“The awful thing about life is this…”
Film school and California culture were a shock to my system.
My first semester in the SF State Cinema Department was thrilling. Moving to San Francisco and living away from home for the first time was exciting enough, but having a full schedule of film classes was crazy. Dissecting John Ford westerns with Jim Kitses (who was an author I’d read!) was eye-opening. Discovering the fantasmagorical films of Federico Fellini, challenged my lingering provincialism. But the centerpiece was “Intro to Film Production” with Professor Goldner, who ran the dept.… I was finally getting college credit for being behind a camera. Where I wanted to be.
“Production” was not like the typical humanities classes I’d taken in community college, full of vaguely interested slackers, posers and dilettantes looking for an easy A. No, we were all serious about film. We could drop names like Welles or Hitchcock, of course, but also get excited about Barbara Kopple or Satyajit Ray or Lena Wertmuller. Okay, maybe some of my excitement was simply knowing the names from back issues of Film Comment magazine, but no explanations or apologies were needed or offered.
As an (over)eager student and a very direct east-coast kid, I stood out in class, raising my hand or— when I realized that wasn’t cool anymore— just speaking out. A lot. We had a fair share of introverts, quiet artists who did their talking with a camera—or maybe they were just people who wanted to think before they opened their mouths. Regardless, I was happy to fill that vacuum, and fortunately I didn’t make a fool of myself too often.
This was the week to present our semester project, which was a five-minute film on any subject that we wanted. I was very curious to see what my classmates had in store. But I was especially excited to see what Colleen brought to class.
Colleen. She was seven years older than me, and one of the most interesting women that I had ever met. A film major like me, she was a big-boned, red-headed, take-no-prisoners Irish gal from Boston. She liked my outspokenness and my naivety. I was in awe of her insights and loved to hear her speak them with that smoky, Southie accent. We had lunch on the quad before class, in front of the crazy pile of concrete that passed for a student center. She introduced me to exotic California food like popcorn with brewers yeast and avocado 'n' sprouts on soya bread.
I should point out that this lunch was even more fun because I was currently living with my girlfriend, Leslie. She had wanted to get the hell out of New Jersey, and despite my reservations, I agreed to let her come along. At the time, Leslie didn’t have any particular goal or dream to follow, and was miserably earning her paycheck at a model train shop downtown. I couldn’t imagine putting up with a boss who un-ironically calls you “Queenie” in front of customers. Or in front of anyone, for that matter.
So, admittedly I was crossing a line by hanging out with Colleen. But this was only our second meeting and we’d be going in to class in a few minutes. She was asking me about The Passion of Joan of Arc, a particularly vivid silent film that had screened on campus. I admitted that I had never seen anything like it, and loved it for its stark compositions. She laughed and corrected me that there was so much more going on in the feminist text, and the striking performance of Marie Falconetti.
I wasn’t used to talking to anyone about film or art on this level, and blurted out something about what a wonderful woman she was. “Maybe because you’re so much older than me…” I was 19, she was 26. It caught her up short, and I blushed hard, a full blooming scarlet from my neck to my crown. Even though most of my face was covered in a bushy beard, I had nowhere to hide. She started to laugh, and then said,“You’re cute.”
We went to class, film reels in hand, talking shop rather than dwelling on the awkwardness. The first of our classmates’ films unspooled, and they were not at all what I expected. One appeared to be a vibrating ping pong ball double-exposed over scenes of downtown San Francisco. Another was a rather ineptly executed tour of an old man’s SRO unit. When I inquired about the camera technique (or lack there of), the student grew defensive—his point was the political content, not technique. I felt badly—we had little in the way of rules for artistic critique.
I showed my film, a domestic drama called “Janie,” starring Leslie and our roommate Rich. It’s a rather lame feminist statement, more of an observation, really, about a neglected wife and her boorish husband. It follows her through a long day of housework, waiting for something to happen (which never does.) I was excited to practice telling a story with pictures, and hoped I could communicate a sense of loneliness. While some of the compositions are good, and everything is generally in focus, it’s no Passion of Joan of Arc. Someone asked me why I wanted to tell THIS story, and I couldn’t answer. It would never have occurred to me that I might be filming my own relationship.
Finally, Colleen threaded her super-8 film into the projector. She explained that the film was inspired by the great French director Jean Renoir, and a quote from his magnum opus, The Rules of the Game. As the projector began to clatter and the white leader flooded the screen, I watched Colleen’s silhouette cross to the other side of the room. I wasn’t sure if I was sorry or relieved to be separated from her. Then the film started and I snapped back to the screen to watch scenes of skydivers, mud wrestlers, and dirt bikers, as a man with a gravelly voice said:
“The awful thing about life is this…everyone has their reasons.”
The film continued, now with pictures of a church choir, mothers with strollers, suburban shoppers, and again the gravelly voice repeated…“The awful thing about life is this…everyone has their reasons.”
When the lights came up the class gave more than polite applause. More, I noticed, than my film had received. It suddenly hit me, at this vulnerable moment, that I wasn’t in New Jersey anymore. I was no longer special just because I was making movies in my backyard. I wasn’t unique at all. It seemed that half the people who moved to California wanted to get in the business. And the SF State Cinema Department, which was formed in the 1960s bubbling with activism and experimentation, was not going to be what I expected. My classmates could not be easily explained or pigeonholed. And maybe I was just as strange to them as they seemed to me.
I didn’t see Colleen again after that class. She had certainly stirred something in me, something that would lie dormant for the next decade. It was around this time that Leslie and I discovered that she was pregnant, and whatever plans I had for film school were going to be changed. Again. We had to figure out what would come next, and what we would do about it. I would spend a lot of time asking myself, how did I get here? Why did I make these choices?
I thought that Renoir’s quote was a judgment about crazy, inexplicable behavior. But I was about to learn a more compassionate, and much more difficult-to-accept interpretation.
Everyone has their reasons.
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