Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Early Mentor's Passing Lamented

Watching me watch a movie is like watching someone in a trance. I can shut out almost anything that goes on around me. Believe it or not, someone else is kind of responsible for that.

I should have done this sooner, except that I didn't know he was dead, and when he died, the technology I'm using didn't quite exist yet. John Bigby, a media professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, died in 1994 at the age of 56, after falling down stairs in his own home. He lingered for nine months before passing. He was my film and media mentor in 1979/1980, and he nurtured within me the tools that I use today to watch films, to look at commercials, to really hear the message being given in a way that is, perhaps, at odds with the originators' intent.

One thing I learned from him is to respect the filmmaker, even though the story or the performances don't deserve respect. This is not to say "suspend critical thinking" or anything that stupid, but only to remember that if it's on screen, it was intended. Sure, there are gaffes, errors in continuity or perhaps a cameraman, briefly visible in a mirror, but what he meant was, the director, the editor, slave over these things to get to a final product, or they slapdash it together to get a final product, but with the number of eyes that allow a movie to make it to the big screen, everything you see on screen - they meant to do that. Which is why I can watch "bad" films as if they matter. But if something seems incongruous to you in a movie, ask yourself why the director did that? Why make that particular editing choice? Was it to cover a bad shot, or was it a specific aesthetic choice by either the editor or the director (or both)?

His classes were wonderfully opinionated. He was known to appear before us in a white linen suit with straw Panama hat, or in a cape and deerstalker. We attended four hours of classroom time twice a week, during which we usually watched two movies that were somehow related. One semester still sticks with me very much - American Road Movies and the German New Wave. This was a classroom where I saw Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum, Effie Briest, The American Friend, Stroszek and many others. I learned through him how these films related in so many ways, while many of them were crazily different from one another. Easy Rider is a pastoral of the country's temperature in the late sixties, Lost Honor is about the scourge of yellow journalism taken as truth, Effie Briest is a costume period melodrama, The American Friend is a Patricia Highsmith thriller (based on Ripley's Game - yes, THAT Ripley). They didn't fit, but they did.

Just showing up and watching the films got you a passing grade, but you had to show up, and you had to stay awake. The final consisted of him watching us watch a movie (that semester, the final was Five Easy Pieces). You could get a better grade by watching more films (six of his choosing would get you a C), and by writing about specific films (gets you a B) and by creating a project between you and him that would qualify you for an A. He treated us as students but also as adults, which we really weren't quite, yet.

I have no photos of him, and can find none on the web, a place he would have found both fascinating and appalling. However, you can hear him in the introduction to a lecture given in 1975 by Patrick Hazard. I hear it, and am transported again to his classroom, where I would weekly see movies that changed my views of the world, and gave me a deep appreciation of the art and craft of filmmaking. 

4 comments:

Stephen Yanicak said...

I attended several of John Bigby's film classes at SRJC in the very late 1970s and early 1980s. I am so very sorry to hear that he left us still young and so long ago. After reading your account, I cannot do better at summarizing his classes and their effect on young and old minds. I now share the same critical but accepting eye as you when viewing film. All due to John and my many hours spent at his New Bijou Theatre? at SRJC. I have turned on my 19-yr old daughter to a lot of what I absorbed in John's film classes and she always looks at me funny after we watch a film and asks me.. papa, why do you see that and where did you learn that? If I could only reach into his current dimension and thank him for how he enriched our lives.. Anyway, some favorite Bigby film class themes I enjoyed were Hitchcock and the films on the film industry that included a palette teaser of Erich von Stroheim!!... there was also one other notable and enjoyable theme on Fran├žois Truffaut... I think I completed at least 4 of his classes just to be blinded by his overview of the industry and film as an art, but also to take the edge off my calculus and physics classes. LOL....I am so thankful to have experienced him and his classes during my tenure at SRJC.. RIP John Bigby... stevey, Los Alamos NM 10/5/2015

Stephen Yanicak said...

I attended several of John Bigby's film classes at SRJC in the very late 1970s and early 1980s. I am so very sorry to hear that he left us still young and so long ago. After reading your account, I cannot do better at summarizing his classes and their effect on young and old minds. I now share the same critical but accepting eye as you when viewing film. All due to John and my many hours spent at his New Bijou Theatre? at SRJC. I have turned my 19-yr old daughter on to a lot of what I absorbed in John's film classes and she always looks at me funny after we watch a film and asks me.. papa, why do you see that and where did you learn that? If I could only reach into his current dimension and thank him for how he enriched our lives.. Anyway, some favorite Bigby film class themes I enjoyed were Hitchcock and the films on the film industry that included a palette teaser of Erich von Stroheim!!... there was also one other notable and enjoyable theme on Fran├žois Truffaut... I think I completed at least 4 of his classes just to be blinded by his overview of the industry and film as an art, but also to take the edge off my calculus and physics classes. LOL....I am so thankful to have experienced him and his classes during my tenure at SRJC.. RIP John Bigby... stevey, Los Alamos NM 10/5/2015

stEn said...

Thanks, Stevey!

Nice to know someone else remembers. I'd like to think most people who came through his world gained so much appreciation for cinema. I started the whole thing as something of a film snob. Watching all the Janus films on rainy Saturdays with my parents and being exposed to movies like The Seventh Seal & Yojimbo before I hit puberty.

Seeing films like Two-Lane Blacktop (which I would have dismissed as a crappy exploitation movie before I took his classes) dramatically changed my worldview of cinema. And while I still fondly remember all the classes I took, I am jealous of your exposure through him to Truffaut. I can only imagine what that would have been like.

He will be missed. He made cinema magical to me.

Dream Unfold said...

I was glad to find this while searching "John Bigby," but also very sorry to hear of his passing, and at such an early age.

I was so inspired by John's classes that after graduating SRJC I went on to get a B.A. in theater arts with a film emphasis at UCSC.

I remember John dressing up to introduce a series of films. His introductions were wonderful oratory, weaving together lots of disparate ideas in a really entertaining and educational way. There were a bunch of movies about trains. He loved trains and film. He said film running through a projector is a lot like a train in many ways.

He showed us films that you just never ever see anywhere else: "Oh Dem Watermelons" by Robert Nelson and "Mothlight" by Stan Brakhage really stood out. The first for its bold polemical attack on the subject of race and the second for introducing me to the concept of non-narrative film.

Most of my teachers at SRJC were very aloof, but John was always friendly and tried to draw us out. It's true that he treated us like adults when we weren't really adults yet.

I avoided going into the film industry, but I'm a voracious movie watcher. I get asked to do small film projects from time to time. lately I've taken a huge tangent into still photography, but my love of cinema informs my work to a great degree.

I always loved film, but it was John who taught me the power of film and expanded my knowledge of what film could be, beyond what was playing at the theaters or on TV. I started seeking out more and more adventure. The Phoenix Theater in Petaluma played a lot of very alternative art house cinema at the time. I really sunk my teeth into that.

Isn't it amazing I was thinking about John and ran across this blog tonight? Thank you for providing a place to remember him.