January 19, 2012

A Day in the Life of Dr. Drew Casper

Follow the Iconic SCA Professor

It’s 11 AM on a day that’s scheduled to end at 11 PM and Dr. Drew Casper is already wearing me out. I quickly learn that my assignment to cover “a day in the life of Dr. Casper” is going to be more accurately “a half-day in the life of Dr. Casper.” By the time I take a seat in his office, he’s been up for seven hours.

Dr. Drew Casper in his office

Dr. Casper has been teaching at SCA for thirty-nine years. “I was a child prodigy,” Casper joked. “I started working here when I was twelve years old.” He’s best known for his 190: Intro to Film course (his class was number eight on a t-shirt which students produced listing the top ten reasons to come to SCA) but he has also published five books, holds the prestigious Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Chair in American Cinema, was awarded the 2005 USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching, has provided more than forty-five DVD commentaries and, in 2011, lectured at the Beijing Film Archive.

Before becoming an authority on cinema, Casper was ordained a Jesuit priest. “The Jesuits sent me to get my Ph. D in production,” said Casper. “I told the Provincial that film was the new humanity and he bought it.”

During Casper’s second semester of study, writing professor Irwin Blacker, impressed with his work, asked him to teach his writing class when he was hospitalized. Shortly after, Blacker had the head of the School, Bernie Kantor, offer Casper a tenure track position.

“There was a problem,” Casper continued. “The Provincial said ‘no.’ I was baffled. I knew that I could reach so many more hearts and minds that would be entering the entertainment industry teaching at SCA than not. I left the Jesuits and fell under the wings of my new Jewish guardian angels, Blackwell and Kantor.”

 “The first thing I did was to expand the historical-cinema component of the division by teaching classes on comedy, film noir and the style of Vincente Minnelli.”

“Looking back, I think the Jesuits realize it was an unwise decision. When I revisited them a couple of

Dr. Casper holds court over his 190 class in Norris

years ago, they said, ‘It’s too bad that this happened. Leaving wouldn’t be our advice now.’”

 As a student at SCA, I had heard the legend that Casper wakes up every morning at four AM to walk and pray for an hour before hitting the gym and weights at five and swimming sixty laps. He confirms it, “Healthy mind. Healthy body. The Jesuits taught me that. They got it from Cicero.”

This morning, Dr. Casper is running around the Critical Studies office at 100 miles per hour: getting water for his student workers, checking his calendar and, most of all, making sure he looks good in his photos. He can be described a million ways but low energy isn’t one of them.

Before I’ve even settled in, he’s taking meetings with students. In the first half hour of his work day he’s written a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad, given career advice to an aspiring screenwriter and quoted Horace and Shakespeare to a student to describe contemporary action films – “the mountain roared to emit a mouse… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Next, we headed to Norris Cinema Theatre for Dr. Casper’s famous CTCS 190 course. Before the class, Dr. Casper prowls the aisles of the auditorium learning names of students and grilling them on the assigned reading. Less than eager students avoid eye contact.

The lecture detailed the strategy of performance as it enters into the production and consumption of a film text.  At lecture’s end, Casper thanks the students for their open minds and hearts. He receives his first standing ovation of the day.

Casper’s night class, CTCS 469 The Films of Martin Scorsese is clearly a different crowd from 190. They are older and most of them looked exhausted to the point of collapse (presumably production students in the editing phase of a film.)

My guise as a “fly on the wall” quickly breaks down as Casper points me towards students and instructing me, “Get a quote from him. He loves me. Ask her for info, she’s got stories.” The students do, in fact, love him. None of them have anything bad to say but most of the undergrads are afraid to say anything on record. A common fear when my tape recorder comes out is being “called out.”

When the class gets into full gear, I see the “calling out” in full force. Casper is trying to emphasize the importance of color composition in Scorsese’s New York, New York, when he calls on a student sitting directly behind me. The student mumbles to himself, “oh no” and starts frantically flipping through a binder. He gives an answer which doesn’t appease Casper but, fortunately for everyone involved, Casper moves on.

At the end of the evening, Casper reminds the class that the film is a 35mm print. “That’s the way movies are meant to be consumed --not streamed, not on DVD –but on the big screen… and communally. People don’t even remember films they see today because they watch them the size of a postage stamp and alone!”

Dr. Casper preparing for his day with Ph. D student Casey Riffel

In large lecture classes, sometimes students choose to view the movies at home and the break between the lecture and the screening signals a mass exodus. In Casper’s class, the students stay.

When he leaves the lectern, the class gives him his second standing ovation and he slips out the back.

The entire day, Dr. Casper didn’t slow down at all. I can only imagine that, at the end of the day, he collapses but, according to legend, he’s up the next morning at four AM to do it all again.

Drew Casper on the Importance of Critical Studies

In today’s culture, the word is being eclipsed by the image and, of course, this School is devoted to understanding, respecting and, hopefully, making some of the students fall in love with it. Unfortunately, we, as a culture, are moving away from art of movies and the humanism they contained and getting into empty spectacle. Seeing movies of the past and the few exceptional movies that are made today makes students aware that movies are a primary way of us talking to one another about one another.

The Wisdom of Dr. Casper

“Singing in the Rain, which I begin 190 with, was made in 1952, some sixty years ago and it can still fill students with so much joy. They come out bounding. They come out walking on air. Not too many movies today put us in such fine fettle.”

“Thank God for independent filmmaking today.”

“As a culture, we are getting more primitive. It’s sad but it’s true.”

“I’m so sick of films where heroes are destined or selected to save the world and the galaxies. Whatever happened to movies in which people go about mending their own hearts?”

 “No more tattoos. People with your brains and looks don’t need gimmicks.”

“You want to know what a star entrance is? Look at Gene Kelley’s introduction at Grauman’s Chinese in Singing in the Rain. Blindingly white fedora, tie, shirt, camel hair coat and an ear to ear grin where his teeth literally sparkle.”

“To be able to spend a good part of your life sharing your passion with young people, as I have, is a profound blessing. To have my name associated with that of Alfred Hitchcock is equally a blessing that could have only happened with me staying at SCA.”

Drew Casper in his Students' Words

Dr. Casper serenades the class before bidding us an emotional farewell. Knowing that a professor

The cover of Dr. Casper's latest book Hollywood Film 1963-1976

cares so deeply about his life's work is refreshing at a level of academia where many professors solely want to conduct research.

Erin Loadvine – Junior

Working for Dr. Casper is like working for a force of nature. It’s like being immersed.

Casey Riffel – Ph. D

It’s exciting to be in the class of someone who loves what they do so much. He’s got a certain drama and energy behind what he does.

Jesse Small – Sophomore

I thought he was brilliant but, honestly, I was frightened in 190. He keeps lecture fun. He came to the first day of Scorsese class dressed as Travis Bickle.

Audrey Rosenberg – Freshman

He is bold and daring in everything he says. It is few and far between that I meet a teacher or professor that will speak freely about his religious and political views, but Casper speaks of it with emphasis. He knows exactly what he believes and says it proudly and passionately.

Jade Niemeyer – Senior

Some kids at SCA should just say, “I majored in Casper.” I’ve had five classes.

Michael Bitar – Senior