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Film School

     Does "four graduate students struggle to make their thesis films" seem a juicy premise on which to build a reality TV series? That indeed is the master narrative of "Film School," a 10-week, half-hour-a-week, program starting Friday, Sept.10, at 10:30 PM on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). We land down at the legendary NYU Film School, which brags about Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Amy Heckerling among its distinguished grad alumns; and we watch four current students with the daunting task of putting together a professional-level short film while, simultaneously, juggling courses and personal life.

     Every cinema student knows how traumatic this is, when, drowned in class projects, he or she alienates friends, lovers, family, by having no hours for them at all. But will outsiders care about the issues of "Film School," and bother to keep tuned to this series? The first couple of episodes are fairly perfunctory, but maybe they have to be: getting us inside NYU, educating us about the film program there, and introducing us to the four protagonists, budding film directors, among the 100 NYU graduate students—some editors, cinematographers, etc.-- all forging thesis projects. Gradually, Film School kicks in, as we are familiarized with the chosen four and as the film making precipitates some genuine, and affecting, personal drama. There are funny moments, sad ones, some genuine tragedy, and best, some uproarious black comedy. Credit talented producer/ director and NYU grad Nanette Burnstein with taking it slowly (unusual in the hyperhysteric world of cable TV) to let her four tales evolve, in the time-honored way of classic cinema verite. (Previously, Burnstein co-directed two fine theatrically-released documentaries, On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture.)

     Who are the annointed quartet?

     Vincenzo, 35, a former opera director from Italy, who has decided that he must make movies. His film project: a sketch about an eccentric man who frightens women in the New York streets by thrusting a rubber spider into their hands.

     Alrick, 28, rasta-haired, Jamaica-born, squeezing by at NYU while his beloved mother works in fast-food in the day, in a supermarket at night. His project: "Supernigger," a political film, recreating, via farce, the 1999 assassination by the NYPD of Amadou Diallo a 22-year-old African immigrant. Leah, 24, a punk-aesthetic, visual-artist Brown grad, who wears blonde wigs and black eye-liner among her conceptual guises. Her project: a therapeutic one, reliving through drama a stressful relationship as a teenager with her wheelchair-bound mother, a victim of multiple sclerosis. Barbara, 28, chunky and ungainly, a timid and introverted woman from Texas who arrived at NYU after living two years in Long Island with her invalid grandmother. Her project: a blatantly autobiographical tale of a shy guy who takes in an escaped lab-experiment monkey, and cherishes it more than human beings.

     Make your movie!

     Barbara says about NYU, "I have no idea how I got in at all." We’ll also wonder why this very ordinary young woman was plucked for Film School. Maybe to see the perennial Ugly Duckling make the best movie of all? That doesn’t happen. Self-loathing, Barbara lets the days pass as she has no actors for her movie, and certainly no monkey. Will she drop out of the NYU program? Leah flies to Oakland, California, to decide whether to cast her actual mother in her movie. We watch much of Leah’s tough-girl, East Coast confidence slide away when up against her hard-edged mom, Toni, whom she hasn’t seen in three years. She decides to utilize mother on camera, and, from that moment on, her film project falters, as Leah becomes paralyzed herself by off-camera family drama.

     Alrick, an amiable guy, struggles to finance his movie: a lovely fund-raising dinner, for which his mother cooks Jamaican food, raises a paltry $1,400. And Alrick’s faced with a so-typical film problem: a prima donna DP, who thinks the film is about his cinematography, so he wastes money on the most expensive camera package and hours of shooting time lighting the most pedestrian shot.

     The best for last: the clear-thinking Vincenzo makes the most foolish hires, picking a stylish young woman, Jen, and her yuppy boyfriend, Parker, as executive producer and line producer. Watch the hilarity as these two head to Hollywood in search of money: she, a dumb version of Jessica Simpson (really), he a blonde, thick Fred Willard. Their big LA triumph: $20 in cash, straight from the wallet of Henry Winkler, the Fonz.

GERALD PEARY
(Boston Phoenix, August, 2004)

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