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Leslie Thornton is like an ephemeral figure passing through my undergraduate education, but one who left an indelible impression upon me.

Leslie Thornton

Leslie was my film production professor at Brown University in the Department of Modern Culture and Media (MCM).  The MCM department was this bastard child birthed of various unhappy professors in various other departments at Brown, such as the English, Comparative Literature, Romantic Languages and American Civilizations departments.  The MCM department was born to address growing interests in cultural theory, and as a department to interrogate these interests.

Most of the classes in the MCM department at Brown were theory-heavy, studying great thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, Deluze and others.  I had already taken a Continental Philosophy class in the Philosophy department, and segueing into the MCM department seemed like a natural progression for his course of study.

Manning Hall at Brown University

University Hall at Brown University

"Discipline & Punish" is one of Darren's favorite texts!

Foucault really had his thumb on the pulse of power and control.

The MCM department had all the classes in Film and Video production, that went hand in hand with classes on theories of media production.  I was in heaven in that department. I had found a place for myself within the larger university — down in the basement editing room at the bottom of the MCM department building.  I would get to the editing room after finishing his other homework, usually about 9 or 10 p.m. every evening.  I’d spend the whole night down there, lights off, computer screen glowing in the dark, editing and learning and testing out my creativity.  And I usually wasn’t alone; other students would be down there editing too, and a strange sense of camaraderie would develop among everyone as they’d share what they were working on with each other and elicit creative suggestions to technical problems with their pieces.

Back entrance to the MCM building at Brown University

I enrolled in my first Intro Film class in the first semester of his Junior year at Brown, and Leslie Thornton was my professor.  I knew little about Leslie, except that she was very famous — and very well-respected — for her film work.  Internet searches brought up all kinds of articles that respected film theorists had written about Leslie’s work, and every article that I had seen had praised her work extensively.

Peggy and Fred in Hell

She seemed quite shy and diminutive, but had such a gentle heart that she easily won over the class.  The most impressive thing about her was her passion for film.  She was a filmmaker who never flinched at economic constraints, but rather assumed that all the roadblocks t0 her production work only added another challenge to be creatively overcome.  For example, the bulk of her extraordinary “Peggy and Fred in Hell” series of films was shot with a single overhead lightbulb on the set.  And as any filmmaker knows, this is a lighting nightmare, but regardless if this lighting nightmare, the “Peggy and Fred in Hell” series is routinely cited as an inspired and brilliant body of work.

Leslie Thornton at work

The lesson?  Whatever the obstruction to creating great art, overcome it.

This is a good lesson to learn, and one that I have never forgot.

Peggy and Fred in Hell

Peggy and Fred in Hell

Peggy and Fred in Hell

Adynata (1983)

There's a chimp under that bag!

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