Howard Suber is one of the most experienced film specialists and UCLA lecturers. He helped establish and chaired the Critical Studies and PhD programs, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the UCLA Producers Program. He has worked with thousands of film students, but also with Hollywood film industry specialists, famous screenwriters, producers and directors. Although he technically took early retirement 20 years ago, he has been invited back to teach every year since, and in the fall will begin his 50th year on the UCLA film faculty. Suber started to lecture very early on History of Film and also Film Structure and he published two books about movies and the film business. In a time when the film and movie industry was beneath the dignity of Harvard University as a field of study, Suber became an autodidact and, ran the student film club and was self-educated, mostly in European films, because among intellectuals and academics, American film was not considered worthy of serious consideration. In his interview with Christian Dueblin Howard Suber talks about his lecturer career, about his work with film students and he explains Hollywood patterns. Suber explains why American films is about film genres where the rest of the world is about film movements. Take a look behind the scenes of a big film industry, together with Howard Suber, author of the book “The Power of Film”. “Wise, kind, and direct. Howard Suber’s advice is as piercing as Don Corleone telling Michael who not to trust, and just as vital. “I LOVE this book!” that’s what David Koepp, screenwriter Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, says about the living film legend Suber.
Christian Dueblin: Mr. Suber, you've become famous lecturing at an important university. You are an academic with a great track record, a 'superstar', as they say. What are your first memories about movies? Why did you decide to go into the movie business when you were a child or a younger man?
Howard Suber: I was raised in a little town of 15,000 people in the middle of Michigan. My father was a dry cleaner. I was one of four boys. So he had this cycle. Friday nights he'd take me to this local, rat-infested theater where there would be a double bill of Laurel and Hardy, or the Three Stooges, and depending on the week, one of the cowboy heroes, like Johnny Mack Brown, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers and so on. Definitely B movies and not 'high class'. The following is something that didn't come back to me until two years ago, and I'm seventy seven years old, so it's a seventy year old memory (laughs). Now at least in this small town, well, it wasn't just this small town, it was small towns all over America, whenever you wanted to go to a movie, you showed up at whenever you felt like going in, you bought your tickets and went in. Nobody paid attention to getting there at the beginning of the movie. And there's a phrase that used to be popular in the US. And it only occurred to me a couple of years ago, that explains my childhood moviegoing. The phrase is: "This is where we came in." Have you heard that?
Yes, I know this expression. But I did not know that it referred to movies.
Well, I never thought much about that, but it referred to the moviegoing experience. Which is, we might come in twenty minutes, forty minutes late, and you simply sat there, and usually these were double bills, so two hours later, the movie …
… would start again!
Yes, you may’ve seen the last twenty minutes. And you sat there, wondering what this part of the movie had to do with what you saw two hours ago, before the movie in the middle. Well, the course I'm most known for at UCLA that I've taught for forty five years, or more probably longer than that, is called Film Structure. And it occurred to me that my interest in film structure began at the age of seven, trying to figure out what the hell was going on here and what it had to do with this other thing. You could also come in twenty minutes into the movie, and that would cause you to have to figure out who are these people and what is this story about? What's gone on before?
So it's like a riddle a little bit.
Yeah, exactly and it forced a kind of active analysis. If you come into the middle of any story, there's all this stuff missing. Which is why the television series always have this announcement, last week on this show this happened, and then they give you clips to give you anything you need to know to understand what's going to happen this week. But they didn't have that practice back then. So when I tell my current students about this, they find it totally bizarre. How could people do that? Movies were not high art and movies were not that formal. You went when you could or felt like it, and you stayed, well, this is where I came in. Perhaps that's where my interest in analyzing films comes from.
Now you have lectured for your whole lifetime. Probably fifty years or more. So there are probably not many people, except some elderly film stars, with such a length and depth of experience in your field!
(Laughs) Next year I will have been on the UCLA faculty for fifty years. That is quite a long time.
Looking back, what has changed most in those five decades? Is it the people that have changed, or the students that have changed, or the world that changed, or is it particularly your point of view of film industry that has changed?
