[by Allan Arkush]
[Editor’s note: Long before I met him, Allan Arkush wrote this unforgettable piece for Film Comment magazine, Vol 19. No. 6, in 1983. I am delighted to present it to a new audience with Allan’s encouragement and the kind permission of the folks at Film Comment. Allan made his first splash as the director of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and has gone on to create countless films and television series episodes, from Moonlighting and St. Elsewhere right up to this season’s BrainDead. He is also a regular contributor to Trailers From Hell.]
In winter of 1969 I was a junior at N.Y.U. film school. I was a very, very serious film student. The cinema was not fun, it was art. If it was entertaining, it was frivolous and my days of frivolous movie-going were behind me. The cinema had to have subtitles and my pantheon consisted of Bergman, Antonioni, Resnais, Kurosawa and, most of all, Godard. All my student films were homages to Godard. You can’t imagine how insufferably insular a homage to a homage can be until you see a little short I made about a film student obsessed with Belmondo in Breathless. This piece, called Truth 24 Times A Second, will remain locked in my closet forever. Little did I know that before the end of my junior year the cinema would become ‘movies’ and I would be dressing my roommates up as cowboys and making a western in the woods behind my old high school in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I would return to the movies I had enjoyed as a kid—American movies—and I would like them all over again, but for very different reasons.
I entered N.Y.U. as a transfer sophomore in September of 1967. My first year had little to do with film. I had to take several compulsory courses like French, Art History, Music Theory and two truly bizarre “science” courses called “Physics for Poets,” and “Math for Poets.” (This is true, you can look it up.) Each “Physics for Poets” class would begin with an experiment. The professor would start a magnesium fire or a hydrogen explosion. This would buy him enough time to explain what happened before the film students walked out. We were only interested in how he did the pyrotechnics, not why. “Math for Poets” was the new math without numbers. It was a concept too abstract for me, so I used the time to balance my checkbook. On the other hand, several of my classmates took to it right away and went on to the accounting departments of several major studios.
The real action began with my junior year. I got to take five film courses and French. I took “Fundamentals of Filmmaking” taught by the head of the school, Haig Manoogian. I finally got my hands on a camera. At that time, the highly respected “N.Y.U. Film School” consisted of four small rooms on the eighth floor of a building a block and a half from Washington Square Park. We had four Movieolas that ate student films at an alarming rate and only one camera capable of sound. The Eclair’s main drawback was that it stripped the emulsion from color film. The best and largest rooms on our floor were allotted to the Serbo-Croatian library and study center. Haig Manoogian coped as best he could but all he could offer was enthusiasm and a Bell & Howell Filmo. The Filmos were virtually indestructible cast-iron cameras that had to be wound up with a door knob because all the keys had disappeared years ago.
Each Monday morning, the “Fundamentals” class met and Haig would hand out the cameras and the assignments. We had three hours to shoot our assignment film. The assignments were on the order of: Make a film illustrating how a mechanical object works, or make a chase film demonstrating the crosscut. We all took turns at being director, cameraman, editor, or actor. The editor stayed behind to edit last week’s film.
As far as I know, no one ever filmed any of Haig’s assignments. We were much more concerned with our own artistic vision. This produced an exciting creative tension between our high aesthetic standards and our inability to read a light meter.
The “Fundamental” films of the period fall into four different genres. The most important and certainly the definitive genre was “Walking thru Washington Square Park to Rock Music.” The Park was our Monument Valley. We never seemed to tire of its vistas, you didn’t need a permit, and it was a wonderful place to find actors. A camera on a tripod always brought a casting call. The definitive work featured Tarzan fighting off muggers with a three-foot Hebrew-National salami.
The second most popular genre was “Gender Identity” or “What’s My Sexual Line.” Students explored their own sexual doubts with a candor that never failed to embarrass the rest of the class. The films usually featured the director dressed as the opposite sex acting out Jim Morrison’s monologue from “The End.” “Father.” “Yes, son.” “I want to kill you. Mother, I want to aah-arghaaahAAAAH.” One very popular film showed a real hooker giving an off-screen blowjob and then climbing into bed with the director, her boyfriend, and two dozen lemons.
A very topical genre was “The Trip Diary.” There were basically two types: “My Last Trip” and “My Present Trip.” The Monday morning class specialized in “My Last Trip,” upside-down shots of fire escapes, apartments, and Washington Square Park, cut to “White Rabbit.” The Friday afternoon class specialized in “My Present Trip,” out-of-focus shots of album covers, and Washington Square Park cut to “White Rabbit” played backwards. It was not a distinguished genre.
