Not many members of the Harvard old guard could forget 1963. Several years earlier, a Harvard capital campaign secured a gift from Alfred St. Vrain Carpenter, Class of 1905—to the tune of $1.5 million—for the construction of a new arts center on campus. Now, they could only sit back and watch as the University spent a fortune on what many regarded as a monstrosity. Modernism had come to Harvard with all the force of a hurricane.
Perhaps the conservative establishment should have seen this coming. The Graduate School of Design had appointed famed Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert as its dean in 1953. He had gone on to design a slew of bare, concrete structures in and around Cambridge, including the Holyoke Center, construction on which began in 1958. Still, the Carpenter Center—designed by famed Swiss architect and Sert’s personal friend Le Corbusier—was something altogether different. It was designed from the ground up to be a place to view and create art. With its wide, cylindrical body intersected by a huge ramp, the Carpenter Center was created to be an open, inclusive space which promoted movement and interaction by both artists and patrons. It was functionalist and utilitarian in a way that no one at Harvard had seen before.
Fifty years later the Carpenter Center still seems like an anomaly. Despite the fact that it’s now part of Harvard’s landscape, it stands in stark contrast to the classic New England red brick buildings which surround it. Still, this sense of inconsistency suits the building and the department of Visual and Environmental Studies which it houses. Unlike the rest of the University, the VES Department is tasked with training artists as well as scholars, and it very much functions like a conservatory contained within a liberal arts institution. The building’s half-centennial birthday has proven to be a perfect opportunity for self-reflection within the concentration. On Saturday, as part of the Arts First festival, the VES department will begin a film series called The Eyes Have It in which it screen works made by Harvard students over the last 50 years. The program includes works of fiction, documentary, animation, experimentation, and everything in between.
As the department reflects on its origins and seeks to define the space it occupies at Harvard, educators and students alike must grapple with the question of whether an arts department as one part of a large university really can provide budding filmmakers with what they need to pursue a career. By teaching a holistic approach to filmmaking while still engaging with Harvard's broader liberal arts curriculum, the VES department has succeeded in creating a program that educates its students both intellectually and aesthetically.
The construction of the Carpenter Center was a watershed moment for many reasons, but primarily because it created a space in which the practice of art was elevated above its study. “The building of the Carpenter Center was very important,” says Professor Alfred Guzzetti, an acclaimed filmmaker and Visual Arts professor. “It is now 50 years old, and it is a center that is precisely dedicated to educating through doing things with your hands. Filmmaking as part of the curriculum dates back to then, to 1963.” The filmmaking program—which surprisingly predates instruction of film history and theory—grew out of the vision of a man named Robert Gardner, a well-respected documentarian who made a name for himself making ethnographic films that explored the lived experience of peoples around the world. At the time, he was the director of the Film Study Center at the Peabody Museum. Gardner envisioned a program built on documentary filmmaking and animation—an art form that he thought had a unique ability to access the mind of the artist. This spirit still pervades film instruction on campus today.
“Filmmaking is taught in a way that begins with observation of what real people do in real situations,” Guzzetti says. “So the beginning point of the curriculum for a long time has been nonfiction. That has been very important for pedagogical reasons but also for historical reasons.” The introductory class in the department, VES 50: “Introduction to Nonfiction Filmmaking,” requires students to create a documentary film. After they complete this course, they can go on into other genres, such as fiction or experimental film.
The upshot of this style of education is that there is a real emphasis on the comprehensive range of skills required to make films. “I try to give [the students] control of the medium most of all, so they can actually make the images and sounds that they have in their heads. The development of those skills is terribly important,” Guzzetti says. This also leads to courses that offer students a broad range of skills as opposed to a deep understanding of a certain specialty. This style of education stands in contrast to how the art form is taught in graduate programs and art schools. “We try to teach a type of filmmaking that is centered in one person, so one person can do it all, even in the nonfiction courses,” Guzzetti says. “In a film school the division of labor is very important because it reflects the industry. But we try to have as little division of labor as possible so everybody learns everything.”
The question remains how well this sort of educational philosophy serves film students after they leave Harvard. Due to their broad historical scope, the The Eyes Have It film screenings will provide ample opportunity to examine not only the current state of film education on campus, but also how well it has served the department’s alumni, many of whom have gone on to pursue careers in the industry. For example, recent graduate Andrew N. Wesman ’10 concentrated in VES and is currently studying filmmaking at University of California, Los Angeles. At Harvard, he made a short film called “Shelley” that was an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and will be screened as part of The Eyes Have It. For him, the practical education he got at Harvard has paid huge dividends. “It forced me to be creative. I was in VES 150, and I had to direct a film. I had to write something, so it forced me to sit down and write a script, and film it, and take risks. It forced me to be on set and get experience working with actors and getting shots, and with film that’s the best type of education you can get,” he says.
