By Dan Ortiz
For over a decade, I have sat along with 12 graduate and law students at David’s feet. And what an experience it has been! Each year David and I have taught a five-session seminar in ethical values to a group coming from all parts of the University. Spanish and Law naturally, but also Art History, English, Architecture, German, Physics, History, and others. We’ve discussed film exclusively and each year we’ve focused on a particular theme (from food to the ethics of murder), director (from Almodovar to Hitchcock), or part of the world.
I’ve been mostly a free rider. How could I not? I’ve never owned a TV and see few current films. (People know better than to let me out.) But David happily took the lead. He would invariably become enthused about a topic, quickly view and narrow down a bunch of films, most of which I had never heard of, let alone seen, and throw together a syllabus—all before I had time to consult Wikipedia for ideas. All I had to do was cajole a few law students to join the fun, watch the films myself, and bring food and wine. To anyone who knows David, bringing the wine was the most important of my responsibilities. From the way it lubricated his thinking, I think I did well.
David opened our eyes to film and teaching. Where before we saw stories (or in graduate-speak “narratives”), we quickly came to detect irony, doubt, and complexity. In short, David slyly led us into the post-modern condition. And we had much fun getting there. We law geeks entered the class as logical, rigorously linear, left-side thinkers and left more generous, broad-minded, and forgiving people. The students adored him, of course, and—teaching being a two-way street—opened him up to new experiences, like lunch at Chipotle, where the much-celebrated Hispanist and gourmand had never eaten.
About that title? Yep, it’s true. David’s teaching really did save lives or at least one—my own. It’s not that he expanded my thinking so that I could value things and life in ways impossible before. He did that, of course. I’m talking about something much more concrete. In the last meeting of “The Ethics of Murder,” we were discussing Hitchcock’s “The Birds” over one of David’s wonderful paella dinners. We had not yet reached the pièce de résistance, his Baked Alaska, which every year reliably turned students’ heads. I asked the students whether the film could be read as the revenge of nature itself (climate change, anyone?) or of human nature and whether the birds ultimately won. While waiting for a response, I took a too-large bite of paella and found I couldn’t breathe. I tried to drink a little water. Still, no air.
The student who was answering the question finished and quizzically looked at me for a reaction. But I couldn’t speak. All I could do was turn to David and whisper “Heimlich!” He knew exactly what to do, ran behind me, planted his two hard fists right below my chest, and pumped alarmingly away. A few seconds later, a piece of food spectacularly flew out across the room, the class gasped in surprise and appreciation, and I started breathing again. Luckily, my dramatic distress and David’s quick reaction not only brought the class alive but was also a great “teaching moment.” It offered one answer to the very question we were discussing: did the birds win? I had choked, I pointed out, on a big hunk of chicken.