In early August of 1993 the Media Arts chair at the Perpich Center for Arts Education contacted me, explaining that I’d been recommended to teach a four-week animation course. She invited me to visit her with a videotape of my films for an interview. Students at the publicly funded Perpich Center (more informally known as ‘The Arts High School’) finish their final two years of high school in a program focused on creative fields: visual, media, dance, literature, music and theater. I was still projecting films at the museum and also working as a regular freelancer for a commercial animation studio called Reelworks, but I was open to new possibilities. During my month in free-wheeling Boulder, Colorado ten years earlier I’d met a woman who, in addition to saying that she and I received many of the same cosmic frequencies, told me that I’d be a good teacher one day. At the time I dismissed the idea, “No way, you’re wrong about that. I definitely don’t want to teach.” Currently in a less absolute state of mind after the end of my marriage, I wondered if perhaps she had been right.
I got the job. The school owned six half-functional Super 8 cameras and so it was natural to recall my own informal education, shooting animation in the barn with Dave Herr. I would simply restage our material experiments in collaboration with the students. I also knew that the Minneapolis Public Library owned a large collection of 16mm animation prints, including many famous shorts from The National Film Board of Canada. I checked out some of my favorites: Caroline Leaf’s “The Street,” “Frank Film” by Frank Mouris and a few of Norman McLaren’s abstract experiments.
Two days before my first class, I set up a projector and watched “Begone Dull Care,” which I’d first seen in a program at the Walker Art Center in my mid-twenties. Norman McLaren scratched and painted directly on 35mm leader in response to a frame-by-frame analysis of an Oscar Peterson recording. The result is considered by animation historians to be a pioneering example of ‘visual music,’ primarily abstract films that translate a musical recording into a visual experience.
While I watched the film in the early 1990’s, it was an organic embodiment of joy. I felt the imagery with my body; it was flesh and blood. When it ended, I rewound the print and projected it again. The movie acted as a direct antidote to the emotional vagueness and uncertainty that I had suffered during the period of my divorce. I thought that if I could communicate my enthusiasm for “Begone Dull Care” to the students, if I could share such small, eccentric artifacts of individuality, I would succeed as a teacher.
When the first day of class arrived, I was overwhelmed by social anxiety. I had never been comfortable with presenting myself in public and so I half-consciously contrived a persona that I could play in the theater of the classroom; extroversion seemed to me like an act that required a character. I realized with surprise years later, while watching “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” that the character I adopted was essentially Gene Wilder as Mr. Wonka: sardonic, slightly sinister, curious and playful.
After fighting my nerves and self-doubt for a week or two, the class went well and the four-week workshop became a half-time job. As is normally the case at these significant turning points in my life, I was just desperately trying to manage rather than making conscious decisions about the direction I followed. I quickly warmed to the dirty, tattooed tribe of students. Many of them had grown up in tiny, farming towns just like Amery, Wisconsin where they had been bullied or ostracized and had felt compelled to conceal their natural wildness. In August they arrived at their new school with a crew cut and an obedient ‘yes sir, no sir’ attitude and then went home at Thanksgiving with an orange mohawk and a chicken bone through their earlobe. At the Arts High School, they were free to audition whatever outlandish versions of themselves they could imagine. I thrived in this atmosphere at the time because I was actively searching for my next identity too. We were collaborators in uncertainty and I felt that I could introduce perspectives that I had missed at their age while growing up in Amery, Wisconsin.
I’ve now been teaching for more than two decades, first at The Arts High School and currently at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (where I was hired in 2003); it’s when I’m in the classroom that I’ve felt the most socially useful in my life. That said, teaching will also inevitably make one feel like a middle-aged reactionary, arriving as every generation does at similar discontents with youth. One of my main frustrations in the classroom is the short attention span of a generation raised on YouTube. Here are the changes that I’ve observed during twenty years of screening “Begone Dull Care” in art school classrooms.
When I projected the film on 16mm to my first group of students in the early 1990’s, the print was worn, the optical sound thin and wobbly, and the projector stood on a table clattering away in the middle of room. Those students watched the animation with close attention and applauded when it was done. A few years later, when the Minneapolis Public Library deaccessioned their collection of 16mm prints, I was forced to buy “Begone Dull Care” on VHS tape. In this form, the students watched the film dutifully to the end with minimal fidgeting. By the time I was projecting from a DVD at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early 2000’s, the students were actively tuning out after the first few minutes, but I persisted in showing the movie in its eight-minute entirety. Presently in my classes at MCAD, we watch only the first third of the film online and when I ask the students for their reactions they’ll commonly respond, “It was cool for about a minute, but it’s too much like an Itunes visualizer.” (It may not be long before I’m submitting my students to a VR simulation of “Begone Dull Care” in class.)
The trend I’ve described above is primarily a function of attention spans shortening in a visual cultural of increasing abundance and immediacy. By contrast with my youth, today’s students have access to a much wider range of contemporary and historical information; it’s a greater challenge for them to explore music, films or books in depth. But I would also contend that there is an inherent and physically compelling sustenance in watching celluloid film; these are the values of a world slower and more quaintly mechanical, the values of my generation of film obsessives. I believe that if I now projected a 16mm print of “Begone Dull Care” in an MCAD classroom, some of the mysteriously physical joy I experienced in 1993 would still be communicated. The cultural revival of vinyl lps, cassette tapes and Super 8 film among my students, as I write this in 2016, would seem to support my feeling. There is magic in the material . . . or at least a kind of emotional/spiritual nutrition.