Monday, May 19, 2008

Cuarón! No, Cuar-off. No: on. Off. On again! Off? Sheesh...

Last year, I managed to successfully teach a summer course on auteurs. I had long loathed the idea of teaching a whole course about a single director, yaaaawn, but I thought that six weeks would be kinda brisk and fun. The course is actually more about general auteur study than anything else and each student has to pick their own director of choice to follow; as a class, however, I choose one director to follow as a case study. Last year was an easy choice: Pedro Almodóvar, chosen because now I could order all the wacky early stuff I had always wanted to see and so that I finally wouldn't have to choose whether I should screen Hable con ella or Todo sobre mi madre.

This year, I decided to put myself on a bit of a limb and chose Alfonso Cuarón. If Almodóvar was a risky choice of sorts, Cuarón is even more so, particularly since he only has a few features to his name thus far. This choice was inspired, however, by an offhand comment at an SCMS panel on Children of Men that I attended, where a panelist said, "When I went to see the movie, I wanted to know whether I would be getting the director of Y tu mamá también or the director of Harry Potter." And all I could think of was, But it's so clear it's the same guy. Hence: a good choice in my mind for an auteur study.

There is another reason: in doing the very preliminary research on Cuarón, I discovered there was very little written about him. Given my decade-long exploration of Peruvian cinema and my new fascination with shorts, hearing the phrase "barely anything written" was music to my ears and I made an initial pitch with a press at SCMS to write a book on Cuarón and they seemed receptive to the idea for a series on contempo directors. When the recent horrific snafu happened with the Peru book (still unresolved, though an answer may come forth next week, keep those fingers crossed), Angela suggested that since I actually tend to write conference papers with 48 hours to spare (it's true), why not try writing at least a draft of the whole book as I'm teaching the course. Not a bad idea, I thought. So my ulterior motive for teaching this course (much like the shorts course from two summers ago, now turning into a regular course for this fall) is to prep a larger academic work.

All great ideas, except for one thing: where are the students?

When summer registration was just beginning, I was pleasantly surprised that I had six students right off the bat; within a few days, I had 8. This was great: the last two summers, my classes had 7 students, then 6. (This, while a couple other literature courses had 20.) Now at least I wouldn't have to worry about my course. I turned my attention to the end of the semester.

Right before graduation, I got ready to send an email informing the class about the textbook we'd be using, in case they wanted to purchase it online or something. I looked at the roster and, to my horror, the list had not expanded, but shrunk in half. 4.

There was no way they would let the course run at 4.

And, of course, this was one of the only times I actually had all of my materials done ahead of time. Crapola. Why had this happened? Since most of the students who had dropped were from the MFA program, my first instinct was that the Mean Girls (TM) who had sabotaged my evaluations in the fall were now telling everyone to avoid my course. (Curses!) Then, I realized that was paranoid and the likelihood is that it's the economy, stupid, or something like that. Indeed, virtually all the summer courses in the department were drastically underenrolled.

Over the last week, the course fluctuated. We got as high as 6, which I felt comfortable would be allowed to go, but then dropped down to 5 again. I still had no idea on Friday whether or not the course would run and the administrator in charge of this (a pal) also had no clue, that decisions would be made on Monday. I broke the news to the class that we were on the bubble, asked them to ask friends if need be.

I looked yesterday morning: one more had dropped. Back to 4.

The administrator said that he could argue 5, but not 4 -- but that he would hold my course from cancellation on the off-chance, mainly because I knew at least one student might need it to graduate.

This morning, still at 4. The administrator sent me an e-mail saying it was off.

By this point, I had resigned myself. In the shower, I thought up of how I can teach the course in the spring anyway and how to teach it as a full-length course by adding Alejandro González Iñárritu to the mix and cribbing some ideas from a similar course taught by a friend on the Coen Brothers. I thought, hey, who says I can't still watch the movies and write the book? I'll invite friends for a summer film series and they can help me find things. There will be wine and food and great conversation every Wednesday. I'd miss the summer salary -- but this would be fun and productive! And I haven't had a summer like this in a few years? I toweled off, feeling happy with what I was doing with the summer, ready to start fresh. I logged online to get my class' emails so that I could let them know it had been canceled.

There were now 5 students.

Sometime in the hour it took me to shower and have lunch, another student had come into the course. I called the administrator. He said, "Congrats! Your course is a go!"

And as I watched the paycheck come back into view as the summer film series in my house faded away, I wasn't sure exactly how I should feel.


StinkyLulu said...

ow ow whoa ow whoa

Paychecks are good, so this is good news. That said, my strong strong feeling on this whole thing is: "BE SELFISH!" Your first task is to have a great summer!

Anonymous said...

darn, now, I was looking forward to wine, cheese and flicks...and pithy commentary, of course. All off the record - greg

Matt said...

Dr Middento, I would love to know how this class on Cuarón is going. Ever since you posted this Cuarón qua auteur idea, it's been gnawing away at me and I wonder how this brilliant young director is faring in the classroom. Saludos, matt

ps.Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who also showed at Cannes) seems to me to be a candidate for such an approach as well.