John Hess
and a radical film journal’s history

by Julia Lesage 

I first met John in the early seventies when we both were graduate students in Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He had been in the U.S. Army in Germany and was familiar with European cinema, and I had been teaching in South America and knew conversational Spanish and about Latin American film. From the very first, Jump Cut had an international focus due to these comp lit origins. Furthermore, at that time film in universities was more a matter of aficionado gatherings than formal studies, and the film lovers on campus often saw each other at the local art theater and film club. In this vein I remember, for example, that once a beautiful print of Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause came in for some film class, and about fifteen of us spread the word to each other so we could gather around a 16 mm projector to view the film and marvel at its mise-en-scene and feminist message.

Chuck Kleinhans and I were left feminists; John and his then wife Judy were university upstarts, writing a denunciation of campus politics that they published anonymously in the underground paper, Common Sense. Judy and I got jobs; the guys didn’t. Chuck and I moved to Chicago and John and Judy to California. By way of continental letter writing, John and Chuck became co-editors of the new journal, Jump Cut. After a divorce, John moved to Berkeley, California, where he taught film part-time for many years at San Francisco State University and also taught Marxism as a volunteer at the East Bay Socialist School. These were our years of working on a journal in paper format. We had a collective in both Chicago and Berkeley to read and comment on manuscripts, to write letters to authors, to do paste-up, to proofread, and even to organize thousands of printed copies of an issue to prepare it for bulk mailing.

But there were regional differences between the two collectives as Chuck and I discovered when travelling to Berkeley and found that the West Coast Group began meetings with each person responding to the question, “What space are you in?” And that group often concluded with a meal out followed by a group soak in a commercial hot tub! More seriously, John effectively handled the business end of the journal, and both he and we dealt with one of the biggest problems of editing print media: what to do with back issues? Our various apartments in Chicago were filled with them, as was Chuck’s mother’s house. John’s storage problems were partly solved when he finally moved into a house in Oakland that had a finished garage that became the Jump Cut House. When we finally became an electronic publication, costs were less and I took charge of layout (it’s not something you can do collectively). Our contact with each other and with our editorial board became more a matter of email correspondence and not group meetings. And through all these years Chuck and John and I stayed in personal contact with each other by phone.

John was an easy going, gentle man. His writing from a Marxist perspective is still perceptive and does not seem to have aged. Some of his essays that remain models of clarity include theoretical explanations, such as “La politique des auteurs” (in two parts) and “Film and Ideology”; the many editorials he wrote first with Chuck Kleinhans, and then with Chuck and myself; and his reviews of films depicting the working class such as The Cockfighter; Matewan and The Sicilian; and Voices from a Steeltown. John had a special fascination with The Godfather films and the way they treated patriarchy; his essay on Godfather II has been anthologized and taught in many classes, and his writing’s force here draws from the way he ties the film to his own life:

“I think the film affected me so powerfully even after several viewings because it presents and plays on most of the now threatened bourgeois values which I was taught to believe in and respect—family ties, social mobility, the quest for security and respectability in a competitive world, the friendship between men engaged in the same work, the importance of religion, and individualism.”

In addition to these intellectual areas, John had a longstanding interest in Latin America film; after graduate school he learned Spanish and traveled in Latin and Central America, resulting in articles where he used film to explain aspects of other cultures to people in the United States. He traveled to Cuba and wrote essays about Cuban film (e.g., “Two Films of Manuel Octavio Gomez”). He helped organize a U.S. trade union group in solidarity with El Salvador and traveled to a trade union conference there (“Labor/solidarity work’s new possibilities”) and he went on a month-long solidarity project to Sandinista Estelí, Nicaragua, where he remained for the full time in spite of serious illness.

As I write these words and think of John’s stick-to-it-ness, I am reminded that all three of us Jump Cut editors used to joke with each other that we all came from German stock and that’s why we each were so stubborn. Looking back on it now, I can see that all of us thought of our political work as something we were into for the long haul. We each put into an issue’s printing cost about $1000; I called it Tithing for Your Art. We never applied for grants because we did not want to live beyond our means. We printed on newsprint with offset printers, the bargain basement of printing, the kind used to print grocery fliers. Later, when we went to electronic publication, I could get a new computer with the money that John had saved for us. John worked as a contingent (part-time) teacher and never forgot that experience, becoming the head of a major organizing drive that successfully unionized California’s contingent faculty; now it is a model for such organizing in the United States. We always saw ourselves belonging to a counter-culture. It’s a concept that began in the sixties and seventies and has served Jump Cut well. I shared that vision with John and it will sustain me in the years to come. Thank you, John, for being such a steady part of my life.

Go to tribute by Patricia Zimmerman