Certainly I’ve changed. I’d have to answer this in terms of UCLA students, and in terms of the American film industry. And I’m only going to take two points. They hired me when I was a master degree student and planning on being a screenwriter. I had an agent, and so on. But, at the last minute of the academic year in June, one of the tenured faculty members quit and he was scheduled to teach an American film history class that summer. So the chairman from who I was taking this film structure course that I’ve taught for forty five more years asked me, if I would like to teach a course in film history. I thought to myself, I don’t know anything about American film history. I didn’t learn film history in that little theatre growing up; I went to Harvard for my BA. Film was so beneath the dignity of Harvard University, there were no film courses. I ran the student film club and was self-educated, mostly in European films, because among intellectuals and academics, American film was not considered worthy of serious consideration.
American films were mainly disqualified from being looked at as worthy of artistic consideration. That was the attitude at that time. Did you have to cope with that attitude also at UCLA back then?
Yes, that was also true at UCLA, even though UCLA is only 30 or 45 minutes from all the studios. But there was total disdain. What UCLA students were interested in, including me, were the works of Bergman, Fellini, Resnais and Godard, and so on. So I didn’t know much about American film, but I said to myself, “Well, my ignorance has never stopped me before. This is not a time to have scruples about it. I’ll learn.” And I figured it would be a one-course gig. And then I’d be on my way outside of UCLA. One thing led to another. I never planned to teach. If you told me that I’d become a college professor, I would’ve said, “You’re crazy!” I was not a good student either in high school or college. And if you’d told me I was going to teach at the same place for fifty years, you’re out of your mind (laughs).
How do you explain this yourself, how did it come that you have dedicated your lifetime for movies and movie business?
Life is like that. I was asked to teach this course I knew nothing about, and I discovered I like teaching, I liked the challenge, and one thing led to another. But the reason as I later figured out - it was quite extraordinary to be asked to teach a course while I was still a masters level student - and it was a mark of how little concern that the Chair had for American film that he would simply pick me up and say, “Here. You teach this course.” And in my early years it was made clear by people on the faculty that it was okay for me to teach American film, but I didn’t have to show that I actually liked American film. Francis Coppola - I came to UCLA and quit after a year to do my screenwriting, and while I quit there was a three year period before I came back - Francis Coppola had come in as a student while I was gone, and he left just before I came back. So we passed each other. But the reason for invoking his name is that he was the first person an audience today would recognize to come out of UCLA. And today, I’ll ask my students, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, to name the great American directors. And invariably they’ll say, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese. And then they’ll go on. But those four names are always named. And since I always say, “I’m in the pattern recognition business” - that’s what structure IS - I’ll say, “What kind of pattern do you see in this?” That’s a question I frequently ask. “What’s the pattern?” And as so often happens, what seems so self-evident to me is a pattern nobody gets, until I tell them.
You have not only lectured about patterns but also published books about patterns. What patterns did you “detect”?
Film students, when asked to name the great living American directors, they are naming directors who began their careers fifty years ago, when I started. What they can’t do is name comparable people who have come out of USC, UCLA, and NYU - the big three American film schools – in the past decade. And as I’ve been known to say, it’s kind of pitiful we’re naming these same people. Coppola hasn’t made any films that have had any audience in years. Same thing’s true for George Lucas. Scorsese’s the only one still very active. And Spielberg, he’s not what he used to be.
The party line at UCLA was totally anti-Hollywood, anti-American film. Coppola in interviews has frequently said that when he went to make his first movie for Roger Corman, his fellow students accused him of having sold out. Because they were going to be independent artists. And it’s hard to find anybody else from that generation who became famous filmmakers, because their attitude was, “Fuck Hollywood.” and “Coppola sold out - what’s ever going to become of him?”
It is hard to imagine anyone saying that about Coppola, especially later, when he became huge and founded Zoetrope Studios. Besides Francis Ford Coppola said about you and your new book: “Howard Suber’s understanding of film storytelling fills the pages of this wise, liberating book. Much of it is surprisingly contrary to what ‘everyone knows.’ A remarkable work.” A great compliment!
