I had been thinking of posting some cute funny videos today, when I opened up the Times
Arts section in my blogreader and was hit in the face by an obit headline for Paul Arthur
That Times obit is HERE.
Paul was a Cinema Studies teacher at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts during my first two years there. I had two classes with him and spent a lot of time in discussion with him after his lectures. He was a terrific teacher and lecturer, a funny guy, who loved loved loved film and loved to talk film. I used to occasionally run into him at film screenings in the late 80s, after he left NYU - he always seemed to be present at any screening of films by George and Mike Kuchar, as I also was at that time, so we'd say hi and check in. I probably last saw him around 1990, but I've never since seen his name in print, on an article or mentioned in passing, without smiling and thinking fondly of him.
He was the lecturer in my first Cinema Studies class, the basic class that all students in the Cinema Studies and Film Production departments had to take (I was in the latter). He showed a mix of classic Hollywood, some foreign films, short subjects, and experimental films, and it was the last that especially caused him to be either endeared or hated by his students - mainly, the freshmen Film Production students, my classmates, who turned out to be some of the most closed-minded people around when it came to film.
This was late 1986. That doesn't seem like such a great time for film, maybe, but in my first term at NYU the films playing in New York that many of us students were running to see included Wenders' Wings of Desire, Cox's Sid & Nancy, Jarmusch's Down By Law, Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave, David Byrne's True Stories, X: The Unheard Music, Lech Kowalski's D.O.A. (which apparently was from 1980, but it seemed to be getting some kind of "big release" again that term, taking over at the Bleecker Street Playhouse after Wings had left), and, of course, Blue Velvet. As well as the many many great double bills going on at all of the rep houses around NYU (there were more than there were first-run houses in the Village at that time, with Cinema Village, Film Forum, Thalia Soho, and Theatre 80 St. Marks all going strong, and the Waverly and Bleecker Street also joining in with midnight shows).
Now, besides the early negative reaction to some of what Paul Arthur was sharing, the other sign that many of my classmates were rather conservative when it came to new experiences in the filmic arts was how many of them just plain despised the Lynch film, and wanted everybody to know this, in as many classes as they could find a way to bring it up. It became apparent that while some of us were rushing out to see the films above, many of my classmates were having a fine time at other things that year like Ruthless People or Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Platoon or Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Aliens - some of which I really really like, but . . .
So, Paul showed a mix of things. At our first lecture, he showed Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows as an example of how a big, glossy Hollywood entertainment could actually have a lot going on on many levels. He also started the lecture by pulling out a reel of 35mm movie film he had found discarded on the street, and encouraging us to come down at the break or after class and touch it, grab it, rip a piece of it off and take it home, taste it - saying that you couldn't really understand and love film unless you understood and loved the actual physicality of film, the actual strip that moves through a projector (to feel, as Tim Lucas once called it in another context, "the emotion of the emulsion"). I wound it in my hands and tore off a strip with deliberate brutality; I think I still have it in a box somewhere (it appears to be nature footage of a turtle crawling through grass). I think he showed an experimental short before the Sirk, but nothing that caused anything but bemusement in the majority of students (wait a minute, I just remembered - it was Stan Brakhage's Mothlight! - and he showed it twice because it's so short).
That changed the following week.
Before the feature on week two, Paul showed a short film by Peter Kubelka, and noted that we were going to see most of Kubelka's films over the course of the term - as he had made so few films, and most of them were very short, it would give us the chance to see almost all of one filmmaker's work, as well as the variety of other films we'd be seeing.
He then showed us Kubelka's film Arnulf Rainer. Now, Kubelka was commissioned to make a film about the painter, however, as was apparently the pattern in his career with almost all of his films, he got the money and commission by swearing he wasn't going to go off and do another abstract film, and then he went off and did another abstract film.
Arnulf Rainer consists of black leader, clear leader, white noise, and silence, cut into precise metric patterns (I believe the pattern in the sound is the reverse of the pattern in the images). Amazingly to me, someone has actually put it up on YouTube, though it's a pretty lousy print and copy (and there's absolutely no way that can replicate the sensory experience of seeing this projected on film on a great big screen, which is really the point of the piece):
( Peter Kubelka's ARNULF RAINER )
Well, that didn't go over too well with the film students who wanted to be watching something a little more plot-driven (and Paul showed this one twice in a row, too, to audible groans). The fact that even if you don't like the Kubelka, you could learn something from it didn't occur to many of them - at a pure, basic level, it can teach you how suspense can be built through editing with nothing but black and white as images ("wait a minute, the screen's gone black for a while now - will the white come back? AH! There it is!").
