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I didn’t actually meet Howard Suber until I was a graduate student in the UCLA Film Studies program, although I had taken his (required) film studies courses as a motion picture television program undergraduate.  I took two film studies seminars with him as a graduate and enjoyed every minute.

The first paper I wrote for the first seminar I took with him was quite memorable.  I wrote an essay about ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ – frankly I don’t remember exactly what  the theme was.  After handing in the paper, and while attending the next class, Suber stood in front and read my essay out loud.  He said he had done that once in a while with essays he felt were exceptional.

While I barely said a word in any of his seminars, he gave me an A+.  Little did he know that he inspired me to want to continue to write about film and culture, and provided confidence that I maybe knew what the hell I was doing.  Suber even attended my wedding, and recounted to my father the story of him reading the paper in front of the class.  My Dad said it made him exceptionally proud.

After graduating with my Master’s from UCLA,  I didn’t write about film again for many years.  While I was accepted into the film criticism PhD program, and even received the Chancellor’s Fellowship (the highest academic honor from UCLA at that time), I chose not to pursue an academic career.  Instead, I got married, studied computer science, began working in New York City, and eventually made and raised enough money to produce the film that I had written while at UCLA as an undergrad, CLOUDS, and founded my production company nextPix.  Later, after 9/11, I founded the SolPix webzine with Mike Neff and wrote a lot about film in a way that was reminiscent of my graduate seminars with Suber.

In short, I never forgot my love of film nor of my experience at UCLA.  After my wife and I moved from New York, I found myself wandering back to my academic roots.  While googling for Howard Suber,  I discovered he had written a book called ‘The Power of Film’.  I immediately ordered it, and would like to discuss a little about both Suber and his book here.

Howard Suber was unique as a teacher in that he did not have a particular theoretical framework.  If he did, it would probably be Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.  He certainly was not a Marxist or a Freudian, nor a Historicist.  He was rather incredibly practical and accessible.  He talked about films, mostly popular American films, in a way that the students understood.  While some of the professors would confuse students with their complex, and often brilliant, meanderings about a single core idea rooted in this or that critical theory, Suber was a fountain of dozens of observations and anecdotes that he jotted down in hundreds of pages of notes, and revealed to his students as a sort of gift to their potentiality.  What he lacked in methodology he made up for in insight.

‘The Power Of Film’ in an anthology of those notes that was first published in 2006.  As I read through it I was reminded of his classes and some of the ideas that stuck with me.  It is these ideas that he provide about the ‘why’ of popular films that so many people eventually used in so many films after they studied with him.  Not so much in the way of formula – he devised no easy 12-step program for filmmakers – but rather in individual elements used in great films that enabled them to tap into the popular Zeitgeist.

As such, ‘The Power Of Film’ could just as easily be called ‘The Elements Of Film Style’.  Arranged alphabetically, Suber outlines each element and provides examples from hundreds of ‘memorable, popular’ films in a way that it becomes a kind of reference or primer for the filmmaker.  Again, not as a cookbook, but more of a compendium of those elements that empowers popular filmmaking.

If Suber has a big idea in his book, he is much to self-effacing to state it.  So I’ll do it for him here.  The big idea of his book is that popular, wide appeal and memorable films are less works of art than political campaigns (this could be why Hollywood and Washington are so similar).  This is, according to Suber, because popular films do not so much speak to the least common denominator as they do appeal to a wide swath of often contradictory constituencies.  Pixar I would cite as the most recent and best example of what Suber is talking about.  Pixar films appeal to both young and old, conservative and liberal.  I would add that the memorable, long-lasting ones tend to be humanistic.  Perhaps if Suber writes another book, he could look at the relationship between popular film and politics – I think he’d do a great job!

It is this ability to tap into various, often contradictory constituencies that make many popular films paradoxical.  I would add at times this becomes so self-conscious for modern producers that they end up with a film that uses the first half of the film to outline one world view, then spends the second half dismantling it. But these often end up on the list of the non-memorable.  The memorable, on the other hand, manage an integrity to their storytelling that is neither self-conscious nor patronizing.  Again, Pixar is a great example here.

My concern with recent film trends is that we sometimes tend toward the mythic rather than the humanistic; as Suber might say, we opt more for Homer and less for Sophocles.  One thing I did get from other professors at UCLA was there was value in looking at the social context of film, in the case of Marxist /Structural analysis, how films are produced, who produces them  and for what reasons.  And while we may say ‘to make money’ films do, through the grinding influence of bean counters and a corporate philosophy, become vehicles for a Homerian mythic style that is at its core intent, for example, teaching (mostly) young men about aggression, competition and battle.  While that is a vast oversimplification, the easy relationship between video games and mythic blockbuster films can not be ignored.  And that fact that our society spends ten times its nearest competitor (China) on military spending, and has a far smaller population, cannot be ignored.  Is this all ‘bad’?  Probably not.  But it certainly is worth discussing as we face tough cultural choices in the future that may go at the heart of our competitive, aggressive and militaristic tendencies.  Moreover, perhaps recent popular films are trending more romantic than militaristic, less Sly Stallone and more Sandra Bullock.  As such Sandra Bullock is a political statement and in cahoots with the Dalai Lama.

Suber also does not really discuss the ‘American Independent’ phenomena.  Again, his criteria is ‘memorable and popular’.  As such, he harkens back to a day when there was not such a split between popular films and independent films that are opting to speak to a different audience for different reasons.  Some of the elements he describes have in fact been lost on many modern blockbuster producers, and might be remembered again.  James Cameron and Harvey Weinstein are probably the closest to being producers of the Suberian mold, but there could be more.  In short, every producer of popular films, and every independent filmmaker and student of film, should read Howard Suber’s book if they want to understand great American films, and ideas and instincts of the great showpeople that were behind them.

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