Lights, camera, dissatisfaction

Every year, undergrad film programs release wide-eyed film majors into an unfriendly Hollywood. Ithaca College wants its students ready for the shock.

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Miguel Santiago couldn't watch another film, lest he dive deeper into depression.

He studied at Ohio's famously liberal Antioch College, majoring in film
and getting some experience working for free on the set of Francis Ford
Coppola's "Jack." After graduating in 1998, Santiago went to San
Francisco for a job on an animation project. It fell through. For the
next few months, he scrambled to find movie work. Finally he heard about an entry-level position as a database builder of sound and images for
"The Phantom Menace" at Lucasfilm.

With his similar experience for "Jack," Santiago figured he was a
shoo-in for the $6-per-hour job. Lucasfilm figured differently.

By mid-winter, Santiago was hanging drapes for a living. Finally, the 24-year-old returned to Antioch to work in his alma mater's admissions office. As for films, he made a habit of steering clear of them: "I couldn't watch movies because it reminded me of the creative side that I still feel I've rejected as a matter of survival," Santiago said.

According to film professors at Ithaca College in New York, Santiago's experience in -- or rather, outside of -- the film industry is the consummation of an all-too-common film student ignorance. Undergrads, they say, think a film major automatically translates into a glamorous Hollywood job. When students graduate and find they aren't making the next "Pulp Fiction," they're shocked.

Disillusionment, unemployment, a degree collecting dust -- these things hardly constitute news for the recent college graduate. Nevertheless, these Ithaca professors have taken it upon themselves to offset what little hopelessness they can. Every fall, the film department has its new film majors take "Film Aesthetics and World Cinema." Emphasizing the work of Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buquel and Alfred Hitchcock, the course sets to unsettle students' notion of film, a notion largely derived from mass-market movies.

"The Hollywood style is just one of many," says Patricia Zimmermann, who's been an Ithaca film professor for 20 years. "To understand and to make good film, you need to know history, aesthetics and theory. Students come to school saying, 'Why did I come here? No one is teaching me to be Steven Spielberg.' It's naive of them and irresponsible for us to give them illusions that they'll be the next big things. There's more to movies than becoming millionaires."

Ithaca professors call the program's anti-Hollywood offensive "napalming their brains," and the assault has proven popular.

At first, the students "get really disturbed, but in the end they can really see film in a more complex way," says Zimmermann. "Our teaching is not indoctrination, but an introduction to how their analytical minds can work."

Tamika Means, an Ithaca film freshman and budding casting director, speaks fondly of her "napalming." "Ithaca has helped me deglamorize the industry a lot and that's important," she says. "I can't look at movies the same way again."

"The films we watch are socially and politically charged so you end up learning about the world," said Jonathan Evans, an Ithaca student who has gone through the Blockbuster detoxing. "You ask: What is the significance of the story I am being told? It's not just about being entertained."

In addition to learning about the world, students pick up practical information about the world of film -- particularly career prospects. In an era of burgeoning communications technologies, they learn, the job market in film is almost always outsourced and temporary. Although entertainment constitutes the nation's third-largest export industry (behind aerospace and agriculture), students are advised to set their sights elsewhere.

"The old Hollywood moguls of the '40s made film look sexy," said Zimmermann. "But this was never much more than a manufacturing system, and now it has left the hands of those moguls and has become a huge transnational industry."

Still, some students see themselves as auteurs -- they recite Eisenstein, Buquel and Hitchcock in their sleep and wouldn't dream of landing a Hollywood gig. For this crowd, it seems, the frustration often comes when the major studio job doesn't fall through. Faced with the expensive task of creating an independent film from scratch, anti-Hollywooders sometimes take production assistant work on major projects in order to pay bills and gain experience.

But Zimmerman insists these students represent a minority of the young film majors.

"It is rare to see a beginning film student who is familiar with cinema outside Hollywood," she says. "Obsessive film junkies are a leftover of '70s film subculture, and at best a tiny portion of today's film-going audience."

Of course, location might affect the demographics of a school's film department; at the extremely competitive and well-connected universities, film majors might be of a different breed. David Irving, for instance, chairman of the undergraduate film and TV program at NYU, insists it's not that bad for graduating film students. "Roughly 60 percent find work in their departmental majors," he says.

"We're training creative people for a wide range of artistic fields," says Teri Bond Michael, spokeswoman for UCLA's Graduate School of Theater, Film and TV. "Their success rate is not easily quantifiable."

Success has required a different set of skills and experience over time, most notably a shift in the type of education that was necessary. In the 1920s through the 1940s, it was mainly L.A. screenwriters and their Manhattan financiers who had college degrees. Film schools changed that in the '60s. At the same time, the industry shifted from nationally based studios to international ventures, changing the skills necessary for a film job.

If film degrees don't consistently translate into film careers -- though for the likes of George Lucas, Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Coppola, they proved indispensible -- what do they offer? According to Zimmerman, they offer the same thing as any liberal arts degree: an education.

"I think film programs provide a kind of liberated autonomous zone, a place to think about politics, images, ideas and works of art," concludes Zimmermann. "Those zones of exploration are dwindling each day, so I feel the pressure to create a classroom where debates on contemporary culture can flourish."

Perhaps the real question addressed by Ithaca is how one prepares for a liberal arts degree that doesn't prepare one for anything. Actors, writers and artists, after all, have been graduating into food service jobs for years. And the myths of the Tony-winning performance, the great American novel, the museum show carry the same weight as that of a prestigious directing career. In this light, Ithaca's brain-napalming plan fits into a larger complex of how liberal arts programs ought to deliver their students into the real world.

Now, for better or for worse, Miguel Santiago wants to get a graduate degree in film. The draw -- practical or not -- proved irresistible.

"We are attracted to this field because we define ourselves as imaginative. We want to be recognized for what we create. Antioch taught me to think critically, to write and make movies. But it angers me that the creative life is a privilege. You end up needing a personal philosophy that can save you from this very real disappointment."

By Kenneth Rapoza

Kenneth Rapoza is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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