Film Studies: Film school is fine - but it sure doesn't teach you about movies

The London Film School is 50 years old, and it is being celebrated at the National Film Theatre. I have mixed feelings, perhaps because when I went there, in 1960, it was the London School of Film Technique. As a name, this was either ingenious or very shy. I suppose it implied that students would be taught to do very difficult things - like tuning up Lord Attenborough's Bentley. Did it also imply that the larger things - "Why film?", "What is film?" - were too much for Electric Avenue, in Brixton, south London? That's where the school was then: you'd have thought the name "Electric" might have inspired someone into calling the school "The Truth 24 Times a Second".

But some days it was hard to locate the school. The premises were there, and the hopes, but often teachers didn't arrive, and somehow the sparse equipment was being repaired or missing. The idea was that veterans from the business came to south London to do the teaching, but the schedule relied heavily on recent graduates - I remember two of them, especially, David Naden and John Pippen, because they held the flimsy place together.

There were students from all over the world. My class had an Italian, an Irish woman, a Thai, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Cypriot, an American, a South African and a couple of Brits. At 19, I was younger than most.

Many had come a long way to find that the school was close to being a fraud. One abiding issue in those days was whether the students would sue the school.

Was this unfair of the school? Yes. Was it improper preparation for a life in film? By no means. In my time, Arnold Wesker, the playwright, was the best known alumnus, and it was while I was there that a film magazine, Definition, struggled into being. Yes, it was leftist, just as the mood was CND and get rid of Harold Macmillan. It was that moment, more or less, that the head of the school - Robert Dunbar - helped produce a picture called The Angry Silence, about trade unions and being sent to Coventry.

I thought it was dreadful next to the New Wave, L'Avventura and Psycho (all 1960), but the feeling at the school was that those pictures were not committed.

On the other hand, I gained many insights - not least the threat that the film business was never going to be fair or generous, or run according to sensible policies. Rather, it was the domain of people torn apart by their desire for art and their need for money. In the kind of education I'd had before the LSFT, it was easy to worship dead artists. But now I sensed the proximity of poker-faced operators wondering where the next tenner was coming from. If ever I have had anything useful to say about the movies, I suspect it comes from that sense of the jungle.

I got a chance to help in the making of lots of small films - jokes, dramas, dreams, and a documentary about a man getting out of Brixton prison. The prison was so obliging in those days it opened its gates and let us shoot an actor coming away. I met the most important friend of my life, and started going to the National Film Theatre - that was my real college, with the chance to see all of Hawks, Renoir, Fritz Lang, Nick Ray and so on.

Is film school a good thing? Well, it's not bad; it gives you the chance to try your hand - and it allows time to consider saner ways of life. In working on a lot of films, I found I was better at thinking of a story than my fellows, while they left me fingers and thumbs at cinematography, editing, and sound. I'm still not sure that anyone intent on being a film-maker shouldn't just go where films are being made and be available. As Alexander Korda once put it: arrive in Los Angeles, stay at the best hotels, be seen with the most beautiful women, charge everything, tip lavishly and wait for offers.

Of course, at 22, not all of us have authority with those women, or tipping funds. But at 25 Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, and claimed that Gregg Toland (his cameraman) taught him everything he need to know technically in a couple of days. Yet those who persevere know how terrible the life is. They actually take no great pleasure in the women or the hotels. They know such things are just props in a dream.

So it's sensible for alleged geniuses to go to the London Film School or the National Film School - or any film school. Dentists need dental school - I believe it. Yet there are clerics and technicians who make dull films all their lives, just as there are enfants terribles - such as Welles or Godard, Bresson or Buñuel - who have no intention of repeating what a school will teach you. A school teaches rules - like not crossing the line in your point of view - that are fine until someone shatters them and begins again.

There is one thing school teaches you: the inescapable need for collaboration. Welles needed Toland. Bresson needed faces and hands to film.

Godard needed old fogeys to startle. Buñuel needed someone who could get him a sheep's head, so he could slice its eye with his razor. You may need Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, Vittorio Storaro and Walter Murch. You may need $100m. So you need to know how to woo those different people, and how to make them feel vital. You need to persuade Mr Z that his $100m is endearing, while you are also trying to get the same sum from X and Y. Any school is good for teaching those duplicitous skills.

But don't be deceived. Don't think that co-operation makes you a good fellow. You are a tyrant, a monster, a manipulator. You must know how to steal the $100m if necessary. And you must be very alone - which is often how people feel at school, but not what the school intends.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

A season of films and shorts by London Film School alumni runs from Friday until the end of June at the National Film Theatre, SE1, 020 7928 3232

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