Maybe fifteen years ago I taught in the graduate filmmaking program at UCLA as a sound instructor. A friend had been teaching there, and he could not take the position for the Fall quarter, so he put in a good word for me. I was at that time an adjunct professor at two other institutions including CSUF, where I work now.
Let us cut to the chase; I was not asked back. The assignment was, shall we say, not a good fit. But before I say more, it’s essential to know that when I taught there a number of changes had just been implemented. I have no idea if the environment remains as difficult as it was then; I should think a number of corrections have been implemented since.
The “new” graduate production program certainly seemed promising. The head of the sequence (let us call him “Albert,” as all names must be changed to protect me, the innocent) was intelligent, thoughtful, and driven to make the program better. It seemed very hopeful, and I was enthusiastic to join the team. There was a get-together at someone’s house at which we all met, the students and faculty. It seemed convivial, the cohort seemed tight-knit. I got the impression I was walking in on a group of friends who had known each other since they were in kindergarten.
But it was not long after I realized that the other instructors in the sequence were not very friendly at all. Apparently they were all very interested in fostering some kind of “creative” environment that was very heavy on praise. I tend to be very results-oriented and concerned that the students learn the technical means by which they can achieve aesthetic goals. We clashed immediately, and the students could feel the difference. In my section they were asked to remember things, to know a few basic concepts and numbers, and to understand how things worked. In the other sections they were asked about their feelings a lot.
Now, lest you think that I barged into this new program and started muscling my way around with my pragmatism and my idol-smashing, it’s necessary to tell you that I was on best behavior. I knew I was the new kid on the block, and I was only interested in pleasing my New Masters. UCLA is a very prestigious. Though I was also concurrently teaching for their also prestigious rival USC, I knew I could not keep going at my alma mater. I was not famous or special enough for USC. They’d take me for the time being, but as soon as someone “better” came along, they would not be calling me back. So I had every reason to get along at UCLA, and I went into the job expecting to do what was expected of me.
The sequence coordinator, “Betsy,” a film editor with a few respected credits under her belt, began to single me out almost from the beginning. Students were reporting to me that Betsy was directly contradicting things I had taught them. That seemed odd as Betsy was the editing instructor. The talk about how displeased Betsy was seems to have reached a climax when we disagreed on a piece of technical advice that fell within my jurisdiction.
I had instructed the students to use their most qualified sound technician as the boom operator. When recording with a single-mic system, I argued, a monkey could run the tape recorder (which merely had to be switched on and off for the duration of the shot) while a good and competent listener should be placing the microphone as accurately as possible in front of the talent. This is fairly accepted knowledge amongst sound recordists.
Betsy argued that on a proper film set the head of the sound department is the mixer and runs the recorder. This is true on large crews, as there may be multiple sound sources – and multiple recorders in those days – thus a good set of ears were needed to provide a mixdown for the editor. That’s still the case on crews today. But we were working with a single sound person and a PA to help them – maybe. You would never have the untrained PA place the mic.
And yet Betsy saw this as a question of hierarchy. She wanted her students to feel like they were the boss, not the underlings, and boom operator appeared to her, a post production person who did not spend time on sets, as the underling to the mixer. She told me we were training directors, not tradespeople. The very thought gnawed at me. I’m not big on hierarchies anyway. But I have always felt a part of the crew when I’m working, and this classist division of the underlings who make the film and the director who orders around the underlings did not sit well with me. I know some people act like that, but it’s bad, right?
Then why bother to teach them at all, I wondered. Why waste my time, theirs, or anyone else’s? And what a wonder when you train your precious directors but no one actually knows anything about how a film is made because you did not want them to get their hands dirty – oh no! – with any real work or real understanding of the technology?
The rest of the faculty, who were also not sound instructors and had no set experience with sound, also believed that the mixer was the more important position. Betsy called me out in email to the entire faculty. She was quite upset that I would have the students boom instead of underlings. Though I knew that this was wrong – dead wrong, in fact – I agreed not to rock the boat. I agreed I would do things in her preferred fashion, even if it was wrong. The students would work as she liked, and they could feel as though they were the boss.