Excerpts from some emails this morning to and from friend since 1986, and roommate 1986-1988, Sean Rockoff, who took Paul's intro course one year after me:
ME: . . . I remember you got Rear Window at your first class, and I'm trying to remember whether he showed Duck Amuck with that or not (I know that he showed that cartoon to both of our classes, and one of us got it before Citizen Kane, but I'm not sure which one of us it was).
I also remember he left halfway through the term while you were taking his course, and there seemed to be the feeling it was because he was being asked to dumb down his course for the film production students.
SEAN: . . . I know I got to see
Duck Amuck in his class, and before I read the rest of your sentence I'd recalled it being paired with
Citizen Kane, but I don't remember seeing
Kane in the class. So I'm either remembering you telling me about it, or I've seen
Kane so many times I just don't remember that specific one. Or, we both had the experience.
I do remember most of the class seemed to have an antagonistic relationship with his ideas of film as art (and he occasionally got angry with them as well). He tried to get across, in a frightfully short period of time, all the various concepts film could carry and all the different ways one could see and read any particular piece of film, and most of the class seemed to be there to learn how to make a commercial three-act movie. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but they refused to see any value at all in Arthur's not-exactly-revolutionary view that film could be so much more, and as students we should be exposed to as many different and challenging examples as possible. This reached a peak when we saw
Wavelength; there was very nearly a riot. I loved it, but the near-constant catcalls added a level to the soundtrack I don't believe was intended.
Of course, all those kids who saw absolutely no value in
Wavelength, being forced to watch it, any of society's resources being expended in archiving it, that the filmmaker was allowed to breathe the planet's air while making it, those kids are probably all making small fortunes producing sitcoms, and here I am, er, not. Still trying to raise funds to shoot a romantic comedy entirely on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if he left because he was asked to dumb down the course, in response to complaints from those very students.
ME: Thanks - I'll include some of your thoughts in the post (your second paragraph puts a lot of what I was hoping to say together in a pithier way than I probably would).
Yeah, I think you got Duck Amuck with Rear Window at your first class, and I got the Jones cartoon with Kane halfway through the term - and we both got a riot during Wavelength (though I recall mine from the year before being more violent - people were throwing things at the screen and in the air by the end).
I remember Harry Elfont posting two pieces of photo paper on the wall in the first term 35mm photo class (where you and I met) - one unexposed and white, one exposed to full black, and saying it was a tribute to Peter Kubelka . . . which wound up becoming a mocking discussion of experimental film and Paul's "pretensions" from the class (in which, I'm sorry to say, Daniel Kazimierski
[Sean's and my teacher] joined in), and which made me want to rabbit punch our classmates in their respective necks.
Of course, as you basically note, Harry Elfont is now off in Hollywood making the candy-colored happythings he always planned on and we've got integrity and not much else. I think I've reached a state of peace about that at least.
SEAN: No Commercial Potential! The Present-Day Formalist Refuses To Die!
(I should note, in fairness, that Harry Elfont was always a really nice guy and I enjoy some of his candy-colored happythings a lot - and the photo paper joke was actually pretty funny, even if the feeling behind it wasn't)
And, yes, as mentioned above, about three-quarters of the way through the term Paul showed us Michael Snow's classic 1967 film Wavelength.
If you don't know the film, you can follow the wikipedia link in the previous sentence, or go HERE for more info, though there's some inaccurate information in both descriptions (the latter page also seems to include multiple clips from the film - only one of which I could get to work). Sorry, but I'll also have to describe it at some length to have some context for the reaction of Paul's class to it.
Basically, the film consists of "one shot" (which is really many many shots, broken up, shot on different days with different film stocks, exposures, and filters) - 45 minutes long - starting with a wide shot from across an 80 foot-long loft on Canal Street towards the wall and windows opposite:
Gradually, the frame moves across the length of the loft, coming in closer and closer to a picture on the wall, which was just barely a dot in the opening frame. Over the course of the move (some of which is done with a zoom, some with new camera placement) there are four "human events" which occur - two workmen bring in a bookcase and put it against a wall; two women enter, turn on a radio and listen to it ("Strawberry Fields Forever" - which I just realized had to have been deliberately put in later, as it wasn't released at the time the film was shot - I always figured it was what was actually on the radio), then leave; a man (filmmaker and theorist Hollis Frampton) enters in distress and falls on the floor, apparently dead; and a nervous woman enters and calls "Richard" on the phone to tell him about the (now unseen) dead body on the floor - she is played by critic Amy Taubin, who was married at the time to Richard Foreman, who (FUN FACT) told me personally that yes, he's on the other end of that phone call.
