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Leading Man:
Festival, endowment celebrate Oakland's vision for film studies at Whitworth

Photo by Kirk Hirota

by Leah Silvieus, '07

The first film English Professor Leonard Oakland saw terrified him. He was 10 and at a drive-in movie theatre in Chicago, watching The Wizard of Oz.

"It's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen," he says. "My sister and I both cried." Luckily, that experience didn't scare him away from film permanently.

In the '60s, Oakland walked into an art house theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif. That was the night he first saw François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, the film that was to sweep him up in a lifelong affair with film studies.

Looking back, Oakland can't recall the exact element of the film that drew him in. The movie is a whirlwind of war and travel and a ménage a trois romance, the latter of which personally resonated with Oakland, who was dating the same girl as his roommate at the time. Beyond that, he felt something deeper tugging him toward film, a tug that even now he can't really name.

"Sometimes I think movies affect us most for reasons we don't understand," Oakland says. "The great ones can operate on a very deep level that we cannot bring up in our awareness."

In one scene from Jules et Jim that takes place after World War I, Jim comes to visit his friend Jules and tells him the story of how he decided to be a writer.

But what can I become? Jim remembers asking his teacher. Curious, his teacher replied. That's no career, Jim protested. Not yet, his teacher said. Travel. Write. Translate. Learn to live anywhere, beginning now. There's a future in it.

Like Jim, Oakland has made a vocation of curiosity, of living, writing, traveling and sharing his love of knowledge and teaching with those he meets.

Nowhere was this more evident than during this past February as he peered out at almost half a century's worth of admirers, hailing from both coasts and every era of his life, who gathered at Spokane's Davenport Hotel to celebrate the inaugural Leonard A. Oakland Film Festival. The festival, which also featured the kickoff of the film studies endowment that has been initiated in Oakland's honor, will convey his curiosity about film, and his passion for it, to future Whitworth students.

Film is such a powerful, pervasive communication medium, and studying how it operates - how it conveys stories and how it posits arguments - is an essential skill in the 21st century. I believe strongly in the importance of film education, not only for the student who wants to go into film, but for every student. Leonard certainly understands the importance of "media studies," and I'm very excited that Whitworth is committed to continuing that legacy.

 - Andrea Palpant-Dilley, '00

Oakland says he loves film because it is in this medium that the arts - music, literature, and visual art - converge. He hopes that the endowment will ensure that film studies remain an important part of the Whitworth curriculum.

The film endowment is a gift to all students, not just those interested in pursuing a career in film, according to Whitworth President Bill Robinson.

"Film penetrates culture in a very important way," Robinson says. "Frankly, to ignore such a relevant and far-reaching medium would be a disservice to our students."

While the film studies endowment is still in its infancy, Oakland has been building up to this legacy for years - ever since his days in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley.

While movies are ubiquitous today - on cable T.V., on the Internet, in rental stores - film culture was much different in the 1960s. To see any classic films - foreign or American - one had to belong to a film club or have access to university screenings. Oakland watched many films from a row of folding chairs in one of two side-by-side storefront movie theatres in Berkeley. Pauline Kael, who would become the film critic for The New Yorker, chose the programming for both of the theatres that Oakland frequented.

These were the days when the general public was just gaining access to international film. While at Berkeley, Oakland watched a variety of foreign films, but those that remain most salient in his mind are the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave, films produced between 1959 and 1965.

Oakland and Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Ron Shelton stroll down memory lane at the film festival banquet.

Photo by Kirk Hirota

"These films were so unusual for Americans," Oakland says. "They didn't have the superficial entertainment value of Hollywood film. They were like reading a Dostoyevsky novel. They made demands on you to follow the story and showed us emotional, intellectual, and spiritual crises that were unknown to us."

When Oakland arrived at Whitworth in the '60s, he did not start offering film studies classes right away. The seeds for the interdisciplinary field, however, were already germinating as Oakland strove to push the English department curriculum in new directions.

Loren Minnick, '68, who is now a photographer, was a student when Oakland came to Whitworth. He remembers how the "young, flamboyant" Oakland challenged the fairly conservative, established English department with his emphasis on more contemporary literature and, later, film.

