On my Wavelength

Lycra cycling shorts not shown.

Lycra cycling shorts not shown.

This is an unusual post for this site. It’s not about me reading, and it’s not really about me writing, unless you count a mini-obituary in this category. And why not?

On August 10th, Jim Hillier died. He was one of the first proper film scholars of the latter half of the 20th century. He wrote and edited a huge volume of books and articles. He brought film education into the mainstream as he helped to make it a subject to be taken seriously in schools, colleges and universities. And he taught me for the last two years of my undergraduate degree, where he famously wore cycling shorts to lectures, seminars and tutorials (where several pairs could be found hanging over the backs of chairs in his office). He taught me about Independent American Cinema of the 1960s onwards.  He taught me that cinema was of the world, not just Hollywood (although he did have a soft spot for musicals and film noir). He taught me about avant-garde and experimental cinema –  how artists use film, how stories can be told in non-traditional ways. But most of all he taught me to open my eyes, to look up and out, to embrace a different cinematic experience.

He helped me to get a place on a post-grad film course at Goldsmiths, which I couldn’t take up due to my poverty, but his generosity in providing me with films and talking through ideas to help shape them into something of my own, and watching over me as I edited material into an alternative narrative of women in film, is still astonishing to me, all these years later. He was less kind when trying to foist peppermint tea on me during discussions in his office. He turned up to a 1970s-themed party held by me and my housemates in cycling shorts and white t-shirt. We made him wear a kipper tie. The photographic evidence still makes me smile.

Most of the films he screened have stayed with me, for reasons both good and bad. Some were brilliant. Some were, er, challenging. I was bewitched by Celine and Julie Go Boating (storming out of the screening because NO ONE else liked it and people were HAVING CONVERSATIONS ACROSS ME; I had to wait years to see it again in its entirety) and Daisies – these alternative expressions of women in cinema unlike pretty much anything I had ever seen. My eyes have not yet recovered, more than twenty years on, from seeing Stan Brakhage’s wife give birth to her first and third children, or from Carolee Schneemann and her lover getting it on. With added cat. [Warning: most of this stuff is Not Safe for Work. And yet it was considered Safe for Study, although within a couple of years of me seeing it, the Schneemann film was held hostage at customs.] I saw my first Warhol (and cherished a favourite story from my mum: in the early 1970s the BBC screened one of Warhol’s films, and it came with a stark warning about its sexually explicit content. My mum and dad tuned in and pretty much immediately turned off. Having seen Couch, I can see why). I was introduced to Claudia Weill, Sally Potter and Chantal Akerman. The Bruces Bailey and Connor. Sam Peckinpah and Bob Rafelson and Jonathan Demme. I saw Adebar and Schwechater, both alienating and absorbing. I watched seagulls fly in and out, in and out, in and out of the frame (a piece of work the Internet appears to be unaware of). I watched a film wherein 45 of the 79 minutes of running time is made up of someone baking a strudel. Man, I’ve seen it all.

When I started teaching Jim gave me a copy of A Question of Silence to see me through a Women and Cinema module. That opened a lot of eyes. It’s one of the things I am proudest of and most grateful for in the whole of my teaching career.

But there are two filmmakers and their works that I most associate with Jim. The first is John Cassavetes. I accidentally saw A Woman Under the Influence on TV one holiday period during my studies. My mum watched it with me (as a fan of Peter Falk’s Columbo and of Cassavetes as actor). We followed it with Husbands when it was screened as part of the same season. On talking to Jim about this he lent me a documentary on the director, which I also watched with my mum – one of the few non-Hitchcock pieces of art that we could share. (This is the woman who fell asleep at the theatre when I forced her to see Uncle Vanya, after all.) Cassavetes has remained one of my favourite directors, and I spent much of the summer of 1992, when I first moved back to London and independence, watching his films at the ICA and lying in St James’s Park writing love letters on the back of Cassavetes postcards to my then boyfriend.

