Saturday, December 7, 2013

First lessons: a tribute to my HS film teacher

I’d never had a cool teacher before I met John Loose. I was 15 and attending an all-boys Catholic high school in Manhattan, and the introductory film course for sophomores was a pretty procedural affair, where the great screen “classics” were shown. There was discussion before and after, with papers on the films determining academic credit.

The mission was to show the earlier part of the “canon” and not bring up subversive ideas in the process. The teacher, however, was a laidback, seemingly laconic but actually quite acerbic gentleman who, when the topic came up, would quickly and emphatically stress that “all films are political.” (This notion irritating teenagers, who believe they see things in their totality — how can a film that doesn’t mention politics be political anyway???)

My parents had already introduced me to the finer points of film — my mother focused on the Hollywood legends, and my father showed me foreign features like Beauty and the Beast at a very young age. So John’s sophomore film class, with its week-by-week presentation of “classics,” was fine on its own, but it was the conversations I had with him after class and in later years that really opened my mind and made him the third most important person in my ongoing film “education.” (One great, sadly quickly-gone, teacher in college followed.)

John, who died the other week at 75, taught me about the auteur theory in those classes and conversations. He was the “doorway” for me to Andrew Sarris (whom he had studied with) and the Cahiers posse. He encouraged my teenage obsession with cinema and was quite vocal about which directors to check out and which to avoid — even when I vehemently disagreed with him in later years (I really liked Jarmusch’s work, dammit!), I respected his opinions.

A bunch of my fellow students saw his class as a “cake course” that one could either sleep through or snap rubber bands during (a number of teenage boys are, how shall I put this kindly… jerkoffs). Knowing this all too well, John still took the course seriously and did his best to communicate his ideas about film to a mostly disinterested audience. He never “taught down,” even to students who were clearly just trying to sail through the class.

I remember that the first of many lessons I received from him was about my use of the word “camp” — I had told him I loved “camp” movies and TV shows, and he noted that the examples I gave him were all “intentional camp” (of the Batman TV show and James Bond-ish stripe). I knew no other at the time, so he suggested I read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and check out the work of filmmakers who were truly camp without being conscious and/or funny about it. (And yes, John's discussion with me did run the gamut from Ed Wood to Von Sternberg.)

After the sophomore class was over, I continued to talk with John at school. A few classmates and I successfully created a senior film “elective” that would allow us to study film with John once again and go deeper than the initial course had gone. Instead of us just sitting around and shooting the shit while watching our favorite movies, John assigned us to go see contemporary hits (serious dramas, “Oscar fare,” not multiplex action pics). We then discussed the films from a stylistic and political viewpoint.

Again, the notion of politics in film — John was a Left-wing man of principle whose most valuable lesson to me was that I really had to do the research and be ready to have information and context shoring up my opinions and beliefs. The right were in resurgence when I studied with John (Bonzo’s friend was president), and more than once he noted to me that it was “simpler” to be Right-wing, since you merely needed to stick to a position without researching it; the “burden” of being on the Left was actually having to have facts at hand.

He always peppered our conversations with wonderful insights and sarcastic jibes at filmmakers (and politicians) that he had no respect for. He was a traditional auteurist who revered Ford and Hitchcock, but he also introduced me to the “second level” of Sarris's Pantheon, the one that is filled with directors who are more volatile, vibrant, and in some cases far more interesting than the gents on top.

Thus, as I raved about Rebel Without a Cause, he told me about another Nick Ray film I just had to see, the mind-blowing meller Bigger Than Life (1956). Unfortunately, the only clip of the film available online is the trailer, but the seminal moment in the film was described to me by John while he was urging me to see the picture as soon as it played the repertory circuit once more. (Those being the days when films were not letterboxed on TV – and Ray's picture must be seen in widescreen.)

James Mason, the average American schoolteacher dad, is taking a “miracle drug” (cortisone in the film; Ray wanted it to be a fictional made-up medication) that is giving him delusions of being a Nietzschean ubermensch. Toward the end of the film he comes home from church, furious that the preacher missed the point of the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story.

With a scissor in his hands he reads the story from the Old Testament, and then his wife (Barbara Rush) reminds him, “but Ed, you didn't read it all... God stopped Abraham!” Mason's response is a thunderous “GOD WAS WRONG!”

One of the single best lines in all of cinema. (not contained in this trailer, sadly)

John also encouraged my burgeoning fascination with the works of Godard, whom he deemed “too brilliant for his own good” (he was a big fan despite that pronouncement). On occasion his opinions concerning filmmakers grew out of his own past history as an actor (he had toured in summer stock productions, working with major H'wood stars who were trying to hang onto their fame by appearing in smaller communities).

I remember him noting that Warhol's films amounted to heinous exploitation of their performers because Warhol literally had his casts create the film for him. “They're giving him their audition pieces and then some – every actor has a tight audition piece, and it always looks as if Warhol is having them give him their best five minutes, and then keep going....”

When I look back on my conversations with him, which continued past my time in college through my 20s, I think the thing I remember most fondly is his bullshit detector. My friends and I were massively in love with Raging Bull (I still am), but John was more skeptical – he admitted the visual brilliance and the great acting, but called into question the message (including that bizarre “scales fell from my eyes” final citation, which both Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin distance themselves from on the Bull DVD audio commentaries).

