A Dreamer Walking

My Hero

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on March 12, 2015

This is my fourth attempt. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really have a good outline. But I know I don’t really believe that. Outlines have never been much use to me. But, most of the teachers in my life didn’t really care to understand how I learned. For most of my teachers, writing always needed to follow a specific process which I was never able to walk out well. Honestly, it is pretty crazy I can write in any kind of legible way, at all.

If I am going to accomplish this unsung hero paper I think I need to throw the rules out the window. I am not going to concentrate on a thesis. I am not going to follow an outline. And, I am not going to give a crap about whether or not I am using proper grammar… wait a second… okay, out of respect to my unsung hero, I will try to use proper grammar. The bottom line is, the only teacher in my life who got through to me about how to write a proper paper and express my ideas in a comprehensible way, was my Mom.

My Mother homeschooled me for the first thirteen years of my life. Sadly after telling people this I have a huge urge to explain exactly what “homeschool” was for me. I get this feeling few people have respect for the concept. Let me explain in the best way I know how. When I eventually entered the public school system my mother taught English at my high school. My older brother and I would have friends come to us and ask how we could possibly survive living at home with the monster we called, “mother”. She was a taskmaster in the classroom and she bled all over the papers her students turned in.

Yes, I know I need to explain, “bled”.

So let’s start with the origin story. One of the great unsung hero’s in my mother’s life when growing up was her Grandmother. Great Grandma Ferguson was not the typical kindhearted grandma who always had fresh baked cookies when you came to visit. She was an independent woman who wanted to do something valuable in the world at a time when society said her job was to stay at home and take care of her house and family. World War II allowed her to break away from traditional roles. She taught English in North Dakota after she was married and had her own children. When she and her family moved to Montana she worked outside the home and opened a woman’s sweater shop. Great Grandma had an expectation for excellence and the determination to contribute to society which she wanted to pass on to those she cared about the most, such as her granddaughters.

My mom told me about the times she used to send letters to her Grandma. Where the typical Grandmother would take the letter and post it on the fridge or tuck it away in a treasured envelope, my Great Grandma would send them back… corrected. She would write all over my mother’s page, pointing out the grammar errors and suggesting ways to make the piece of writing stronger. This instilled a passion in my Mom that she has since passed on to me– the desire to express herself well. Where many would simply give up and stop writing, my mom became bound and determined to become a better writer. It’s no surprise she went on to teach English. She has always claimed she wasn’t the greatest at English, but my Great Grandmother instilled something in my Mother I believe she wanted to share with others.

So now we get back to the blood. When correcting papers my mother uses a red ink pen. She covers each page with notes and corrections and then sometimes has the gall to say, “You did well”. No wonder she became known as a “taskmaster”. I told most of the students who complained to me that the red ink was from the actual blood of her veins. I always felt the red pen was used for dramatic effect and when you first look at her corrections one does feel quite overwhelmed. Most students felt my Mom graded their papers too harshly. Those who were used to getting “A’s” on all their papers began to realize my Mom required more than proper grammar and correct mechanics. I remember her going over dozens of papers and spending forty-five minutes to an hour grading each one. She graded content, dictation, organization, and style. Now, imagine all this dedication going to just four students rather than dozens. That is how homeschool felt for my siblings and me.

Sure there were weak areas where my mother wasn’t the greatest teacher. However, by no means did we get away with being lazy. When homeschooling during my grade school and middle school years my mother concentrated less on English and more on developing a sense of independence in her children. She encouraged us to work in the areas we were strongest. She quickly realized all my siblings learned differently. She knew an hour of physical activity was necessary for my older brother if she wanted him on task when sitting down for math later in the day. She knew some one-on-one time with my little brother would make him more enthusiastic about spelling afterword. She understood I would be much better at understanding material if I verbally talked about it rather than simply read about it in a book. For some reason my Mom gave us extra time during recess when we wanted to continue playing pretend. Little did I know at the time, but playing pretend would do more to get me started on a career path than any class I ever took. Suffice to say, I left home feeling confident in myself, understanding I had many gifts to give the world.

You would think we would be fully ready for public school when it came around. My first year out of the house was 8th grade. I need to admit, my 8th grade year is in hot contention for being the worst year of my life. The problem was I didn’t know how to play by the system’s rules. It didn’t take long for the school system to decide there was something wrong with me. Actually, three out of my mother’s four older children were diagnosed by the school system as dyslexic. Because my siblings and I had a difficult time with reading and spelling we were immediately considered as less then. I was put into a class for the mentally challenged. Every minute felt like a bombardment of patronizing explanations from my teachers. My counselors spoke to me like I was some kind of lazy drug addict who didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other.

