Tuesday, August 17, 2004

From: The League
To: Shoemaker
RE: Narrative Strategies

Man, I have been hacking away at telling the story of (Name withheld to avoid lawsuit) without telling her name, which is kind of key to the whole operation.

And I must admit, I'm basically finding it really hard to write the story without sounding like a big 'ol racist. I still think most of my complaints were probably well founded about the pedantic nature of the course. But when you write it out, it makes it sound like I was either a big know-it-all (which I was) or that I was a big ol racist (which i'd of liked to of thought I was not).

I'm struggling on this one.



From: Shoemaker
To: The League
RE: You are a complete sissy

If it makes you feel any better, that class was key in my political transformation from slightly-informed liberal asswipe to slightly-more-informed conservative asswipe. I cannot deny the negative effect that a Marxist-Feminist reading of the Weather Channel had on me. I cannot buy when that's what you're trying to sell me.

again, i'll back you up.


So, Loyal Leaguers... Let me see if I can remember...

Well, it helps to know I was not an "A" student in college. It wasn't for lack of trying, but most likely for lack of intellectual capacity. This is not to mention a strong disinterest in anything which was not EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing at that specific moment. My utter failure in academia would only partially foreshadow my inability to progress in my professional life later.

It also helps to know that in order to take "production" classes in the UT Radio-Television-Film department, students first were required to take pre-requisite courses, one of which was "Narrative Strategies." The class was supposed to be an examination of the principles that go into storytelling, and how all of the elements of a film work together to tell a story. Pretty simple.

In order to justify RTF as anything other than a trade-school type program, an infusion of academia has to be allocated into the mix. So, anyone with an RTF degree should know that faculty are never going to just let it go at "how to tell a good story". RTF faculty also fancy themselves armchair sociologists. So, armed with some cribbed English-major techniques and whichever political leanings they bring to the classroom, Narrative Strategies became a course in which we dissected Arnie movies in order to condemn every facet of them from the proto-Marxist-Feminist POV. And then we watched many, many dumb movies which, we were told, were awesome if you were a smart Marxist like the instructors.

editor's note: For those of you who think RTF majors just sit and watch movies in class, rest assured... Our screenings were during a separate "lab" time. We had three hours of lecture and usually three hours of screenings. Between all of that and the endless readings and other studying, the class was a time sink like none I'd yet seen, and there was almost zero pay-off... Just the far-off hope of getting into a production class one day...

The instructors weren't interesting or creative. They weren't interested in teaching any content on how to make a movie. They there to spout off assertions they'd read elsewhere and pass it off as their own.

Because, see... This class wasn't designed to actually be interesting or show how to do things well. Forget learning how to tell a story... At times, it seemed the course was designed to show us how shitty everything is and send us careening on guilt trips, rather than, you know, show us effective use of three-act structure.

The point is: the instructors were not filmmakers. These were people who liked to watch movies and had somehow found a way to make a career out of watching movies without ever actually producing anything of interest. And because they held degrees and we did not(and Randy will like this), our opinions were tiny and stupid, and their opinions were enlightened and wise.

"Do you," I asked early on, "Really believe that anybody working on these movies really, intentionally does any of this stuff you're dwelling on?"
"That's not the point," I was told. "These are issues which are societal, and the art reflects the society."
"Then why don't you blame society instead of Arnie?"
"Because he's perpetuating the stereotypes."
"Are you saying that no people from the Middle-East are terrorists?" (pre 9-11, post viewing of True Lies.)
"He's saying they're terrorists."
"No, he said these people were terrorists. He didn't say all Middle-Eastern people are terrorists."
"Well, Ryan, look at how they're portrayed. They're bumbling and incompetent."
"So they have to be competent terrorists."
"They don't have to be terrorists. Why didn't he pick a white militant group?"
And at this point, we were getting way out of the scope of what I was willing to argue in front of a class at age 19. "I don't know," I admitted, and I let it drop.

