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Rossellini visits UCSD and UCSD lashes out at Duncan Shepherd.

Old movie critics never die

Film director Robert Rossellini with Jonas Salk outside the Marine Room in La Jolla. Fruit salad lunch at the Marine Room, tour of the Salk Institute conducted by Jonas Salk himself, spaghetti dinner at the La Valencia.
  • Film director Robert Rossellini with Jonas Salk outside the Marine Room in La Jolla. Fruit salad lunch at the Marine Room, tour of the Salk Institute conducted by Jonas Salk himself, spaghetti dinner at the La Valencia.
  • Image by Richard Pesin

Roberto Rossellini whisked in and out on Francis Ford Coppola’s private yellow-and-black jet, spent a quick day, Sunday last, in San Diego. Fruit salad for lunch at the Marine Room, a guided tour of the Salk Institute conducted by Jonas Salk himself, a spaghetti dinner at the La Valencia (or so I’m told.) All of the foregoing is of piddling consequence to film aesthetics, and so is the hour Rossellini later spent fielding questions in the cafeteria at UCSD. And that is no more, no less, than is to be expected when any world-famous film-maker appears in front of scores of strangers, even when the strangers are as mannerly as the ones gathered last Sunday night. In the questioning process that night, a surprising number of intriguing ideas and insinuations about the Italian film-maker’s work came up, while in the answering process there was the customary cover-up (Rossellini does not care to be a film director. Rossellini does not care to be an artist. Rossellini aspires to be a human being, simply, simply), and anyone in the audience who went away disappointed would have had to go in naive. But in the Thursday-through-Sunday period that was devoted to Rossellini, with all-day film screenings, a panel discussion headed by Manny Farber, and finally the question-answer game, the intrepid filmgoer at least had an opportunity to catch up with, and assay for himself, the renowned Rossellini of Paisan. The Miracle, Voyage to Italy, and the renewed Rossellini of The Rise of Louis XIV, Man’s Struggle for Survival, and Blaise Pascal, and somewhere in the title of Revelle Cafeteria someone can now scratch “Rossellini was here.”


In its normal channels, San Diego’s movie scene has been locked in an impersonation of a log jam for some weeks, and none of the occasional new arrivals has thrown enough weight to break things up, or to lodge in my brain for very much longer than its running time. While rattling my newspaper and waiting for a change in this bleak situation, a hefty piece of correspondence in answer to a past column gives me a chance of stay active, to keep my hand scrawling across a page, with some supplementary hissing and bristling and tensing of muscles. This, then, is what the mailman delivered, several days ago:

To the Editor:

Duncan Shepherd’s grim harvest of dour adjectives regarding UCSD’s film programs was an unfortunate departure from the realm of criticism into the more precise and demanding area of the editorial. Mr. Shepherd was definitely out of his element and deserves four stars for ignorance of the facts (it is possible to receive four stars).

I am responding personally to this vicious and unfounded attack in order to clarify much of the misinformation Reader readers may now believe as a result of Mr. Shepherd’s exercise in straw-grasping. Despite his smug tirade, I would cite Duncan Shepherd for his own contribution toward making the UCSD film program what it is today.

The films we run at UCSD are not intended to satisfy those outside the campus community, least of all Mr. Shepherd, who appears totally dissatisfied with the medium itself. The films presented are completely student financed, student run, and chosen by a committee comprising mainly of students (sic). We are prohibited from advertising any of these films off campus and are not in competition with local movie houses as Mr. Shepherd intimates. A great number of resident students either do not have transportation to reach, or cannot afford to attend, commercial theaters. Therefore, their alternative is not where but whether to see the kind of contemporary films offered in our Friday series.

Mr. Shepherd also fails to adequately discern the chasm seperating (sic) the Friday from the Saturday films. The Friday films are intended to be relatively current, popular, and not so deep that they add further strain to an already taxing week.

As much by definition as contrast, the Saturday series is considerably more deliberate. These “remedial classics," as Mr. Shepherd handles them, (again student financed, produced, [sic] and selected) are designed to acquaint students, some for the first time. With representative films from a category sometimes described as “art,” low budget, deep, underrated, exemplar [sic] of a particular filimic device or attitude , political, foreign, avant garde, important, or even classic. Few, if any, are considered box office bonanzas.

Human film critics are subject to sensorial saturation, like everyone else: they have often viewed such a great amount of footage that mans films, no matter what their merits, are rejected simply because they do not provide a Bizzare [sic] enough stimulus. Fortunately for most of us, our senses are not dulled to the point of requiring such jarring. Nor do we harbor cravings for that esoteric jugular and can still see a good film for what it is.

As for the film [sic] that wasn't shown, Mr Shepher [sic] didn't attend. I can appreciate the clear objectivity one gains with distance, but his indignance was ludicrous.

I welcome constructive remarks concerning the programming at UCSD and, indeed, the attendance of those outside the UCSD community. We would all take Mr. Shepherd more seriously if he were enrolled here, therein paying for the programs and the right to criticize them, or if there was reason to believe that his attack was more substantial than a vendetta or at least a grudge. That the Reader would solicit this office for photographs to accompany Mr. Shepherd’s remarks is not in keeping with the usual class the Reader displays. Neither is allowing Mr. Shepherd to stray from the calendar page.