"When he showed up at Whitworth, he added a new element," Minnick says. "He was interested in a lot of stuff and saw how it all related. He was at the vanguard of interdisciplinary studies."

Oakland began teaching film classes as Whitworth transitioned to the 4- 1-4 calendar in the 1968-69 academic year. The addition of Jan Term allowed professors to introduce experimental subjects that reached beyond required coursework. For Oakland that meant film studies. Other American universities were beginning to offer film studies, and Oakland's class The Art Film as Literature was the first of its kind to be offered in Spokane.

"We were ahead of the wave in that way," Oakland says.

Oakland opened his first class with a Polish film, Mother Joan of the Angels, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, which was both provocative and relevant to the times. The film follows an official who comes to a small town in the 17th century to exorcise nuns' demons.

Speaking of the time at which he saw the film, Oakland says, "These were days of sex, drugs, rock n' roll, and the Vietnam War. These were days when students didn't want light entertainment. They wanted films that asked us to grapple with the issues of the times."

After teaching his first film classes, in the early '70s, Oakland divided his original material into two different courses. He re-titled his initial class American Film and then added another course, World Cinema. The latter became an upper-division course for a smaller audience; it was organized chronologically and excluded American film.

In the late 1980s, Oakland brought a new dimension to his classroom instruction: first-hand experience.

"He was fresh off the set of Bull Durham, which was still in post-production, and he found it a wholly enriching experience," says Whitworth Director of Campaign Planning Tad Wisenor, '89.

Whitworth Today asked Oakland to submit a list of, oh, maybe 10 of his favorite films. Here's his response.

I gave myself two minutes [to compile the list] while listening to a Core lecture. So here is a list of various films I have loved at various times:

Godfather I & II
Finding Nemo
Singin' in the Rain

Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors
Truffaut's Jules & Jim and The 400 Blows
Buster Keaton's Cops
Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums
Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire
Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve
Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Fellini's La Strada and 8½
Stephen Daldry's The Reader
Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Winter Light, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny & Alexander.
Plus, of course, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard

I guess that makes 21.

He already loved movies, but this firsthand experience shifted his affinity to a new level.

Oakland's foray into the world behind the silver screen began in 1986, when he moved to Los Angeles during a sabbatical. While in the city, Oakland was offered the opportunity to work with one of his friends and former students, screenwriter Ron Shelton.

When Shelton was a freshman at Westmont College, in Santa Barbara, in 1963, Oakland was his English 101 teacher. As a student, Shelton noticed Oakland's ability to connect life, art, literature, social issues and biblical theology into daily life. It was in Oakland's classroom that Shelton first discovered a passion for the arts that would propel him toward a career as a Hollywood director and screenwriter. He credits Oakland with introducing him to literature, and, in a way, to film, since they frequently saw and discussed movies together.

At Westmont, Oakland was the teacher and Shelton the student. But 25 years later, roles reversed as Oakland worked, at first, as Shelton's typist.

"This was like old Hollywood," Oakland recalls. "Ron would lie on the couch, smoking. He would dictate to me and I would type."

Bull Durham
(1988) was the first film that Shelton directed, and he invited Oakland to Durham, N.C., to be his assistant on the set.

Working together on the film was "a continuation of a learning process that began when I was 18 years old and we were going to art films in Santa Barbara," Shelton says. "And suddenly we were doing it and doing it well, and that was remarkable."

Oakland was paid "about five cents an hour," according to Shelton, and spent a lot of time running back and forth between the set and the office, making changes to the script as they occurred. Working on a major motion picture was not always as glamorous as popular culture would suggest, but Oakland wasn't looking for glamour. Instead, he valued the learning opportunities he gained through his experiences. In the end, it is his pursuit of lifelong teaching and learning that resonates with his students years after they graduate.

Andrea Palpant-Dilley, '00, who is now a producer, director and writer at Spokane's North by Northwest Productions, remembers how Oakland deftly and often subtly maximized the power of the classroom experience.

