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Film Studies Program
Activity in 2002-2003

Knowledge and skill goals for this undergraduate degree program are recorded in the most recent CU-Boulder catalog.

In some summaries of assessment activity, goals are referred to by number (e.g., K-2 is knowledge goal 2).

Assessment Activity in 2003-2004
Assessment Activity in 2002-2003
Activity in previous years

Activity in 2002-2003

Note from Suranjan Ganguly, Chair, Film Studies:

In spring 2003, I asked three external reviewers to evaluate our student films. The films were made by students who had enrolled in Film 4500: Advanced Filmmaking-a course which explores traditional and non-traditional modes of narrative filmmaking. Students are required to shoot a sync-sound 16 mm film which is their final project before they graduate.

The course is divided into three sections: Documentary, Experimental, and Narrative. Our three reviewers were asked to evaluate films from each section.

Following are their evaluations.

1.    Evaluation by Timothy Ryerson, Aurora, CO

May 14, 2003

I was asked to do an assessment of the student works that were screened in Patti Bruck's 4500 documentary class on Friday, May 9. Seven of eight projects were screened - the unscreened project apparently fell victim to time constraints and limitations of technology.

It was a mix of both videos and films; thus, I use the words "works" or "projects" rather than "films" or "videos" when referring to the screening as a whole. In terms of genre and content, it was a very eclectic mix: one music video, three documentaries, two narratives and one would-be narrative that became a self-reflective documentary. The range of technical ability was, likewise, all over the board: from professional excellence to amateurish.

I will begin my assessment by briefly reviewing each project (emphasizing the most successful projects), and conclude with what I consider to be the general strengths and weaknesses of the works as a whole.

Grace Like Gravity was a music video. In terms of technical attributes, it was professionally-executed and impressive. (I understand the videographer was also the D.P. for "Blanket," see below.) It featured some visually-exciting lighting setups that took me out of the video itself because the content was no match for the technique.

The performers (other than the actual musicians) wore masks which appeared to be a metaphor for alienation. The tone was aloof and cool. I felt that in this regard, the director succeeded with his/her vision. Unfortunately, the downside was that I never was able to get emotionally involved in the video.

Under the Underground was "a short documentary about Baltimore's Hit-Dat Records" (quote from the evening's program) and its founder, Sean, who has multiple sclerosis. I felt that the subject had enormous promise that was not fulfilled. The documentary was rambling, lacked structure, and the people who were interviewed needed questions that were more focused. The documentary made an attempt to get away from just talking heads and explore the physical surroundings ... unfortunately, the technical values were marginal and sometimes it was difficult to see much.

Wizards, a documentary about "the story behind Stem Pinball, Inc." (quote from the evening's program) started with a great voice-over hook and creative graphics, and concluded with some creative and amusing intercutting between the people who were being interviewed so that they really began to "work off" each other. Nonetheless, the documentary needed more structure, and the subject could have gone beyond the mostly talking heads.

The Buzz in Boulder, a documentary about the friction between UC students and the Boulder police, had great potential for a serious examination of an on-going problem. A series of intertitles "announced" specific areas that would ostensibly be explored ... but really weren't. Television host Jann Scott took an extreme position that made the work more lively, but ultimately worked against it because there was no other strong "authority" figure to balance him. Again, the documentary needed more structure and more focused questions for the people being interviewed.

Blanket was a strong narrative film. It was obvious that the director exerted considerable control over the production and knew what s/he was trying to achieve. Overall, the film was compelling, at times featured moments of great tension, and the performances were generally good and, at times, outstanding. The technical values were impressive: fine cinematography, great lighting, excellent use of color.

It was obvious that the director chose a sparse style, keeping the number of setups in a scene to a minimum and holding on shots for a long time. This style reinforced the theme of alienation, but also worked to the film's disadvantage when the emotional resonance was not strong enough, or not enough new information was given, to justify the length of a shot. Nonetheless, in terms of directorial control and technical mastery, the film was impressive and professional.

The Trouble with Paul is the true story of the filmmaker who wanted to make a narrative film, but ended up making a documentary about everything that went wrong (technically) with the film. Ironically, because of his real-life dilemma and potential for disaster (vis-- vis his grade and course credit), this last-minute thrown-together ad-libbed documentary was the most engaging of the evening's works.

Finally, Raising the Dead was a tongue-in-cheek narrative about the living-dead stalking a neighborhood. Unfortunately, the filmmaker did not use the medium effectively to execute his/her idea.

In general, the strengths of this program were technical. For the most part, both the videos and films demonstrated a high degree of competence, often of professional caliber, that is commendable.

In general, the weakness of the works was in three areas: risk-taking, structure, and passion.