The camera keeps moving. Night has fallen. Images are overlaid, repeated. The whole things is scored with the sound of an electrical tone - a wavelength - rising and falling, in pitch and volume, from almost inaudible to earsplitting. Eventually the frame reaches the other wall where (SPOILER ALERT!) the photograph fills the frame entirely - it is a photo of waves crashing on a beach that we have traveled the length of the loft to look at.
( 9:55 from near the end of Michael Snow's WAVELENGTH )
Okay. This isn't a film for everybody. I am aware of that. I completely understand why many, maybe most, people would be bored stupid by this. Fine. But I'd have thought a group of NYU film students would maybe be a tad more open-minded.
I had first seen Wavelength two years prior, when it was shown in a film class at my boarding school. I wasn't in the class, as I was a Junior and the class was only open to Seniors, but I was friendly with the teachers and they let me watch it as I had heard of it, was fascinated by the idea of it, and really wanted to see it. I sat through two classes and watched it twice in one day, loving it. And in fact, the students in the class all appreciated it as well, and it played great. The teachers were playing it in conjunction with two films they were showing in the course proper that they felt were referencing it in their respective final shots; The Passenger and The Shining. I think the comparison to the Antonioni film is dicey and pushing it, but once you've seen Wavelength next to the final shot of the Kubrick film it's pretty clear that Stanley was aware of the earlier film (especially in the way that once the photo in each film fills the frame, there are several slow dissolves to details of the photo).
So a bunch of Massachusetts boarding school students looking to get an easy grade by taking a film class as an elective Senior English class all liked the film. How about some NYU film students?
By 10 minutes in they were audibly upset. By 15 minutes in they were yelling sparsely. By 30 minutes the walkouts started, often accompanied by cries of "Bullshit!" Then things started being thrown at the screen (which was just a big concave concrete wall painted white in this basement lecture hall) - some empty coffee cups, a cup of ice, and a number of shoes and notebooks. Crumpled paper flew through the air. People started yelling nonsense sounds in a "la-la-la-la-can't-hear-you" manner.
The film ended and most of the audience walked out and didn't come back after the break. Some did and yelled at Paul during the discussion period ("That was just masturbation!"). After that and the class was over, I went down to talk to Paul (as a number of us always did at the end of class - we'd all usually wind up walking out of the building and on to 4th Street together, still talking over the evening's viewing). He was a bit stunned, and very disappointed, but it also seemed he was kind of amazed and pleased, with a glint in his eye, that a film - a film, for chrissakes, and one made almost 20 years ago at that point, a classic of the avant-garde, even quaint in 1986 - could cause such a visceral, violent reaction. There was something of joy in how we all felt - those who loved the film - that somehow this really really showed how powerful a film could be. It made you love the medium even more.
When I ran into Paul in the years after at the Collective or Millennium or where ever, he'd always take a moment to try and remember where he knew me from, and eventually get it with a smile: "Right, you were there at the Wavelength riot!"
As alluded to above, there were rumors around the school that Paul was being pressured to simplify his course and be a little less extreme in his film choices, for the sake of the poor delicate film production students - I have NO idea how true this was, but I do remember, even if he doesn't, Sean's account from the time of Paul's final lecture, where he said a few words about the film, a few words about teaching, then said, with some bitterness, "Well, that's that" and walked out of the lecture hall as the film started, never to come back.
But there were some of us who appreciated Paul Arthur, certainly, at that time and place. He helped me understand the JOY of film - of making, watching, appreciating, writing about, whatever, film with a great love of it in your heart, never distanced from it, never critical without empathy, never sneering at passion. His class also introduced me to Renoir's Rules of the Game and Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, as well as Peter Kubelka and Hans Richter's Ghosts Before Breakfast, for which I'll always be grateful.
I will miss the feeling I got when seeing his byline on a new piece in some film journal, and smiling, and remembering him. I'm glad I knew him when and where I did.
UPDATE: There is also a lovely classified notice from his family in the Times HERE - being from those who knew and loved him best, it captures the man I knew far better than I could. I had intended to describe Paul as "bearlike" at some point above and forgot, so I'm glad to see the bear listed here as his "talismanic animal." Extremely appropriate.