Searching out cinema’s Queens roots

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The American film industry got its start in Queens, at Kaufman Studios, approximately 100 years ago. Since then, the movie business has gradually developed its major locations in Hollywood, a name now synonymous with multi-billion-dollar profits and celebrities.

However, for many aspiring filmmakers and film historians, Queens is still the source of inspiration and community. This is the first in a series of three interviews with people in Queens associated with the film industry.

Prof. Deirdre Boyle teaches film history at the New School University in Manhattan, and describes herself as a “Queens girl.” Born and raised in the borough, Boyle is the author of numerous works on film, including “Video Classics,” “Guerrilla Television Revisited” and “Subject to Change.”

Q: What is your position at the New School?

A: I teach film in the graduate media studies program. And I’ve been there for about 30 years. My courses range from documentary film history to contemporary directions in documentary. I teach courses in writing criticism about film, video, and the media. Actually, I am going to be teaching a course on death and the media because it’s such a fascinating topic since Sept. 11th. [The subject of death] has taken a whole new kind of gravity/power from people.

Q: How do you see film in terms of its affect on people?

A: Let me turn that around and ask you a question to focus my answer better? When you say film, what do you mean?

Q: Documentaries, commercial film, and independent film, everything except home movies.

A: Why are you leaving home movies out?

Q: I think they are so very subjective.

A: That’s interesting that you pull home movies out of the equation because in my contemporary class, which is called “New Directions in Documentary,” I show a lot of documentaries that include home movies - not always the filmmaker’s. Sometimes they are found in other sources. One of them is the work of a Hungarian filmmaker who has combed the archives in Europe to find what people thought about their lives during World War II. While people were dying and being exterminated in concentration camps, the middle class in Europe celebrated their birthdays and anniversaries and weddings and the like. For me, there isn’t anything that is or has been recorded in film or on video that isn’t interesting and doesn’t have an impact on us. Sometimes, I think it’s the home movies that may have the greatest impact because they show us in ways that are the most arresting and potentially powerful.

Your bigger question, “How do they [films] affect us.” I think watching film especially in a movie theater allows us to enter into a quasi-dream state. And in our dreams we imagine our lives as different, better, more exciting more meaningful, more elaborate. And I think a lot of people think they go to the movies to escape. There’s that aspect to it. But, I think they also go to be able to imagine their lives differently. Or, they want to be stimulated in that imagining, to take on alternate personas. You made me laugh when you photographed me and said think of Harrison Ford.

Because I believe a lot of people have gone to Harrison Ford’s movies imagining themselves to be the characters that he portrays. He is a sort of rugged individual, hero. Even if in your ordinary life, you are not a rugged individual hero. For those moments that you spend in the movie theatre, you and Harrison Ford are one and the same. Or, at least you can feel yourself acting through him. So, there’s this kind of extension of the self, and then I think there’s the desire to be lost in something larger than oneself.

Q: I would agree with that completely.

A: There’s a lot said, especially by educators and people who worry about the media’s impact, that would suggest that watching violence or sexually explicit films or the like has a negative impact. At the same time, people suggest that it is therapeutic. There is a release for violent people who watch violent movies. It’s cathartic for them to let go of that. I’ve never been able to subscribe to the notion that exposure to film, whether it’s in the movie theatre or on television, is necessarily a negative thing. Having been a kid who grew up with television, I like to think of myself as a product of a medium that has been reviled. But that medium has helped make me the person that I am today. So, I think a lot of it has to do with what we make of the media. It’s not something sinister - that it does to us - as though we were somehow passive victims.

Q: Your answer speaks to something else - Speaking of television - It has become the stepchild of film in a lot of ways. Stepchild and/or the purveyor and/or the vehicle for certain kinds of film. What do you think about programming on television, cable, non cable, any kind of television?

