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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions