My class is meeting via Zoom.
This would not be a problem were I not conducting the class. I can handle the technology, but my usual style of teaching is to wade into the pool of assembled students, to read their faces and body language and gauge their reactions to whatever I'm saying at the time. I don't like lecturing; even when I have prepared remarks I rarely read them, only typing them out to remind myself of certain points.
I would have maybe 100 people in the summer movie classes conducted for LifeQuest of Arkansas at Riverdale 10 (thanks to the ownership and management for providing a venue). But we couldn't have that class this summer, so now we're having it this fall, all of us linked together by waves and wires, peering at screens. I'll be sharing my screen as the platform for the film we'll all watch together (and pitying those who'll be using their phones to check in).
At first this seemed it would be simple; the desktop in my home studio has a DVD drive hooked up to it and I'd play the DVD from there. Then I discovered that this particular DVD player couldn't handle the Blu-Ray discs I selected for the class. But I have a deep collection of non-Blu-Ray discs and digitized films on hard drives, so we're good for the first two hours of class.
The last hour, well, I'm not sure about. There might be some advantages to Zoom as a delivery system for the movies; I can type thoughts as the film runs and send them out to everyone. That could be interesting, or annoying. And I've often thought about stopping the film every few minutes to make a point, or interrupting it to play another video that expands upon whatever idea we're tracking down or some sort of PowerPoint presentation.
What I worry about is how to handle the discussion after the film.
I don't know how many faces are going to pop up on my screen after the end credits roll. People have the option of not sharing their video on Zoom, and I understand that. When I'm monitoring a call with a lot of participants, I tend not to share my video feed.
Most of the class questions will come in the form of typed chat messages, and it's unclear if that will have a chilling or encouraging effect on the discussion. The hope is to whip up a seminar-style free-for-all, with people interacting politely but not necessarily raising their hands before speaking. It's hard to figure out what the dynamic will be like on Zoom, how much the hermetic isolation of each of us might cost the class in terms of nuance.
I've been assured the sessions won't be recorded; presumably we won't see out-of-context clips of me rattling on about Elia Kazan and cancel culture on YouTube. For the record, I'm not showing "Cuties." I've thought about it--it's possible that the filmmakers genuinely intended to condemn the sexualization of children but ended up making an exploitation film. And some of the people condemning "Cuties" are conveniently overlooking the fact that beauty pageants for teenage and preteen girls are also pretty icky.
Instead we'll be screening Kazan's 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd," even though the director isn't exactly an American hero (though Charlton Heston once called him one). Kazan famously named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, which wasn't a brave thing to do, and got some people's careers in the movies canceled, or at least temporarily derailed.
Film historian and critic (and Kazan biographer) Joseph McBride directed the verdict that "Kazan's career, post-1952, was built on the ruin of other people's careers."
"I still believe what I'd done was correct," Kazan would answer in his autobiography, "but no matter that my reasons had been sincerely founded and carefully thought out, there was something indecent--that's how I felt it, as shame--in what I'd done and something murky in my motivations."
Kazan said he got over feeling guilty after about a year, Although he was unapologetic, his experience before the committee kept resurfacing in his films. In "On the Waterfront," scripted by Budd Schulberg (who also cooperated with the committee), Kazan makes a hero of the punch-drunk fighter-turned-stool-pigeon Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, who gives another trademark performance informed by masochistic male vulnerability).
Set in New Jersey, "On the Waterfront" is a powerful film charged with Christian symbolism as well as a barely disguised critique of the American Communist Party methods of discipline. Brando plays a longshoreman who (famously) "coulda been a contender" had not his older brother (Rod Steiger) convinced him to go for the short money by dumping fights.
He stands up to the mob that controls the Hoboken docks and is battered for his trouble. Still Brando persists, eventually rallying the rank-and-file against the crooked bosses. (It should be noted that to ensure an audience-friendly finale, Kazan and Schulberg deviated from the true story on which "Waterfront" was partially based; the model for Terry Malloy was unsuccessful in rallying his co-workers and the mobsters prevailed.)
In "A Face in the Crowd," Kazan and Schulberg team up again to expose the potential for fascism in American popular culture by chronicling the rise of a McCarthyesque hillbilly singer from Arkansas named "Lonesome" Rhodes (played with unnerving acuity by Andy Griffith in his first film role) who starts out as a winsome tramp and ends up a powerful megalomaniac.
While Kazan and Schulberg were probably looking back to Huey Long's strain of '30s populism when they came up with the film, there are obvious points of resonance with our current political landscape.
This being Arkansas and not Berkeley, I don't expect any blowback from showing Kazan's film, despite his problematic legacy. But when I showed it in 2001, there were a few chippy comments about Kazan from my friends on the left.
Kazan was still alive then, and when he'd received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, the audience was divided in their reaction, with some actors refusing to applaud the award and others (including Meryl Streep) giving him a standing ovation.
It was the art that mattered; miserable and ruthless people are at least (and probably more) capable of making great art as nice folks. So I show a lot of movies made by people who might otherwise be canceled, trusting my audience to understand that admiration of the art doesn't necessarily extend to the artist.
It's the song, not the singer.
Read more at