It seemed as if the documentarians were somewhat reluctant to really explore their subject matter. They tended to stay general and not take the risks of getting under the surface. And so, the documentaries generally lacked the many interesting details that make them memorable.

Many of the works didn't have much of a structure and were somewhat rambling. With few exceptions, there wasn't much sense of pacing and building to something ... whether it be some sort of climax, defining moment or even a lingering question. In that documentaries are largely created in the editing process, the time constraints of completing a film by the end of the semester could have an impact. A solution, however, is to stress the importance of planning for structure, and thinking it while editing. Of greatest importance in this regard, however, would be the requirement that students take a pre-requisite writing class that emphasizes structure in both narrative and documentary formats.

Finally, in this year's works I didn't get much sense of creative passion behind them. Several times I asked myself, "Why was the director compelled to make this particular film or video?"

2.    Evaluation by Tim Taylor, Boulder CO.

May 19, 2003

Having completed the program in Film Production at the University of Colorado in 1994, I am delighted to observe how the program has flourished over the past ten years. When I attended the University, resources for completing film projects were decidedly more limited than they are today, especially for those of us who produced films in the narrative genre. Those of us who made narrative films were perhaps fewer in number then, and yet we were encouraged by our instructor and mentor, Jerry Aronson, to celebrate and cultivate the genre. It was under Professor Aronson's guidance that Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the animated short that became the smash-hit South Park. Such successes inspired and enthused the rest of us to pursue our own narrative film projects. Apparently, that enthusiasm for creating narrative films has only grown since my departure from the University in 1994.

I was invited to help judge the films produced by the Spring 2003 Film 4500 class on Saturday, May 10. As a devotee of television and cinema and as a moderately tried veteran of the television and film industries, I expected to see another parade of ambitious, yet sophomoric student films whose producers grappled with plot, dialogue and character development. However, I was impressed by the exceptional quality of all the films produced by the members of the 4500 class.

The dedication and resourcefulness of the students was obvious. Each filmmaker exploited public or gratuitous locations around Boulder, both interior and exterior, to provide convincing sets for their films. Each of them secured talented actors to realize their characters, though to my knowledge none of them had to pay these actors. The students enlisted the assistance of their classmates as well as technical personnel from the local film community to complete the task of principal photography. Most importantly though, each filmmaker dipped very deeply into his own coffers to obtain the funds necessary to complete these highly professional films. Some of them even took out loans in order to finance their projects. I believe that their devotion and effort exceeds that of any student in any other curriculum at the University. The College of Arts and Sciences should be very proud of these narrative filmmakers. Ten years ago, students in the CU Film Studies program made very good films given the resources available to us. Today, these narrative film students are producing great films through the aid of better post-production facilities, better training, and even more encouragement and support from their instructors.

What impressed me the most about each of the 4500 films, however, was the quality of the screenplays. When I attended the school of film, very few students manifested an awareness of the integral importance that story-line, dialogue and character development play in the ultimate success of a narrative film. Accordingly, our actors' lines often sounded forced and artificial, and the plots frequently fizzled into triteness. In fact, there appears to have been a bias for experimental cinema back in those days which perhaps diminished the desire of student filmmakers to produce cohesive and ambitious narrative projects. I am pleased to see that the Film Studies Program at CU has chosen to nurture the narrative film genre. Obviously, the 4500 students spent a great deal of time working and reworking their screenplays. Regardless of the production value of a film, that film will ultimately lack merit without a good screenplay. Clearly, this critical lesson has been instilled in the students of the 4500 class. However, I recommend that at least a semester long screenwriting class becomes a prerequisite for all narrative film students in the Film Studies Program. This would not only allow the narrative film students more time to work on the actual production of their films during the 4500 semester, but it would also give them a more proper perspective on this most fundamental of narrative filmmaking tasks. Furthermore, certain film students might actually find that screenwriting is their special talent in the multi-talented enterprise of filmmaking. In my opinion, therefore, one of the best ways the University might enrich narrative film production would be to require screenwriting as a part of the narrative film curriculum, perhaps at the 3000 level, but prior to the daunting 4500 semester.

After the screening on Saturday, I had the opportunity to speak with several of the student filmmakers. [K. B.], whose film Gameboy was nominated for an award, related that his production budget for his 4500 film exceeded $7,000. The expenditure appears to have been carefully invested. His film demonstrated high production value and superlative post-production value, but what ultimately made the work a success was the fact that he began with a thoughtful and engaging screenplay. [K.] told me that he work-shopped his treatment and screenplay with the other members of the class and with Jerry Aronson for at least six weeks before commencing principal photography. Only then, and after six or seven rehearsals with his actors, did he embark upon the actual film production. I expect that Gameboy will earn [K.] a number of accolades as he begins his professional film career.

