Hello Hollywood

by dyketheelder

Carl and Frau arrived rather unexpectedly for a short in-transit visit. A real treat: you voles have some sense of the relationship between Carl and me by now, but Rachel and I are also compliciters in a number of projects. (Actually, you know that too.)
We got heavily into Roger Corman. Attack of the Crab Monsters on Thursday, and on Friday the Roger Corman volume in AFI’s Director series, plus the documentary “A salute to Roger Corman”. My interest in sci-fi doesn’t begin to match Carl’s. Mine is pretty much confined to “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto,” Krell metal, and Q. But Roger Corman is another matter. Not only did he produce and direct Little Shop of Horrors, a far more finely crafted movie, in my estimation, than, say, Gone with the Wind, but he was the most important teacher/mentor in the 20th Century film world. It’s the latter that Carl and I hermeneutered ‘til midnight.
James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard are just a few of the many movie makers given their important start by Corman. It would be hard to think of another teacher with that kind of lineup of grads – maybe Wheeler at Princeton: he gets to start his list with Dick Fineman – but I can’t think of another in any field. So of course Carl and I were afforded the opportunity to ruminate on what Corman actually did, and how he did it.
For me and my generation, I’ve found in retrospect, Corman’s initial importance was his affording us the opportunity to have our socks knocked off, at an impressionable age, by Rashomon, The Magician, Wild Strawberries, the Seventh Seal, and La Strada. He’s the one, as Janus Films, who was responsible for the US distribution of the great “foreign” art films of the period – en passant with respect to his career, punctuational with respect to mine. Others owe Corman for many (potentially hundreds of) thrilling nights at the local drive-in.
But what Carl and I were after was the understanding of Corman as teacher/mentor. What can we learn from him to get better at doing what we do when we do what we do? The conversation pretty quickly homed in on providing opportunity. Corman was a genius at recognizing talent when he saw it, gave it the chance to show itself and develop, and shoved it into a challenging place, very often the chance to direct a first movie. (The catch phrase in the tribe was Corman’s “If you do well with this, you’ll never have to make a film for me again.”) Tough love and a boot out the door to opportunity.
Two important words showed up: “trust”, and “risk.” Corman trusted both his own judgment, and those about whom he made the judgment. Of course trusting them entailed a certain amount of risk, a failed movie, and so on, but Corman was smart enough to buffer the risk, and keep it under control. Carl’s way of putting it was that Corman found a place in the movie biz where you didn’t have to hit a home run every time at bat. He was the greatest singles hitter in film history. If you get to a place where you have to make a multi-million dollar blockbuster (as, ironically, Cameron certainly did), the risk is stultifying. If you were knocking off Bucket of Blood, or The Wasp Woman in five days or so (or Little Shop of Horrors in two) for a few thousand bucks, the risk was negligible – and exhilarating fun to boot. The immediate consequence was the space to afford all those wonderful opportunities. Ask yourself, is your course (or your current project) tangled up in the ethos of megabuck homerun hitting, or would a good solid base hit get the job done? Cameron, in his interview, counts what he learned about attitude toward risk with Corman as one of his formative lessons. The only thing I’d add to Carl’s image is that sometimes you don’t even need to get a base hit. Success may mean bunting somebody into scoring position, something Corman did over and over again.
“Afford” keeps popping up. It’s a funny word, usually showing up when you ask yourself if you can afford a new Mercedes, or some such. But as it’s appeared here, its meaning has flipped. Corman’s affordances were largely the result of what he couldn’t afford. Affordances as opportunities needn’t be tied to affordances as resources, especially financial resources. In fact, Carl and I fell into talking a lot of this through in terms of the concept of affordance, a concept we’ve come to use a lot (and was showing up in DV long before I was). Corman just turns out to be one of the best conversation platforms for affordance since Miu lib.
In any case, I’d been thinking about affordance again over the last couple of weeks in pursuit of a project some of you have dealt with at an earlier stage. Vis. I hacked my way back into the jungle I’d created “in defense of” Terry Deacon and his terminological terrorism. In particular, I pulled out the stuff on his concept of “ententionality” – a discussion I’d couched in terms of soil fertility as ententional. The old paper had been shot down somewhere over the Zuider Zee, and I wanted to see if I could locate any survivors who could live on in another context. Deacon and I both still like my take on entention.
So I recontextualized, and submitted (electronically, of course) elsewhere. I’ve never gotten such good service. The rejection was in my e-mail the next time I looked at it. But meanwhile, I’d sent the new version to Tony Chemero, who some of you might have run across: e.g. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, out of MIT. Tony’s interest in, and understanding of, Deacon is very close to mine. But the roots of his work are with John Gibson’s ecological psychology (E.g. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception), and Gibson is the originator of the best known industrial strength concept of affordance. In fact, lacking as always in good sense, I’d mentioned (parenthetically) in the new version that the whole discussion of the ententionality of soil could be re-written in terms of affordance. (I’m somehow bound to shove awkward connections down the throats of people who don’t want to make any connections at all.)
Chemero liked the paper, lamented its misfortunes, and suggested that if I actually worked out the connection to affordance a bit, Ecological Psychology, the Gibsonian journal, might publish it. So that’s what I’m working on.
I think I’d better do it without raking in Roger Corman. But for DV there’s lots more to be said about Roger and his affordance machine.


