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about the writer

Ricky D'Ambrose is a graduate student at Columbia University. He has written for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, The L Magazine, and Slant.


[1] One of the earliest references to the study of film production within the United States is dated November 1, 1965, in The New York Times: "Complete courses in film production are now offered here at two universities, N.Y.U. and Columbia, and across the country at such universities as Northwestern, Boston, Ohio State and Stanford, the University of Iowa, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles" (Howard Thompson, "Student Films on N.Y.U. Screen"). Three decades later, in the same publication, Anita Gates writes: "Over the last two decades, film degrees have increased nearly three hundred percent: 10 times as much as college degrees overallAt least 120 schools now offer film or cinema studies degrees" ("Lights, Camera, Action and Tuition Bills," November 21, 1995).

[2] Compare this to a film like Pasolini's Accattone, about which the filmmaker remarked, "I've come to films without any professional knowledge, so much so that even now, when I hear my cameraman talk about soft focus I don't know exactly what this is, and in the same way I still don't absorb many technical elements When I began shooting Accattone, I didn't know the meaning of the word pan." Pasolini's conception of cinematic style proceeds not necessarily from specific technical means, but from a "theoretical feel for the film image." He adds, "The scenes in the film were so clear in my head that I had no need of technical knowledge to realize them." (Pier Paolo Pasolini et al., "Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Epical-Religious View of the World," Film Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4 [Summer 1965], p. 31-45.)

[3] What David Bordwell calls "intensified continuity" in his article of the same name is, for our purposes, an ancillary element of film school style.

[4] In his Path of the Artist, Ray Carney describes "film school movies" as "cartoons, kitsch, fake art When you've seen them, you've learned a lot about camera angles and lighting effects, but nothing about experience."

[5] In his book, The Portable Film School (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005), D.B. Gilles demonstrates this attitude, one that places a certain amount of use value on the work of art and, more generally, on being educated: "There's a lot to be said for studying the humanities, science, world literature and the arts. How do you put a value on the experience of taking a course devoted to eighteenth-century Irish poets?Don't just see movies Read novels and nonfiction on a wide range of subjects. Go to the theater Visit museums. Learn to appreciate fine art and music. Read all types of magazines and newspapers. Know what's going on in the world. Keep current. Travel. See the world. Continue to educate yourself." Importantly, Gilles concludes this list with, "The more of life you're exposed to, the broader the range of material you can write and make your films about" (pp. 240-241).

[6] From Sergei Eisenstein's "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today" (1944). Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 436-43.

[7] See Eric Neher's "Dudamel, Domingo, Villazón and the New Classical Music" in The Hudson Review, Vol. LXII, No. 1 (Spring 2009), p.121.

[8] Another example: Ken Johnson's review of an exhibition of Albrecht Dürer prints opens with the statement that, had the artist "lived in the 20th century, he might have been a great filmmaker — imagine a blend of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg." For Johnson, Dürer gives us "the hallmarks of a proto-cinematic genius: fantastic stories, beautiful men and women, hideous villains and demons" ("Where the Devils Are in the Details," The New York Times, August 8, 2008). Other, more contemporary artists, however, make the job for the critic much easier. Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove, for instance, adapted Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, Cassavetes' Opening Night, and Bergman's Cries and Whispers for the stage.

Notes on Film School
By Ricky D'Ambrose

Stanley Kubrick
The young Stanley Kubrick photographing himself in a mirror

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.

- Susan Sontag

The development of a sensibility is the development of new attitudes, of new conditions for experiencing the world (or for not experiencing it). It is also the creation of taste. But just as some tastes and sensibilities exist according to their own codes — their own attitudes or vocabulary — most develop in spaces that confine, that discriminate against certain kinds of expressiveness. Sensibility can be regarded as a response to the narrowing of experience (experience of other ideas, other outlooks, other feelings); by furnishing an insular set of experiences within which to participate, sensibility fashions a refuge for its followers.

One breed of taste that has found its way into the popular imagination is the sensibility that goes by the name of "film school." "Film school," the term for the institutionalization of film training and craft-honing, interests me precisely because it has come to represent a variety of attitudes and feelings associated with the growth of production departments in America over the past thirty years. One can thus say, and does say: "That's so film school," or, "That's a very film school thing to do" (and not only as a way of acknowledging stylistic or thematic clichés ordinarily associated with student films. "Film school" also describes the qualities of a number of other objects and ways of looking).