He similarly contested our teenage LOVE of Clockwork Orange, wanting to discuss the film's message about redemption (essentially an oddly Christian one, until the “twist” at the end). We were still free to love our favorite films, but John required that we reflect on what they really were saying – or what the scripter or filmmaker had garbled in the message.

Similarly, I remember my final long conversation with him at an Upper West Side coffee/bagel place at some point in the Nineties. He had taken to teaching Once Upon a Time in America to his students (most likely the seniors, not the sophomores) and gave me an enthused “lesson” about the socio-political messages Leone and his scripters had inserted in the film.

In this case, I remained the skeptical one (I still think that film combines moments of genius with a structure that is an absolute mess), but as always with “Mr. Loose,” I took his lesson to heart and realized he was probably seeing in the mess of the film the picture that Leone *wanted* to make. (I always, by the way, thought of the gent as “Mr. Loose,” even though he required that I call him John when we were meeting socially or talking on the phone – he joked about the “Mr.” signaling someone from the government calling to discuss some things with him....)

As indicated above, the most important way in which he influenced my thoughts about cinema was in his insistence that we think about the “message” that different filmmakers were imparting, whether literally, through their plots, thematically or stylistically.

When I argued with him (being a new convert to Bergman) that Ingmar B. seemed about the most un-political filmmaker I'd encountered (I had yet to see his late Sixties pics like Shame), John of course noted that an artist's aversion to including politics in their storylines about society was in itself a political decision. What I initially found hard to swallow, I later realized was a quite fascinating method of looking at art and popular culture.

In my 20s when I would meet John for coffee or some kind of lunch we went deeper into politics, with me asking him how to put things into perspective and him volunteering xeroxes of articles he heartily recommended – again, urging “do the research,” which this time involved reading pieces on America's colonial impulse from some guy named Chomsky.

Similarly, the last tape he gave me – yes, I'm talking VHS – was a dub of the British release of Chris Marker's wonderful The Last Bolshevik, which was very hard to see in America some time ago (it's now out on DVD from Icarus). The last tape I gave him was a collection of the episodes I made from my interview with the late, great Western innovator Budd Boetticher. John was a big fan of his work, and I wanted him to see my chat with Budd.

I would occasionally ask him how the high school classes were going, and he'd note that he had some cinephile students, but that the level of Right-wing insanity among some of the other teens was growing. I guess it was indeed difficult for a man who prided himself on doing research into political issues being quoted facts by conservative teens, telling him that they heard said “fact” (which was, natch, a complete fiction) from Bill O'Reilly, whom they trusted for their political information.

I hadn't talked with John for the last several years – there was no “break,” just the usual amount of distractions that happen in different people's lives. The last time I saw him was a few years back, a stray encounter on the street. The guy looked like a million bucks, now wearing glasses and (yes, I did kid him about this – it HAD to be mentioned) a nice-looking jacket with patches on the elbows, professorial-style (he never smoked a pipe – that bit he never got into).

At that time he was delighted that he was a grandfather (he was going to visit his daughter and her kid), and of course we both said we'd have to hang out again soon and trade movie notes. We never did, but throughout the years I have generally thought of something John said to me once every few months.

The last thing he said that kinda haunted me – not said to disparage, just to “contextualize” – was that, when I got older, “you'll slow down your moviegoing.” He said this to me when I was in the full flower of my manic movie attendance as a teen, when there still were a few more rep houses in NYC and I was daunted by the number of things left to discover.

John's comment was not intended to slow me down, he was just presenting the realistic reflection that, as one gets older, one has indeed decided what one loves. There will always be new discoveries (hopefully!), but the personal “canon” has been formed, and you then have the choice of experiencing new material or re-experiencing old material you loved years ago and have forgotten in the interim.

For an instance in which he was “present” in my writing for this blog, I'd just note that the tattered, dog-eared paperback copy of Sarris's The American Cinema I consulted to write my Andrew Sarris posts was given to me by John (he had a double, and this was the one he had written on and underlined when he was studying with le grand auteriste).

So, regardless of the actual demands of nature and our ever-failing bodies, I do believe that your best teachers don't ever really die, as long as you are around. I have carried a little piece of John around with me over the years and will continue to do so until I kick the bucket. His voice – plain-speaking, laidback, and wonderfully, subtly sarcastic as hell – is still in my ear.

But I don't want to end sentimentally, since my favorite talks with John never went in that direction (especially when politics was the subject at hand – the man was an idealist but also a realist). I think my favorite question-and-answer with the guy was when I asked him (when I had gotten to be friendly enough to broach this) how in the *hell* did a man of his clearly Marxist-Leftist persuasion get hired as a teacher by an old-fashioned, Right-wing institution like my high school. His response? “Clearly an error in personnel.”

1 comment:

Lisa H. said...

What a moving and comprehensive tribute! I'm impressed that your conservative high school even offered a film course. Then again, it was NYC. Nothing of the kind at Davis High.

And thank you, BTW, for in turn introducing me to Bigger Than Life! Great film.