But she was not through. She kept pushing me, saying that she would have her way, but that she “needed me to be OK with that.” I told her it didn’t matter what I thought, I’d do as she said. But she kept pushing me, trying to make me say that she was correct. I told her that no, she was not correct, and that I wasn’t going to agree with her, but who cared anyway? The outcome was as she wanted, I was doing what she asked. It really got under my skin that she needed me to say out loud what I knew to be wrong – it was some kind of weird dominance trip she was on. The more I refused to say it, the angrier she got.
Because of Betsy, the other instructors had begun to ostracize me, but now it was open season. By the end of the semester students stopped attending, rolled their eyes at me when they did, and one even disrupted class, calling me out on some imaginary slight and grandstanding about how he wasn’t being given enough attention! It was perhaps the worst classroom experience of my life. It was doubly shameful and stupid because it was driven by the other faculty, and particularly the vile Betsy. Appeals to Albert did nothing. He smiled, agreed with me that I was right, confirmed that I was wiling to do as Betsy said, promised to talk to her, but seemingly did nothing.
By the end of quarter the students had pretty much written me off, and were fast developing the absolute worst soundtracks I had heard as an instructor. Impossibly crude and disorganized, these UCLA students couldn’t hold a candle to my underfunded and less fortunate undergraduates at CSUF, who were routinely doing more and better work on several longer projects throughout the semester instead of the single one these students were making. The final screening was a festival of errors and, worst of all, it seems that no one else noticed, or they were ignoring the technical fiasco in order to heap even more praise on the unworthy class.
Recently I found the page of scrawled notes I had made during this final screening and review. They’re worth reading just for my tone. Though I’m not wild about the student projects, I’m absolutely livid about the instructors, who are indulging in an obsequious shower of praise. It’s funny. You should read it, below.
These students have no chance in hell of being filmmakers as long as Betsy and Gustav (the directing teacher) tell them what to do. Albert knows what he is talking about so far. He makes comments that are pretty honest –and pretty good. He impresses me, but his toadies do not.
Gustav I want to drop in a lake. He goes for the worst, corniest aesthetic every time. He is constantly advising students to slather their films with music and he misses the subtleties in everything. Undergrads aren’t exactly good with subtleties, but graduate students are old enough they want to try something a little less broad. These graduates are operating at high school level, and it’s still far more sophisticated than Gustav is capable of. He wants only the most anemic solutions – characters staring at photographs with tears rolling down their cheeks – that sort of pablum.
Betsy’s comments are just plain dumb. It’s a wonder this woman has ever worked in the industry, she seems to have no flair for a good edit. The worst is that she is so quick to ask everyone to be “gentle” and “supportive,” practically shouting at us at the beginning of the session to keep it civil, yet she is the first one with a catty comment or a snotty observation. So she is allowed to make stupid jokes and pick on the projects? I guess it’s funny when she does it. What a hypocrite.
Casper (the screenwriting teacher) is perhaps the worst. But wait, really? I just said the worst in a group that I already think is pretty much the worst. How is it that this guy is the worst? Well, because he doesn’t actually say anything, and yet his lips move and his throat produces strange gurgling sounds that appear to be speech. These are timed so that they appear to be comments about the thing he watched. Right now he’s talking about some kind of overall “gestalt” of the film rather than focusing on anything specific – I think this is so he can talk for a few minutes without saying anything that anyone could possibly understand. This is to disguise the fact he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. It would be better if he actually had something concrete to offer – you know, some lesson on drama or how to develop a character or something that would justify his role as screenwriting teacher.
You see, these students have made two minute films. They spent the whole quarter, that’s 10 weeks, making them from start to finish. Not solo, they crewed for each other, and they had a gaggle of instructors, me included, advising them on every step of the process. Therefore it is completely possible to isolate the very edit or the very shot that is troubling or problematic. You can, if inclined, discuss the basics of filmmaking quite precisely. I think the students would like that, as they are struggling with the form. They need the mechanics of filmmaking. And yet all these faculty refuse to be specific, resorting to a kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo whenever possible. They are a pack of frauds. Why have I never looked any of them up? Do they even have credits?
It’s now time to start noting everything that happens and whose film it’s happening on. I’ve skipped a bunch of them because I was watching to see how this session goes. It’s not going well, and now I feel like writing it all down so years later I can “tattle” on the fools in this room.
