Film Noir classroom: University of Memphis professor Steve Ross signs off

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CLOSESteve Ross is not a gumshoe. He doesn’t pack a gat. He has not, as far as we know, planted dynamite in the apartment of a murder suspect, dragged a corpse onto a train track or shoved a knife up the nostril of a “nosy fella.”In fact, Ross is chatty and upbeat. He exudes a Memphis-via-Brooklyn energy and enthusiasm that provides a contrast to the suspicious behavior of the doomed antiheroes, shifty-eyed double crossers and conniving femmes fatales who populate the “Special Topics: Film Noir” class Ross taught this past semester at the University of Memphis.The packed class will be Ross’ last. After 38 years on the U of M campus, Ross — a professor, writer and award-winning filmmaker — is retiring from teaching. “In his class, you really dive down deep into the subject,” said “Film Noir” student Justin Malone, 22, on a day when Ross screened “The Killers” (1946) with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner — a movie that Ross said “is big on the chiaroscuro lighting that gives us a sense of the psychology of the victim.””He really creates a collective environment for you to watch movies and experience movies together,” said student Noelle Bird, 22, who previously had taken Ross’ course on director Alfred Hitchcock.”Before the class, I had seen one Hitchcock film,” she said. “By the end of it I had seen 25.” Maybe she should have said “only 25”: By the end of the “Film Noir” class, Bird will have seen close to 30 classic crime movies, including 1958’s “Touch of Evil,” 1944’s “Double Indemnity” and 1974’s “Chinatown” — the sources for this story’s earlier references to activities involving dynamite, train tracks and nostrils, respectively.If the students admire Ross, the feeling is mutual. “There are some students who are always around in the hallways, talking about the films they just saw or just movies in general,” said Ross, 69. “Those people have got the virus, they’ve got the filmmaking virus.”INDIE MEMPHIS FILM FESTIVAL: Recap: ‘Mystery,’ Malco, morePart of a core group of professors including David Appleby and Allison Graham, who helped establish the university’s film program, Ross made his first mark as a filmmaker with 1985’s “The Old Forest.” Funded by grants and with a number of college students on its crew, this adaptation of Peter Taylor’s Overton Park-set Depression-era short story was the most ambitious made-in-Memphis movie in decades, even if it was intended for public television rather than theatrical distribution.In the years since “The Old Forest,” Ross mostly created nonfiction films. These include the Samuel L. Jackson-narrated “Black Diamonds, Blues City” (1996), an examination of Memphis Negro Leagues baseball; “Oh Freedom After While” (1999), which chronicles the Missouri sharecropper strike of 1939; “Kallen Esperian: Vissi D’arte” (2016), about the Memphis opera diva; the uncharacteristically un-Southern “Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude” (2007), about the New England artist generally regarded as America’s greatest painter of the 19th century; and “At the River I Stand,” an examination of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., co-directed by Appleby and Graham. The filmmaker-professors undoubtedly elevated the profile of their art on the U of M campus — and in the city in general. Just this year, the department that was called Speech and Drama when Ross arrived became known officially as the Department of Communication and Film (Interim designations included “Theater and Communication Arts” and, simply, “Communication”).”I think we raised it to another level,” said Appleby, a co-writer and co-producer of “The Old Forest” with Ross, who essentially recruited Ross to Memphis in the first place.”Steve’s a great collaborator,” Appleby added. “Oftentimes we have acted as a team, in terms of developing the courses, teaching students, making films …” — and also winning some of the highest awards available in documentary filmmaking, including Emmys, Peabodys and duPonts.Although largely unavailable via streaming services, “These kind of films often have a longer life than a commercial feature film does,” Ross said. “‘At the River I Stand’ is obviously the one that just keeps on going. People are seeing it all the time through community groups, libraries, unions, religious groups — that film is something that people continue to find valuable.”MOVIE NEWS: Malco, Indie Memphis partner on ‘art house’ cinemaA former classmate in Ross’  graduate program at Temple University in Philadelphia, Appleby called Ross to tell him a job in Memphis was open following the retirement of influential professor David Yellin, the founder of the U of M’s film and television program. Previously unfamiliar with the South, the film scholar — who had studied at the University of Southern California, Stony Brook University and New York University, and already produced a book-length interview with “Lawrence of Arabia” director David Lean — took to Memphis like a Peabody duck to lobby fountain water. He taught filmmaking courses (the required reading in his screenwriting class included Aristotle) as well as film theory and appreciation courses that often focused on specific directors or themes.The last of these for Ross will be “Film Noir,” inspired by a term coined by French critics to refer to the dark and often cynical crime dramas that developed in America as the gung-ho patriotism of World War II gave way to what Ross’ class syllabus describes as “the post-war malaise of the late 1940’s, the cold war paranoia of the 1950’s and the post-Watergate unease of the 1970’s.” According to Ross, the noir style provides rich source material for the exploration of contemporary as well as historic American attitudes. He pointed out that several films in his class — including “Border Incident,” “Out of the Past,” “Ride the Pink Horse” and Orson Welles’ baroque “Touch of Evil” — deal explicitly with border enforcement and relations with Mexico.HOMETOWN FILMMAKER: Memphis director Ira Sachs returns with ‘Frankie,’ with Isabelle HuppertRoss’ last day of teaching will be Dec. 3, when the “Film Noir” class watches “Touch of Evil” on a pull-down screen at the front of the classroom. As usual, Ross — who going forward will be known as a University of Memphis “professor emeritus” — will introduce the movie with observations on genre and style, anecdotes about the director and actors, and whatever other pieces of information seem pertinent or amusing.”Touch of Evil” is an appropriate swan song. Sometimes regarded as the last true film noir of the “classic” period, it ends with a farewell recited by Marlene Dietrich that might work for any person, even someone happy and hale (like Steve Ross) rather than bloated and bullet-riddled (like Orson Welles, in the movie).”He was some kind of a man,” Dietrich observes. “What does it matter what you say about people? Adios.””I won’t even say retiring is bittersweet,” said Ross, who said former students occasionally run into him and thank him for inspiring a lifelong love of such filmmakers as Chaplin and Hitchcock. “It’s just sweet, knowing that there are these film fanatics in class who just eat up everything they see. I’m glad they’re here to make me realize that I’m going to miss this.” Read or Share this story: https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2019/12/02/university-of-memphis-film-professor-steve-ross-retires/2162953001/

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