¡Viva John Hess!

by Patricia R. Zimmermann

John ambled into our log home for a dinner party with a case of red wine atop his shoulder and a smile so large it filled the house. My partner, Stewart Auyash, and I asked why he was giving us a whole case. He answered: we had cooked meals for him so many times he wanted to thank us in a big way.

John was my colleague in screen studies at Ithaca College from 1992 to 1998. I had been teaching there since 1981. After he accepted the tenure-line job to teach narrative film in what was then called the Department of Cinema and Photography (now the Department of Media Arts, Sciences, and Studies), he sent me a typed letter about coming to the East Coast from Oakland. On a yellow sticky note, he had scrawled, “And beyond all that, it will be fun to work together.”

One of our departmental colleagues always marveled at John’s ability to exude happiness…all the time. She mused that you could only be that happy, grounded, and collegial if you felt truly loved by all your family. John would saunter down the halls of the third floor of the Roy H. Park School of Communications, popping into faculty offices to chat about the news or campus gossip. He would hang out in the mail room, talking passionately about books he had just read, movies he had seen, and national and international politics that outraged him. He would always ask colleagues what they were reading.

Genuine happiness—the variety that cascades like a huge waterfall through your walk, your talk, your eyes, your hands, your voice—is as rare as a bluebird in the academy, where negativity and despair often conflate with critique. John was the kind of colleague you wanted to be around. He always asked questions. He loved digging down into ideas and films and books. He relished analyzing the power structures of Ithaca College. He laughed at those who tried to shrink faculty rights.

Ever the organizer and activist, John was a gift to the Department of Cinema and Photography. His impact persists, like a perennial iris that bursts into large purple flowers and then multiplies and spreads. When John arrived, he was assigned to teach the “bread and butter courses,” those foundational film-studies courses required for the major, which production students often dread and malign: Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis, and Fiction Film Theory.

John gutted the contents of both courses. He assessed them as too American-centric, too conventional, too white, too male, too traditional. He had spent decades deconstructing assumptions about film studies through his work on the Oakland-based collective that produced the field-shifting journal Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, for which he was a founding coeditor. He argued that the courses needed to show experimental films if only to disturb students’ preconceptions and open them up just a little bit to a more pluralistic view of cinema. He did not enact the course renovations alone, however. We would go out to lunch, where he would drink many cups of coffee. He shared his analysis and plans for revision. He asked what I thought. He counseled me: The only activity one should ever do alone in the academy is write up your research. The rest of what we do, he said, we should always do with one another.

John internationalized the two courses by introducing films from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe as well as multicultural content from the United States. He fearlessly disrupted students’ perceptions of cinema. He nudged them into urgent conversation with a larger world. He enjoyed functioning as a sort of lifeguard in the roiling seas of the film-studies classroom, throwing students into the deep end of crashed expectations about Hollywood’s industrialized cinema. He was always there for them with his soul-deep smile and expansive affect, throwing out intellectual life jackets as needed or yanking students out of waters too turbulent for their level of critical acumen.

It feels as though John is still here, pushing us to consider our courses as international and formal heterogeneous organisms, existing to cultivate new utopias with our students. Over the seventeen years since John left Ithaca College, the screen-studies faculty members—whether just out of graduate school, in early or mid career, or seasoned senior professors—often ask for stories about his time there. They take the pedagogies John instituted to other colleges and universities. Grace An, Jane Glaubman, Matt Holtmeier, Dale Hudson, Christina Lane, Gina Marchetti, Lisa Patti, Claudia Costa Pederson, Leah Shafer, Anna Siomopoulos, Andrew Utterson, Chelsea Wessels, and Harvey Young have team taught the courses John originated. They have continued a conversation with his radical insurgencies to look outside the canon and the expected to invite students into the many worlds of cinema. The same colleagues ask about John’s work with Jump Cut. Through John’s legacy in our department, I suspect these professors feel connected to larger movements in film culture beyond career advancement and a small college in rural upstate New York. The memory of John is organizing us to operate in collective ways, to be resolutely in the world, to refuse dominant ideologies, to ignore anyone who would rob us of our collegiality.

John also motored the large lecture course on Hollywood that my department has now offered for more than two decades. The concept was his idea…as a proactive, pro-faculty response to the negative feedback from chairs and administrators that elective film studies (especially my courses, with their historical orientation) did not appeal to students who were more interested in hands-on production. Rather than grousing about lowering academic standards to consumerist ideologies about education, John figured out how to reverse engineer the situation. For advice he called his Jump Cut comrades Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage. He rang up friends at other universities, one of whom was Scott MacDonald, the scholar of experimental film who at the time was at Utica College. From them John learned that many schools offered courses called “Hollywood” as a tactic to lure students through direct appeal to their fantasies about the entertainment industry; an academic course on Hollywood could then hook students with dynamic screenings, critical historiography, and political economy to propel deeper understanding. I doubt anyone would ever guess that a founder of Jump Cut concocted a course at Ithaca College named “Hollywood.” The first time I offered the course, it was overenrolled. We teach it every spring, and it fills every seat in the lecture hall. Thank you, John.

