The Documentary Tradition

Dec 2010

Jane Gaines is an interesting and somewhat bizarre character. Half of the time, what she's talking about is so complicated and convoluted that it seems like even she has no clue what she's trying to say, but she definitely knows how to start a stimulating conversation and get you thinking about the way film works. She coins about a dozen new terms or phrases each class using her little "handwriting" stylus thing to write on her powerpoints, but you don't really need to know a lot of what she talks about and luckily the TA's grade everything and sometimes even they don't really understand the assignment. The one thing I couldn't stand was that she was often rude to the projectionists, who, admittedly, sometimes were not paying close attention, but there's no excuse to treat them like idiots. I felt bad for the TA's, who were often criticized by Jane, sorry, "Dr. Gaines", as they were supposed to call her. Basically, take this class if you really want to change the way you think about documentary or want to make them. If you're not too serious and you're just looking for an easy film class, it might just be confusing and stressful.

Mar 2009

Jennifer is young and smart and beautiful, but a little uncomfortable as a professor, and unfortunately her lack of confidence makes her seem unfriendly. I really thought she was mean (and nervous) until i met with her (which she was happy to do) and realized that she's totally sweet, just nervous in front of a class. She really is quite nice and very helpful and wants everyone to understand and ask questions...she just isn't very good at creating that kind of environment (yet). She would ask us questions about the readings, but would also read her own academic-style summaries (with quotes and everything) of the readings. These were not helpful for me because i found her writing style to be confusing, but the TA in my section always answered lingering questions. It was my first film class and my first semester at Columbia, and i survived...i might even take more film classes. Overall i would say go for it if Jennifer teaches here again. (She's really from NYU.)

Mar 2007

Sandra Luckow is simply the worst professor I have ever had in my 3 years at Columbia. While we watched a lot of interesting films in this class which did help me learn about the history and different styles of documentary filmmaking, Sandra Luckow seems to me insufferably vain, pretentious and self-obsessed. She forced us to watch and praise all of her own work, she continually compared herself and her work to that of great filmmakers, namedropped, and even went so far as to say that Best in Show was inspired by a film on ventriloquism that she made! She also humiliated several students for making commets she didn't deem valid. She was also, in my opinion, a terrible lecturer, frequently merely reading extensive passages from IMDB rather than coming up with her own material that we couldn't read ourselves online. She is an intelligent woman who I believe does know a lot about documentary filmmaking, but I really felt like her lectures were more irksome than constructive, and that most of what I learned came from my great TA (Chris Radcliffe) in discussion section. I would not recommend this class if it is taught by her.

Nov 2006

She is an extremely qualified and insightful instructor. Her indepth discussion of each film within her own realm of view, however, provide too much bias for the screening of the film as well as give the students an overall air of arrogance. Her choices of film are always interesting and fresh, but at times the length of the class can be tiring, especially considering her pension for letting students out late. Overall, Luckow knows a lot about her profession and genuinely wishes to impart this knowledge on her students. I would recommend the class to anyone who is willing to work, and deal with at times unbearable narcissism.

Jan 2005

Prof. Engel did a great job designing this course. It gives a broad overview of the history of documentary, from the Lumiere Brothers to Errol Morris. Every film was extremely education or enjoyable, and most of the selections were both. Class discussion wasn't the course's strong point, but Larry's lectures were insightful and usually very relevant to the current state of documentary. Class-time was nicely balanced between screenings and discussion, and the films themselves represented an incredibly broad range of topics and styles.

Jan 2005

Anshul was an intelligent and insightful TA. His discussion sections always covered a lot of ground and definitely added to the film-watching experience. He was very knowledgable about documentary filmmaking, as well as film history and theory in general. He is a fair grader and always arrived at sections on-time and prepared.

Dec 2004

Incredible? I wanted to die. This class was 4 hours of hell. Coffee wasn't enough to ward off a headache. Prof. Engel is a genuinely nice, low-key guy, but is definitely more of a filmmaker than a teacher. There were no lectures unless you count a couple of hours when he threw an outline of his mentor's book on the overhead and read it to us without really explaining it. And the day when he tried to get us into a discussion about propaganda but succeeded only in coaxing out some ridiculously inane, uninsighful comments. The insights he called out during films were usually "low angle," "high angle," or "continuity cut." He never brought up current documentaries (to be fair, I don't think many people in the class actually saw or had any interest in current documentaries, unless you count Fahrenheit 9/11, which they constantly brought up as if that made them well-versed) and he didn't give us any insight into where he thought documentaries were going in the future. The level of discussion/"lecture" was completely superficial and I felt stupid even sitting there. I'm not a film major so I don't know if this is what all film classes are like, but it was not challenging at all. Save yourself some time and rent some Wiseman and Maysles. Sitting through this class is just pointless.

