In my freshman year of college, I was enrolled in a class which introduced new students to collegiate academic concepts through a semester-long theme. Our class’ theme was film and our brave professor, Lara Scott, a young, intelligent art professor who had studied at Yale, had the grueling task of teaching seventeen relatively conservative young adults to move beyond the accessible blockbuster films they enjoyed and to evaluate worldview, character and narrative in films they might never have chosen by themselves.
[It was Prof Scott’s misfortune that nearly every one of those seventeen students became good friends and spent every meal, every evening, every day in each other’s company. We were a many-headed animal which moved in a large, energetic clump of arms and bags and loud voices. The small college community wasn’t sure what to do with this nuclear group which very quickly developed a set of its own behaviors, expectations and routines. We were frequently referred to as a “cult,” a name which at the time offended me, and now seems funny and the only word for the bizarre beginning to my college experience.
[Bleary morning picture before going to Six Flags, which would become a tradition]
This group did not hold together or remain as intimate or intense for all four years of college. The fire burned itself out. Still, it is a spider-web linking us together. I still feel the phantom strings tugging from my friend Alyssa in Brooklyn, and the friend in medical school, the friend in Hollywood, the one I went to England with, the ones that got married. My dearest friends came from that class: Laura, who shares a birthday with me, and Kristin, with whom I share an apartment. Unbelievably, all three of us live in the same city, two thousand miles away from our college. I am a bridesmaid at their weddings this summer.]
We watched six films that semester: The Iron Giant, Nightjohn, Babette’s Feast, Whale Rider, About a Boy, and the Station Agent. We balked at the slow scenes. The cinematography and the foreignness of Babette’s Feast was painful; Nightjohn conspicuously lacked in Hollywood sparkle; we weren’t sure whether we liked the Station Agent and its random collection of personalities.
About a Boy was the most approachable film. The night we watched it, we had been celebrating Homecoming by dressing up and eating spaghetti at a small restaurant in Highland, Illinois (where Sufjan Steven saw a UFO in his Illinoise album), twenty minutes from campus. Conscious of our professor’s wrath, we drove eighty miles an hour to get to reach the viewing in time, and burst through the door a few minutes late in dresses and tuxes.
All this to say that without Professor Scott’s freshman class, without that exposure to unfamiliar, strange, uncomfortable – and sometimes uncool – films, my experience with film might have always remained narrow. It is slow growing, but under the influence and advising of others who know better, I have begun to watch film with greater risk. Sometimes this goes well (Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) or Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, and sometimes this goes badly (Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl).
Thank goodness Arts and Faith, an online community allied with Image, has put together the 2010 list of 100 Top Films - a compilation chosen by a group of film critics, professors, writers, artists, parents, clergy etc. (This list features, funnily enough, features Babette’s Feast in the top ten films.) You can be sure I’m going to use this as a source for future meetings of the nascent Film Club.
Spend some time looking at the website, which if I may say so (I helped with the project), is outstanding. Every film has been chosen carefully and offers viewers the chance to go beyond the barriers of their personal taste and customary choice, and to widen the palate with a list celebrating cinematographic excellence.