The increased interest in film training in America has made filmmaking programs and institutions more attractive, and more fashionable. The most popular of these programs have been in universities. But while universities traditionally uphold an obligation to encourage intellectual debate, most of the filmmaking curricula housed within their gates exist on the fringes of any real intellectual seriousness or concern. Some of the most respected programs for the study of filmmaking are also the most susceptible to isolating their curricula away from ideas that exist outside the domain of film production. This isolation from ideas is consequential, for no phenomenon as self-enclosed and self-dependent as "film school" can exist without inadvertently fashioning its own project of rituals and behaviors.

It is difficult to write about film school without anthologizing it; one does not want to reduce it to a list of stereotypes. The risk in talking about film school is that questions of taste threaten to eclipse broader questions of origin, or of context and value. As a sensibility, "film school" participates in and traces a whole milieu of cultural ideas and feelings about what it means to be educated in America; it summons old disparities (between thinking and doing, the intellectual and the pragmatist, complexity and "common sense") that are continuously being marked in the study of craft or production.

Aside from occasional press coverage describing increased enrollment in American university film departments, [1] "film school" has rarely ever been discussed at length, and its system of taste has hardly been elaborated on or illustrated. Therefore, "film school" — and the attitudes and stigmas commonly associated with it — does not necessarily require a new kind of analysis, for no new kind of analysis can exist for a sensibility that has heretofore hardly been analyzed. Instead, it requires description, one that adds clarity to the underlying assumptions influencing the way it's ordinarily thought about. My own brief exposure to film school is largely responsible for these notes; there, in classrooms among my peers, the operative feeling was zealousness for technique, the dominant tone a wholesale reluctance or hesitance about arts and ideas.

As an undergraduate enthralled by the possibility of studying filmmaking, I didn't quite understand what I rather naively characterized at the time as the separation of "theory" from "practice." To be told by instructors that my interests in the humanities simply weren't necessary — that, after all, the department's required classes in film history and theory were "enough" to accommodate my own curiosities about literature, history, the social sciences, aesthetics, and so on — was, to my eighteen-year-old self, an occasion for reconsidering the benefits of film school. I thought it natural to champion Ben Shahn's declaration to artists that "scholarship is perhaps man's most rewarding occupation," despite my own failure to be more reflective about his conclusion: "Scholarship which dries up its own creative sources is a reductio ad absurdum, a contradiction of itself." This tendency toward the reductio ad absurdum thickened the atmosphere of film school and contributes to its development and dissemination as a sensibility; thus, one student reporting to a colleague of having recently visited the opera, "I'm writing a script about an opera singer, so I thought it would be a good idea to go and see what it's like."

As a former film student, I would like to talk about this sensibility not only because I am familiar with it, but also because I am skeptical of it. It is within these parameters that I want to discuss it.

To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

- Notes on "Camp"

1. By "film school" I mean a sensibility, an attitude, and a set of prescriptions for ways of thinking. One cannot talk about film school without acknowledging a specific program of behaving.

2. Just as any sensibility lends itself to certain systems of classification and identification, "film school" attempts to catalogue objects (and ways of consuming, of posturing, of interacting).

3. Examples from course syllabi:

  • Citizen Kane
  • Joe Eszterhas's script for Basic Instinct
  • the Peach Orchard segment from Dreams
  • "The Dead" from Joyce's Dubliners
  • Aristotle's Poetics
  • the film scores of John Williams
  • the first fifteen minutes of Run, Lola, Run
  • Michel Gondry music videos
  • the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin
  • low-key (as opposed to high-key) lighting in Double Indemnity
  • the "symbolism" in Meshes of the Afternoon and Un chien andalou
  • Peter Deming's cinematography for Mulholland Drive
  • the opening crane shot from Touch of Evil
  • jump cuts in Breathless
  • television commercials for Nike sneakers
  • the sound design for Minority Report
  • Steven Soderbergh's direction in Traffic
  • AFI's list of America's 100 Greatest Movies
  • Nicole Kidman's performance in The Hours

