Film teacher reveals secret tricks and manipulations of cinema
To really watch a good movie, you need to get your first viewing out of the way.
At least that’s the point of view of Alessandro “Alex” Pirolini.
As the new host of the annual 2018/2019 season of the Petaluma Cinema Series - taking place every Wednesday at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma Campus - he shows attendees, both students and the general public, how to see what’s going on behind the story.
Pirolini is currently teaching at the JC under a one-year contract, a fill-in spot replacing regular film instructor Mike Traina, who is on a yearlong sabbatical. During his time here, Pirolini is also filling Traina’s spot as director of the Petaluma Film Alliance, which hosts the weekly film series, which runs through December.
So far this fall, visitors have had a chance to see Ethan and Joel Cohen’s 50s-era Hollywood spoof “Hail, Caesar!” (2016). Also Gabriele Salvatore’s Italian thriller “I’m Not Scared” (2003) and Gary Ross’ inventive fantasy “Pleasantville” (1998). The next film in the Petaluma Cinema series, screening on Wednesday, Sept. 26, is David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (1990), an adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name.
Pirolini selected the entire series with input from Traina. His criteria included choosing favorite films from his own teaching experience and past audience responses to various films.
There are two advantages to attending a Petaluma Cinema Series screening, Pirolini believes. First, you can enjoy the pre-screening lecture, during which he tips you off to things to look for in the film, such as cultural allusions, nods to other films, and singularities that set the film apart.
“You get a quick summary of the film, plus information that is useful for enjoying it,” he said.
Second, there is immense value in participating in the post-screening discussion with other members of the audience.
“You see how differently people react to a film,” he said. “By listening to each other, you often find your own opinion challenged or changed.”
One reason Pirolini doesn’t think movie houses will fade away is the undeniable communal pleasure of watching a film with other people.
“If we stop going to the movies [in theaters], we will need to find new ways to share the experience,” he observed.
Pirolini launched his academic career in Italy, at the University of Turin. He has spent the past two decades in Los Angeles, teaching at a variety of locales including UCLA, UCLA Extension, Osher Institute at UCLA, Antelope Valley College and Antioch University. A recurring theme in Pirolini’s teaching career has been the contributions of women in film. Over the years, he has created four different academic courses inspired by feminist film theory of the 1970s.
“I got fascinated,” he said, “by the ways, mostly unconscious, that movie makers manipulate the audience into taking the male point of view.”
After teaching film to such a wide variety of American students, including college kids and interested seniors, Pirolini says film students today, “have much more awareness of the tricks,” adding that many of them are also experimenting with making their own films. “They know more about the process.”
However, Pirolini feels that today’s students (and the viewing public) have less patience for narrative development than they used to.
“I agree with the director Sidney Pollock, who said there used to be peaks and valleys in films, but today they only want the peaks,” he said.
Pirolini finds that his students at SRJC are similar in sophistication and insight to those at UCLA, even though the latter, “compete to get in and study all day.” His favorite students in Los Angeles are the senior citizens he meets teaching at the Osher Institute, because they are often retirees from the movie industry.
“You learn stuff from them you don’t learn in books,” he said.
As an Italian teaching film in the U.S., Pirolini suspects that his outsider status has allowed him a little more freedom of expression in the classroom.
“Students may cut me a little more slack, because I’m a foreigner,” he joked.
Pirolini admits he doesn’t read a lot of film reviews, but he fondly recalls Roger Ebert.
“Because he always explained why he liked a film,” he noted.
In addition to many published articles, festival catalogues and reviews, Pirolini has written two books, both on directors. “The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study” (2010) and “Rouben Mamoulian” (1998, Italian). If he were to write another book, he says, it would probably focus on silent films of the late 1920s.
“It is,” he said, “one of my favorite periods.”