Sincerely,

Bruce MacDonald
Arts & Lectures/Campus Program Board

First of all, "ignorance" is a charge at which I would nod my head and never bat an eye, no matter who is accused. And I would fully expect that anybody who commands the wit displayed at the beginning of the letter (that is merely the 85th jibe I've heard about the Reader movie ratings), and who also commands the authority to have his personal letters typed by a secretary, would be certainly able to set me right on a few points. However, after all is read and re-read, where are "the facts" which are promised in the letter's first paragraph? Where is there one tidbit of information that is not obvious, already known, or immediately guessable? This letters seems to brush past only a few of my complaints, and misunderstands most of those as well; meanwhile, in its excuse-making, it widely skirts a sizable fraction of my complaints, it deliberately avoids mention of plainly relevant information that would add tarnish to the UCSD film program it is nakedly incorrect on scattered bits and pieces, and it is fuzzily incoherent on others.

The letter reveals that the UCSD movies are not meant to satisfy the surrounding community. This I know. Perhaps if I took hold of the correspondent by the hand and guided him over the same ground, once more, he would then get the slant. The suggestion was that at some universities, not UCSD to be sure, the film programs assume, take, and otherwise embrace the responsibility of adding avenues to the film circulation in a community. I take this to be a high deal, and one that is over the heads of most people, probably. The UCSD Program Board prefers, for reasons of its own, to give the students just what they want. Let a student decide what he wants in the way of movies and, for obvious reasons, he is going to think of The French Connection before he thinks of Ordet — and what does that prove?

In any case, my intimation, if that's what it was, about UCSD providing competition for local theatres holds true. Students are not as marooned, immobile, and at-a-loss as this letter pretends, and if they year to see kung-fu demonstrations and demolition derbies on film, they will find a way. But, truthfully, I do not care if UCSD students ever get the chance to see Fists of Fury or The Eyes of Hell. Presumably, college students must sit still for enough froth and trivia during their classes all week long without needing to be bothered with more of it when they go to a movie. Presumably, also, a college campus affords a film programmer with an ideal location in which to move swiftly beyond the most trampled territory. And any film programmer who is in such a situation and chooses to stand pat and fumble with homespun credos about the trouble with "human film critics," as opposed to the stainless-steel film critics and the popular foam-rubber ones, can expect to be the object of criticism, or even of editorials, whatever the difference is.

It is fair to say that I do not try to measure the chasm between UCSD's Friday films and Saturday films. This is because, for me, the Friday films are nothing, zero, nonexistent. And it is because the Saturday films seem an impossible mishmash to classify, although the correspondent makes a tidy attempt, by reeling off ten or eleven possible descriptions for this nine-week series of films. No matter how the films are described, it is the choice of films that weekly exasperates me. The evident notion of what constitutes art, avant-garde, etc., is complacently out-of-touch and slipping rapidly. On another front, the letter makes no mention whatsoever of the curious Tuesday night film series. If the correspondent, MacDonald, is interested in establishing some facts about the film programs, this would have been a recommended spot. (These films apparently make up the viewing list of a particular film course given at UCSD, and if this means that the Program Board makes the funds collected from students available to film courses, I know there area few other film teachers at UCSD who would be pleased to spend a share of the money to supply their courses.)

"As for the film that wasn't shown," it was two films that weren't shown. And the correspondent must know that the foul-ups in the UCSD film programs did not begin and end with the nonshowing of Weekend and Mickey One that first week. The weekend immediately following my "vicious and unfoundned attack" (sounds like something I heard on a TV press conference lately), A Sense of Loss was not shown. The following week, Lovers of Teruel was not shown, and the replacement film, Lola Montez, in Cinemascope, was projected without the proper lens, so that the legendary voluptuous lover was squeezed into the shape of a popsicle stick. The following week, the announce Major Studio Preview was not shown, but that very night the intended movie popped up as a sneak preview in a theatre in Mission Valley. Admittedly I did not show up this Saturday when the scheduled Monsieur Verdouz will also no be shown (the btting line is three to one against), and if MacDonald still believes I am out-of-line when I mutter that this is no way to run a film program, I can give him the names of people I know who did show up, and I can recount occasions when I, too, have shown up to witness the messing up of the program, and then MacDonald can, with hopes of a brighter dawn, reassign his subtle line of argument ("You weren't there, so what do you care?") to the larger issues of the day, Chile, Watergate, the Middle East.

Finally, for the record, I am enrolled at UCSD and have been for longer than I care to admit. That MacDonald should deduce that I must be spurred by a grudge motive — that he should take my last article personally — is entirely in character with the popularity-mindedness of the UCSD film programs. Also in character is the conspiratorial, arm-around-shoulder tone which comes in with his last-second, back-handed compliment to the Reader on its "class" after griping about "Mr. Shepherd" as if he is safely out of earshot. I have nothing against the Program Board of UCSD except the way it runs films. And if the people, whoever they are, on the board think that that is scant cause for my disgust, then they do not care enough about movies to be in charge of them at UCSD.

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