In August, 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 asked me to visit her with a videotape of my films for an interview. Students at the publicly funded Perpich Center (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 part-time at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and also working as a regular freelancer for a commercial animation studio called Reelworks, but I was open to the possibility. During my month in free-wheeling Boulder, Colorado ten years earlier I’d met a woman who, in addition to stating that she and I received many of the same cosmic frequencies, told me I’d be a teacher one day. At the time I dismissed the idea; I didn't picture myself ever teaching. In a less absolute state of mind after the end of my marriage, however, 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 period of shooting animation in the barn with Dave Herr. I would simply restage our material experiments in collaboration with the students. I was also knew the large collection of 16mm animation prints that the Minneapolis Public Library owned, including many famous shorts produced by The National Film Board of Canada. I checked out some of my favorites to provide historical context for the class: Caroline Leaf’s The Street, Frank Film by Frank Mouris and a few of Norman McLaren’s abstract films.
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. In 1949 Norman McLaren had scratched and painted directly on 35mm leader in response to a frame-by-frame analysis of an Oscar Peterson recording. The result was 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 whole body; the film was flesh and blood vibrating with life. When it ended, I immediately rewound the print and projected it again. The movie acted as a direct antidote to the emotional vagueness and uncertainty that I had felt 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 profound artifacts of individuality, I would succeed as a teacher.
When the first day of class arrived, I was overwhelmed by 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 again, that the character I adopted was basically 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. At this moment I was just desperately trying to manage rather than making premeditated decisions, but a new direction in my life was determined. I quickly warmed to the tattooed teenagers. Many of them had grown up in farming towns like Amery, Wisconsin where they had been bullied and had hidden their natural wildness; but at the Arts High School, they were free to audition whatever outlandish versions of themselves they could imagine. In September 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. I thrived in this atmosphere then because I was actively searching for my next identity too. We were collaborators in uncertainty and I felt that I could introduce them to options unavailable to me while growing up in Amery, Wisconsin.
I’ve now been teaching for more than two decades, currently at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I’ve felt most socially useful in the classroom. That said, teaching also inevitably turns one into a middle-aged reactionary, developing, as every generation does, similar discontents with youth. One of my main frustrations in the classroom now is the short attention span of a generation raised on YouTube. These are the changes that I’ve observed during twenty years of showing Begone Dull Care in art schools.
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 clattered on a table in the middle of room. Those students watched the animation with complete attention and applauded when it was done. A few years later, when the Minneapolis Public Library deaccessioned their collection of 16mm prints, I bought 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 tuned out after the first few minutes, but I continued showing the entire eight-minute movie. 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 a lot like a software music visualizer.”
I once recommended Playtime to an MCAD student whom I thought would appreciate it. The film was showing at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis for a week and I told him I'd be going a couple of times myself. When I saw him in class the following week, I asked if he'd seen Playtime. "Oh yeah," he said, "it was great." As I asked further questions about particular scenes, I realized he hadn't seen the whole movie. In the end, he confessed that he hadn't made it to the theater and that he'd only watched about five minutes on Youtube. After I gave him a brief, heated lecture about how Jacques Tati had bankrupt himself building a city to shoot in 70mm for an entire year and how the film couldn't be apprehended at the scale of a standard definition clip on a laptop, he laughed and said, "No no, dude, I totally sampled the vibe."
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; what the gain in breath, however, compromises their ability to explore music, films or books in depth. As an aging grumbler, I believe that there is a 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 hope 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 current 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 in an increasingly virtual world.