We’ve just screened Jamie’s film, and Gustav just said that it “looked like a sitcom,” and “wasn’t cinematic.” Her film is fine, by the way, it looks nothing like a sitcom. The style was bit sparse, no moving camera, pretty standard compositions, but competent. He’s giving Jamie a hard time for something that’s not even in the film.
He begins complaining about the sound. It is muddy. But the acoustics in this room are terrible and he’s talking as if Jamie intended it to sound this bad. Worse yet, Jamie is clearly trying to do a David Lynch-kind of thing with her sound, and whereas Gustav says he understands this, he does not seem to know what Lynch’s sound is actually like. Jamie is trying to work in experimental/emotional territory, but instead of talking about that he’s just chastising her for not making a straight narrative. She needs them to support her right now and to help her figure out if this approach worked or not, but since they refuse to talk with her about expression, emotion, or even the visual aspect, she is getting the impression that what she tried is confused and bad – that it needed to have been a simple story.
So it’s worse than just that they are all blowhards, these miserable teachers are wrecking her creative development with their parochial attitudes. Sure, we must always call out a bad shot or a lousy edit, but this is the final screening. Shouldn’t we also evaluate the artist’s intentions and whether or not she has succeeded?
Murray is up next. His film is about a hospital intern is caught in a bizarre moment where he is simultaneously comforting a woman whose husband just died while his girlfriend is giving him happy news of her pregnancy over the phone. OK, not the most original idea ever, but he accomplished it just fine. It’s a simple scene with a single emotional beat, shot by the numbers maybe, but very solid. Acted well enough and without embarrassment – it’s a fine first piece. Clearly he wished to contrast the heaviness of the death with the lightness of the wife’s bubbly phone call. He says it’s from a book, and I wonder if it is a Kundera novel.
He has the most developed work so far. He could start directing TV next week. So everyone is now picking his film apart, as if they are all just jealous. Even though a passel of pathetic, limp comedies that have shown thus far have escaped any scrutiny and have been held up as unassailable, he’s taking a drubbing. You cannot simply tell a student “nah, nah, nah, it just doesn’t work” without telling him WHY it does not work, or what COULD have worked. If you don’t know those answers then open it to everyone to answer or maybe just shut up.
Annie (I have no idea what she teaches) just said something dumb, and of course Gustav is supporting it. I like Annie – she’s much smarter and funnier than anyone would know. But she seems to be playing a game of trying to fit in with the jerks. She’s saying that Murray should have obscured the phone call, so that the audience does not hear it clearly. OK, I guess I can see how that might work – it’s a real suggestion. But now Gustav is blathering on about an example from a third-rate feature that doesn’t even apply to Murray’s film. He says this would have been easy to accomplish because “it’s just sound.” Whatever that means. But wait, why is it that two films in we’re only talking about story problems, which could have been fixed long ago, and sound issues? I’ve been very quiet so far, because, since they hate me anyway, I figured I’m not really going to weigh in on anything. I have a written critique to give to students, so they will get my feedback.
Now Derrick suggests the phone call be a cell phone call! Yeah! That really changes things! I have no idea what Derrick teaches either, but he describes everything in such a labored, forced way that it makes even the most innocuous suggestion appear alien and insurmountable. A cell phone! Why did no one think of that? They all think the perky girl on the phone needs to be “removed” somewhat, and making her conversation break up and be unintelligible is surely the answer to that! It needs to “match the gravity of the widowed woman” in the scene says Gustav. But futzing the phone call is just going to make it irritating. It’s not going to clarify any plot points or make the film work better. And “removing” the happy mother-to-be from the scene just dulls the contrast and muddles what he’s trying to do. I understand the film may be a bit on the nose, but this is not how to fix it. And what is this “match the gravity” business? No audience in the world is going to hear a distorted phone call and think “my, doesn’t this match the gravity of the serious widowed woman? How deep.”
The answer is clear. I must kill Gustav before he causes anyone else more harm. This film is fine, Murray needs to go on now and direct some crappy TV show. Murray is from Eastern Europe, and I get the feeling he should have stayed there where he might be appreciated.
