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THE EUROPEAN GRADUATE SCHOOL

Holly Willis, Karol Martesko and I founded Filmmaker back in the fall of 1992 and for many years after that Holly served as our West Coast Editor before moving on to her current position as editor of the quite excellent Res magazine.

We were trading e-mails recently, and Holly asked if we’d link this site to the European Graduate School, where she is working on her second Ph.D. When she wrote to me that the program was “ridiculously perfect — it brings together amazing philosophers with filmmakers for intensive three-week seminars in a tiny town in the mountains of Switzerland every summer” — my interest was piqued and I asked her to e-mail back some more comments on the program for this blog. Here is what she wrote:

“The program works like this: we study online for six months, with each seminar focused on the particular work of a filmmaker or philosopher and students engaged in often contentious online discussion. In December, I watched as many of the films of Claire Denis as I could; in January, we read work by Giorgio Agamben and Avital Ronell. I’m currently reading Heidegger for a seminar on philosophy and art led by Chris Fynsk, whose lovely book, Infant Figures, has amazing passages on the work of Francis Bacon. I’m also reading some Hegel for a class with Jean-Luc Nancy, and in April, we turn to the films of Chantal Akerman.

“After the online session, students travel to the tiny town of Saas-Fee in Switzerland, nestled among five towering mountains in the Alps. The town has one main street; cars are not allowed, preserving the town’s sloooow pace and clean air. There’s a bar, a couple of stores, an ice cream shop and hotels for the visiting skiers in the winter…

“The seminar I attended last August was amazing — although only three weeks in length, it felt more engaging and ultimately more fruitful than any other academic experience. The school is run by Wolfgang Schirmacher, a philosopher in his own right. In our introduction to the school, he demanded to know why we were important; what had we offered the world, and what did we plan to do in the future? If we couldn’t answer, he didn’t want us to stay. So that’s the more aggressive side, and illustrates the demand that we step forward and participate; quiet passivity is not permitted.

“Each class is small with just 15 – 20 students, and the professors are stellar. For the first several days, we alternated between Slavoj Zizek in the morning and Alain Badiou in the afternoon, going from the total frenzy — intellectual, physical, emotional — of the Slovenian genius to the gentle, stunning grace of Badiou, who explained — seriously — the formula for creativity in hypnotic excursions through psychoanalysis and mathematics. Both were absolutely riveting.

“We also met with Peter Greenaway for three days — he’s bombastic, arrogant and assertive, demanding that we explain how we imagined making our mark on posterity, in between rants about the “four tyrannies” that have destroyed cinema (the tyranny of the text, the actor, the frame and the camera, all of which he’s tried to disrupt in every single film he’s made). In addition to screening many of his hard-to-see early films, he showed all three segments of The Tulse Luper Suitcases, detailed his transition into digital production, and regaled us with his plans for reinventing cinema….

“The other students are varied, geographically as well as by age and interest. There are the maddeningly brilliant twentysomethings just out of college who can recite passages of Heidegger and argue for long hours into the night; there are a few academics interested in exploring philosophy and cinema in a decidedly non-traditional environment. And there are many artists — media artists, filmmakers, video artists and musicians — hoping to expand their practice. Strangely enough, despite differences in background and academic expertise, the conversations managed to remain, always, at a certain intellectual pitch. Similarly, there’s general respect all around, as well as an interest in new directions in media practice and in the explorations of younger artists like DJ Spooky, Tracey Emin and Shelley Jackson, all of whom are included on the faculty.

“So I’m enjoying it — friends tease me about earning an online degree but it’s not really about that. God knows my first Ph.D. did nothing in terms of my current so-called career, and I expect that a second one will be similarly invisible, if not downright detrimental! But last night I was diligently reading my assignment and came across a passage by Blanchot detailing the image of a child discovering the vertiginous sense of nothingness; it’s a beautiful paragraph, and I got to experience one of those rare moments of intense connection to something that seems utterly fundamental to being human. And that’s a treat….”

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