Existing in the hazy zone between documentaries and reality television, IFC’s Film School tries gamely to appeal both to those interested in the title subject and those looking for yet more proof that people, or, at least other people, will do just about anything to be on television. It doesn’t quite succeed in either case, but it does benefit from an appealing principal cast.
Even better, creator Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and her behind-the-camera collaborators resist the temptation to edit their central players into easily recognizable stereotypes, choosing instead to treat them as real people and take them seriously as aspiring filmmakers. The same cannot be written about some of the supporting cast, and two individuals in particular, who are given far too much screen time in the heart of the series. One lesson of Film School seems to be that making a deal with the reality beast will cost you whatever hopes you have for truly illuminating the corner of life you wish to document.
Film School follows four New York University film students, Alrick Brown, Barbara Klauke, Leah Meyerhoff, and Vincenzo Tripodo, as they prepare short films for submission to the school’s annual First Run Festival. The documentary aspect of the series lies in the choice to focus on individuals doing, essentially, what they would be doing whether cameras were on them or not. The show offers no particular prize to the participants nor puts them into an artificial environment by, say, making them share a loft. Indeed, there is only one moment in the whole series where two of the principals actually interact.
This documentary premise is, however, executed largely within the conventions of reality TV, which tend to emphasize conflict and personal drama over context and reflection. The 10 episodes of Film School are given over to “confessional” one-on-ones with the filmmakers and the camera, high drama on set, and fragments of the filmmakers’ personal lives. In one case, Leah, there are clear intersections between the artistic and the personal—her film deals with her relationship to her mother—and in another, Barbara, personal circumstances lead her to drop out of school and off of the series.
On the other hand, Alrick’s strained relationship with semi-girlfriend Ana adds very little of substance to the show, and by series end its as if Ana never existed, making you wonder why we were introduced to her in the first place. Vincenzo’s meditation on love and life is even more perfunctory and distracting. There is, however, no more powerful signifier of where Film School goes wrong than in the attention paid to Jennifer and Parker, Vincenzo’s “producers”.
From a conventional reality TV perspective, it’s easy to see how Jennifer and Parker might get cast on a show. They’re both tall and pretty, he conventionally, she less so, and, more importantly, they both seem willing to do crazy, stupid, and venal things in front of the camera, or, at least, things that can be made to appear crazy, venal, and stupid (next to casting, the art of reality on American television lies in the editing). The zenith of their arc on Film School is in episodes four and five, during and after a fund raising trip to LA.
The trip is a bust, and one where Parker, ostensibly the line producer, isn’t really needed in the first place. Jennifer’s “contact” at Sony Pictures cancels their meeting, which seems to leave her at loose ends. She and Parker ultimately have lunch with Tony Hale on the set of Arrested Development and descend on Gil Gates, Jr., where Jennifer explains that her new plan is to raise money by selling Vincenzo to famous Italian directors like Fellini (who, the audience is told, died in 1993).
All told, they raise $120 for the film. The $20 is a bill autographed by Henry Winkler, which has Jennifer quite enthused, but leaves Vincenzo perplexed. During the course of a week, Vincenzo only gets one call from Parker and Jennifer. Failing to be impressed by the Henry Winkler autograph, he calls on his director of photography, Oden, to get the crew organized, the job that Parker should have been doing. While Vincenzo paces and stews in New York, Jennifer and Parker tool around LA, stopping to clean out a storage space they had been renting, and seemingly oblivious to how little actual work they appear to be doing.
Upon returning to New York, Jennifer is outraged to learn that Vicenzo and Oden have begun work on the production. She accuses Vincenzo of “sabotaging” the film. Vincenzo, naturally, can’t believe what he’s hearing. His disbelief is compounded by Jennifer’s explanation that she didn’t call with more updates from LA because she couldn’t get cell service. This exchange concludes with Vincenzo telling Jennifer that Parker is fired, but, for mysterious reasons, he’ll continue working with her. Somehow this doesn’t take, or she chooses to ignore it, and Vincenzo ends up trying to wash his hands of the pair of them by bringing in new producers.
But Parker and Jennifer will not be denied. So desperate are they to be part of this student short by an unknown director that they max out their credit cards to get Vincenzo the money he needs. From here, Jennifer and Parker fade, but don’t disappear. Jennifer is seen hovering around the shoot, and even, evidently, got to work as an extra in the film. Parker occasionally emerges from the background to act like the big boss.
What is striking about the time devoted to this drama is that it crowds out more meaningful discussions and decisions between Alrick and his director of photography, Cary, and Leah’s casting choices, which includes having her estranged mother play herself. Most of the crews appear to be other NYU students. Alrick’s producer is clearly a close friend. Jennifer and Parker are not only not students, they aren’t friends and family, and their connections within the industry appear to be tenuous at best. Their motivations for working with Vincenzo, and appearing on Film School, are easy to interpret as suspect. Their story adds very little to understanding what it means to be a film student at NYU and it takes time away from other stories that might have more to tell about that experience.
Series title notwithstanding, film school in general and NYU in particular are nothing more than backdrop for the action. Is participating in the First Run Festival a requirement or an option? Do you have to be recommended, or in a particular class or year, or can any student submit? Who are the students’ advisors? What role do they play in these productions? What about the other students working as crew on the films? Are they training to do their own films or are they on different tracks? What’s the philosophy behind making these productions begin and end with the individual students? These are the kinds of questions that the creators of Film School eschew in favor of reality TV-styled personality conflicts and melodrama.
The DVD set includes all 10, 22-(or so)-minute episodes. Significantly, the three films are shown neither as part of the series nor included as an extra with the DVD. Perhaps there were rights issues that prevented this inclusion or maybe the producers felt as if it wasn’t important. In either case, all you get to see of any of the shorts is fragments.
What makes Film School watchable is its lead subjects: Alrick, Leah, and Vincenzo. Surprisingly they are allowed to unfold as complicated human beings. Most viewers will find themselves relating to each of them in different ways and without unreservedly hating or loving any of the trio.
It would have been easy to turn each into recognizable character types—Alrick as the strident black man, Leah as the flaky artist, and Vincenzo as the drama queen—but that doesn’t happen. It is possible to like and respect each one during the course of the series, even when Vincenzo contributes to his own problems with Parker and Jennifer, or Leah blows off her own production meeting, and Alrick gripes about and with Cary. Unfortunately, those hoping to get some idea of what film school is like from Alrick’s, Leah’s, and Vincenzo’s experiences will have to settle for knowing that sincerity and determination counts for something in the world of cinema.