Perhaps it’s my vocation that makes me interested in this question, but I’m wondering: In the history of film culture, are there accounts of filmmakers who were also great teachers and mentors?
At the SCMS conference last month, I heard a fascinating paper by Eric Rentschler on “The German Prehistory of the Berlin School.” In it he identified several key influences upon the School, among which was the Berlin Film Academy (dffb), where both teachers and students shared a common cinephilic culture, kept alive and energized by regular group screenings.
Important and influential faculty at dffb included filmmakers like Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. Rentschler noted that the “technological lyricism” of their films had a profound impact on the films of students such as Christian Petzold. (“Technological lyricism” is Christoph Hochhäusler’s term for the aesthetic allure of capitalist landscapes and environments in Petzold’s films. See Marco Abel’s essay on the DVD of Yella for more.)
Another lesson Petzold learned from Farocki has to do with the importance of body language. In German film, argues Petzold, there has always been too much “facial expression, eyebrow play, and theatrical language.” (His commentary brings to mind Michael Klier’s astute critique of acting styles in the New German Cinema, the 2001 short film Gesten und Gesichter/Gestures and Faces.) [Petzold recalls that] while working on his dffb diploma film (Pilotinnen/Pilots, 1995), his mentor Farocki was completing the film essay Ausdruck der Hände/The Expression of Hands (1997). As a result, Petzold found himself very interested in the creative capacity of human hands and acutely aware of how much physicality is lost in most German films, where the dialogue and actor’s visage dominate so strongly that they, quite literally, efface the rest of the human body. German actors do not need to visit New York for lessons in method acting, Farocki quipped; rather, they should go to Switzerland and have their face muscles surgically altered.
In Marco Abel’s Cineaste interview with Christian Petzold, “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves,” there is an interesting bit that speaks to the challenge faced by every student: how to absorb the lessons and examples of a teacher and, at the same time, discover how to navigate an original path that will require the student to depart from the initially inspirational model of the teacher.
Cineaste: You were taught by filmmakers who cannot be said to make narrative cinema, yet your films qualify as narrative cinema. Was following Farocki and Bitomsky into the avant-garde or documentary tradition never really an option for you?
Petzold: Only briefly. During my time of crisis I made two shorts, which were more or less 'essay' films. But I quickly realized that I could not work that way. In this kind of filmmaking the editing bay is like a desk; you essentially collect material to work on it later, in isolation. The loneliness of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Farocki, and Bitomsky—which in many ways is self-imposed by them—that was not the kind of work environment I desired. I cannot work this way. I did this for five years as a literary scholar; I did not start making films to emulate this experience. But it should be noted that both Farocki and Bitomsky love narrative film. If you look closely at their films you see that theirs are films that actually desire narrative cinema, while perhaps simultaneously being about the impossibility or crisis of narrative cinema. But I did not want to pursue their path. I still learned more about the art of narrative from them than from people who are so-called storytellers, but do not interrogate themselves.
British film director Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, The Sweet Smell of Success) retired from the industry in the late 60s and spent almost 25 years as a faculty member teaching filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). The book On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director collects his writings — mostly handouts he prepared for his students — and it makes for great, insightful reading. (For more on his teaching strategies, see this page.)
Martin Scorsese writes about Mackendrick’s credo as a teacher:
“Process, not product” was his mantra to his students. The creative process — not the creative method, or the creative system […] I’m not implying that he was an anti-intellectual Hollywood pro — all you have to do is leaf through this book, with its references to Ibsen and Sophocles and Beckett and Levi-Strauss, to dispel that notion. This book takes on everything from Dramatic Irony to Mental Geography, the relationship between the director and his actors to the structural soundness of Last Year at Marienbad. But on almost every page, Mackendrick lets the reader know that all of it, from the lessons about crossing the axis and the condensation of screen time to the techniques for cultivating ideas […] is worth nothing without practice.
The Harvard Film Archive recently announced a fascinating retrospective titled “The Films and Legacy of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro.” Reis was an influential Portuguese filmmaker-teacher who co-directed, with his wife Margarida Cordeiro, a psychologist, four poetic-ethnographic works that are held in high regard. Here’s an excerpt from the program notes:
Admired by the likes of Joris Ivens, Jean Rouch and Jean-Marie Straub, the films of Reis and Cordeiro invented a poetically liberated and hypnotically cinematographic film language, a style and sensibility that set the course of Portugal’s lasting tradition of radical cinema, exerting a formative influence, for example, upon João Cesar Monteiro. Yet equally important was Reis’ career and legacy as a long-time senior professor of film production and aesthetics at Lisbon’s Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema. As a tribute to Reis’ inspiration of the most important talents in contemporary Portuguese cinema, this retrospective includes a selection of works by Reis’ students including Pedro Costa, João Pedro Rodrigues and Joaquim Saphino.
I wonder: Are there accounts in film culture of filmmakers who were also good teachers and mentors? Do any former students have experiences to share about being in classes taught by filmmakers? Also: We would have to include in this discussion directors who were teachers or mentors outside a classroom setting, on film projects. Any thoughts — or stories? I'd love to hear them.
-- There's a Jerry Lewis dossier in the new issue of La Furia Umana, with pieces by many notable critics and cinephiles. Also: Zach Campbell, who is part of the dossier, reviews, at MUBI, the new edition of the Bresson book edited by James Quandt. Finally: in a MUBI post, David Phelps pairs images from Godard and Jerry Lewis.
-- At Catherine Grant's place: Studies of cinematic pastiche; a round-up of the new issue of Vertigo, which focuses on Godard; and a collection of Godard links.
-- "How to account for the intensity of feeling this film inspires?" asks Dennis Lim on Bresson's The Devil, Probably in Artforum.
-- (via David Hudson) Iris Veysey's "Costume and Identity in Hitchcock's Vertigo"; and at Cine Europa: a story on Ingmar Bergman's huge VHS collection, which included The Blues Brothers and other unlikely titles.
-- An interview with Terence Davies I found unsettling: "Being Gay Has Ruined My Life," in The Irish Times. Please also see: Michael Guillen's interview with Davies, "Memory as Mise-en-scène"; and Michael Sicinski on The Deep Blue Sea at Cinema Scope.
-- Andy Rector posts an account of a John Ford interview with Colin Young in Film Quarterly (1959). Via Andy: an interview with Jacques Ranciere about (and around) his recent book Les écarts du cinéma. Also: A post at Diagonal Thoughts about this book.
-- Rowena Santos Aquino's introduction to the Czechoslovak New Wave at Next Projection.
-- At e-flux, Irmgard Emmelhainz on Godard's 1969-1974 period of militant filmmaking.
-- Since I put up my last post 2 weeks ago, a discussion has sprung up in the comments section [scroll down] on topics such as "philosophy" vs. "theory" and the recent "philosophical turn" in cinema/media studies.
pic: Aleander Mackendrick