He is a great and innovative director. The Godfather and films from Lucas and Scorcese definitely changed the perception the industry had of the value of film schools. But it took a long time. When I first started teaching film, there were very few film students, sitting in this classroom a short drive from every one of the studios who were interested in making films for them. They might take the films, let’s say, of John Ford or Citizen Kane seriously, because they were taught they were supposed to. At the same time the anti-Hollywood attitude of the students was matched by the film school attitude towards the entire American film industry. I mean, if you have a law school or a med school or an engineering school or any other of the professional schools, they exist because those professions want those programs to exist. That’s how they get new people. That’s how they teach them what they think is the body of knowledge that they need. The period I’m talking about is the middle to late Sixties, and it was assumed that all UCLA film students wanted to be directors. There was no screenwriting program, no producing program and no history of theory criticism program. At the end of their studies, students had to show their thesis films for the department faculty to be approved for graduation.
Like a kind of diploma?
Exactly. There was a thesis film, you showed it to the faculty, they said, okay you’ll get your degree. And the first thing many directing students did, was to go upstairs to the editing bays and cut off the tail end of the film. What was on those tails, the department then as now, requires students to say, “Made in the motion picture television division of the University of California, or whatever the name was at that time. And the community wisdom of students was, that if you took your film out to the industry and showed it, they’d laugh at you, saying, you can’t learn anything in a film school. So, you can’t be any good if you’ve gone to film school. It was better that your origins be ‘unknown’.
What was the influence of talents like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese on the film industry?
George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, -- one each from each of the three major film schools -- had a significant change on the American film industry. Because executives were now saying, maybe you can learn something that is useful in a school. They were part of a historic moment. You see, at this time the industry was desperate. The industry has often been desperate -- as it is now. And it has reacted to its desperation in many different ways. They were desperate in the late Sixties because everything they had used to fight television had failed. The audiences drifted away. And people simply weren’t interested in going to American movie theatres. And they tried all of the new projection technologies in the late Fifties, early Sixties, starting with Cinerama and Panavision and so on. It’s like the recent re-emergence of 3-D, which I was always predicting was going to last about 18 months. People get used to new technologies pretty quickly. The technological innovations didn’t produce any lasting results. So back then the industry was so desperate they did something they hadn’t done in thirty some years: they hired new people.
So, the film industry was desperately looking for inspiration. They wanted to be inspired by younger talents in order to attract the audience.
Oh yes. When I was newly on the faculty, I got the first grant from the American Film Institute for a project called An Oral History Of The Motion Picture in America, and the proposal began, ‘there exists within thirty minutes of where this is being written one of the greatest collections of creative people that has ever existed in a confined geographic region.’ And I made it a point to honor the international high names, I mentioned John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, but I also said Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir.
Some of them hadn’t produced a successful motion picture in twenty years. And most of them are sitting in their homes. Why that?
John Ford lived right across Sunset Boulevard from my office. And yes, they were indeed sitting in their homes, with nothing to do. And therefore they would be open to people coming to interview them to tell the story of their lives. The old guard - the people who had been the big directors through the Forties, Fifties, into-well, not into the Sixties. Their films just weren’t exciting people anymore. Now, the last time Hollywood consciously went out and hired a significant number of new people was when sound came in during the late 1920s. The industry went to Broadway and hired playwrights who write dialogue and they hired theatrical directors who could direct actors. And then the doors were closed, except for actors. (There’s always a need for twenty-something actors.) But when I came to UCLA as a student I hadn’t the foggiest notion of how you got into the American film industry. There was no pathway. The doors were closed. Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, etc. opened those doors, and they remain sort of open. But it was a measure of Hollywood’s desperation. “Gee! Let’s look for fresh new talent! Oh! These film schools are generating these hot new directors, and wow they’re pretty good.” So in terms of students and the chain, I think one of the reasons why the student body I dealt with for several years in the late Sixties, into the Seventies, were so anti-Hollywood was that they had no hope of getting in. If you already know that those bastards are not going to hire you, then you’re not likely to …
…then you’re against them.
Exactly, then you’re against them. Their attitude was likely to be, “I don’t want to do this. I want to be an artist, do independent film.”
But how are the students nowadays. How would you describe them?