9 Comments to “Hello Hollywood”

  1. So pleased to have you as an official volemonger, DtE.

    I was further struck by what all those fellas said about how Corman got them started – he took them out to lunch and monologued for a half hour or so about how to make movies, and that was it. Of course he hadn’t had even that when he started, but the common theme was ‘here are the basics, now figure it out’. Sink or swim, they all said. It’s the learn by doing model we both like, and the Corman ecosystem was clearly heavily selective for resilient, adaptable folks. The open question is whether you can train for that rather than just selecting for it.

  2. Why not select and train? I imagine a normal distribution of students. At one tail are those who will do just fine because they are ready to sink or swim. One or two sigmas from the mean in that same direction are folks who are almost ready, for whom training produces a real benefit. As for the rest, it won’t hurt to give them a chance — unless, of course, resources are limited. Then triage is necessary. Anyway, the democratic assumption that good stuff has to work for everybody is more to be hoped for than seriously expected.

  3. P.S. People have their affordances, too.

  4. Yeah, select and train is right, and so is the image of distribution tails. You’re always dealing with a scatter of zones of proximal development – to abuse the metaphor, some are standing on third, some are on deck, some stay in the dugout, and some are two fields over playing soccer. As Bourdieu points out, the way schools tend to work is to select for the game and skills the kids from the dominant class fraction get from their whole lives – they start out on second. That’s part of why DtE and I like to teach ‘unconventionally’, whatever that means in context.

  5. Before you go to far with select train and tail, give a thought to multdimensionality. Your bell curve is one dimensional. If there’s one and only one way to learn from your course — one way to “master the material” — then you’re OK. But if there are many possible things to learn, trails to follow, masteries to achieve, the situation changes a lot. There are many bells and many tails, shared or not shared in many ways. The intelligent responses to the course, term papers etc. may or may not have a common set of excellence criteria: that depends on the course. My cosmology course and my arts course are at radical extremes in that respect, for example. Because I encourage plurality whenever I can, I often grade sets of papers that are seriously incommensurable (though that eases the boredom of reading them). I often say to students that all I ever grade is writing, something that can’t be true, but close enough, and necessary for honoring the plurality of affordances.
    The Corman model doesn’t quite fit that range of multidimensionality, since the constraints on movie-making, especially when the financial aspects come into play, are fairly tight. There’s some fundamental masteries involved in directorial success — the fundamentals involved in the famous Corman lunches, I suspect. Writing is the core fundamental in my course, whatever the content, but there’s also the opportunity to occupy an essentially different curve from that occupied by the person sitting behind you. For Corman’s apprentices, there was comparatively less slack for whoever was standing behind the camera.for the first time.

  6. But Professor Dyke, how can you judge our work if you don’t tell us what to do and don’t have objective criteria?

  7. Somewhere in voledom is a comment of mine in which I say that the subjective/objective axis should be replaced by personal/interpersonal/impersonal. The answer to your question, wiseguy, starts there and ends up in an associate dean’s office cowing and conning an irate father who thinks the groceries he paid for didn’t get delivered.

  8. Ha! “The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy. In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German. For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings. The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office–unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men. This is what the American calls ‘democracy.’ … The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all.” Weber, 1918.

  9. Great catch. Thanks.

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