4. Some of the objects commonly consumed and catalogued are by American filmmakers, or filmmakers who have worked within the United States: David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Quentin Tarantino, et al. Regarding international cinema: the films of Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, Tom Tykwer, Ang Lee, and, to a lesser extent, Wong Kar-Wai and Akira Kurosawa are very "film school," whereas the films of Harun Farocki and Chantal Akerman are not. Thus, while the latter may share with more popular directors a fondness for the long take, in Farocki and Akerman the device is more integral to the content of their images; one cannot, for instance, distribute or abbreviate Delphine Seyrig's housework across multiple shots without transforming Jeanne Dielman in some significant way. Similarly, Farocki's In Comparison — with its protracted sequences of brick construction and manufacture, its movement between Burkina Faso, India, Austria, and Germany — treats the long take as a necessary extension of its observational aesthetics. (One only has to think of the opening tracking shot in Boogie Nights or Stephen Dorff alone and listless in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere to understand the "film school" appreciation for the long take; unlike its application in Farocki and Akerman, here the device becomes an accomplice to a carefully packaged stylistic program, an easily digestible and decorative supplement to a long list of attractive scenery.)

The Matrix
The Matrix

5. Films that resist complexity, or that transform potentially difficult thematic or narrative concepts into more manageable viewing experiences, are exemplars of "film school" sensibility. The aim is not necessarily towards accessibility — although accessibility is important — but towards assimilation. Films can thus be "difficult" and easily incorporated within the framework of "film school" taste; the ideas that make these films seem complex are, in fact, often ideas that have already been digested by the culture, that have been made familiar by it. An example: to refer to Jean Baudrillard when discussing The Matrix is to acknowledge the popular culture's familiarity with Baudrillard's ideas, however superficial or banal, and their dissemination within it. This familiarity gives directors like Andy and Larry Wachowski permission to integrate Simulacra and Simulation within a popular motion picture and still secure themselves as viably profitable filmmakers. The decision is safe, manageable, reasonable. There are reasons why certain films receive the commercial interest they do, and why others don't; in its commitment to what can be easily disseminated, to the spectrum of popular digestion and appreciation, "film school" has a tender relationship to those that do.

6. One can, however, have a love of aesthetic complexity, of aesthetic pleasure and sensuousness, and still be responsive to "film school" taste, which loves excess — stylization and visual manipulation — and prefers films that look good, or those that, by intention, don't look good (Darren Aronofsky's Pi is one film that does not look good in the sense that Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon does, although both films are purposely stylized as a result of specific technical choices: lenses, film stocks, cameras, et al.). [2] Some films are more appropriately linked to "film school" sensibility than others given their love of form and disinterest in content (or their potential to allow viewers to slight content more easily, to undermine content for the sake of looking at the image, for slickness. Form becomes a preference). Some examples: the Lord of the Rings series, Tarsem Singh's The Fall, Ridley Scott movies, Metropolis, Jacques Demy's Les parapluies de Cherbourg.

7. There are also films that reveal an explicit investment in both form and content, yet can be easily appreciated almost exclusively at the level of style: A Clockwork Orange is one instance of this, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love is another. These films, too, are exemplars of "film school" sensibility.

8. As a taste, "film school" prefers accessibility to difficulty, archetypes to esotericism, prevalence to the uncommon, excitement to contemplativeness. There are some exceptions: the playfulness of Godard's films (e.g., Nana's café dance in Vivre sa vie, Jean-Claude Brialy and Anna Karina arguing via book covers in Une femme est une femme, the suitcase filled with photographs and postcards in Les carabiniers, the yé-yé insouciance of Masculin féminin) makes him popular among many film students. But the didacticism of films like Le gai savoir, La Chinoise, Week End, Tout va bien, et al., makes Godard too demanding to be classified exclusively as a "film school" director. This can also be said of Bergman, whose seductiveness in film departments is complicated by the moral seriousness of his films. They require patience, as well. There is nothing "edgy" about Bergman: think of Winter Light, The Silence, Through A Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, After the Rehearsal, and so on. (The reaction of one student to the piano-playing scene from Autumn Sonata is the rally-cry of "film school" taste: "But it's so slow!")

