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Young Filmmakers
By Gabe Klinger

»Young Filmmakers«, Rodger Larson with Ellen Meade, 1969, E.P. Dutton.

"Whether or not you are planning to make a film, think of yourself as a filmmaker as you read this book."

This alluring phrase comes at the end of Rodger Larson's forward to his and co-author Ellen Meade's »Young Filmmakers«, a book about teenage filmmakers aimed at teenage filmmakers. I had never thought of making a film when I first picked up the book — I, a teenager at the time — but five minutes after I had opened the cover I already started to plan my first film. The idea to make a film seemed, at first, like an easy one. I would express myself using the language I was so familiar with from the movies and television. Indeed, as Larson recalls, when he first taught film it was as an auxiliary course to a theater arts program, but it rapidly consumed all the students in his class.

From this arose my first fascination with »Young Filmmakers«: why was I attracted to making films, as a completely natural impulse and ostensibly reachable goal? Films seemed convenient — a world where an unresearched novice could pick up a machine and make sense of the world — but also strangely challenging in that the results are not always as you expect. I had to devote myself to finding equipment, and then to reaching out to collaborators. I labored over a script which I knew, if it didn't make absolute sense on paper, would never pan out on the screen. Though my ideas have changed, at the time I believed all films should be lucid and have a satisfying narrative.

»Young Filmmakers« was my bible as I started on my film, but back then and to a large degree today, my fascination was with images, not with words. The book contains still frames from films by Larson's students, mostly young Latinos from Manhattan's Lower East Side, The Bronx, and other areas of New York City. The book covers the period of 1963-69, a fierce time for activism, drug consumption, and Beatle-mania (in fact, two films in the book are named after Beatles songs). Additionally, the reality of these kids was different from mine in that I could gather from the images that they were of lower economic backgrounds, and some with direct or indirect links to gang activity and violence. Other films discussed pot and alcohol in ways I had not experienced yet. Beyond its intended form as a 'guide', Larson's book informed me socially, especially in its vivid illustration of a special milieu long-since passed. Even though it was designated as a technical book, it was by far the most honest volume about teenage life in my entire school library. How lucky for me that it should be about filmmaking!

My subsequent interest in the book came after I had crafted my first Super 8 feature and had moved on to write film criticism. In my perusal of different film books over the course of my high school years, I realized none were as personal in discussing filmmaking methods as Larson's, and none spoke of films by young people in the same breath as Griffith, Kubrick, and Warhol, let alone just about teenage filmmaking. As a critic, I could provide an analysis of »Young Filmmakers« as a hybrid book: part historical filmography, part technical manual, and part memoir. Though these elements are explicit to me when I read the book today, as a teenager they were subversive elements; I made a concerted effort to interpret Larson's text as a mere handbook, but the images from films such as "Look at Me", "The Memory of John Earl", and "The End", became the substance of myth for me.

In the same way that I'm sure Larson intended, I took these films not as models in filmmaking do's and don'ts, but as real films worthy of our analyses and deepest respect. Sure, it would be easy enough to discuss filmmaking technique by citing Eisenstein, Lang, and Rossellini, but why not use these raw image-making experiences as examples of why films and filmmaking are so relatable to our world. Larson revealed to me that — as David Thomson would later explore in his essay on Jacques Rivette in »A Critical Dictionary« — some of the most exciting filmmakers are amateurs, whether literally, or as a form of retaining a fresh viewpoint. Intriguingly, and as Rodger Larson has asserted in a recent email to me, the films were developmental rather than vocational in the kids' course of education, which means that very few of them aspired to be Kubricks, or De Palmas. On the other side, I fancied myself to be a future Stanley Kubrick, and would have never been well-equipped for criticism if Rodger Larson hadn't taught me that films by teenagers are equally great depending on your openness to look at them in a certain way.

To this day I have not seen any of the films discussed in »Young Filmmakers«, just as I have not seen (or have only seen clips of) such canonical films as "The Battleship Potemkin", "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", and "How Green Was My Valley". But I am familiar with these films from stills and analytical texts which allow me to visualize what the films are like, just as Larson's discussions in »Young Filmmakers« allow me to visualize what those films are like. In fact, my preference to approach film as a critic and theory buff after the experience of my first film — and to be able to interpret readings on montage even before I had seen Eisenstein — might have originated from Larson's book, which allowed me to imagine not only what the lives of these teenagers was like, but why they found film to be vital and rewarding.

Gabe Klinger
© FIPRESCI 2004

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