Another student, [T. S.], produced a charming film entitled Where Ya From, that reflects his own experiences as a Northern student attending a Southern university. [T.] related to me that he had entertained several different treatments before settling upon this appealing theme. He told me that Professor Aronson encouraged him to write a screenplay that was personal in order to infuse the characters and story-line with appreciable meaning and depth. After approximately eight different treatments and five different drafts, [T.] arrived upon a funny and warm screenplay that he then turned into a successful film. I admired [T.'s] resourcefulness in parlaying an internship with a video production and editing company into a source for most of his production and post-production equipment, a shrewd maneuver that saved him perhaps $2000 on an otherwise $4000 production budget.

Finally, I spoke with another 4500 student, [M.B.], whose film The Long Run represented perhaps the most charismatic production in the class. [M.] was also encouraged by Professor Aronson and the rest of his class to write a screenplay that was in some way personal to himself, and so he drafted a rather bold and self-deprecating screenplay in which he himself played the lead, an overweight young man struggling to lose weight and turn his life around in the process. [M.] came from a theatrical background, but after a few years at CSU, he decided that he wanted to study film production, a curriculum in Colorado offered only at CU. Therefore, [M.] made an appreciable sacrifice in order to pursue his dream by dropping out of CSU and working for a year until he could complete the application process required for admission to CU. Once again, he displayed the exceptional devotion that each of the 4500 students has for the craft of narrative film production.

In conclusion, may I reiterate my admiration for all of the student filmmakers in the 4500 class. I am pleased to observe that narrative film production is alive and well at the University of Colorado. I would encourage the faculty and the College of Arts and Sciences to continue to do everything in their power to elevate this most appealing of all the film genres. Our narrative film students stand the best chance among all student filmmakers to bring distinction upon the Film Studies Program and upon the University of Colorado. I hope that the University will continue to foster the talent and skill necessary to help create exceptional narrative films.

3.    Evaluation by Philip Rowe

May 24, 2003

I've been asked to do an "assessment" of the 4500 Experimental Film and Video screening I attended May 9, 2003. You will recall that in 2002 I wrote an assessment so embarrassingly enthusiastic that I felt obliged to call it an "appreciation." I remarked then on the range of talent, innovation, and technical mastery which I felt must equal some of the best of experimental film programs. In the intervening year I have attended a number of programs and I still hold to that opinion. This year's 4500 screening leaves me in a similar embarrassment. It was a splendid show, both entertaining and creative. I don't think it had quite the range of last year's, though the program was certainly varied enough; nor did I find anything to equal the very best two or three films from the 2002 show; but the general level was probably higher this time. There were few, if any, weak films. I continue to be impressed by the work of students in this department, their dedication to the art of film, and (by a logical inference) impressed also with the leadership and inspiration of their teachers. Professor Solomon dedicated the screening to "the spirit of Stan Brakhage", and I felt that spirit was vary much alive and present in the room.

I think if I describe some of these films in more detail you may get a surer sense of what I'm talking about. I'll start with three favorites:

"Before I Wake", by [E. A.], as the title suggests, describes a dream state with all the usual fits and starts, abrupt transitions, symbolic coded images (including actual words, though illiterate ones, because the unconscious has its own grammar), and those occasionally logical sequences we all experience in dreams, when we seem engaged in some meaningful action, even though the causes may be obscure: Swimming underwater, or climbing a mountain, apparently to rescue someone--these and other narrative passages were the strand upon which the dream stuff was hung and the combination seemed perfectly balanced. It's not likely any of this would have worked had not the filmmaker made sure-handed use of some experimental film techniques. The shadowy grain, the hand-processing, the re-processing--these made it not only a dream, but a filmmaker's dream. The illiterate words became silent film inter-titles. At one point the dream actor actually seemed to move past the sprocket holes and off the film strip. Or had I succumbed by then to his dream state?

[H. S.] showed a remarkably assured and beautiful abstract film, "Luna". It is in the genre of hand-painting, and there is nothing precisely nameable in any of the images, but the sound track (which I have to believe required as much effort and thought as the painting) adds a narrative sense to the whole. It represents a journey off the planet through other zones and realities, starting with the noises of a jangling, busy, (perhaps oppressive) Earth, then propelled by an impact or collision noise to more rarified landscapes of sound: Hints of celestial music, suggestions of a deep void, a delicate laughter of children. Better places "out there". I don't mean to minimize the beauty of the images, though they are harder to describe--coruscating tile-like shards, dancing points of light, gently waving tapestries, all aglitter, sparkling, alive; many many transitions in the oddest possible geometry, perhaps a multi-dimensional geometry. And all of this held smoothly together by the accelerating whoosh of sound and music.

