Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dream a Little Dream

When I was in college in the 1970s, the only film schools I knew of were in New York and California. There were film courses available at my school (1), taught by disaffected English professors. But because the courses were part of the English curriculum, there had to be some literary tie-in. Thus there were courses with titles like Novels into Film, in which students would read The Grapes of Wrath or For Whom the Bell Tolls and then watch the movies that Hollywood had made from them. Or else some less scrupulous professor would grope for resemblances between a medieval romance, like The Song of Roland, and a Hollywood western like Shane. (2)

At twenty, midway through college, I found myself talking about my future with Nestor Moreno, former member of the Batista government in Cuba and respected professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. After calling me a "dilettante," he broke down for me, in pitilessly practical terms, all of the obstacles that stood in the way of my dream of becoming a film director. (My respect for the man was somewhat compromised by his constant ridicule of his wife.)

I do not know for certain at what age I came up with the notion of being a film director, but it must have been when my elder sister gave me a super-8mm film camera and projector for my sixteenth birthday. I must have seen the potential for making films almost immediately because, within a week or so, I was enlisting the help of some high school friends in my first efforts as an auteur. Doing all the editing "in the camera," I set about making three-minute mini-movies at a necessarily simple level of sophistication. The first, with hand-written titles, was called The Magic Wand, and showed off my skills at rudimentary special effects using stop motion and other camera tricks. These little masterpieces (3) were intended, predictably, to boost my popularity at school. But as interest in them proved to be nil, and since I dropped out of high school the following year, the films mouldered in a strong box along with whatever other home movies I had shot in the intervening years. Until I lost the strong box in one of my many cross-country moves.

In 1991, I was well into my first enlistment in the U.S. Navy, stationed in, of all places, Fallon, Nevada. A local girl had invited me to a party for her younger brother, and when I arrived everyone was assembled in front of a big screen TV. I took one of the available chairs in the back and sat down to watch what was obviously an amateur, shot-on-video thriller involving a mad scientist, a secret formula, and some government agents. It reminded me, in its clumsiness and lack of technical "production values" of my own efforts at filmmaking nearly two decades earlier, except that the particular film I was watching was not, I soon realized, made exclusively for home consumption. The party I was attending was a celebration of the 18-year-old's winning a scholarship, on the strength of that film, to a California film school. When I heard this, I grew so despondent that I made some excuses and left the party.

In fairness, the film showed an obvious understanding of how to edit and line up individual shots, which is probably what the films school had noticed. But it was no better - or worse - than the 8mm films I had made in my teens. Not that I realistically believed that I could have used those 8mm films to vault myself into a film school and thence into a career in films. It was not even that this lucky kid in Nevada had never been lectured by a contemptuous political science professor.

What got to me at a gut level that evening was that my dreams of becoming a film director, as unrealistic as they may indeed have been, were obviously not good enough to withstand the slightest discouragement. My congenital lack of ambition had done the rest. "So much for that dream," I thought at the time, and later on in Nevada, and once again today, so many years, misdirected careers and disappointed dreams later.

(1) Which was then UCD, or University of Colorado at Denver. It has since been renamed, sadly, CUD, or Colorado University at Denver.
(2) I once asked one such professor if it was too great a stretch to compare a chivalrous knight with a cowpoke who knows how to handle a pistol. He was unbending: "Shane is a knight," he insisted.
(3) In Oscar Wilde's words, "What a simplicity of means. And what a simplicity of ends!"

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