CFILM punches above its weight! More accurately, we focus on what we’ve always done and are happy that someone agrees it is special.

What we’ve always done is to take cinema seriously as an artform best understood from the perspective of the filmmaker. Studying and making go hand in hand. Sadia Shepard’s course FILM 104 Documentary Filmmaking: An Introduction to Project Learning exemplifies this philosophy.Shepard (’97), a novelist, filmmaker, and documentarian, returns to campus each fall to initiate students into the history and practice of non-fiction storytelling.

Sadia Shepard ’97

Her students produce, shoot, and edit short documentaries about Middletown and the surrounding community, which we screen for the public at The Buttonwood Tree arts center on Main Street. These movies show Wesleyan students at their best: creative, engaged, and compelling. Our first podcast of the season will feature an interview with Shepard and her students recorded at last year’s screening. Based on the course’s success, and student demand for it, we’ve added a second section this year.

I am once again teaching our gateway course FILM 307 The Language of Hollywood, which for many students is their first college film class. This week we went to cinematic extremes. We started on Tuesday with a thunderous showing of Ryan Coogler’s Creed (hence the boxing analogy above) to a packed (and rather warm) house. On Thursday we welcomed silent film composer and historian Ben Model who accompanied von Sternberg’s Docks of New York on his unique theater-organ emulator.

Ben Model in the Goldsmith Family Cinema

The cinema reverberated with Model’s original score and we felt what it was like to go to the movies in 1928. We will spend the rest of the semester studying how movies made between Docks and Creed manage move audiences with image and sound.  Ben will return in the spring to teach a whole course on silent film, and he will provide live accompaniment for every movie. For now, though, we have an exciting fall ahead of us.