Palpant-Dilley especially remembers one day in World Cinema when she and the other students were watching Alain Corneau's All the Mornings of the World. The film is set in 17th-century France and develops the story of a court composer, his two daughters and a young student.

"I remember sitting there in the dark silence of the science theater as the film came to a close, feeling moved by it at a very deep level," Palpant-Dilley says.

The film ended and Oakland turned up the lights. Instead of jarring his students out of the mood with heavy analysis, he engaged them in a quiet, brief discussion that "reflected in so many ways why he's gifted at teaching film," Palpant-Dilley recalls.

"At an intuitive level, he understands the power of art to transcend, to affect, to illuminate the human experience in all its complexity," she says.

Tim Eaton, '74, who is now director, cinematographer and owner of the film company Verité Studios, attests to Oakland's influence on the ways he looked at movies.

"I learned to understand film as a rich expression of ideas and culture, capable of spinning narrative in such a way that it communicates deep and profound insights," Eaton says.

In his film classes, Oakland encourages his students to engage with films in various ways. Beyond the lectures, students make presentations and actively discuss technical elements such as editing and lighting. Oakland asks them to
pay special attention to elements of film that go unnoticed by untrained moviegoers: sound effects, for example, not just dialogue.

Although his film classes have changed and grown through the years, Oakland always includes what he considers the great films. Among these are Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and a silent Russian film produced in 1925 and directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin. Oakland's also sure to show films that introduce students to old comedic stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

When students leave his class, Oakland says, he hopes that they can see the choices that directors, technicians and actors make in a film and then compare their own values to those portrayed in the film. Oakland says that students "shouldn't leave their values at the box office."

Associate Professor of Art and award-winning printmaker Scott Kolbo has created this limited-edition commemorative print. The piece features Oakland becoming one with a deep-rooted namesake oak tree in the Westminster Courtyard. Copies are available for $100 each. Thanks to a donation by the artist, all proceeds will go to the Leonard Oakland Film Studies Endowment. These prints, as well as copies of the DVD A Portrait of Leonard Oakland, may be ordered online at www.whitworth.edu/oakland.

The film studies endowment at Whitworth is just getting off the ground, but Oakland has high hopes for where it will lead.

Currently, the endowment includes just over $50,000 in gifts and pledges, and hopes are high that donors will continue adding to this amount. Initially, the endowment's primary purpose will be funding the film festival. This year's festival featured Soul Searching: A Movie about Teenagers and God, a documentary by Whitworth alumni and former Oakland students Tim Eaton and Mike Eaton, '87, the 1988 Ron Shelton film Bull Durham, and Persepolis, an animated film about growing up in Iran. Those who attended the tribute banquet had an opportunity to see the premier of A Portrait of Leonard Oakland, a documentary produced by Palpant-Dilley.

A film festival steering committee will be getting under way soon, according to Wisenor, who helped organize the February tribute banquet and is involved with fund-raising for the endowment. He expects that they will target three films for each annual or bi-annual festival.

"Leonard will play the most significant role in guiding the direction of the films selected for the foreseeable future, but I suspect that at least one festival film will be a documentary, one will be American and one will be international," Wisenor says. "We may also try to include themes so that each festival shows movies that showcase different perspectives on a single topic."

In addition to films chosen from these three categories, the festival will screen the documentary about Oakland every year "so that future generations will know who he is and what he means to Whitworth," says Professor of English Pamela Corpron-Parker, '81.

The Whitworth Academic Affairs Office will decide how the endowment income is to be spent each year; academic affairs will also make the decision about whether the endowment may one day cover projects beyond the film festival. Oakland hopes that the endowment will allow Whitworth to build a library of films and other resources that will be available to students for years to come.

Much has changed in the film industry since Oakland's Berkeley days, but his ability to develop relationships with students through teaching and learning about movies has endured.

Shelton marvels at Oakland's ability to affect multiple generations of film students - from his peers in the 1960s to freshmen just walking onto the Whitworth campus in the 21st century.

"I never knew of teachers like that; there's no one like him. His curiosity and love for learning are his biggest gifts," Shelton says. "If you have those gifts or are given them, then life is an unfolding, dynamic process of learning. You are always young in that way."

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