"Life ... at 24 frames per second."
— Tagline for Film School Confidential
OPEN ON: a smoldering, post-apocalyptic hellscape. The once great city sits desolate, its iconic landmarks reduced to rubble. A mysterious red carpet unwinds into the distance, indicating — I don't know, some sort of dystopian Emmy party? The king of this land wields his standard issue Arri-S camera like a magic scepter. His power is mighty, evidenced by the throng of ladies grasping desperately at his bulbous calves. In the mid-ground, a villain in a beret and Che Guevera T-shirt scowls, the intensity of his ire matched only by the girth and heft of our hero's rippling muscles, who is shedding his USC shirt in a Bruce Banner-esque manner ...
I am trying not to judge, but the alarming cover of Steve Boman's Film School: The True Story of a Midwestern Family Man Who Went to the World's Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS demands comment. The book does manage to live up to the promise of its cover, but not in the way the author intends. The scorched earth and smoke clouds reveal themselves to be as portentous as they are pretentious. Set against the backdrop of the University of Southern California's famous School of Cinematic Arts, Boman's memoir is a tale of tribulation and triumph. Portraying himself as the prototypical Midwestern everyman-in-big-city-made-good, Boman shows off the crowd-pleasing story techniques practiced and preached as gospel at USC. Dealing in broad strokes and archetypes, Film School follows him from stumbling student to respected director and, finally, successful television producer. His USC is one of emerald towers to be scaled, gold to be mined, and bad guys — Simon Cowell-like professors and anonymous latte-chugging intellectuals — to be overcome. It is, in essence, mythology.
Save for the technology, little about film schools has changed since 1929. They are trade schools playacting as art schools and moonlighting in remedial business courses. Yet the market for these programs has grown insatiable. For a previous generation, going to film school was an uncommon decision that required real grit and determination. Witness Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls recounting the 1970s iconoclastic golden age, or Richard Walters, in hisEscape From Film School, fetishizing the USC of the early 1960s, which had seemed "a most unlikely venue for any center of creative expression," though there was, he admitted, "something seductive about the place."
Today, while film schools remain seductive, they have dropped the grit and doubled down on the glamour; their sharp edges have been carefully filed off and their values have been kid-tested, mother-approved. The still prevailing myth of the film-student-as-rebel obscures the banal truth: These are highly profitable institutions, buttressed by a wildly irresponsible student loan system preying on thousands of starry-eyed individuals all v...