It's not that I necessarily even really disagreed with the instructors, but this was new to me. And the fact that we couldn't really discuss without risking our grade... And I wanted to be a good little lefty, but my brain was frying trying to go along with the little logical loops my instructor was tying.

After two class sessions of endless discussion on the plain-as-day racism of John Ford's The Searchers, (being presented as if the instructor had uncovered the Ark of the Covenant rather than just regurgitating what was in last night's reading...), and then having to sit through general cowboy bashing, and the general emasculation of, say, wanting to ride a horse... I tossed out a point I wanted to discuss.

"In the movie, they wore really big hats."
"Yes, they did."
"I mean, those are big hats."
"And what do you think it says?"
"Well, you know... John Wayne's hat-"
"Ethan's hat..."
"Ethan's hat was very, very large."
"And I think we can see that John Ford is trying to make these characters bigger than life."
"And was there anything else about the hats that you noticed? Color?"
"No. I was watching the movie and I just said to myself, 'Wow. Those are some big hats.'"
She paused, looking down at me in my front row seat, then turned to the class. "Does anyone else have anything to add about the hats?"
The room sat in silence.
"John Wayne had to take off his hat when he came through the door," I offered up.
"Yes," she nodded, trying to decide if I had just dropped one letter grade or two. "He did."

Even as I write this, I am so embarrassed my parents paid for my schooling.

But I am oft fascinated with hats, and my instructor wore this one dumb, sort of S&M biker hat. I remember that. It was her totem to indicate she was some sort of free-spirit thinker-type. And maybe she was. It was also sort of a bleak look into what happened to college-hipsters who hadn't yet given up the ghost. She was still young enough to pull it off, but it was just now crossing this side of dorky...

We watched other movies. The worst of which was King Lear, by Jean-Luc Godard. I don't remember much about it, but I recall it had Molly Ringwald and Burgess Meredith... and I am not making this up... I've had more fun getting teeth pulled. It was the worst movie I have, to this day, ever seen. And I watched most of From Justin to Kelly. But Godard's Lear was the sort of masturbatory nonsense we were supposed to be deriving a lesson from, I guess.

What lesson, you ask? Ho ho ho! You don't get it?

Well, if you don't know, the instructor said, I can't explain it to you.

This was more or less the MO following our screenings.

I do recall being unable to just fall asleep at screenings due to the uncomfortable seats provided. And, man, I tried.

We had to write a paper on a 30-second ad spot we'd recorded. And unsure or what to really do, I figured with the tone of the class it'd be like shooting fish in a brrel if I recorded a "Diamonds are Forever" spot and then talked about how dumb people are for believing diamonds are going to make them happy. I rambled on about the false promise of the commerical for pages on end. And, having no money myself, I figured people who could afford diamonds were jerks, anyway, so it wasn't that hard to write.

I got a B- and everyone else got A's. I was kind of pissed. I'm still not really sure if I picked the wrong commercial, or if my shot-by-shot analysis didn't match up with my instructor's, but she didn't like my paper.

I went and talked to her about it, because, frankly, my grades already sucked.

She looked a bit dazed as I entered her office.

"What's up?"
"Sometimes," and suddenly she was confiding in me, I guess, " I don't think the students like me very much."
"Really?" Because, I wanted to say, we don't, but we were really hoping you hadn't noticed. We all need A's.
"Do you get that?" she asked, wide-eyed, looking for an in...
"Well... It's like this," I had this chance! This shining opportunity to crush her little post-grad heart! To dance about and point out what a lame waste-of-time the class was, and how her inane blatherings always made me late for Danish 502 day after day. "I'm not sure this material is for everybody," I lied. "It's a prerequisite class."
"Well, yeah. You're fine," I was crumbling. "A lot of people just don't get what you're going for."
She nodded that slow, accepting nod. Yes, I had confirmed that we didn't really like her, but it wasn't HER we didn't like. It was this material she presented, we weren't ready for her profound wisdom yet...

I felt bad for her for maybe two weeks. She knew we hated her. Or at least that i hated her. And she never did change my grade, nor was I ever satisfied with her lack of answer as to why my grade sucked.

