I came to Wesleyan expressly to study with Jeanine Basinger. Many of us did. Film was our religion and initially we loved it with the reckless idiocy of first lust; it overwhelmed us, obsessed us.
Jeanine remade lust into love. With humor and intensity, she added reality to our religion. She held our eager (sometimes jaded) hearts and grew them into superior feeling organisms, refined by careful observation and historical perspective. She encouraged us to cultivate one-to-one relationships with the movies—eliminate everything but the moment, this moment of sight and sound, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling and why?” Or as Grace Kelly said to Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, “Tell me everything you saw and what you think it means.” The more we saw, the more we understood. The more we understood, the more personal it became. And the more personal it became, the more we wanted to understand. Love became true love. True love is real. “Films are not dreams,” Jeanine says. “I don’t understand my dreams.”
“No lobby talk!” Jeanine also says (meaning no saying only “I liked it!” or “I was bored!”). No guilty pleasures. Only actual pleasures. And why was it pleasurable? That’s what we were trying to figure out. “I’m glad you liked it,” she might say, “but how did it work?” Filmmakers make choices, Jeanine demonstrated again and again, and the trick was to sync our hearts to those choices. The way to do that was to watch with a practiced mind. Under Jeanine’s supervision, we practiced—not as academics, but as enthusiasts, as Jeanine had as a girl in South Dakota: ushering, watching, listening, at the back of the theater, back when there was no such thing as a director’s commentary, when she had to make meaning with her bare hands uphill both ways in the snow and backwards in heels. And we had fun.
We still do. We’re not in Jeanine’s classes anymore, but we still go to the movies as Jeanine’s students. We want to and we have to: The omnipresence of the moving image, which now covers our world like wallpaper, has not advanced the course of serious filmmaking in Hollywood. (Choices? Which choices?) Jeanine Basinger, we all agree, is simply the antidote, the answer, the greatest defense of our greatest art form, a treasure protecting a treasure.
I can see Jeanine ambling into the art department in 1969, a stranger. The Stranger. The Drifter. Jeanine Guitar, The Dakota Kid. The saloon doors of the faculty lounge swing open and, though no one in the saloon speaks a word—this Western, after all, is a masterpiece; it tells its story purely and imaginatively through picture and sound, like the first scene of Rio Bravo—we know and feel that The Kid’s got something new, that she’s gonna blow the dust off this burg, and maybe, in the end, save the whole damned town. I see Jean Arthur as Jeanine. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten with it because I never took Jeanine’s Westerns class. Without having in my imaginative repertoire the storytelling strategies of John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks, and the others, I really can’t even begin to think.
I can’t think without Jeanine. Nor can the rest of us, her many thousands of current and former students. Nor can the readers of her 12 books. Nor, frankly, can any filmgoer—amateur or veteran—be certain he or she is thinking clearly about film until he or she learns to see film with Jeanine’s eyes. (Hint: They are connected to her heart.) Hence the glow. The glow of seeing. Of special knowledge. It wasn’t four years of classes; it was one class. One class interrupted by semesters, like one long dinner party of many courses, many eager, searching young guests and several highly esteemed guests of honor, the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium.
The only way I think we can somehow thank her is for all of us to get onto a soundstage in white ties and tails and long, feathered dresses, forming a Busby Berkeley human kaleidoscope to sing her a very heartfelt song, like “Triplets.”
So, this isn’t a Western after all. It’s a musical.
Sam Wasson ’03 was an English and film studies major at Wesleyan, and also attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He has since published five books, including the best-selling Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. and the award-winning Fosse. In addition to numerous other publications in The Hollywood Reporter, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker, Wasson is also the author of this issue’s cover story on Professor Jeanine Basinger.