If anything, today’s students are - well, I’ll say two things: The students I deal with today are far more knowledgeable about all aspects of film and film history. That’s partially because of DVDs and before that VHS. But they’re also open to a lot of things. But I would say the pendulum has swung too far, from being anti-Hollywood to being the goal of ninety percent of the students. But that too is understandable.
Nobody from UCLA today is as big as Francis Coppola in terms of name recognition. Alexander Payne is probably the most respected name. But Alexander comes to our classes frequently, and he manages to combine being an independent film maker with achieving commercial success and winning a couple of Academy Awards. I talk a lot about independent films in my classes, and I always ask two questions: Independent from what? Independent for what?
Some people would understand, that independent does mean to be again against Hollywood film industry, against the mainstream.
This is something my historic perspective has given me: When somebody says, “I am an independent filmmaker,” what it usually means is, “I’m against all that Hollywood crap.” But what does “Hollywood” mean? In my lecture here in Basel, I made the point that in 1929 six or seven companies in Southern California took in ninety seven percent of all the money spent on planet earth for movies. And then I said: What do you think the situation is the first half of the second decade of the twentieth century? And the answer is: eightyfive percent to ninety percent. Not much has changed. In fact, Hollywood’s hegemony has lasted eighty-five years. And I went on to give my views on why that’s so.
For most of film history there has been one actual industry: Hollywood. By “industry” I mean that it has the ability to operate continuously and to produce product day and night on a predictable basis. Theatre owners around the world know that if they deal with Hollywood studios, they’ll have a movie to show every week. At the height of “the studio system,” each studio was turning out a film a week, or more than 300 films from the American industry. If you are an independent filmmaker, however, you solve the theatre owner’s problem for a couple of weeks, then your film is gone, and they need a film.
… And there isn’t any?
Right. The theater owners have to go find somebody else to supply them with films. This paucity of product is one of the reasons independent filmmakers are so weak economically -- they can’t guarantee that they’ll have something to sell next. America has had an industry for nearly a hundred years that cranks out films on an ongoing basis.
How do critics, historians and film-goers divide up the units of American film? They make up categories, and the categories tell us something, not only about the product, but about the minds that are trying to process this. With American films the categories usually consist of film genres. With the rest of the world, it’s film movements. So you had the social realist, you had the German expressionism, you had the neo-realist, you had the New Wave, and people keep - with the help of journalists - creating new movements. And as happens in the world of painting, and some other arts, when you have an art form whose units of discussion and conceptualization are focused on movements, the spotlight tends to move from one country to another with some rapidity. We had impressionism in painting, expressionism, surrealism and others then, after World War II, there was American abstract expressionism. The spotlight had been in Paris, the center of the art world for a long time; then it moved briefly in the Twenties to Germany. Some people thought with Soviet art of the Teens and the Twenties, until Stalin clamped down on all this bourgeois art, there was a movement there, too.
But each movement in film history, whether it said so or not, took its conceptual ground based upon being anti-Hollywood, which was an easy scapegoat because it was so ubiquitous. Everybody in the world knew - or thought they knew - what Hollywood meant. When my father took me to see B-Westerns, twenty five percent of all the films that Hollywood was turning out were Westerns. Twenty five percent! There were thousands of Westerns. People used to know what to expect when they went to see a Western - black and white, simplistic moral, dramas dealing with the conflict between good and evil. Shallowaction filmed, with a lot of shoot-em-ups, fist fights, it was an archetype of Hollywood.
When the New Wave came along, the Cahier du Cinema critics, such as Godard and Truffaut, wrote articles attacking what they called the tradition of the “well-made play”, which is an English translation of a French term. The well-made play was a theory popular in 19th and early 20th Century French drama. And Scandinavia, in drams, for example, by Ibsen and Strindberg. This was the drama that Hollywood took as a template for its storytelling. Since Godard, Truffaut, etc. liked a lot of American films, especially offbeat films, when they attacked the well-made film, they were talking not just about French films but about American films. And famously when Godard started using jump cuts, he was very conscious that he was violating Hollywood traditions of that time.
What was Hollywood reaction after those attacks?
Hollywood at first was offended, and said, “these guys are amateurs who don’t know how to make a professional film”, then, they of course adopted some of the very stylistic elements they had attacked.
