In 1975, I attended LACC (Los Angeles City College) and took as many film classes as I could. Tom Stempel taught three of them: film history, documentaries and screenwriting. The film history class would meet and watch films in the science lecture hall, a large echoy room with seats set at a steep rake which made it a good place to watch films.
I remember watching The Seven Chances there. It was my first introduction to Buster Keaton, who would, in time, become my favorite comedian — in either silent or sound films. That semester, we also watched Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingis-Khana), a film by V. I. Pudovkin, and definitely in the Eisenstein mold of early Soviet films. With its bold, direct images; its at times heavy-handed visual metaphors; and didactic, unapologetic, manipulative editing; this film, in an odd way, spoke to me. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was a surprise and a thrill to watch. Other great films that I saw for the first time in that lecture hall were Jesse James and My Darling Clementine.
It was no different in Tom’s documentary class. It was there that I was first introduced to the documentaries of Frederic Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. Their films have been favorites of mine ever since. In the screenwriting course, I learned about the nuts and bolts and whys and why nots of putting a story together in a visual way — but with words and on paper.
In his lectures and discussions, Tom was always intelligent and interesting, never bullying or dogmatic. He also brough a welcome sense of humor and perspective to all of his exchanges, whether it was with the entire class or one-on-one with an individual student.
If you’re lucky, you can look back, and there are a handful of teachers who made a real difference in your life, who opened doors, surprised, and took some daunting subject and made it exciting and accessible. An even smaller handful of teachers are terrific, decent people, who are able to maintain their own excitement for a particular subject (in this case, film) and continue to excite others about it.
Tom is definitely one of these all too rare individuals. I will always be in his debt.
Islander interview with Tom Stempel, part one:https://imrud.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/tom-pt-1-mp3.mp3″
Islander interview with Tom Stempel, part two:https://imrud.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/tom-pt-2-mp3.mp3″