Nimrod’s film is next and it just sucks. I hate to be so uncharitable, but this project is an embarrassing disaster, and it’s because everyone has bent over backwards being indulgent with Nimrod since day one. First off, Nimrod is kind of a jerk who takes no care to disguise his disrespect for me. He was the one who called me out in class and accused me of not giving him enough attention – he was worried I would not give him “support” when it came time to edit. What, like I was supposed to visit him in the editing room and bake him cupcakes or something? I treated him the same as any of the other students, even though it was difficult to do considering his sneering attitude.
Gustav is now waxing on about how great this piece of garbage is. He thinks there should be some changes, though, which amount to making a music video out of it, reducing the already embarrassing sound design to nothing. He calls this cinematic travesty “documentary, realistic, and emotional,” and says it is a great portrayal of the homeless! Unbelievable! He just likes the music Nimrod used. But I get the feeling he’s just saying he loves anything hip-hop out of some crazy white guilt he’s got over Nimrod being black. This film has terrible editing and makes no sense whatsoever. It is the weakest and most amateur of the films. And Nimrod is just soaking up the praise.
What are they all getting out of this? By not telling this guy his work sucks they’re dooming him to be ignored and slighted forever. It’s patronizing. What Nimrod needs is a kick in the pants so he’ll stop goofing around and make some serious work. He’s going to get his ass handed to him by the industry not the LEAST for just being black, because, sad as it is, this is how things are these days, and we all know it. So even though I hate the jackass for being a little prince who needs his nose wiped and his diaper changed, I am a better friend to him because at least I want to tell him how to improve his skills if he’s going to succeed.
What a joke this whole proceeding is – hand-jobs for everyone! Woooo!
And by the way, I do like Annie, but she is saying the dumbest things. She just said Nimrod’s sound was “so good that you felt like you were there!” Wow! Do these people even watch movies? Betsy just used the word “maudlin,” although the context suggests that she doesn’t really know what that word means. That’s not a good thing, maudlin. You don’t describe someone’s work as maudlin with a smile on our face expecting them to love to hear that. Nimrod is also unclear on the definition, and he’s beaming.
Kanika’s film is up next. It is shot well, although the sound is clunky. The room is abuzz with moronic statements like “oh, the tree is a character!” and “it makes the story work!” That’s really the least interesting aspect of this project. Her tone is the best part –that and how intimate the film feels. It may be the only other film in this class that I actually like, and the only other one that shows some degree of sophistication.
Derrick again, weighs in on the subject in his wheezy slow-as-molasses wise man act. Of course the wise man is pushing it towards schmaltz, as he does with everything. He wants it more literal! Broader! Sensing a kindred spirit in the Conquest of Good Things by Boring Crap, Gustav requests more music over everything – of course! Why does he have such a hard-on for music? Is he a frustrated guitar player or something? What the hell? Oh my God, now Betsy is backing him up. Kanika has one really good powerful music edit and these clowns are trying to water it down by slathering the rest of the film with music. So there would be no contrast, no meaning to the placement of the good music that’s already there.
Weird. I mean, the students’ films so far are a disaster. My CSUF students can do more with less in a much shorter time, that’s for sure. But I find myself sympathizing with every single one of these young people over the faculty blowhards, because I can tell the students are trying to express something but they just don’t have the tools. And instead of helping them get the tools, the faculty are just cat-calling and pronouncing on everything as if they were spoiled-baby studio heads.
It’s very possible that my fellow instructors are actually nothing more than a bunch of burned-out non-creative types who feel like they are “back in the saddle” and closer to that old film school magic when they are around crappy student films. Like they can lord it over these young whelps who know nothing. In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed jack is king, after all. I wonder if any of them do personal work. They seem unsatisfied with their lives.
The acting teacher is about 800 lbs and is totally spherical. He announces he will have a big party at his house for all the students. He wants them all to know he is their “friend.” I am not explicitly invited or rejected, but I catch a dirty glance from Betsy when he bleats about us “all” being invited. The other instructors will be there. Seems like a pretty easy thing to avoid.
BACK TO THE “FUN”
Betsy has a moment where she gets to admonish us for not following procedure: “Everyone who wants to talk has to raise your hand!” Because the crit session was just ever-so rowdy before, and no one got to talk?
Peter’s film is up next – it’s very bourgeois humor. Men and women are SO different! But you know, men are really just childish animals! That bit is thrown in so the chicks can tell Peter is sensitive. Some Santa-Claus-looking guy in the back is calling this a “complicated piece.” Who the hell is he? Can anyone just walk in here and start commenting?
Now Betsy is holding forth about this dumbass Marvin Gaye song Peter used as if it had some intrinsic power of its own. She says it’s “too sexual” for him to use in this film. This is a bit more revealing about Betsy than anything else, and I did not wish to know this about her relation to Marvin Gaye. It’s odd she cannot separate her personal feelings – or perhaps distant memories – from the sonic qualities of the song. As if no one in the world could possibly listen to Marvin Gaye and have any other kind of reaction to it. I, personally, am totally cold on that singer. I recognize his voice, but that’s just about it. No connotations here.
Roy’s film is up, a murder story. Gustav, muddle-headed again, blathers on about how the murder should be a surprise. I get the feeling that Roy wants to foreshadow the killing. I am quite sure he’s trying to build tension. Gustav would kill the tension and go for shock – this is a supposed editor talking! This is a two minute film, so having surprise shock ending would essentially turn it into a big joke. I honestly think you’ll get a laugh out of an audience if you do that.
Teddy’s film, which is a sharp little comedy, is next. Betsy is claiming she didn’t “get the waiter’s story.” The waiter is a minor character and the film is two minutes long. The waiter doesn’t have a story! He’s in two shots! These people must be pretending not to get it, right? The film so simple. They’re lying – they must be! Is this some complicated psychological experiment? I’m beginning to feel as though I am the crazy one.
Now Casper is making inane suggestions. He says that when the taxidermist talks about ermine he wants to hear ermine sounds on the soundtrack. Let’s put aside for a moment just how stupid that idea is and wonder if anyone in the room even knows what a ermine sounds like. So now what, if someone says “I’ve got to catch the bus” we play bus sounds? If someone says they own a dog we hear it on the soundtrack right at the moment they say the word “dog?” But more importantly, does anyone in the professional world of film and television actually edit sound like this? I mean, is it ever done in any entertainment that anyone in this room actually watches?
Also, what is this about sound design again? It seems like everyone in the room has suddenly become an expert in sound design. No, really, I have not heard a single comment from anyone about how hideous the lighting in every one of these pieces is. Murray’s is the only one so far to be exposed properly, the rest are fairly random, and most are front-lit like a home movie. There’s been a little talk about editing, and even less about directing. But there sure has been a lot of story, story, story, and then sound design suggestions from everyone.
Maybe everyone is trying as hard as they can to talk about sound? I don’t know if this is because I’m staying so quiet (what do I have to say that would be appreciated in this atmosphere?), but it feels rather like they are trying to supplant me by offering their genius and wisdom on a topic they apparently do not understand. Take that, uncooperative sound instructor! I shall make comments about your field and they are all PEARLS of WISDOM. We do not need you! We will make brilliant observations without you! But it’s just so awkward, so stupid. It’s embarrassing what these people are saying. I want to die just so I do not have to listen to it.
Now it’s Melissa’s film, a travesty that barely makes sense anyway. Jamie is telling everyone that there is a palpable emotional effect that she feels, even now, lingering in the room. Oh come now, Jamie, this is just getting nutty. Now the students are joining the useless praise party. Are we all going to eventually disrobe and start making love to each other by the end of this festival of onanism?
But that’s not the weirdest thing. Some young guy – a student? – has just come in and plopped himself right next to me, despite the number of open seats available throughout the room. Hello, my new best friend – how did I get so lucky? It makes it pretty hard to write this screed without leaving myself open to his scrutiny. At the conclusion of Melissa’s two-minute monstrosity he turns to me and says “Great sound, huh?”
Really? As if that were the natural thing to say to a stranger? Is this guy some kind of a plant? Am I being punked? What are the odds that a guy randomly wanders in and starts praising the sound on a student project to the misfit sound instructor? What is their game?
Anyway, Melissa is one of three students who never even had a table screening with me over her film, so she never bothered to get any advice from me, much less actually follow it. So, OK, buddy, you’re saying HER sound is GOOD?
Freddie just now said that Melissa’s film was “so beautiful” because it was “like a Bergman movie.” Oh yes, I am quite sure that I could play Melissa’s two minutes right after “Hour of the Wolf” or “The Passion of Anna” and the entire audience would cry out “Wow! I had no idea Bergman made shorts!” Yes, completely indistinguishable from a Bergman film. How did Freddie actually say this with a straight face? Has he ever seen a Bergman movie? He’s always bragging about his great DVD collection. Could it be he collects them but never actually views them?
Freddie’s film was one of those I did not write about from before. Suffice to say it was an inept comedy. Something about a guy waking up and being late to work, everything goes wrong, turns out it’s Saturday and his workplace is not even open. You know, the absolutely most typical thing in the world. So now that it’s been hours since his film showed, he feels emboldened and ready to give us his amazing comments on everything. Does he want in Melissa’s pants or something? She’s a pretty girl, but she’s also obviously in way over her head with this “filmmaking” thing, which is far too hard for her. I do not think she’s going to last very long, even in this program.
Now Linh’s film is up, and it’s the last one. Gustav is really miffed because she didn’t cut where he wanted her to cut. I think he may cry he’s so put out by this. There are lots of other edits, why is he stuck on this one? His proposed cut actually reduces the effectiveness of the film, which is doubly cruel because Linh’s film is the other one that looks at all professional. She has obviously come to the program with some skill in cinematography, or is a quick study. If any student deserves praise and encouragement, it’s this one. So of course Gustav is going to get petulant and mopey about how she didn’t make some dumb edit he wanted. Which edit actually makes the piece worse.
As if to emphasize what an utter clown show this whole thing is, my new best friend next to me turns at the completion of one of Gustav’s impossible proclamations and whispers: “That’s a great point he has!”
The plant has been uttering these inanities all along. Of course when he does he is met with a cold stare until he feels awkward and turns away. So the fact that he’s been doing this repeatedly… what does this person expect to gain by this exercise? He’s obviously trying to make conversation with me, and I’m so obviously not interested in saying anything to him. Why doesn’t he get the message? And why so cheerful and friendly? Who put him up to this?
Mercifully, the session ends. My chances of being hired back here are less than zero. I still maintain that Albert, head of the program, knows what he is doing and has a good plan for the graduates. But that plan turned into a precious snowflake petting zoo, where we all tell each other how great everything is in the name of “encouragement.” It’s a set of training wheels for the set of training wheels. His lieutenants, however, are pretentious know-nothings – the kind of little tin Hitlers I used to lock horns with at USC. My theory is that they are neither more talented nor more connected than the students, but are stomping around in the dry riverbeds of their own departed creativity, dragging everyone else down with them so they have company. Many students realize that the key to surviving such a place is to fit in and learn to talk like an idiot, and it seems a few of them have demonstrated that ability today. I may teach at a State school with a program lacking UCLA’s clout and visibility, but at least I don’t champion banality, and I’m not giving out “A”s so that people pretend to be nice and get along.
And so it came to pass exactly as I suspected. Albert gave me a kind of “exit interview” by phone, and I did tell him everything about the way the semester went. He was sympathetic, but offered no information and no solution.
I gave out my grades, which were fairly low. Not a single student did very much in the way of sound work, many did even less. Betsy called me one last time to complain about my marks.
“You gave” (Student X) ” a C!”
“Yes, yes, I did.”
“He did average work. C is an average grade. He actually should have gotten a D, because my Fullerton students regularly do much better on their films. And I taught at USC this semester as well, and they all did far more work. But his was average work for this class, so I raised all the grades. They are all inflated.”
“But a C is bad for grad students! That’s like an F!”
“No… no, an F is an F. And a C is just a C, not an F.”
“Well, I think you should reconsider!”
“Look, I gave him a C; that’s the grade I gave him. What grade do you want me to give him?”
“I’m not going to tell you how to grade him, that’s not fair! I want you to give him the grade he deserves!”
“Well, I did that already, and that’s a C.”
“I asked you to reconsider it!”
“Look, why don’t you just fill in all the grades with whatever you want? You don’t want to hear why I gave them what I gave them and you’re obviously interested in giving them higher grades. You do that and I’ll sign my name to it.”
She hung up, and I never heard from any of them ever again. It’s been years, so sometimes I remember one of their real names and I look them up. As I suspected, only “Linh” has had any kind of real career. I have not bothered to check up on “Albert” or the other instructors. I really couldn’t care less.