Last, but not least, was “The Homage.” My The Truth 24 Times a Second featured my roommate posing in front of a Belmondo poster and trying to break into parked cars. The best shot was a built-in fade to black that occurred when we blew all the fuses in my apartment. This film is not available for rental.
When your film was done, you showed it to the class and handed out an essay that explained what it was you were trying to express. Haig Monoogian and the rest of the class would offer their criticisms. You would go home depressed and try again next week. I wish things were so simple today.
Haig did not teach all the “Fundamentals” classes. The enterprising teacher of another class made a novel suggestion to his students. Rather than have each student make a couple of three-minute films, he had the class pool its film stock together and with his help, they shot a porno film. Using the school’s facilities, the film cost next to nothing. He planned to find a distributor and divide the profits. Everything worked until the department heads decided to review all films to determine our progress. Although they all agreed that it was an accomplished piece of work, the teacher was promptly sacked. He fled to Florida with the negative where he distributed the film himself. These Raging Loins is available in VHS or Beta.
By the end of the fall semester, the equipment was in horrible shape. Several of the “Trip films” featured P.O.V. shots of people falling down flights of stairs and out of windows. This took a terrible toll on our meager supply of Filmos. School attendance was growing. Unless we got some new equipment, things would be pretty grim for the spring semester.
Our film history courses were also a disgrace, because they weren’t even our own. We had to share them with the rest of the school who took them as a minor elective, a “gut” course. Thus, these courses were hopelessly diluted. As much as I loved Citizen Kane, I did not want to see it for the 25th time and hear yet another lecture on deep focus. Kane was screened in a course called “The Modem Cinema in Japan, India, and America.” This became our “course celebre.” We wanted a course strictly devoted to contemporary American movies to be taught by a young professor named Martin Scorsese.
Faced with this sorry state of affairs, we did what any good radical student of the late Sixties would do: we went on strike and staged a sit-in. We liberated the eighth floor from the iron fist of the Serbo-Croatians. Instead of closing the floor at 9:00 P.M., the entire student body showed up for an all-night session of movies and whatever college kids did at all-night sessions in the Psychedelic Era. We saw Rosemary’s Baby, Help!, and My Darling Clementine. Around 2:00 A.M., we ran out of movies and things began to look desperate. Scorsese took charge. He made some phone calls, and soon I was running across town to a sixth floor walk-up on St. Mark’s Place. The apartment door was opened by a guy with crooked glasses. He didn’t think it was unusual for someone to be picking up films at this hour. On the other hand, his apartment was very unusual. Each wall was painted a different color—purple, yellow, green, etc.—and there were film cans stacked everywhere, all unlabeled. We had to open each can to see what it was. Inside the oven, we found a print of Stagecoach which he handed to me. “Everyone loves Stagecoach but you need something really weird to go with it.” He opened the refrigerator which was stocked with more films, orange juice, and mescaline. “Aha, the perfect film for the occasion. I guarantee it. I wish I could watch it with you, but I’ve got to start on a term paper that’s due in about twelve hours.”
Soon we screened the mystery movie. It was Little Shop of Horrors, and the mad movie-collector was right. It was a perfect blend of movie, time, and place. Roger Corman and Chuck Griffith’s weird little gem had struck a chord. Once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. (I should have known that, in terms of my life, it was an augur of things to come.) After Stagecoach, Marty led us in a march to the dean’s office, where we stood in the courtyard and sang, “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Hail, Hail, Freedonia.” This convinced the dean to bow to our demands: new equipment, banishment of the Serbo Croatians, and exclusive film courses. The first would be Marty’s course, “American Movies.” Those Tuesday afternoon classes changed my view of movies forever. I went to work for Roger Corman, because the films screened in Marty’s class helped me see the kind of movies I wanted to make.
Scorsese’s student films were required viewing for every incoming freshman. He was Haig Monoogian’s favorite, and Haig was our inspirational leader, the man to whom Raging Bull would be dedicated. Haig was a patient and constructive film production teacher; Marty was just the opposite. I once saw him machine-gun a hopeful director with this bit of criticism: “What do want me to say? It’s a student film. It stinks!” But when it came to teaching film history, I have never seen his equal. Before every film, he’d pace in front of the class with Andrew Sarris’ “The American Cinema” in one hand. He’d read off paragraphs or lists of pictures by a director. Then he’d act out scenes or shots from a movie and connect all the director’s movies with an analysis of theme and style. It was unlike any other film history course I’d ever taken, because it was being taught by a filmmaker, not a literature professor. Marty made me understand why as a child I had loved Rio Bravo and The Horse Soldiers and taught me how to love them all over again. But best, he was entertaining.
Marty’s favorite parts to act out were John Garfield’s. He would dress a little like Garfield in topcoat, suit, tie and hat, which set him apart from us in our hippie garb. We sat there, spellbound, as Marty acted out entire monologues and camera movements simultaneously. We saw him do Thomas Gomez’s death scene from Force of Evil so many times that when Marty finally showed the picture, we preferred his to Gomez’s.
The first film of the semester was Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. It was a blunt, brutal, and very forceful introduction to American movies for the artsy-fartsy crowd. The thunderstorm in the corridor of Fuller’s mental hospital practically knocked me out of my chair. Marty rewound the reel and we rescreened the fight scene in the kitchen between the journalist and the murderous guard. Marty jumped up and down with excitement as he talked about the camera movement that tracked the guard as he is dragged the length of the food-laden kitchen counters, knocking all the food to the floor. Years later, in Mean Streets, David is dragged along the men’s club bar, knocking glasses and bottles to the floor.
Looking back, one of the most interesting aspects of the class was the connection between the movies Marty screened and the movies he made. The scene he reran in The Big Heat showed up in Mean Streets on a TV set. In The Bandwagon we reran “The Girl Hunt Ballet” and marveled at Cyd Charisse’s grace as she slides across the subway station to Fred Astaire as the lights from a passing train flicker across them. In New York, New York, Robert DeNiro pauses to watch a couple dance beneath the El. Their silent ballet is illuminated by the light from a passing train. This is not to say that Marty’s movies are slavish reduplications of the past. Every director I know pays homage to the movies they love, both consciously and unconsciously.
Our most controversial class was the one in which we saw The Nutty Professor —definitely the first screening ever of a Jerry Lewis movie at N.Y.U., and quite a few students were hoping it would be the last. Not me. My grandfather and I had spent many happy Saturday afternoons watching Lewis’ antics. “Allan, let’s go see a Levitch picture,” and this meant laughing till we hurt. The last place I expected to see a “Levitch” was at N.Y.U. film school. I thought Jerry was for kids.
Marty thought differently: “Don’t ya see, don’t ya see. Buddy Love is Dean Martin. Professor Kelp is Jerry Lewis. The movie is the result of Jerry’s years in psychoanalysis. He wants to be Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the same time. This is the greatest multiple personality movie ever made.” Most of the class thought Marty had gone too far; I thought he was right. From then on, I began to take comedy seriously. I rediscovered Frank Tashlin and have spent more than a few hours defending Jerry Lewis from his detractors. I’ve incurred the wrath of Jerry haters everywhere, but I’ve also seen The King of Comedy three times.
The best class was yet to come. One day, Marty announced that next week’s movie was Rear Window. This caused quite a stir. No one had seen Rear Window in years. Hitchcock refused to allow any public screenings. How was Marty going to pull it off? That Tuesday, the class was packed. People were sitting on the floor, in the aisles, and on the radiators when Marty entered the room wearing a cowboy hat and firing a cap gun into the air. Now that he had our attention, he had a confession to make. He had lied to us. We were not going to see Rear Window until next week. Groan. Instead we were going to see a John Wayne western in which the Duke plays a racist bastard. “If you leave the room, you fail the course,” Marty said. Big groan. The Green Berets was in release, and only Richard Nixon was less popular than John Wayne. Is this what we had gone to the barricades for? Marty guarded the only exit with his cap gun.
“This movie is called The Searchers and you will never see a better western.”
The projector started. The black screen opened into a doorway to Monument Valley, and a chill went up and down my spine. When this shot is repeated in reverse at the end of the picture and the door closes on the solitary figure of the Duke riding away, I was crying. The class applauded loud and long. Marty beamed with pride and fired several shots into the air. He had us hooked and he knew it.
Marty went on to teach a summer filmmaking workshop and senior production course. Over the course of the next year, N.Y.U. was in a constant state of agitation: Cambodia, a general strike, and a National Guard takeover (the day before I was supposed to mix my senior project). I’m going to save these stories, including the one about how all the school’s cameras and Nagras disappeared, and use them the next time I’m invited to speak at a film school. They’re so much more interesting than answering the question “How do I get an agent?”
P.S. Eight years later, in the midst of a particularly depressing batch of exploitation movies, the entire
New World editing staff decided to have a student film festival. We all ran our student films, no matter how embarrassing they were, for a wonderful evening. The truthful naiveté of our films stood in startling
contrast to the calculated cheap thrills of the movies we were working on. I highly recommend it for those days when you wonder why you’re in this crazy business. Student films show you how far you’ve come and where you must go to get back and why you started. You just wanted to express yourself.
Re-used with permission from Allan Arkush and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ©Film Comment 1983. You can find more good writing at www.filmcomment.com.