Even though he now makes fiction films, the lessons he learned making documentaries in the VES Department have really stuck with him. “The cool thing about Harvard, and which is different from where I am now—which is UCLA—is that there is a tremendous emphasis placed on documentary filmmaking,” Wesman says. “I think that was influential for all of my classmates. When you took VES 50 you had to make a 16mm documentary film, and you had to cut it yourself. I thought that was a really great experience that certainly played a hand in the development of my aesthetics in terms of how to observe performance and knowing how to edit.” The techniques that students could hone in the making of documentary films provided a strong foundation on which they could later build their next projects.
Wesman is not alone in his praise of a holistic film education. Filmmaker and Providence native Laura E. Colella ’91—whose short film “Eyes of a Blue Dog” will be screening at The Eyes Have It—splits her time between making feature-length films and teaching courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. Although some of the techniques that she learned in the VES Department are slipping towards antiquity—including the use of 16 mm film, her favorite medium—she has found that the overall focus on learning by making films has very much influenced both her art and her teaching. “At Harvard I learned how to shoot and edit and make a soundtrack, and to do everything by myself. And even to this day that has been enormously valuable to me,” she says. “I decided to do my third feature film on a micro budget, and I ended up shooting it myself and editing it myself, and my ability to do that was really due to the education I received.”
“A DIFFERENT WAY OF SPEAKING”
Even though the VES Department is committed to providing a practical film education to students, the fact remains that this mandate will always be defined by the liberal arts framework of the University. While this limits the scale and amount of classes in the curriculum, it does offer unique benefits to a student who is capable of balancing art and school. “When I was at Harvard it was a very small department and there wasn't a huge variety of classes,” Colella says. “That being said, I really appreciated the wide variety of classes I took, and I feel that made me a better filmmaker. I think that a really strong liberal arts education is great and increased what I could make films about.”
Oliver Luo ’13, an animator and one of the only current students whose work is being shown in The Eyes Have It, agrees. For him, animation is a way of bridging his love of film with his love of physics. His film “A Tale of Two Twins” uses animation to explore the twin paradox, a thought experiment on relativity explored by several physicists, including Albert Einstein. “Being at Harvard in general, the liberal arts education has given me a more global view. There’s more of a cross-dissemination of things. It is nice to have that be present,” he says.
In a liberal arts framework, the VES Department has to cater to students who might not pursue a career in the film industry. Even though the focus of the program is on having students make film, professors and students emphasize that it has to offer more than just practical experience to be a truly worthwhile investment of time. Guzzetti’s classes use film and filmmaking as a way of engaging critically with the students intellectually while still honing their chops. “The program is not aimed to turn out professional filmmakers. It’s aimed to turn out people who know enough about film to have it influence how they think about the world,” he says. For him, this is similar to teaching humanities to undergraduates. “It is similar to philosophy. If you study philosophy as an undergraduate you don’t necessarily become a philosopher,” he says.
This frame of mind was the biggest takeaway for Lisa A. Haber-Thompson ’02, an animator now studying architecture at the GSD. “The way I thought about the program was: you were working on a project and the medium happened to be film, but that wasn’t different from everyone else’s project. It wasn’t writing or research, it was just a different way of speaking to people,” she says. “I completely buy into that and I found that really helpful. I took away the ability to craft an argument, whatever the medium.” For Haber-Thompson—whose short film “Bootfly” will be screened at the Carpenter Center—learning animation was as intellectual as it was artistic. “Studying film makes you see the world in a different way.... I feel that my sense of timing has been really influenced by that in ways that I think are hard to explain, especially with animation, because you have to be attuned to every single second,” she says.
It will no doubt be a poignant moment for professors in the VES Department when The Eyes Have It goes up on April 27. The screenings will be the culmination of a year of introspection, and a time when the department can take a broad sweep of its history.
Furthermore, as part of Arts First, the event will be one voice in an ongoing dialogue on the place of the arts at a large liberal arts university. “We’ve spent the entire year thinking about our history and our future and what we want our future to be,” says Robb Moss, a senior lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies and one of the organizers of the event. “Arts First is the natural place to celebrate the arts at Harvard. That’s what Arts First is about, and the fact that it is coinciding with our 50th anniversary seemed to dovetail nicely with making a curated show of the last 50 years.”
As the department looks to the future, it can be rightly proud of the work it has fostered and the students it has produced. The Harvard Film Archive is full of films and pieces of animation that show the incredible talent of the students who have passed through the department. “It is hard to choose a program out of the work we have. We are leaving out many wonderful pieces. There is way too much work to show,” Moss says.
However, the greatest achievement of the VES Department is not the library of student work that it has amassed. It is the unique blend of practical, technical education and an emphasis on analytic thought that has produced artists who are grateful for the film education they received at Harvard. VES provided these students with the technical skills necessary to make films, but working within a liberal arts framework helps teach students what to say with their films.
The beauty of the Carpenter Center is that its bare walls don’t distract from the art within it. In a building like this, the films shown in The Eyes Have It aren’t framed by red brick. They have the room and space to speak for themselves. When appreciated for what they are, the films in the VES Department’s archive have the depth of analytic focus and academic rigor of the best student theses in Lamont’s basement. “[The program] makes you think about how you’re saying things, as opposed to just what you’re saying,” Haber-Thomson says.
—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at email@example.com.
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