Columbia College’s Cinema Slapdown turns the heat up
By Dan Patton | Managing Editor
For nearly a decade, a number of disagreements that started within Columbia College have grown to affect the entire community. It began in 2006, when a tenured professor expressed a controversial opinion about Clint Eastwood’s movie, Million Dollar Baby, and spread from there. Today, it is a phenomenon officially known as “Cinema Slapdown,” one of the most educational and enlightening regularly scheduled free events in the South Loop.
Every month at the Cinema Row theatre on South Wabash, Professor Ron Falzone screens a controversial movie, invites two people to argue about it and encourages the audience to join in. Occasionally, he blows a whistle because things do get out of hand and, of course, because he dresses up like a football referee while moderating the debates.
“I want it to be wild but I want it to be smart,” he explains. “Last month, I had to blow the whistle more often at the people onstage.”
The people he refers to are Dan Rybicky and Ruth Leitman, two Columbia College professors who were arguing about the film Whiplash. Their exchange was witnessed by a crowd of 267, the most that the theater can hold and roughly 60 less than the number who showed up for the event.
The October program features the film Nightcrawler followed by a debate between WBBM Reporter Dave Kerner and WBEZ Live Event Director Don Hall. For November, it’s American Sniper followed by former soldier and current member of Columbia’s Veteran Support Group Blasé Villano versus Senior Lecturer Tom Fraterrigo.
Other notable guests and the movies they debated include actor, writer and Ghostbusters star Harold Ramis on Happiness; activist and Catholic Priest Father Michael Pflaeger on The Passion of the Christ; and former Governor Ron Blagojevich on Viva Las Vegas.
“The fire caught when we had Governor Blagojevich here,” recalls Falzone. “Viva Las Vegas screened on one of the times he got indicted.”
Before that particular “round,” which was the program’s 21st, the Slapdown had attracted mostly students and faculty from Columbia’s Schoool of Art + Science.
The inspiration for the first Slapdown came to Falzone when he was invited to take an unpopular position against medical ethicist Les Friedman during a debate about Million Dollar Baby at Northwestern University. His prescribed opinion showed little compassion for disabled people, a theme that dominates the film’s tragic ending.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna walk into a room where everyone disagrees with me’” Falzone says. “Then I thought: wait a minute, this is a movie about child abuse.”
He turned the epiphany into a strategy. “Instead of saying what the audience expects to hear,” he explains, “you pique their interest with other opinions and that gets them to engage.” It worked.
After describing the success to Columbia College Associate Professor Dan Rybicky and Administrative Assistant Sandy Cuprisin, the three decided to launch Cinema Slapdown in 2006. The first round featured the film Crash, which the referee considers to be “the worst winner in Best Picture history.”
October 7 at 7 p.m. · Film Row · 1104 S Wabash, 8th floor