John wafted through my heart and mind this past academic year (2015-16). The part-time faculty at Ithaca College unionized. The contingent one-year appointed faculty inaugurated a successful union drive. In August campus security unfairly harassed African American students. In October, J. Christopher Burch, a billionaire white male alumnus of Ithaca College and CEO of Burch Creative Capital, spoke at a large all-campus forum called “Blue Sky” that the upper administration concocted to reimagine higher education. Burch argued that books and classes were outdated and made disparaging, racist comments about Indonesians. He called a young, twenty-something African American female alumna on the same panel a “savage” after she stated that she possessed a “savage hunger” to make her career happen.

The campus erupted in political actions about race, diversity, and inclusion. Reporters from the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and other news organizations fluttered in like rare butterflies to cover the political gatherings held to fight racism, centralized management practices, and corporatization of the academy. In a nationally unprecedented event, the students voted no confidence in Ithaca College president Tom Rochon. The faculty voted no confidence, then the staff did the same. The president leaves in July 2017. We won. John would have delighted in the demonstrations, occupations, teach-ins, walkouts, arguments, LISTSERVs, meetings, letters, petitions. He would have encouraged and saluted all the part-timers and untenured assistant professors who attended the rallies and signed the faculty letters of protest published in the student newspaper, The Ithacan.

Around 1994, when the anthropology faculty had to spend out a large grant enhancing the expansion of Latin American content across the Ithaca College curriculum, they contacted John, who was a dedicated specialist on and partisan for Latin American cinema. During his time at Ithaca College, he always seemed to be working on his book on Latin American political cinema, which, sadly, was never published. He would read voraciously in this area, watch every Latin American, Mexican, and Cuban film that came to Cornell Cinema, and rent films for his courses. He also met virtually every faculty member at Ithaca College and Cornell University who worked on Latin American cinema, taught Spanish, or showed up at the screenings.

John scored several grants from Ithaca College to support the writing of his book. Looking back, I wondered if the idea of it functioned for John as a passport to connect him with as many political Latin Americanists as possible in our small upstate New York town of thirty thousand. As a result, the humanities faculty with the grant funds knew John from coffees, beers, screenings, and radical politics. He suggested that they dedicate the remaining money to buy 16mm prints of important Latin American films for the college’s library so that the works could be more easily taught. The money covered the expense of twelve films—an astonishing number back in the 1990s, when each print cost more than $1,000. Recommended by John, the films included, from Cuba, Lucía (Humberto Solás, 1968), Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968), and One Way or Another (Sara Gómez, 1974); from Argentina, The Hour of the Furnaces (Fernando Solanas/Octavio Getino, 1968); and from Chile, The Battle of Chile: Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975), among others. Most of our screen-studies courses frequently show these titles, which are now on DVD in the library. Through them, John is still with us, pushing us to think widely about all the forms of cinema available. He had insisted, gently and with a smile, that we move ourselves and cinema beyond the borders of the United States, and we have.

In the 1990s the notion of the transnational ripped open critical studies, both the globalized corporate transnational that rewired capital and the insurgent radical transnational that fought it. Both iterations dislodged and dismembered the national, a key term in cinema studies. Soon after John arrived at Ithaca College, he and I decided to create a study group of two to read more. He explained we were each part of a generation of cinema studies that interrogated “the national”: he specialized in Latin American cinema, and I worked in American film history.

John’s position was simple and elegant: we needed to think together about how to dismantle our own preconceptions. We drank a lot of coffee, in cafes and at his kitchen table. We discussed what this murky, ambiguously defined term “transnational” meant. While we were doing this work, the Zapatistas emerged in Chiapas. John thought they embodied the transnational ethos. He quoted Subcomandante Marcos to me. We co-wrote and presented a paper for the first Visible Evidence international conference on documentary, held at Duke University in 1993, on transnational documentary. We analyzed international collectives, radical forms of cinema, and new media. These projects confounded and refused borders, reformulating a politics of solidarity to imagine new ways to think about the world. We were fascinated how the idea of the transnational—the radical kind—was shifting documentary into new terrains and territories.

From here John and I assembled panels on transnational documentary at a few more Visible Evidence conferences hosted at various universities. John always insisted that our panelists gather together beforehand over many dinners and lunches. He wanted us to operate as a collective, to share stories about labor issues at our universities, to laugh together, to embody the transnational. He asked so many questions that these private assemblies functioned as little seminars, or radical cells, on thinking about the convergence of the transnational and the digital in documentary.