A: Okay, having said that I’m a child of television, I’ve sort of watched it grow along with myself. And I’ve seen it go through many stages. I remember when TV was the monolithic world of CBS, ABC and NBC. And choices were limited to seven channels. Now, we have 700 channels. It’s hard to generalize about something that’s so diverse. But I think the idea of TV as being a stepchild is an interesting one. Because a lot of people have thought of television as just the medium that conveys other products. Whether the product is a popular movie or a celebrity or a musical group or whatever it is that’s being sold by the television, often the program is the filler and the commercial is really the key. But, I think there are things about television that are full of surprises. I find that I watch television differently than I did when I was younger. I tend to watch television late at night.

As an adult, one thing that has been a constant is that I watch it for companionship. I think the idea of watching a program dissolved with adulthood. There is the notion that television can become a substitute for a family, for a sense of company or connectedness and television for a number of people - senior citizens, shut-ins - becomes a way of relating to people who are not in their lives. They [TV characters] come to them vicariously. Now, I find that I will watch, John Edward’s “Crossing Over” religiously because the people on the program are so amazing. It’s not like the outrageous performing that you find on the afternoon talk shows. It is really a quick fix about real people. I hadn’t realized television still could deliver that. So, that surprises me. I watch things that still give me comfort and furnish bedtime stories. They just thrill the child in me that likes that about TV. I will sit down and watch something very particularly like a television show, like a made-for-TV movie or a documentary on a subject that I’m interested in.

Yet, television has somewhat receded for me. Maybe because I’m a student again (getting an advanced degree in psychology) and involved in reading and preparing for my classes and falling asleep at night when I should be watching television, or when I think I should be watching TV.

Q: I don’t know. I’m seeing a connection between television and film. Still, what I think Americans do is make movies. Not necessarily film, we make movies. Almost always our movies are elaborate and surreal. Not always speaking to people’s real life needs. That almost happens by accident.

In your teaching, have you found that students have a different attitude and different expectations when they see films? Are they affected the same way as, John Doe and his family are when they go to see, for example, “Lord of the Rings?”

A: My students are going to see Lord of the Rings too. I don’t think there is a separation between what you might want to watch and what you might want to produce as a filmmaker. But I do find that because my graduates are in a program that is devoted to commercial production, because it’s a program that combines theory as well as practice, they tend to be a bit more critical of the mass media. So, what they make has different aspirations. They want to offer critique. They want to wake people up. They don’t want to lull them into a soporific state of receptivity. They’re really looking to express themselves. There is a very strong creative urge. There’s an expectation that their own lives are legitimate resources for them to draw on. It’s not just about providing whatever the formula is at the moment that will bring people into the movie house. They tend to make smaller works.

Thinking of it in terms of music, my students tend to create chamber pieces rather than symphonic works. This is attributable to youth and inexperience. Although, I’ve taught people who have incredible aspirations and made two-hour features. But, I think they have more of a belief that it’s okay to be themselves. And that I find very refreshing. It’s nice to be a part of supporting that.

Q: Do you have any favorite filmmakers?

A: I guess everybody has a pantheon they belonged to when they first discovered that film was more than a movie. I have people that I like who I follow now.

The first filmmaker who was a filmmaker to me was Ingmar Bergman. That was when I was in high school and I had a wonderful teacher who steered a few of us to go see some films that were in the art houses at the time. And I began to realize that seeing a film could change your life - could make you think and feel different things. And [Federico] Fellini was part of that world for me too. There are number of foreign and European filmmakers. And I’ve had other favorites over the years - [Alfred] Hitchcock of course.

And today, I still have an interest in foreign film, which I think is a happy legacy of my past (employment in the independent film industry), and that just may explain why Hollywood hasn’t quite had the appeal to me that it has had for so many others.

There are so many extraordinary films coming out of the Middle East right now. Some Iranian filmmakers and Arab filmmakers. For example, Samira Makhmalbaf. Her father (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) made “Kandahar.” I didn’t like “Kandahar,” but I appreciated the effort. I also like some of the new European directors, although some of them are not so new.