The other filmmaker is Michael Snow. We watched only one of his films (though we were told about others by former students, specifically <—>, also known as Back and Forth, infamous for causing nausea in its viewers). Wavelength is a 45-minute zoom into a far wall. Nothing much happens. A man appears in the frame some way ahead and drops to the floor. There might be a woman with long hair. I can’t remember and I don’t want YouTube to interfere with the purity of my memory of the experience of that film. The soundtrack is a cacophony of ear-assaulting industrial noise. People walked out. It caused uproar in seminar discussions. Someone said to Jim, ‘I thought that when it got to the wall it was going to zoom out again for 45 minutes.’

Jim said, ‘Then it would have been my perfect film.’

At his funeral last week I said to my old head of department, ‘I can’t help wishing the ceremony was 45 minutes long, then they could have just shown Wavelength’. It was the first of many laughs we had that day remembering Jim Hillier.

I’ve remembered him some more here. Or below, if you don’t want to read what everyone else is saying, too.

So, maybe it is still me reading – reading films, reading their scratches and found footage, and alternative editing systems and different ways of telling stories. And writing – about this brilliant and kind and inspirational man. It’s easy to say someone changed your life. It gets said so often that it seems like a disposable phrase. But your time at university is life-changing. Or it should be. I recently told a friend that I was a different person when I left university, but that wasn’t quite what I meant. Thinking about Jim I realise that for many reasons, Jim Hillier among them, what was inside me waiting to be released was given an outlet at university. I was the same person when I left. I was still me, only more so.

When I first encountered Jim Hillier I had hardly seen anything other than mainstream Hollywood films and a handful of Wajda (not that there’s anything wrong with that). By the end of my time with him I’d  watched someone spend 45 minutes baking a strudel; seen a camera lens zoom into a far wall over the course of 45 minutes accompanied by a ghastly whining soundtrack; blushed my way through Carolee Schneemann and her lover, and Stan Brakhage’s wife and her newborns. I’d seen films as short as 30 seconds and as long as three-plus hours. Films made from found footage, scratched and personalised by their makers; films where women floated on boats for hours. I’d also seen Sam Peckinpah, Claudia Weill, Sally Potter, Andy Warhol, Jonathan Demme. Jim opened my eyes to the way cinema  could work when it didn’t want to tell its stories in traditional ways, when it wanted to wear its artfulness on its sleeve.

The range of material Jim exposed his students to was legendary. He once came out of his office to beg me to stop telling innocent first years that they had Un chant d’amour (and all that that entailed) waiting for them in Year 3. But it was his excitement for the films, his passion for them, his knowledge of them and the way he encouraged us to confront such a different cinematic experience that was more legendary. And the sharing did not stop in class. He loaned me his precious VHS copy of a John Cassavetes documentary when he learned that I had seen one of his films on TV and been bewitched by it. I watched it with my mum, who knew Cassavetes only as an actor, but became fascinated with how he worked with his team (including her beloved Columbo!) during the course of watching the documentary. She’s no longer with me, but the memory of Jim’s part in one of the few cultural events my mum and I could share has never gone.

I began teaching A Level Film Studies a year after graduating, and Jim was the Chief Examiner (later becoming my centre’s moderator). As a result, he had a handle on exactly how I was doing in the classroom. We met regularly at INSET days; I tapped him for film resources and advice on whether I could really teach this film under that specification. At no point did he ever make me feel like I couldn’t do the job. He treated this rookie with the greatest professional respect, as if I was his equal. For someone who didn’t expect to do A Levels, or go to university, let alone become a lecturer, this was the greatest and most generous gift he could have given me.

The last time I saw him was at a book launch in Oxford. I spent the time before he got there looking over my shoulder for him and ran squealing towards him when he arrived. We talked and talked until he had to leave. We had the most fun of anyone there, I’ll bet.

Thanks Jim.


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1 Response to On my Wavelength

  1. Pingback: Five years | Jacqueline Downs is Reading and Writing

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