In writing this tribute to John, I researched what we coauthored on transnational digital documentary. For eight years, from 1993 to 2000, we mounted panels and dialogues on this topic. We published four articles together, in the magazines Dox and Mesh and the academic journals Afterimage and Wide Angle. The article for Afterimage, “Transnational Documentary: A Manifesto” (1997), was inspired by John’s work on third cinema and his admiration for Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. “Transnational Digital Imaginaries” (2000) for Wide Angle was about new media and video works. Many of the artists we discussed in the latter piece either went to school or lived in upstate New York. John liked that we centered our work in the place where we lived, an exceptionally vibrant and fertile area for electronic arts and new media with a long history of technological and arts innovation. The article was reprinted in a book called Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities (University of California Press, 2014) edited by Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. I see “Transnational Digital Imaginaries” cited in articles. Graduate students will sometimes contact me about it. I know that that work, and the connections it spawns, would not have been possible without John.

John and I shared a fantasy: we would coedit an anthology called Transnational Documentary. We talked about its shape and potential contributors over many more coffees and glasses of red wine. We contacted people on our various panels at conferences to see if they might join in. We even presented the idea to some university presses.

Unfortunately, the editors at one press did not treat our proposal with the kind of respect that John thought every individual deserved. I do not remember all the details, but I think they solicited the book and then either never responded or thought it was not good enough. When we spotted the editors at a reception at a conference, John wanted to talk to them. He thought they had behaved dishonorably by not treating us or our ideas with respect; he said he would not act as though nothing had happened. I was afraid to confront them—I just wanted to let it go. But John said no. He made me accompany him as he approached them. He laid it out: Why did they pretend to like the idea of this book and then not have the courtesy to say they did not want it? And why did they reject it? The editors were shocked. While I forget the particulars of the interaction, I do remember sensing their discomfort as they sputtered out excuses. John kept smiling, never antagonistic, ever clear, focused, and affable. His lack of anger must have destabilized them. At this point, my takeaway was not remorse over a failed book project but rather, John’s gracious way with those with whom he disagreed.

John, who was weary of commuting cross-country, had by this time resigned from Ithaca College and planned to return to Oakland to live full time with his wife Gail Sullivan. He was already working on the organizing campaign for part-time faculty in California’s state university system. One of the editors asked John what he wanted and how they could make amends. His answer shocked me: he asked them to donate to the part-time faculty organizing campaign, to do something for faculty with less security and fewer perks than those at elite Research I universities. One of the editors immediately pulled out a checkbook, wrote a check for a sizable amount, and deposited it in John’s hands. Afterward, when I asked John why he had confronted the editors, he told me he actually liked and even admired both of them. He said calmly: silence is dangerous and makes you complicit. Then, he laughed. He continued: everyone needs to be reminded that we are all part of something bigger, and that messy, unnameable thing needs all of us.

One summer, John left his Volvo station wagon parked on our land. We were then living south of Ithaca in the country, in a log home surrounded by fourteen acres. To protect the car’s exterior from the sun and crow droppings, he draped a gray cover over it. We passed that shrouded car daily, always thinking of John. When he returned to Ithaca after a summer with Gail in Oakland, he brought us a set of five hand-crafted measuring spoons. Each in the shape of a fish, the spoons sported intricate designs of fish scales, eyes, and fins. My hand traced their texture in three dimensions. I asked John why he gave us these gorgeous, unique spoons. He answered something like: because I know that all those dinners you cooked for me depend on the hidden labor of reading recipes and measuring, so when you cook, think of my gratitude for all the people I encountered around your table and all the laughs we shared.

I use those fish measuring spoons nearly every day. I love to cook. I read cookbooks for fun. For me, the spoons evoke the fullness of John’s laughter, the densities of his solidarities, the intricacies of his brilliant mind, the verve with which he engaged intellect and life. For John, ideas needed to sizzle and soar. The five spoons of different sizes measure out the power of his stunning clarity that happiness does not emanate from publishing books or even from producing an important political film journal for decades. According to John, happiness could come only from being part of the collective will to rewire college screen-studies courses, library film collections, and anything or everything that takes away our power.

Sometimes, alone in my kitchen, measuring out thyme or rosemary or cinnamon with the fish spoons, I hear John’s crackling laughter and see his expansive smile. I remember something he repeated over and over, a political chant, an incantation, a Zen koan: never work alone, and always have others by your side. For John, those two strategies rallied true happiness. They opened up something he valued beyond films, books, courses, research, writing, publications, conferences, or teaching: the power of people, united.


Patricia R. Zimmermann is Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

Acknowledgments: For offering her professional expertise to my tribute to John, I would like to thank editor Jane McAllister, who is not only my treasured friend but also, by wonderful coincidence, John’s first cousin. I am also grateful to Jane’s husband, my longtime friend Steve Speil, for conceiving the title of the essay after he read the first draft. Like me, they loved and admired John. I can only imagine that John would delight in our camaraderie on this project.