April 2009

Michael Fox is one of those amazing Bay Area people whom OLLI is so good at finding and recruiting for its faculty. He brims with enthusiasm and overflows with knowledge of his subject: film. He considers himself not just a film critic, but also a journalist who has for the past twenty-two years contributed to more than fifty regional and national publications. These include PBS.com, San Francisco 360.org, Variety, iFilm, San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook, and San Francisco Weekly, for which he originated and wrote the "Reel World" column for a decade. He has sat on juries for film festivals and is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

But to enumerate his long resume does nothing to reflect the real Michael Fox. An hour's conversation over lunch was a beginning: A Chicago native, he got a degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Champaign and an MBA from Loyola University in Chicago, a degree which even at the time he suspected was not his true calling. He got hooked on film while in college--especially foreign film. He loved the artistic challenge and ambiguous endings of these films and much preferred them over the movies coming out of Hollywood. He admits he never took a film class or made a film, though he has profound respect for those who do. But he has been watching and thinking about films of all kinds for all of his adult life.

Finding himself in San Francisco at the ripe old age of 31 without a job or a clear career path, he made a call to a free local publication, and one thing led to another, including a regular column for San Francisco Weekly, KQED, and others. (To read some of his reviews, go to KQED.org/art and search for profiles). His style is sharp, witty, and to the point: "Everybody involved in this atrocity should be suspended without pay for a year" was a comment aimed at the movie Wanted.

His subject for the OLLI program is the documentary. The class will watch a film and then spend the second hour discussing it. But his purpose is not to analyze the subject of the film. Rather it is to understand the craft of the filmmaker: what makes a film memorable, what challenges the viewer, what makes it worth watching more than once. He wants to give his students a new way of seeing and appreciating the documentary.

As an example of this point of view, he shared his "rant" regarding the documentary style of Ken Burns. While he found the several series impeccably made, he also found them too comfortable, not emotionally challenging. He compares those works with others he loves: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, for example, or My Winnipeg.

Just as he never expected to become a writer, Michael never considered himself a potential teacher. Yet he started out teaching film classes at UC Extension in San Francisco, where one of his students was Velma Parness, then the director of OLLI@ Berkeley. She invited him to venture eastward across the bridge where he taught a class on film for the first OLLI @Berkeley, then under the auspices of UC Extension. He has taught at the San Francisco OLLI and the Art Institute and hosts a series on film at the Mechanics' Institute. His career as a teacher seems to be taking on a life of its own. Perhaps it is because of his endless enthusiasm, his willingness to be a risk-taker, and his joy in the interaction with his classes.

Bonnie Mager