September 21, 2000

The Old College Try

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If documentary film is supposed to be a window into reality, then what could possibly motivate Cornell students to go to see a movie that follows ten freshman around Stanford University? Been there. Done that.

True, true. But,” Now and Then: From Frosh to Seniors” offers something about the college experience that most Cornell students don’t see: humor. Sure, we’ve all mastered the art of dry sarcasm, but we haven’t really experienced the humor of not taking ourselves too seriously, not that this group of Stanford undergrads are tripping the life fantastic as they battle the pressures of freshman year.

The value of the film lies in its ability to show us these young innocents four years later, in their senior year, as they reflect on their first year at college, critique their youthful ignorance, and share the lessons they’ve learned and the paths these lessons will lead them down in the future. It’s a ray of light at the end of every slave to Academia’s long, and often bleak, tunnel.

Interestingly, of the variety of lessons learned by each individual throughout the four-year span, the majority all end up asking filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, “Why didn’t you tell me it was no big deal?”

According to these ten veterans of the collegiate trial, the work isn’t in vain, but the stress and anxiety sure are. Unfortunately for all of us, each student, as well as the filmmakers, admit that it’s just one of those lessons in life you have to learn for yourself.

Dan Geller, co-producer and co-director of Now and Then, isn’t just preaching to the “you don’t know what it’s like here” choir on this one. As a one time Cornell undergrad in the history department, Geller knows a thing or two about Big Red stress.

Geller and his wife and co-filmmaker, Dayna Goldfine, shared their experiences and thoughts on their jaunt into the deep, dark depths of freshman dorm life while filming their critically acclaimed flick, which premieres at Williard Straight this Saturday night.

Daze: Why did you choose to document the college experience?

Dan Geller: It’s a very interesting story, a great change for American youth. It’s a passage from childhood to adulthood. Plus, Cornell and Stanford are similar in the fact that they go out of their way to create a diverse student body, ethnically, geographically.

We wanted to know what it would be like if there was a bunch of multi-cultural theorizing …

That picture also played out in a strange way. While people seem, their freshman year, to make friends and hang out with each other across all boundaries and dimensions, by senior year they seem to have retreated into the most easy, convenient affinity group. It’s sad in some ways, and I wonder what from that experience holds from when people were laughing that freshman year, when everyone was mashed together and at least made an attempt to hang out together.

Daze: Would you say that you personally captured the reality of the college experience?

DG: Well, I hope we have. One way to look at it is to ask if our subjects think that … And they do. So, I think we’ve got a fairly, I wouldn’t say it’s a typical view, but we’ve captured some sort of essence that can make a fair claim to represent what might be on the minds of people in college as they try to figure out what their adult selves are going to be.

Daze: Do you think that the subjects’ experiences of college were changed or distorted by your presence there?

DG: I think it was in that they were more introspective than they might have been otherwise … But, these were pretty strong personalities and they weren’t about to be bumped around by our presence.

Dayna and I are pretty easy going. We’re not invisible as filmmakers, there’s no way we can be … We certainly didn’t stage anything … I think it brought them to realize that they were having a more mindful experience of their college life than perhaps they would have otherwise.

Perhaps it is the college student’s ability to be so mindful of their place in life during college that makes for such an interesting study as well as story. You learn in Psych 101 that there are critical periods during childhood in which we develop mentally and physically. Isn’t college the critical period of adulthood when we develop intellectually and socially? This is the kind of question conjured up by Now and Then, a mindful experience in its own right. From blowjobs to career goals, this film is certainly a window into the real-life mini-series of higher education. Although the students in the film spend many reflective moments worrying over issues such as these, twenty feet away on the big screen, it is possible to look at a scene reminiscent of your own freshman year and to snicker a bit, remembering a time when life hinged on Math 111 and Greek Rush.

Archived article by Laura Thomas