The American film has never had a clear and sustained film movement. If, however, we were sitting in New York talking at the Whitney Museum, and there were people calling themselves independent cinema makers, I’d be violently attacked for what I’ve just said. They would point out that there was something called the New Independent American Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. And the answers to my two questions, “independent from what and independent for what,” were very clear to them. It is perhaps still clear to people who go to the Anthology Film Archives in New York. The New American cinema was indeed independent. Nearly one hundred percent from Hollywood, which is to say, the narrative film. They were often explicitly against storytelling in film. Many of them had come from painting. Do you know Magritte’s work „Ceci n'est pas une pipe“?
Oh yes, Magritte was a great talent and in particular able to make the audience confused with his paintings.
He wrote on the canvas, “This is not a pipe.” I think the work is one of the seminal paintings of the 20th Century. You might look at the painting, and say, “but this IS a pipe!” Magritte represents that broad movement in 20th Century art that moved away from the idea that painting is a representation of some reality outside the painting itself. It’s a painting! A painting of a pipe. But it’s not a pipe.
Some New American Cinema filmmakers tried to do something similar since they were usually against Hollywood’s form of storytelling, they didn’t get a very large following. And the following they got was largely from the world of painting.
Otherwise, what does the term American independent film” mean? I think of it as something that started with the film “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, which won first prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It helped put Sundance on the map, and Sundance in turn helped put it and Soderbergh on the map. “Sex, Lies and Videotape” offered my answer to questions about independence. For what? For the purposes of an exploration of sexuality that you didn’t find at the time in Hollywood films. And also for a style you never saw in Hollywood films.
But not against Hollywood and its dominating film industry? Spader and Soderbergh have worked successfully for Hollywood and both did great Hollywood movies.
Yes, what happened to Soderbergh and James Spader is that they became Hollywood workers. What happened with independent films of the 1980s is that they drove out of the American marketplace what used to be called art films, which used to be a term that was synonymous with European films. When I was running the film club at Harvard, the films that I and my peers were interested in were by people like Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, and Bergman. And what was the appeal for most audience members of such directors? Style and/or content. They dealt with sexuality and other content that you didn’t find in American films. And they had stylistic elements that you didn’t find in American films.
Today, however, there is no subject that you can’t put on the screen in a film from Hollywood. So it makes it really hard for an independent film maker to say, “I’m independent from the Hollywood storytelling. And in terms of stylistics, nobody there just aren’t that many people who care. Studio producers? They don’t care if you use jumpcuts, are a follower of Dogma cinema, -- there are few “rules” of filmmaking that haven’t been broken in recent years. They don’t care. They care about whether they sell the film to an audience.
So what independent film means in America today is generally simply that it’s a low budget film. If you make a low budget film that succeeds, get shown at Sundance, wins prizes, gets picked up by the Weinstein brothers, etc., the chances are good that Hollywood will offer you a job and you’ll take it. Perhaps you “independent” for the same reason so many UCLA students were back in the 1960s – because nobody in the studio system would hire you.
You were talking about the patterns. This recognition business that you’re really fond of. Finally what I have just heard, this is a BIG compliment for Hollywood. Even after 85 years, it’s still there.
Mr. Suber, since you are famous for NOT making prognostications about the future of the film industry in public I would like to ask you an analogous question in a different way. You talk about today’s students very favorably in comparison to the ones in the past, who lacked the knowledge about film coming into film school programs and had low expectations of the UCLA program. The days of the old codes and prohibitions are gone. It seems these new film students have awareness of their opportunities and the means to obtain them. So, doesn’t that guarantee that the future of this great 85-year-old industry is bright? Or do you see some drawbacks in the formation of these new film students who want to become directors, screenwriters, producers, critics and film historians?
There have been two major models for the production of feature length films around the world. In the first, business people motivated by the desire for profit invest money in films that they hope will make profits. This clearly is the American model, and for relatively brief periods of time the models for the German, French and British industries. In the second model, some government scheme is devised to use public funds to finance films, either through direct use of government money, or through subsidies that come from lotteries, legislatively-approved tax money, etc. The first is driven by the marketplace, the second by a system of patronage that is in many ways analogous to the patronage system painters, composers and other artists have historically lived, where the arts were subsidized by powerful individuals who bestow their patronage on a favored few.
