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Eli Hollander: Horn Player-Turned-Filmmaker

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Eli Hollander fell in love with the sound of the French horn as a teenager and before long was practicing endlessly, hoping to get in to Juilliard. He succeeded, earning his bachelor’s degree here in 1966 and subbing for the New York Philharmonic as an undergraduate. So how did he end up shifting gears and becoming a Baroque recorder-playing professor of film and digital media at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a director, a screenwriter, and a producer? Well, a funny thing happened at the conservatory.

Eli Hollander and tools of his life’s trades.

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Hollander, 68, was born in Israel and moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 12. He wanted to play the trombone (“I think I was attracted to the idea of the slide,” he recalled in a recent interview with The Journal), but the junior high music program had run out of trombones, so he got a horn instead. After a couple of years, though, “I discovered the magic of the sound of the horn and really fell in love with it.” He studied with Wendell Hoss, a dean of horn teachers, and surprised the Juilliard audition committee by playing Hoss’s transcription of a Bach cello suite for horn. “I don’t think they’d heard the transcriptions before—and I guess I made a decent impression,” he said.

Once Hollander arrived in New York, he reveled in all the arts here, and while he was practicing for hours every day, he also started going to “endless movie screenings in the afternoons and evenings.” He was particularly enamored of the French New Wave: directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffault, and Alain Resnais. “There’s no other way to say it except that they blew my mind. They absolutely changed me.”

By the time he’d graduated, Hollander had made the difficult decision to pursue his new passion. “Somehow the experience of watching movies became a musical experience,” he recalled. “Some of my favorite movies have a kind of musical structure. One of the first films I fell in love with was Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad, and that film is very like music—there’s no plot, but the storyline is a series of developing repetitions and patterns and relationships in time, which music is too.”

After graduating from Juilliard, Hollander moved back to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s in film from U.C.L.A. He also kept up his music, playing the horn in several local orchestras, but before long, he realized how difficult it was to keep it up and be a filmmaker. “Being a horn player is like being an athlete—you need to work out a lot, you need to be in top shape,” he said. 

Even though he put away his horn, music was still part of Hollander’s life. He got his first job in film because of his background in music: he was hired to edit a documentary about Harry Partch and other musicians. After a few years in L.A., Hollander decided he wanted to work more independently, and jumped at the chance to join the nascent film program at U.C. Santa Cruz. Some 35 years later, the program has grown from one full-time faculty member to 18, with 450 students. 

And Hollander has had a chance to pursue his work independently. He’s made one feature film—Out (1982), which he described as “a crazy narrative about a journey across the country and across time” that starred Peter Coyote and Danny Glover—and a number of documentaries including, most recently, two about rituals in Bali and one about a week in a cheerleading camp. “They sound very different, but they’re all ethnographic,” he said. “They look at another culture and try to open a window onto a world that you don’t know or experience. Or at least open a window to the way I look at the world.”

As for the role that music plays in his work, “that’s a complicated question, in part because I admire films that don’t use much music,” he said. “I know that sounds like a contradiction—I love music and it’s central to my life, but because I think of film as a musical experience, music doesn’t have to be incorporated directly into it. Structuring and editing and writing can all be a kind of musical process, where you are playing with patterns and symmetries and contradictions and metaphors.”

Hollander tries to instill in his students that, as receivers of the arts in various forms, “we are constantly looking for patterns and trying to decipher the games that are being played by the artist. But I also try to encourage them not to look for easy solutions, like music that will create an instant emotion, and instead to try to create a feeling through other means. Maybe music could be a part of it, but it shouldn’t be an overpowering sauce that you pour over a very delicate dish.” 

Hollander is currently working on a documentary that “started out as a portrait of a group of people trying to rebuild the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans,” he said. The “slight complication” is that this most sacred spot for Jews is in the same place as the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred spots for Muslims. “Which, of course, is a major complication. And it became emblematic of what’s going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” After spending many days in the occupied territories and Jewish settlements, he’s finding that the film has become about “the journey of an ex-Israeli who’s gone back and is in some ways disturbed by what’s going on there.”

That turning back to his past has, at it happens, been accompanied by a turning back to music. He’s been playing the Baroque recorder with a group for a number of years (“You still need to be nimble and practice and have good technique, but I can let it go and get back to it relatively quickly.”) And he’s recently started playing the horn again. “I’d be completely embarrassed to let anyone hear me play, but I have been amazed how much my embouchure remembers from such a long time ago,” he said. “Every time I hear a horn in a live concert or a recording, it thrills me; I have some kind of archetypal connection with that sound. And now I’m rediscovering the pleasure of making that sound.”

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