9. In its preference for the playful and the prevalent, "film school" makes adjustments against seriousness. It turns its back on the serious, it wants to eliminate it. By "seriousness," I am thinking of Sontag's conception of the word: the effort of making certain kinds of concessions. In effect, and with respect to standards, seriousness is an activity that mobilizes and amplifies our capacity for responsiveness. It announces: "To pay attention to this is more important than to pay attention to that."

10. "Film school" deflates the project of seriousness through its love of entertainment values as the impetus of its system of taste. Accessibility, excitement, sensationalism, irony, speed, the fantastic, the potential to shock are the values that create appetites for the consumption of pleasure (but a pleasure that is fostered by diversion, passivity, a lack of mental energy and commitment. In short: a lack of seriousness).

11. "Film school" abolishes the conception of pleasure as an opportunity for moral growth. By "pleasure," I am thinking of Lionel Trilling's conception of the word, as offered by Wordsworth, in his essay, The Fate of Pleasure: "The defining attribute of life itself and of nature itself — pleasure is the 'impulse from the vernal wood' which teaches us more of man and his moral being 'than all the sages can.'" Instead, film school makes amusement (as opposed to effort), as well as sensation (as opposed to transformation, moral or otherwise), the chief pursuit of its sensibility. Seriousness — and its notion that some pleasures are better than others, more nourishing than others — obstructs this pursuit.

12. The inaugural moment of film school aesthetics is the intensification of the image. "Intensification" — understood here as a description of what this sensibility achieves in its appraisal and creation of motion pictures — entails a list of stylistic features coincident with the development of film school taste. For one commentator, these features have been increasingly salient in American cinema over the last fifty years: dramatic alternations in lens focal length, tightly framed dialogue scenes, accelerated cutting, reliance on rack focusing, a restless and invasive camera, radically reduced shot lengths, overt narration, and so on. [3] But the stylistic appetite of "film school" is just one itineration in a larger, longer history of intensified aesthetics (think of the Mannerist paintings of Pontormo and Parmigianino, kabuki theater, rococo in the eighteenth century, Romantic poetry, Olafur Eliasson installations, Millennium Park in Chicago, Wagner).

13. Of course, a closer examination of the oeuvre of any filmmaker embraced by the ranks of "film school" sensibility will reveal discrepancies rather than continuities in style. But important are the qualities in these filmmakers' works that enable the edginess, the slickness, the lack of interest in contemplativeness and seriousness characteristic of "film school" taste to be experienced. [4]

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.

- Against Interpretation

14. "Film school" makes looking at films a project of investigation; the production of a film becomes a process that reveals itself, a proof that the film was made. Aesthetics are translated into devices, form into technique, and so on. In this way, films are viewed from the position of director, or producer, or cinematographer, or editor, or sound designer; the viewer is mindful of how it was made rather than what the film does. A process of visual copyediting is thus underway, as the instructor of one film production class asked her students to identify key and fill light locations during a screening of Mildred Pierce; another, that they report on the variety of lens focal lengths in The Graduate. Hence, close-ups become 75mm lenses, sumptuous images become filters and tungsten lights, the sound of footsteps becomes a cardioid microphone, locations become budgets, et al.

15. Thus, "film school" develops a hermeneutic for looking and a program for excavating films. It wants to pull the film apart, to reveal its inner processes, and to transform its images and sounds away from purely sensory kinds of experiences into a vocabulary of technology and production.

16. What is important is not always that the image is an image, but that it is an accumulation of tricks and processes that allows it to become an image.

17. "Film school" wishes to answer: How can it be used? "Film school" is always mindful of how film aesthetics can be resourced; it hopes to put form to use. The films that make answering this question seem simpler are those to be paid attention to. Thus, what matters while watching the films of Christopher Nolan is different than what matters while watching those of Alain Resnais: despite, and perhaps because of, their veneer of aesthetic "cool" and edge, Memento and Insomnia disclose their narrative rules in ways that Hiroshima mon amour and Muriel do not. More so than Resnais' films, the former easily align themselves with "film school" taste in their possibility for unambiguous advice about narrative structure, in their reliance on assimilability and convention. The latter two films cannot be used as easily in this way; their complexity resists this.

