The students hash over ‘Close Encounters’ and then Richard Dreyfuss speaks his piece
The problem confronting film teacher Richard Brown at the beginning of each semester is how to weed out the star gazers. “If you are here just to see the celebrities,” he warns on the first night of class, “and not to learn about films, then withdraw tomorrow while you can still get a refund.”
Yet star appeal is no small part of the two courses that Brown, 35, gives at Manhattan’s New School: “Filmmakers on Filmmaking” and “The Electric Mind—a Penetrating Look at Our Media Environment.” Besides lectures and weekly screenings, he persuades famous guests like Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Woody Allen and Steve McQueen to submit to students’ questions. Says Brown, “We try to take the mystery out of the film process but leave the magic in.”
The students, who pay $125 per course, have no assignment other than to attend the weekly screening. They are forbidden to read critics’ reviews for the duration of the class. (“Most people believe,” Brown says, “that when there is a disparity between their opinion and the critics’ opinions, it reflects an esthetic inadequacy on their part. That’s wrong and dangerous.”) No academic credit is given. “That means the experience better be terrific,” insists Brown, “because there is no other coercion I can use to bring and keep grownups in the class.”
Yet the classes are so popular that a capacity crowd of 550 students enrolls year after year. Says Mel Brooks about Brown and his teaching, “He’s smart—he’s cinema-smart. He has a real-life approach to movies.” Kirk Douglas, a recent guest, admitted, “I learned more from the class than they did from me.”
Students (and Brown, for that matter) are never sure beforehand if a star will show up. At a typical session Brown leaps onto the stage, dons his neck mike and moves quickly to encourage questions and observations. “What did you think of Close Encounters?” he bellows.
Hands wave frantically. Says one student, “I don’t think the characters ever developed well. It wasn’t the fault of the actors but of the writers.” Says another, “The sound track was too loud. I vibrated all the way through.”
Brown listens carefully, then in mid-discussion blurts out, “Okay, let’s talk to Richard Dreyfuss, who starred in the film, and hear what he has to say about it.” Cheers and whistles greet a relaxed Dreyfuss, who plops into a chair onstage. “I was bothered by the sound track too,” the actor says, “especially when it covered up my lines.” For the next hour and 15 minutes Dreyfuss raps with the students—about the plot, the script, special effects, his choices as an actor, his shrink, money, success. They love it.
Brown, who grew up in Flushing, N.Y., has been a movie fan forever. He meandered through Bard, Hunter, Columbia and City College of New York before graduating from NYU in 1966. Between times he worked for an ad agency and made a few commercials and documentaries.
His chance to put it all together came when he started teaching film at NYU in 1969. To fill the class quota he ran an ad in the Village Voice. “I pleaded with the public to please take my course. The ad was terrible, but it got the four more people I needed.” He moved to the New School in 1972.
Out of the classroom Brown finds his most hectic task is lining up talent. “Once I get a celebrity on the phone I figure I have about 20 seconds to convince him to come,” he says. It took four years to get Kirk Douglas. Peter Ustinov is still a holdout.
“If a guest is really up, the evening goes through the ceiling,” Brown says. But more than a few actors prove disappointing. “Without someone writing their script, they can really be dull.”