Guest lecturer Robert Rosen recently wowed MIFF with his musings on cinematic narratives. Simon Foster was there to take it all in.
4 Aug 2010 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Robert Rosen has never met you, but he already knows your story. Not in detail – where or how you are reading this, or what colour shirt is, or what you last spoke to your best friend about. But he knows you are interested in film. That you have a fascination with the finer points of filmmaking – you are reading an article of cinematic narrative structure, right? Robert Rosen loves to listen to the stories you tell, even if you don't know you are telling it.

Appearing at the Melbourne International Film Festival as a guest lecturer, Robert Rosen opened his speaking engagement with a lecture that he has presented in 20 countries and to auditoriums every bit as packed as the ACMI's Cinema 2 on this Thursday morning. The lecture is called 'Navigating a Narrative World', a topic that Rosen came to understand was far more vast than the notion of how it applies to the films we watch – many of which would have been made by students he has mentored, until recently, as Dean of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television (past alumni include Alexander Payne, Gore Verbinski, Francis Ford Coppola, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Paul Schrader and Penelope Spheeris).

He understands that the festival crowd, who have braved the morning peak and the chill of a classically grey Melbourne morning to make the 9.45am start time, are here for his thoughts on film narrative and he doesn't disappoint. Recalling his teaching days, he imparts, “What I heard myself saying, over and over again over all these years, was that at the centre was the story. Sure, the script is important”, he deadpans, “but what are all the elements that come together to create a narrative, to tell a story?”

On this point, he relates a meeting with close friend Deborah Landis – the Hollywood costume designer who is credited with creating the iconic hat worn by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “As President of the Costume Design Guild, she is militant (that) costumers are not into fashion. 'That's what designers do for the actress on the red carpet at the film premiere!' she would yell. Deborah was adamant that the dress worn in the movie should not tell the actresses story, it should tell the characters one.”

For Rosen, this all-encompassing definition of film narrative – of the responsibility to the story to which everyone involved in a project's production must adhere – would soon spill over into the real world. With the vast reach provided by the rolodex of legendary Hollywood producer and fellow UCLA professor Peter Guber, Rosen initiated a round-table discussion group involving 40 of the giants of modern American society – not to talk about what they did, but to talk about the role of 'story' in how they did it. Involved in the class were world figures from the upper echelons of sport (legendary LA Lakers coach Pat Riley), business (President of the Starbucks coffee empire, Ken Lombard), media (Pulitzer Prize winners like food critic Jonathon Gold and car critic Dan Neil; Editor-in-Chief of WIRED magazine, Chris Anderson; Variety editor, Peter Bart ), politics (ex-Presidential campaign manager Susan Estridge), spirituality (Deepak Chopra; motivation guru Anthony Robbins), sociology (Apache storyteller Dovie Thomason) and entertainment (composer Hans Zimmer; HBO President Colin Callender; Oscars producer Gil Cates; KISS co-founder Gene Simmons), amongst many others. The Los Angeles Times called the event “a talk show host's dream.”

Each told of the story they created to achieve their greatness; in film terms, of the decisions they made to be the editor and costume designer and director in the story of their business success. For Rosen, it was a revelation. When WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson initially refused to participate, it was because he questioned the definition of narrative (“By definition, narrative must have an ending, yet my narrative is constantly changing; I won't let it end”); such insight expanded Rosen's own perception of real-world narrative.

The meeting, segments of which were played to a captivated MIFF audience, was integral to Rosen's decision to leave UCLA and travel the world, lecturing on the importance of defining your own narrative to achieve success. Speaking with The Age newspaper prior to the lecture series, Rosen said “'What I wanted people to come away with is that no matter what the medium, no matter what the future will be, narrative and story are a central and pivotal concern, not only to directors but by extension to anybody in the culture.''

Robert Rosen is an academic without peer in the world of American film and has been an advocate of film preservation and appreciation for most of his working life. His dedication to the cause of film archiving runs the gamut – with Martin Scorsese, he co-founded the film preservation endeavour, the Film Foundation; and he has, for many years, been a regular attendee at the Playboy mansion for Hugh Hefner's famous screenings parties (in 2003, he told, “Hefner's movie nights are one of the more serious classic film events in L.A.”)

At several points in the lecture, he took long, deep breaths to calm down, having allowed himself to get caught up in his own enthusiasm for film culture. His discovery as to the role that narrative performs in both movies and in life is groundbreaking – due to Rosen's work, the gap between what is reel and what is real has become a little bit smaller. For a man dedicated the art of cinema and to the audience that hung on his every fascinating word such a revelation is startling.