My Mother would constantly meet with counselors and teachers to explain exactly what “dyslexia” meant. Unlike the vast majority of the teachers, mom did her homework when her children were diagnosed. She quickly realized dyslexia was NOT a disability. Rather it was simply a different way of thinking. She constantly needed to explain to teachers her kids did not need to be given easier material or be treated as if they were less than. What was needed was an understanding that dyslexics don’t think linguistically as much as they do visually, interpersonally, bodily kinesthetically, verbally, and aurally. When she spoke with my History teacher about my dyslexia and was bluntly told, “I don’t think your son has the capacity to understand my material”, my mom knew she needed to step in.

I was desperate to get out of the system. When I asked if my mother would consider homeschooling me my senior year, she jumped at the opportunity. What she didn’t realize was she was speaking to a kid who went through four years of mental abuse by the school system and wasn’t interested in traditional education. Not only did she need to deal with an insecure kid who questioned everything having to do with formal education, she also needed to deal with a school system and a father who felt she was making a major mistake. In fact, my grandfather told her quite bluntly she would be ruining my life if she chose to homeschool me again.

All this is what makes my Mother the hero I am determined to one day have the world recognize. It’s a moment you usually only see in the movies. The time when everyone else says it can’t be done. When the person who needs to be saved is all but gone. It’s here my mom came into my life and changed it forever. I went from a D grade student who didn’t know how to write a proper sentence to a 3.5 GPA college student who is now blessing you with the masterful piece of writing you see before you. My mom did not teach me by demanding I play by her tune or the school system’s tune. She worked tirelessly to figure out how I thought and what I felt. And, she used my strengths to build upon my weaknesses.

My mother gave me my voice. For this I am eternally grateful. The most unbelievable part is she is willing to do for all her student what she did for me. She devotes her blood, sweat, and tears to helping others learn who they are and how to express themselves. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases all she gets in return are frustrated students who feel she is too tough on grades. I can hardly stand it. But my mom, well, for her it is not about praise. The true hero only has one goal, and that is to help the other. I know of no person who helps others better than my Mom.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

Invisable Ink- Is Something There?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 26, 2011

“Why do people tell stories? The stories that tend to stick to our bones are those that teach us something. This, I believe, is the primary reason we tell stories–to teach.”

This is how Brian McDonald started the third chapter of his book Invisible Ink. I don’t think I can open up on this subject much better then the way he did… so I have chosen not to.

Why do we write stories? It seems one big “no no” is to create stories that have a message. I can not tell you how many commentaries and film documentaries I have watched or listened to in which the director and other filmmakers try desperately to avoid saying they are giving us a message through their movie. For some reason they feel if a film is admitted to having a “message” it begins to be more like an after school PBS TV special then an actual piece of entertainment. Why this concept has spread I do not know.

We must not be afraid of embracing the kind of storytelling that will impact our audience in more profound ways then making them say “ooh” and “aw” whenever they see a cool camera move or special effect. Storytelling that lasts is storytelling that impacts. You can not impact someone with your story if you do not have anything to really say. As McDonald says, you need to develop an armature. McDonald explains an armature like this, “For us story-crafters, the armature is the idea upon which we hang our story”.

What is the fundamental idea you are wanting to hit on with your story? What makes the story worth telling? Simply put, what is the storie’s heart? Usually you can explain the heart in a sentence or two. A good example would be Pixar’s The Incredibles. The armature for The Incredibles could easily be, “Family is more important then any possession or title“. At the beginning and through the middle of the film we see Mr. Incredible desperately trying to regain the affections and luxuries of being a Superhero. The heart of the story is about Mr. Incredible realizing his most valuable possession is his family. Everything done in the movie is in support of the overall message of family. We learn from Mr. Incredible’s experiences. Throughout the movie the story teaches us fundamental values in extremely entertaining ways. The values are the things that are going to last long after we leave the movie theater, not the sweet special effects and camera movements (and let me tell you The Incredibles had a lot).

In essence McDonald explains the armature as the theme of our story. One crucial detail to understand is a theme is not a word, it is a sentence. Our theme can not be something like “Anger”. Theme is not a subject like “Baseball” or “Hacking”. The theme is the moral or point of our story. It must be explained. An example would be, “Anger will lead to destruction” or, “Baseball is a game of discipline”.  Everything else in the story we are telling must be built to support our theme. If a character or a scenario is not contributing to our overall theme, there is no reason to have it be in the story.

A good way to study theme is to study Pixar and Disney animated films. Animation usually tries to simplify everything. In animation usually there is a clear antagonist and clear protagonist and the story has a clear and usually simple message. All the extra weight is cut off to create a simple 90 minute film that will entertain all age groups. In no way am I trying to demean the significance of family films. I find the simplest of messages are often the most profound. Finding Nemo, Up, Beauty and the Beast, and Pinocchio, are some of the most influential movies I have ever watched. They are also movies that have a message the rest of the elements of the story are supporting to the highest extant possible. As I started to explain in my last post, the hard part of movie making is not making the story more sophisticated but rather making the movie have meaning that is supported by all the elements of cinema. This is what takes a overwhelming amount of effort, dedication, and time. But I guarantee you it is worth it!