18. Regarding questions of use and interpretation, "film school" approaches all of the arts, across a variety of mediums, with a similar objective: to acquire from the work of art something that can be resourced, to extract material from it. The mantra here of "film school" sensibility is: Experience the world, but always take notes. It is precisely this tendency to want to annotate the work of art with which "film school" seeks to modify aesthetic experience.

19. "Film school" converts the work of art into a giver of advice. Thus, traditional conceptions of the function of the novel — as an opportunity for a richer, more intense and complicated relationship to the world, as a surrogate for variegated feelings and experiences — are quickly abandoned. Instead, the novel offers a supply of "tips" about narrative structure and storytelling, each waiting to be extracted and transposed to the script page. To read literature, to go to the theatre and to the opera, to look at painting and photographs; these activities are anthologized by "film school" precisely because of their potential to provide the film student with an aesthetic itinerary for the production of a film (thus, a painting by Caravaggio is understood solely as a reference for light design; the movement of a Shostakovich symphony becomes a film score; a Eugène Atget photograph becomes a composition for the cinematographer, et al.). [5]

20. Perhaps one of the earliest, most popular practitioners of this will to extraction is D. W. Griffith. When Eisenstein wrote in his essay on Dickens and Griffith that the latter discovered in the former a model for the parallel edit, he was, in effect, describing a variant of the "film school" tendency toward seduction by appropriation. "Mr. Griffith found the idea to which he clung thus heroically in Dickens," Eisenstein writes. "That was as luck would have it, for he might have found the same idea almost anywhere." [6] What qualifies Griffith's candidacy to the annals of "film school" sensibility is less the potential stylistic attractiveness of his films (although their exorbitance does make them attractive: the three thousand extras in Intolerance, the battlefield sequences in The Birth of a Nation, etc.) than his aptitude for finding his ideas "almost anywhere." Alas, the voice of Godard: "Everything is cinema."

21. Unlike Godard, however, "film school" wants to reverse the command that "one should put everything into a film." The new task: "One should get a film out of everything."

22. As a particular way of looking at objects, "film school" does not want to experience the thing itself. The work of art is filtered by a filmmaker's mindset; "film school" assumes an anthropological position to aesthetic experience, one that excavates and transforms works of art according to their potential to be used for specific purposes.

23. What "film school" collapses is the viewer's capacity to have a sensuous, exalting relationship to a work of art (or a relationship that adds clarity to the work, clarity to the image). It accomplishes this by building a more utilitarian, more pragmatic relationship instead.

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world.

- On Style

24. Again, "film school" is a love of aesthetic excitement and polish, of stylization and velocity. It is the sound of Donald Sutherland's voice as it comes to an ominous, bass-thickened crescendo when speaking the date of Kennedy's assassination in JFK. It is the hand-held camera's restlessness during the Normandy invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan. It is the use of wide-angle lenses and swooping camera movements in The Shining. It is the appearance of antiquated, serif typefaces in the title cards of almost every American period film. It is a helicopter shot, a car explosion, a dramatic turn of phrase that wants to inculcate its stylistic and narrative significance.

25. The qualities valued by "film school," however, are discoverable in other mediums; they create a new lexicon for commentary on other art forms. James Wood, writing in How Fiction Works, identifies Stephen Crane as a more "cinematic" novelist than Flaubert, since his is a literary style that replicates the zoom lens, moving "closer and closer" in its attention to minutiae. In the assessment of one critic, Gustavo Dudamel's performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony transformed the conductor into film director, one who "built the tension with spine-tingling panache, interlacing the various themes in an almost cinematic style, as if he were Steven Spielberg editing a masterful action scene." [7] In this way, "film school" affects the vocabulary of the critic once he begins to assess works of art with the vocabulary of the filmmaker. Thus, paintings become understood through a language of "close-ups" and "wide shots"; scene transitions in operas and plays are described as "dissolves" and "fades"; narrative events that appear successively in works of literature become "montage sequences," etc. [8]

26. Governed by speed, fashioned by slickness, enraptured by technique, "film school" is an effort to interpret the world cinematically. Thus, the ultimate "film school" statement, giving it credence and applicability, a symptom of its conditions as a sensibility: "It was just like a movie."

Ricky D'Ambrose




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