"Day Dreams", by [A. W.], is an affecting animation, deliberately scaled down to the simple (and simply drawn) confines of a single room where a bereaved, lonely man reads travel books which inspire him to paint his day dreams. What length of time does this loneliness span? It is many years. We know this because each time he walks from book to easel he passes a window through which we can see a tree outside. The tree runs the full cycle of the seasons, from bare branch to green leaves to Autumn leaves. This glimpse of an outer measure of the world both expands the story and concentrates the confinement of the room. There was much to admire in the piece (in particular, the spell cast by the uncomplicated, almost nave drawing). But had there been nothing else to admire, this lovely little moment of Art in the image of a tree would have sufficed. I found myself deeply moved.

Other works that either impressed me at the time or have engaged my mind since:

"Peaceable Kingdom" ([J. Las.]). A day in the life document of a modern shepherd, shot and edited with a simplicity of style that reveals more affection for its subject than a more mannered approach ever could. This is a short film but the "feel" of that life, or, rather the filmmaker's sense of the "feel" of that life seems complete.

"Inseparable" ([J. Lar.]) is a much longer film. It describes the quest of a man for the woman who has stolen his "words" and left him capable of speaking only in subtitles. I liked this idea, of course, though it was not entirely realized, in part because of an imperfect sound mix, and in part because there were what seemed to me extraneous dialogue sections. (And either I or the director have been sometimes inattentive to the basic theme: when she steals his words, she also seems to steal the sound of the natural world.) These, I think, are evidences of deadline pressure and can be edited. Along with the imaginative idea, what impressed me most were the long passages where the character's quest took him through exquisitely photographed desert landscapes. (Cinematography by [J. D. W.]) I never tired of these sequences and they even successfully incorporated a device which up to now had always annoyed me: There are many filmmakers (many professional filmmakers) who seem to love the string of flare circles caused by the error of the sun reflecting from the camera glass--in my opinion, a very dubious aesthetic. To my astonishment and delight, that line of flares turned out in this film actually to mean something when they pointed a straight path to a distant figure on the horizon, the object of the character's quest.

"A Complete Moment" ([R. G.]) is one of those films in which the characters' search for meaning and the filmmaker's search for a subject come to the same thing. At one point a character asks, "What's happening?" and someone else answers with something like, "How should I know? I'm only the director." A couple of times we get to see the young boy actor whom we've already seen naturalistically speaking his Dadaist lines--a quite remarkable performance, by the way--in a recording session, perhaps an ADR session, speaking some of those lines we've already heard. You get the idea--a movie so self-referential it ought by normal standards to be outrageously annoying. But that wasn't my response. Wit, grace, charm? I don't know. Some underlying tone here saves the day. I was amused and interested.

"Alina" ([B. D.]), a compelling study of the state of "breathlessness", both as literal physical fact and as a metaphor for an oppressing technology. This work was the only full use of DV technology. It impressed me, not so much by its visual effects (though they were consistently imaginative) as by the suitability of the digital devices to the overall subject of the work. (I intended to go on at greater length about the technical effects, but it happens that a few days after the show I attended a presentation of video graphics and software effects. To my surprise, one company was showing "Alina" as a demo of its own capabilities. I'll let that fact speak for itself with regard to how successfully [B. D.] was able to exploit his medium and impress technical people.)

"The Statesman" ([A. Mar.]). An unabashedly "political" film made with skill and deeply felt conviction. I was very happy to see this genre of the old experimental world reemerge. The filmmaker passionately indicts the corporate warriors who have led us into yet another war, and does so with a simple manipulation of found footage (containing such icons of the past as Robert McNamara and Henry Cabot Lodge) and a witty voice-over. The found footage is shown with a continual interrupting device, a sort of single framing that both entertains and raises the familiar material to myth.

"Primordial Brew" ([A. Mai.]) is a comedy of sorts, though that is evident only after its punch line. While eating quantities of sugar, a dying couple reflect on the meaning of life, debating the possibility that their lives and deaths might have a purpose. Delightfully, the sophomoric argument is fully redeemed when, after a beautifully rendered "primordial brew" transition to the afterlife, the two characters are revealed to have been yeast organisms whose death creates the effervescence in a champagne bottle. This is a one-joke story, of course, with the problems attending any film with an O. Henry ending: that is, you can't reread a movie the way you can a book. It is, though, both simple enough and short enough to work pretty well. I enjoyed it.

But then, in varying degrees I enjoyed them all--so much so that some of my choices for what to describe and what to leave out seem more idiosyncratic than true a true reflection of merit. So--my apologies to the filmmakers I've overlooked here. But my profound thanks to all of them for a wonderful evening.

Finally, then, an assessment: all is well with film production, and the spirit of Brakhage continues to inspire. It is my earnest hope that nothing will occur to interfere with a program that so obviously brings credit upon its university.

l:\ir\Outcomes\OA9900\filmstudies.doc and OA0203\film.doc

Last revision 11/15/04

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