When we watched "Dead Poets Society", which, at that point, I was sick of anyway... My patience began to dwindle as the instructor spent ten minutes talking about how the movie was full of false promises of hope and rebellion. Keep in mind, the movie ends with a bunch of rich kids standing on their desks shouting "Oh Captain, my captain..." Not exactly the Bastille.

"Well," I asked. "What did you want for them to do?"
"As a form of rebellion?"
"Yeah. I mean, you spent ten minutes telling us these guys are suckers for reading poetry. What do you want them to do?"
"That's not really the point..."
"Yeah it is. You said they weren't rebelling. It sounds to me like you know what you wanted to see."
"I'm not sure."
"I don't understand," I was doing that thing where I can hear myself talking, but my brain is only able to listen as my mouth runs off on its own, "How you can say it isn't the right answer if you don't know what the answer is. You're saying they aren't rebelling. What did you want to see them do?"
"What do you think they should have done?"
"I don't know," I shrugged. "I have no idea. But you sound like you know what the official answer should be."
Her patience was wilting. "It's up to the film maker to say what they thought they should do, and, in this case, they didn't give a sufficient answer."
"Okay. If YOU were the filmmaker, what would YOU have them do?"
"But, Ryan... I'm not the filmmaker. We're talking about what's actually in the movie-"
"Were they supposed to put the evil dean's head on a pike? I don't understand-"
"That's not really pertinent," I was cut off. "And we can talk about it after class."
We never talked about it after class.

The single most bizarre lecture came about when we got to watch The Weather Channel for an hour one day. The bent was: The Weather Channel is racist. Because, you know, it doesn't do enough to appeal to minorities.

At one point we watched "Cops", and were told it was "keeping minorities down." When pointed out how many shirtless white dudes actually appeared on the show, we were instructed that it was really trying to keep down the poor, and race didn't matter. Then the instructor pointed out that all of the people on Cops have to sign waivers in order to appear on the show, and I wasn't really sure how that was keeping people down if they didn't HAVE to appear on the show. Never did get a solid answer on that one.

It went on and on like that. Shoemaker seemed to be in class less and less often.

I studied for the exam with Blake and Johnny (who was actually a really good director, I later found out). We'd spent the last few weeks dwelling on "post-modernism" as a hot topic (this is 1994, I think). And finally we took the exam.

And I did really shitty. I mean, not too shitty, but not great. I got a B in the class.

But by then, I didn't care. This was the dumbest class I ever had, and, even after taking a victory lap and collecting 180 hours worth of credits, is still the dumbest college-level class I ever took.

I recall being handed the evaluation for the instructor and carefully bubbling in the sheet to indicate my displeasure. But then I was facing off against the giant blank space left for comments, which, I understood, the instructors actually read. The risk always being that the instructor would know your handwriting, and you'd see that instructor again at some point, and then WHAM-O!!!

But I knew, sitting there with #2 pencil clutched in hand... I never wanted to take another class from this person. Never. Not even if it meant I'd never graduate. And so, as everyone else's pencils flitted back and forth, scrawling out our shared vitriol, I carefully diagramed how the instructor's last name could be an anagram for "ANGER". And that was it.

This was a far cry from the heart and flowers I had drawn around my "Image and Sound" instructor's name.

"Anger" was going to get the form back, and, I had no doubt, would figure out it was the boy who done it... But I didn't care anymore. She sucked. She sucked bad. She had no place in a classroom bugging the hell out of impressionable young minds.

And that was it.

I did see her in the hallway the next semester, carting around a big box full of stuff from her office.

"Hi Ryan."
She knew. I knew she knew it was me. At least my paranoid delusions led me to believe she knew.
"How's school?" she asked.
"Okay. Busy. You teaching?"
And she launched into some dumb, boring story I can't even recall, nor can I recall whether she was or was not teaching. I don't think so, though.

I looked her up before writing this. She's now teaching somewhere in the UK, where I am sure, she feels she is perfectly understood.

No comments: