Class Action: Teaching to the Film-Savvy Crowd in Toronto

By Adam Nayman

A few nights ago, after a screening of some locally produced short films at the Royal Cinema in Toronto — a recently restored, single-screen rep house struggling to program contemporary art cinema in the shadow of the mammoth TIFF Bell Lightbox — I started polling some friends about my upcoming lecture series on controversial directors — the sequel to a successful programme I’d concluded earlier in the year. In the first month-long sequence, I had covered Paul Verhoeven, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and Catherine Breillat, all noted provocateurs whose career trajectories, in my opinion, shared a general arc from the margins towards the mainstream. The question was: which other filmmakers combined the requisite artistic bona fides with the sort of “brand-name recognition” that could entice both my regular students and new recruits in equal measure?

“Well, you have to do Lars,” laughed one of my friends, referring to reports of the scandalous Cannes press conference for Melancholia. As the world knows (and is surely bored of talking about by now), an arrogant director known for viewing cinema as a stone in the shoe had gone and put his foot in his mouth. “Yeah, doing von Trier is going to go over really well with people at that particular location,” I replied. I was referring to the fact that home base for my “Controversial Directors” series is the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in downtown Toronto.

The strangeness of deconstructing scenes from Romance (1999) or Repulsion (1966), burned onto blank discs with a copyright-indifferent Korean DVD player and projected in rooms that are used for after-school daycare programs, has not been lost on me. Not that I am complaining. Even in a city like Toronto, which is well known for an abundance of film festivals and alternative exhibition spaces — from experimental-cinema strongholds like the Pleasure Dome to the in-home screening-room set-up of local film historian Reg Hartt — these sorts of cinephilic initiatives are rare outside of post-secondary institutions. Yet in the last year, there’s been a bump in the number of these kinds of series, from my friend Kevin Courrier’s very well-attended eight-week course on film noir at the not-for-profit Revue Cinema to the fashionably dilapidated Toronto Underground Cinema’s semi-regular “Defending the Indefensible” series, in which local critics and bloggers present and advocate for misunderstood contemporary North American films. If pressed, I’d chalk this development up to anxieties, however vague, about the consequences of a $200 million hybrid multiplex/cinematheque being plunked down like an open-concept asteroid in the middle of a pluralistic film culture late last year.

Setting up and promoting the series was made easier not only by my stalwart boss at the JCC, Esther Arbeid, but by the writers and bloggers who wrote articles about it for magazines, newspapers, and websites. The (relative) familiarity of my own byline in Toronto after a decade as a deadline reviewer for Eye Weekly (now rebranded as The Grid) helped, but there was also a sense of a network forming around the lectures. Some of my students turned out to be bloggers who decided to spread the word. I appeared on U of T campus radio and got mentions in The Toronto Star and NOW Magazine, as well as a feature on the site, a daily guide to city culture. In all cases, the writers posed the sorts of questions that I’ve gotten used to asking in my ten years writing on film for an alternative weekly: why are you doing this? What are the main ideas at play in your selection of these particular filmmakers? What are people going to take away from the lectures?

Simple questions, but I thought hard about them, mostly because I was worried that these classes were more for me than anything else. Not only in a financial sense (I’m not working for free) but also as an alternate means of plying my trade at a time when many of my colleagues are feeling squeezed for space and, especially, reach. Enough has been written by writers far more decorated than myself about how submitting copy to an editor can often feel like shooting personal reflections into a blank void, where one has to guess at what kinds of responses it may or may not be generating. (I’ve never written for publications that attract a lot of web comments, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise). That’s to say nothing of the fact that most critics writing for magazines or newspapers (and even some film-related websites) would never get the opportunity to go into this kind of detail on a favourite filmmaker. In my weekly assignments for The Grid, a 400-word allotment for a director retrospective at a cinematheque or rep house is considered generous.

The challenge, as I see it, is to retain my critical voice without alienating the uninitiated. A drop-in course is very different from a university curriculum, and it’s better to err on the side of accessibility than elitism — to encourage cinephilia rather than assume it.  It’s a fine line between consolidating one’s critical authority and talking down to an audience, and the adjustment of that tone is an ongoing process. Nobody likes to feel lectured to, even when they’re attending something explicitly billed as a lecture; my goal was to make my points and leave plenty of room for group discussion. At the same time, the idea of a total free-for-all cheapened the idea that I was facilitating some kind of relevant film education. If it was just a matter of sitting around and talking about movies with like-minded people, the $12 drop-in fee could be better spent on pitchers of beer at one of the many bars in that part of the city. (The JCC is right in the middle of U of T’s student residences).

There were some undergraduate types at the lectures, as well as sexagenarian JCC members and a few curiosity seekers (one of whom fled midway through the Polanski lecture following the murder sequence from his 1972 adaptation of Macbeth).  Where my previous series about contemporary foreign-language cinema (entitled “Surfing the New Waves”)  seemed to attract different people week to week depending on the region covered — one night, a group of Taiwanese students turned up to discuss Hou Hsiao-Hsien after reading a post on a Chinese-language message board — the “controversial directors” hook, and the emphasis I placed in media interviews on words like “polarizing” and “contentious”, drew a larger and more determined crowd. There were, of course, fans looking for validation about their personal favourites (Verhoeven was the biggest draw) as well as dissenters whose stated intentions were to pierce the bubble around what they saw as the inflated reputations of certain directors.

Hoping to encourage discussion  I settled on an open format where, after showing a clip which I thought spoke to certain key ideas or concepts in a particular director’s work — like the exploding head in Scanners (1980) that loudly announced Cronenberg’s visionary viscerality, or the fake news broadcast in Robocop (1987), staged and sealed with a Verhoevian smirk —  I asked my students to frame the class in terms of their own critical impressions. The idea was to create a context of appreciation and analysis beyond my own prepared commentary. For example, after learning that virtually none of the thirty people who showed up for the Verhoeven lecture had seen his Dutch work, I had to decide whether to emphasize the early films in an attempt to fill in their blind spots or focus on titles they did know (Robocop, Starship Troopers, etc.) so they wouldn’t feel cheated. I ended up going with the first option, and the students were so interested in the obvious resonances they felt between the older movies and the blockbusters they knew by heart that they happily stayed an extra forty minutes to fit everything in — a rewarding outcome for a nervous lecturer who resolved to thereafter employ stricter time-management with his material.

The Facebook page for “Controversial Directors 2” went up this morning: I am indeed going to start with Lars Von Trier, and move from there on to Michael Haneke, Luis Buñuel, and Woody Allen, all of whom will be grouped as caustic social commentators. I’ve also confirmed a course in the spring (also at the JCC) on Stanley Kubrick. The possibility of spending eight weeks on a single director is far more exciting to me than any of my upcoming assignments, and since Kubrick is perhaps the ultimate “gateway” director — young film enthusiasts tend to find him early and then use him as a portal to other wings of cinema history — I am anticipating robust attendance. I’m proud of the modest successes I’ve had with this sort of DIY film-school approach, but I also think that “DIY” is a misnomer. I’ve only been able to do this with the help of others, and that means in the classroom as well, where I feel like I do my share of learning as well. The cliché is that writing criticism is a lonely gig, and it is, but doing these lectures has made me feel like part of a community. I hope that in the next couple of years, I’ll be able to reflect on attending classes taught by other cinephiles trying to reach out in their own ways, guided by whatever obsesses them.

Adam Nayman is a critic for The Grid in Toronto. He also writes for Cinema Scope, The LA Weekly, Elle Canada, Montage, Cineaste, and Reverse Shot, and he has contributed articles to Film Comment, Saturday Night, Report on Business, Box Office and The Village Voice. In 2009, he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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