In one of my conversations with Jules Dassin — the iconic American Noir director and an early victim of the blacklist — he told me that Rififi (his classic heist film) became his cinematic response to On The Waterfront by Elia Kazan – a man known for turning in fellow filmmakers as communists. In On The Waterfront, an informant, played by Marlon Brando, is glorified – whereas in Dassin’s film, the traitor is killed in cold blood after acknowledging that he deserves to die. When you know how personal the history is, it changes the way you see the film.
Film History is our history. I’ve been teaching at SVA for 34 years—exactly half my lifetime—and I think I’ve finally almost got it right. I live on the Upper West Side where I pursue my other careers—as a screenwriter/producer, and as the editor of Films in Review the oldest film review publication in the US.
But there are pigeons in the airshaft next to my desk, and the flapping is distracting. Frankly I’d rather be in class regaling students with stories from my classes in comedy, film noir and horror. There’s nothing like communicating a passion for the hard-won places in the history of motion pictures…to see the students gain an appreciation of these noble genres, and to understand how sensitive artists’ placed their celluloid fingerprints on the pulse of their generations.
Lately I’ve been hearing baby pigeons out there in the airshaft, though I can’t see them. I tried the health department and they told me to put a net over the rooftop access to the shaft. Which is a reasonable idea, but then do I have to feed the trapped pigeons for the next several years? I had something different in mind when I called…
Horror is a special love of mine. People who know me well know that I was the pie-in-the-face zombie in George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (1978). I began documenting George in my film Document of the Dead three decades ago, and every ten years I update it and re-release it for zombie-hungry fans worldwide. Then there’s Street Trash, which I wrote and produced. It began as a thesis film at SVA, and ended up a cult classic. Recently I wrote the screenplay for Street Trash 3. I figured that since so much time has elapsed, I probably should just skip part 2.
As for comedy, well, my grandfather was Houdini’s manager, and I grew up enchanted by firsthand stories of the long-gone era of vaudeville, which turned into the first film comedies.
I also teach finance and distribution. The idea at SVA is not only to teach all of you how to make films, but also how to finance and pre-market your first features once you depart the academic scene and battle your way into the future.
Now if you’ll forgive me, I have to get back to my latest screenplay, The Airshaft Pigeon Horror.
BA, Tulane University; New York University; Columbia University
The Substitute, The Substitute 2: School’s Out, The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All. Writer, producer, The Sweet Life, Street Trash. Director, An Evening at Dangerfield’s, Burt’s Bikers, Document of the Dead, The Meltdown Memoirs, Dream of the Dead. Co-author, Shoot Me: Independent Filmmaking from Creative Concept to Rousing Release
Producer; director; screenwriter; editor-in-chief:
Films in Review. Formerly, managing editor, The Perfect Vision
Gold and silver awards, Houston International Film Festival; D.W. Griffith; Avoriaz Fantasy Film Festival; Ciné Eagle
Finance and Distribution
History of Comedy in Films
Wandering in the Boneyard: The Horror Film Genre