Friday, August 2, 2013

Brian Winston and NYU

I didn't know much about documentaries when I arrived at NYU in the fall of 1981 in the masters degree program in Cinema Studies. I had grown up in San Jose,  as a typical suburban kid. I loved movies, and wanted to know more about them, but had very little background in studying them seriously.

I had many famous, even legendary (though I wouldn't say universally good) teachers at NYU - Bob Stam, Jay Leyda, Bob Sklar, Bill Everson, and Brian Winston. Brian had recently become the interim head of the Cinema Studies department. I took his documentary course, and though at the time it was just another class for me, its importance only has increased over time.

I remember a few choice things about Brian and his class. I recall his description of two documentarians from the British Documentary Movement, probably Humphrey Jennings and Basil Wright (or was it Harry Watt?): they were "like chalk and cheese." I don't know why, but this particularly English phrase stuck with me then, and I remember it to this day.  In contrast to many of my other NYU professors, Brian challenged us to think instead of just imparting information, and at the time I think I was put off by, and even resisted his style, while subconsciously appreciating the effort required to understand his methods. The most important idea he taught was that NO documentary is unbiased, and that every single film contains within it clues to its slanted, and often political vision of the world. He would point out seemingly tiny or insignificant details in films and explain why this gave the filmmaker's point of view away. This lesson seems so obvious and self evident to me now, but to a unworldly 21 year old, this was a revelation.

Outside of class, I got to know Brian a little, as the Cinema Studies department was a rather chummy bunch. I remember in one social setting that he talked about his dislike of virtually all of then-contemporary cinema, and his preference for what was being done on television. Why then, I cheekily asked, was he the head of the CINEMA department?

Cinema Studies students had to take one production course, and I took Brian's in the summer of 1982. Our equipment was terrible and was constantly breaking down; we complained constantly. However, Brian taught us one simple rule: lunch was the most important part of filmmaking. I think Brian only partly thought this was a joke - actually, making sure we had lunch (no matter how meager, on our grad student budgets) some time during our shooting day did help.

After NYU, I got a job in the Film Department of MOMA, and my film education continued. Though I learned more about documentaries in  my time there, it was but one of many types of films that washed over me. It was only when I came to the Academy Film Archive in March of 1994 that the seeds sown in 1981-82 bore fruit, and I was hired by Michael Friend to build up the Archive's documentary collection. Thanks, Brian, for your teaching, and for making me think.

1 comment:

  1. I did not know you went to NYU.

    Brian is giving at talk here in the fall.