YEAR IN FILM: Contemplating the filmmaker as teacher
YEAR IN FILM American cinema lost several of its troubadours this past year: genuine independents like Robert Breer, Owen Land, Adolfas Mekas, Richard Leacock, Jordan Belson, and George Kuchar. Critical appraisal of these sui generis filmmakers tends to rest upon masterpieces and technique, but several were also influential as teachers.
Mekas founded the film department at Bard College, which today boasts a remarkable faculty including Peter Hutton and Kelly Reichardt. German filmmaker Helga Fanderl dedicated her San Francisco Cinematheque show earlier this fall to Breer, her mentor at Cooper Union. Leacock used his post at MIT in the 1970s to develop relatively affordable video systems for student filmmaking. Kuchar brought several generations of San Francisco Art Institute kids into moviemaking laboratories flying under banners like "AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays" and "Electro-graphic Sinema." After Kuchar's passing SFAI professor and administrator Jeannene Przyblyski wrote, "I will very much miss waking up at night worrying about what might be going on in Studio 8."
Teaching remains an underappreciated aspect of the whole adventure of avant-garde filmmaking. The late 2010 release Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press) lovingly detailed the instructional incubators that have contributed to a long-flourishing Bay Area avant-garde, but one still hungers for more particular chronicles along the lines of "Professor Ken," Michael Zryd's contribution to Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Oxford University Press). Zryd persuasively links Jacobs' intensive teaching style at SUNY Binghamton to his thrilling feature-length frame analysis, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969). The story of the American avant-garde's alliance with the academy has everything to do with the mid-century college boom and the rise of theory, but this general view doesn't take into account those outlying autodidact instructors who reoriented the teacher-student exchange in much the same way that they called upon a different kind of spectatorship.
Among the many treasures in the SFAI archive's George Kuchar file are a couple of his syllabuses: "In this workshop atmosphere we all embark on making a moving picture using the equipment at school and ... whatever else falls into our hands." Class participation is what the class was. It's also discretionary: "Come as frequently as you wish so that we can showcase your unique talents or specialty acts and help us try to solve the many technical and creative problems involved in making moving pictures." Asked about his unorthodox teaching materials, Kuchar responded, "Am I going to show the students Potemkin and then talk about our class movies? With the kind of words I use and my accent? It'll be like sacrilege or something ... It's stupid anyway. Renting movies is expensive as hell, and you can put that money into making a movie."
Kuchar's creativity took a liberating form in the classroom. Elsewhere in the SFAI file, the filmmaker reflects upon having to rescue terrible class productions in the editing room. One laughs at first and then is touched that he considered these real movies, imperfect but necessary to see through.
RAY OF LIGHT, RAY OF DARKNESS