For example, Pedro Almodovar, who was new once upon a time. I remember discovering him before he was a household name and before [Antonio] Banderas was a Hollywood movie star. And [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, who unfortunately, is no longer with us. I thought he was a brilliant filmmaker. And in the documentary world, where I spend much of my time, it’s very exciting to see new people coming along and older people who are still at it. Fred Wisemen’s new film, “Domestic Violence,” is opening at Film Forum. I interviewed him two years ago when his film on small town America was released. It marked either his 25th film or his 25 years in filmmaking. [The film is] “Belfast, Maine,” and we had a great conversation. It’s sort of wonderful to see how artists like Wisemen keep renewing themselves. I think what I look for is a balance between staying on the edge, finding out what’s new who’s coming along and circling back to see who the giants were and sometimes still are, and what you can learn from them.

Q: In terms of how your students are working - Are they working in Super 8? What are they working on?

A: We don’t teach Super 8 anymore. Nobody does now. Still, things change so much there’s nothing that can’t be used. State of the art is whatever you have at your fingertips. There was a time when, there was a real push to make Super 8 an accessible and professional medium. And I guess I was thinking about how that got superseded by video. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t available. My students learn 16 mm film production and/or video production. They use everything from High 8 video to the latest digital equipment, and they can edit in linear and non-linear format. In video and in film, they can get their training using a Steenbeck and then transition into Avid for film [Editor’s note: A Steenbeck is a machine used to edit film by cutting and splicing. An Avid is a computer editing system in which videotape or film is converted into digital information. The computer uses this data to create an editing decision list. The filmmaker uses this list to edit on the actual film or video.]

So, the crossing over that’s occurring between film and video is certainly mirrored in the training that we give our students.

Q: If you were going to make a film. What would be the ideal film for you?

A: I think that we are gripped by a need to explore ourselves as a culture. Probably I would do something that wouldn’t entertain, which is fiction, simply because it’s not where my energy is. In my wording of dialogues I would capture speech patterns.

It would be about character development and script writing more so than in pursuing a social issue or re-examining my own self-identity which was perfectly fine when I was in my 20’s. Now I am more interested in how we communicate, the depths of relationships and identity. Not in the self but the other.

I surprised myself with what I just said to you because my students ask me that question all the time, usually at the end of a semester. Oftentimes, what I’ve told them is I would love to be able to make a film essay of the degree of complexity and lushness as, for example Chris Marker’s. For many years, I’ve shown “Sans Soleil,” a film that I admire tremendously. And to be able to weave together the personal and the geopolitical and the cross-cultural, and to do it in a way that has humor and seriousness and mystery. He is a master of ambiguity, and the well-placed nodding and winking - on character, the psychology of how you communicate with others, the differences among people.

Q: I feel this creative energy in you that I believe will manifest itself in a film.

A: We’ll see.

Q: Let talk about Hollywood film. What do you think about Hollywood film?

A: I think any industry that supports Robert Altman is okay.

Q: Well said.

A: I think there are some really fine Hollywood filmmakers out there. I think one reason why it’s difficult to talk about this today is because there’s this concept of the independent filmmaker which came into prominence in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And that idea has really gotten diluted. Very often now when we talk about independent filmmakers, we’re just talking about a new breed of Hollywood because the studio system has collapsed. It no longer works in the way in which it was when it was actively functioning in the 30’s, 40’s and 5’0s. So, when we talk about Hollywood, we have to consider people like the Coen brothers. They’re wonderful filmmakers. They aren’t the people who do chase action, blockbuster movies. This is a kind of Hollywood movie that caters to a particular audience. And then there is this new Hollywood that allows for some more individualism. It’s maybe not as risk-taking as one might like. But there are some good films being made, and risky films. And the center of Hollywood has moved enough to accommodate personal visions.

Deirdre Boyle’s books are available at the New School University bookstore in Manhattan.

Part II of Loretta Campbell’s three-part series on Queens film and filmmakers continues next week with an interview with Queens filmmaker Adrianne Jorge.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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