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Revisiting Vassar College filmmaking / Memories of Ken Robinson & Brian Lamont

After making a recent HD remaster of my old student film "8:00 a.m.," I decided to have one made for "Vince Germain in Divine Intervention."

This was a short film from my senior year at Vassar College, and I was the DP. I had a blast playing with pseudo-film-noirish shadows and camera angles, but there was one near-disaster that I must take the blame for: I once left one of my lighting "cookies" (a large sheet of cardboard I'd cut with horizontal lines for shadow effects) standing too close to the lights, and it almost caught on fire from the heat. I don't remember how much smoke there was before any of us noticed it...but it left me pretty shaken.

It's a big, silly, goofy detective film, and while I still can't make head nor tail of its plot, it was a lot of fun to make.

Revisiting the film after all these years is a surreal, bittersweet experience, though. Two key contributors are now gone: Ken Robinson and Brian Grosz.

Ken Robinson was my faculty advisor and the head of Vassar’s film production department. He’d previously taught at USC during its post-Coppola/Lucas golden age of the “film school generation” – Bob Zemekis was among Ken’s students – and Ken patterned his classes the way the USC program had been in its early days. Every student had the opportunity to make a film of their own in the first year, while they would take on work in a specific role on a group project the following year.

Ken told me that this approach eventually fell out of favor at USC, when the emphasis was placed on making fewer films of (presumably) higher quality, limiting students’ opportunities to direct a project of their own. If it hadn’t been for Ken’s program at Vassar, I might not have been allowed to make “8:00 a.m.” at all. And while that film was dirt-cheap and had plenty of warts, it still got me some recognition at film festivals, where it competed with obviously more polished (and expensive) films that had greater resources.

I plan on writing more about Ken later, so that I may finally give him a proper tribute. He died from a sudden heart attack in late December of 2015, just a few months after his retirement. It was supposed to be a new era of fun and creativity in his life, and I’m mad he didn’t get the chance to enjoy it.

You can watch a little tribute video I made for Ken's retirement here:

The last time Ken and I spoke on the phone was on his birthday right before Halloween, 2015. We chatted about the film I was making, and we discussed plans for my visiting him at his new home in Northern California later that Spring. I'm saddened it never came to be. I still miss him dearly.

Brian Grosz went by the nickname “Dingo” during my time at Vassar, but many people knew him later as Brian Lamont. Brian played the role of the head monk in “Vince Germain”. I will never forget his energy, his humor, and his art.

We stayed in touch via FB over the years, and I always thought he'd live forever. I was heartbroken to learn of his death last May 14th in Austin. I'm still a bit stunned and in shock, as he was so young. I can't say we were close, but I always sensed he was someone I should have taken the initiative to know better while at college.

I envy those who were close to him, and who didn't take him for granted like I did. Looking at his Facebook page, it’s clear that he touched many, many lives.

I also envy Brian in many ways, as he truly lived and immersed himself in creating art, while I sat around on my ass, complacent and content with the trappings of a rather uncreative job that simply allowed me to pay my mortgage and survive day to day. Brian took creative risks I never could, and had an artistic bravery I never matched.

At right is an example of the kind of chit-chat I'd have with Brian once in a blue moon -- a little silly, a little crass, but also sincere and kindhearted.

Brian bought one of my little pieces of art last year. Looking back, I didn't know just how much he had been struggling in his private life. I doubt he had much expendable income to spare, either. Maybe he just did it to make me feel better when I was going through an emotionally dark time. I don't know…

To understand the kind of personality Brian had, I recommend you check out his self-published work, SQUALOR – especially the audiobook that he read himself. I didn’t bother to listen to it until after Brian’s death.

Shame on me.

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