Jan 2004

I agree with most of the positive reviews below. I want to add that I took this course to fulfill a general requirement and I am in no way a film major and knew nothing about film prior to the course, and I loved it. You can pick and choose what to take away from this course. For my midterm and finals I was able to analyze the films as literature, or socially or politically, and I didn't need to learn much about camera angles or lighting or the Deconstructor or any of that weird stuff that only Film majors like. (Though I could have learned this stuff if I had wanted to, simply by not zoning out when he talked about it during class.) Don't be scared away from this course if you're not a Film major! Beware, though, of falling asleep during the movies. They're all very good and interesting, but it's a dark room, and if you're already tired... let's just say you should bring a caffienated beverage to class...

Jan 2004

Incredible course, incredible instructor. He changed my perspective on film, tv, and life in general to some extent. He had many fascinating stories about his adventures filming for the discovery channel and others. He also seemed to really care about the philosophical issues of film as art. He asked really thought provoking questions and showed, for the most part, very interesting films.

Jan 2004

Everyone should take this class with Larry regardless of whether one is a film major or not because you learn so much about the nature of media and film. When I registered for this class I originally planned to drop it because I didn't have room in my schedule, but after attending the first lecture (I hesitate to use that term because he encourages so much discussion in class), I was hooked. I learned more in the first class about filmmaking than I learned in some of my other classes all year. While it may not be your cup of tea when Larry speaks over the film and points out the filmmakersÂ’ decisions, I found it to be a very effective method of teaching. Larry does a great job of choosing films to show that demonstrate the different styles of documentary and gears much of the class toward examining how we differentiate between fiction and nonfiction film. He is extraordinarily personable and I particularly enjoyed his tales of real life experiences he has had while filming. Larry is very honest with his students, respects them, and lets them know what he really thinks. He can sometimes be cynical about the nature of film and people, but ultimately it comes across that he loves this visual medium. The first class, Larry started by pointing a camera at us and projecting the image on the board. He then asked rhetorically why we were all watching him lecture on screen instead of in person. Larry explained we love to have the story told for us and when a camera frames the shot it tells the story. This was a perfect Larry-ism, a sort of statement that really got you thinking about the nature of film. While I recommend any class that Larry teaches, I donÂ’t think I would have had as good a time in the intro to film class with him because it has a more specific intent and syllabus of theory to convey. LarryÂ’s great when he has more freedom to teach what he wants. Ultimately, a great experience with a great and wonderfully laid back teacher.

Dec 2003

Larry's quite a character... quirky, opinionated as anything, but pretty cool. If you're anything like me, you'll find the first half of the class pretty dry, with all the silent films and such. (Larry will sit in the theater and cry out things like, "Brilliant!" at seemingly random bits that clearly aren't random but brilliant.) However, the second half of the class-- films like "Primary," "High School," and "The Thin Blue Line"-- will really stay with you. Film discussion sections are fun and helpful sometimes when it comes to understanding the readings but more often than not, it's just about batting around opinions about the films and ideas for films for a half hour. (This is not a production class, but many of us made documentaries for the final project.) My T.A. Suzi is the most incredible girl-- funny, helpful, and cool. Try to end up in her discussion group if you can. So yes, I'd recommend this class if only for the awesome films you watch second half of the semester. Yes.

Aug 2003

Larry is so passionate about film, about documentaries, about his work, and about the class. The films are great, the discussions are good when he gets to expound on different ideas, and Larry is very personable and approachable. TA's definitely decide your grades so watch out for that. Otherwise, class is awesome and Larry is a very talented director/producer and professor.

Dec 2001

The pessimist sees a disaster of a class where the projection equiptment always breaks, all the undergrad grading is done by silly TA's, the the syllabus seems to have no rhyme or reason, and the professor is overwhelmingly arrogant with his impromptu in-class discussions and long lectures on his personal life and career. The optimist sees that rarest of rarities-- a film department class that makes you think. Engel is smart and thinks about how he thinks about film, and some of his off-the-cuff lectures were great. Particularily his discussion of media coverage of Sept. 11 revealed an intelligence and perspective that most of us were totally uncapable of two days later. The class structure was a mess, I got no sense of the history, and I often felt that I would have been better off just showing up and auditing four or five times that semester. But still, it made me think, and if you're gonna be a lame-ass film major that might be a change of pace.