Todd Madison’s film class at Denver’s East High School had just finished watching “Strangers on a Train." According to Madison, the film turned out to be the year’s unexpected hit. Call it the blockbuster of Room 209.
Pause here to reflect.
We’re not talking about “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
We’re talking about a 1951 Hitchcock movie starring Farley Granger and Robert Wagner, names that probably pre-date the parents of most of Madison’s students.
I consider that cause for celebration.
I’ll tell you why I was so buoyed by my recent visit to Madison’s classroom, my second such trip.
The future of film culture, you see, probably has less to do with the quality of current movie criticism than with the quality of future audiences.
The bulk of moviegoers may never become cinema literate. But there must be a cadre of informed and educated viewers who approach film with something more than a desire for escape and a super-sized tub of popcorn.
Calls to the Denver’s nine other “traditional” high schools turned up only two other such film courses, one at John F. Kennedy and the other at the Denver School of the Arts. Of those schools, at least three offered film production courses, as does East.
And students from all of Denver’s high schools are eligible to apply for film digital production classes at CEC Career Education Middle College (CEC), a part of the Denver Public School system.
Well and good.
Nothing wrong with young people learning to make films. But great audiences are just as important as great filmmakers. Even small steps toward building that audience are key.
That’s why I was so happy to find Madison’s students involved and eager, even on a day when East was in the midst of a school-wide pep rally.
Credit for all this youthful enthusiasm goes to the 51-year-old Madison, who has taught in Denver high schools for 20 years, 14 of them at East.
He’s been a film enthusiast since college days and before, and he’s still excited about opening new eyes to the riches of cinema.
“I always say that the best part of my job is showing someone their first Buster Keaton movie,” Madison says.
Madison began teaching film at South High in 1997. He saw a class in which students were watching films but not being exposed to much analysis or history. He decided he could do better.
As an undergraduate literature major at Washington University in St. Louis, he’d taken every film class the school offered —three in all -- and he’s been a buff ever since.
“I saw an opportunity to do something I really loved with students,’’ Madison says.
Madison calls his course “Writing About Film,’’ a name he chose to scare away slackers.
“I want to expose them to the traditions of filmmaking, criticism and film theory,’’ Madison says.
On the day I visited, Madison’s class was dissecting “Schwarzfahrer” (“Black Rider”) an Oscar-winning short from 1994.
The students talked about director Pepe Danquart's stylistic and thematic choices. In an incisive 12 minutes, Danquart boldly encapsulates the problems of a changing Germany vis-a-vis race.
“I vary the curriculum every semester, but always hit the silent era, German Expressionism, Hitchcock and film noir,” Madison says. “I feel obligated to show things the students would see only in a film class. It’s a bit like literature in that sense. You read things in school you wouldn’t read on your own.”
Madison says that typically a third of his students are movie buffs, a third know nothing about cinema history and another third lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
He begins his course with a survey. Among other things, he asks the students to name their favorite screenwriter and their favorite black-and-white movie. Madison says that when he re-surveys the students at the end, they’ve watched enough black-and-white movies to have clear favorites.
Although he doesn’t teach film production, Madison requires students to make a film during the course. In April, he hosts a mini-film festival of the best student films at the Sie FilmCenter, conveniently located on Colfax Avenue across the street from East. The audience consists mostly of Madison’s students, their families and friends.
“We’ve had film noirs, music videos, tone poems, some animation,’’ Madison says. “We’ve had a really moving story about bulimia and a documentary about people who give things away on craigslist.”
I’ve seen an impressive mini-noir called “Sunshine” for which a student found adult actors willing to work for free. Another film, “Effugio,” introduces us to a mobster who has become the target of a hit. “Oh Lovey Rock” aspires to film poetry.
It’s great to see young minds flexing creative muscles. But I’m just as impressed that anyone under 50 knows that Charlie Chaplin was making people laugh long before Will Ferrell was born.
If you care about film, that should make you feel good, too.
Madison’s students are gaining a toehold in a cinema culture that can be deep and continually rewarding. He has opened a door for a generation of kids. Maybe I’m overly optimistic and even naive, but I’d like to think that for those who walk through it, there’ll be no turning back.
Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at www.denersteinunleashed.com.