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SWEPT AWAY BY AN OSCAR CONTENDER

Who would guess that a group of young people eager to see the newest Marvel movie would be blown away by a three-hour German drama that forces them to read subtitles?

I knew it was a gamble showing my USC class Never Look Away, the new opus from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnarsmarck, who made the unforgettable Oscar-winner The Lives of Others (2006). But there are few worthwhile new releases at this time of year and the talented filmmaker was in Los Angeles and willing to come as a guest. It was also a point of pride that the picture was photographed by USC Cinema grad Caleb Deschanel.

Some of my students would rather have root canal than read subtitles, but they were swept away by the movie’s masterful storytelling. Only a fraction of these young people are aspiring filmmakers; the class is open to the entire university, so athletes and business majors are sitting next to future directors and producers.

Hollywood doesn’t believe such moviegoers exist, to judge from the sludge that fills multiplexes every week. But when I asked my 300 20-somethings if they liked Never Look Away at the outset of the following week’s session virtually every hand went up. 

My class never fails to surprise and encourage me. This was only the second week of spring semester and we’d barely gotten to know each other when I threw this challenge at them. Anyone who tars young people with the same brush, grousing about the next generation, will have to answer to me.

Would they have sought out such a film on their own? Probably not. But given the chance to see something engrossing, stimulating, and (I might add) sexy, they responded. I’d call that cause for optimism. I inherited this class twenty-one years ago. It was launched in the early 1960s by the venerable film critic Arthur Knight (author of The Liveliest Art). When he retired he passed the baton to Charles Champlin, then the senior critic at the Los Angeles Times. I took over in January of 1998. It’s a famous class for a variety of reasons: George Lucas and Ron Howard were among the early attendees, Alfred Hitchcock and John Cassavetes just two of the notable directors who came as guests.

A view of the display windows in the lobby of Frank Sinatra Hall

Even the theater has a notable history: Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco) was once a projectionist there, and fellow Oscar-winner Ben Burtt used the hum of a 35mm projector motor as a component of the light sabre sound he devised for Star Wars. In 2002 the children of Frank Sinatra donated all of his personal memorabilia to the school and renovated the theater, which is now named in his honor. I love showing off our Sinatra goodies to visitors, including hand-written letters from Presidents (beginning with FDR), two Oscars, and a wall piled high with gold and platinum records. (We also play Frank’s music every week as the class assembles.)

If I’ve learned one thing over the past twenty years, it’s humility. I love teaching because I learn so much from my students and their reaction to the movies we watch. This isn’t a history class: it’s intended to showcase brand-new films on the eve of their release, with guests from the film to answer questions afterwards. It might be a writer, director, producer, actor, composer, costume designer or any number of other collaborators. (I get in my licks for film history by showing a vintage short subject every Thursday. Imagine having the opportunity to introduce my kids to the likes of Betty Boop, Robert Benchley, and Charley Chase.)

I learn something new every week, which also buoys my enthusiasm for teaching. On the opening night of each semester I tell the students that my goal is to make them a smarter audience. I can’t guarantee results, but I’m in there trying. You can read my review of the film HERE.

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