In all systems yet known to man, filmmaking requires anywhere from a few hundred to few thousand people to get a feature film made, and the result is that hardly any individuals can afford to make films themselves. I don’t see a great deal of structural difference between some Hollywood mogul deciding what films to “Greenlight” and some bureaucratic committee deciding what government monies will go to what favored filmmakers.
But there have been major changes in the sheer number of people trying to make films. When I first started teaching film in the late 1960s, few people had any hope of getting access to the means of production or to the large audiences that expensive films require. Today, however, there are infinitely more people who want to make film than at any time in history. It is, for example, as difficult to get into UCLA’s film programs as it is to get into Harvard Law School or Medical School. We must also recognize that film schools are just one of many paths people follow to become filmmakers. There are film programs, film festivals, film web sites, film books, and a myriad number of individuals and institutions that promise people into filmmakers. The competition, not just in the U.S. but in the world, is staggering.
And yet, less and less feature films actually get made. Hollywood studios release an ever-diminishing number of films. European filmmakers struggle to find audiences outside their own country. I believe that there have never been more talented filmmakers in the world than there are today, but they all struggle with an insane amount of competition. Young people continue to break through and the future seems to me to be bright in terms of the talent out there, but the effort it takes to actually make a film that a significant number of people will see is increasingly heroic.
Could the film industry go completely online, so that nobody goes out to the cinema show anymore except for specialists such as yourself and a small niche of cinephiles? And would that make film as a business - and an art - more or less just like TV?
I’m not licensed within the State of California to be a prophet. A decade ago, I had high hopes that the Internet would open the floodgates to new filmmakers. Yes, there are thousands of short films posted on websites such as YouTube and Vimeo, but these seldom make any significant money (or any money), and it’s nearly impossible to sustain a career for long making such films. The Internet so far has been simply a different pipeline for the same product that used to be presented in theaters or on DVD.
I am not one of those who say, “People will always want to go out to theaters.” That defies the realities in front of us. American theatrical film consumption is an ever-shrinking source of support for the American industry. In recent years, 70% of the income of the average big Hollywood film comes from outside the United States. The biggest growth areas in theatrical exhibition are China and Russia, where there formerly were relatively few film theaters.
I think it’s quite conceivable that theatrical film viewing will be like live theater in the U.S. – special event public spaces that cinephiles and other relatively small groups of the population continue to frequent.
Will it become more like television? It already is. One of the ironies of our time is that cinematography is at the peak of its power – the look of contemporary films has never been more skillful or impressive. Special effects, always important to popular filmmaking, now accounts for the majority of the budget of a great many popular films -read the credits, largely for CGI, at the end of blockbuster films, where more than 2,000 contributors can be listed.
Yet, only a small proportion of people who consume such films ever see or hear the incredible images and sounds contained in so many contemporary films. Watching a film on a computer monitor, tablet, or (God help us) cell phone enables us to see only a small fraction of what is actually there. Large screen digital tvs, of course, can look gorgeous and sound fantastic. But research seems to indicate that when people watch at home, at least half of them do other things like catch up with their email or browse the web as they’re watching, which is quite different from the concentrated attention audiences pay to films in a theater.
It seems clear to me that, while there has been a quantum leap in the number of people who want to make films, the importance of film to a large portion of the available audience has never been less.
I do not spend a lot of time bemoaning this. In the arts, as in life, times constantly change. I wouldn’t bet on the future of theatrical films, but creative storytellers and artists – who seem to me to be more numerous than at any time in history – will find new outlets. And, somewhere, there will be an audience waiting for them because the desire of dramatic stories seems to be built into very nature.
Dear Mr. Suber, thank you very much for giving your time for this interview. I wish you all the best and much success for your film and lecturing projects!
(C) 2014 by Christian Düblin. Alle Rechte vorbehalten. Anderweitige Publikationen sind nur mit ausdrücklicher Genehmigung des Autors gestattet.
- Howard Suber @ UCLA School
- "The Power of Film"
- "The Power of Film" @ youtube
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