"Just do it."
Chuck Kleinhans speaks.
It’s simple really….. what’s with the movies that so many of us should spend a life-time worrying about them – especially if we are politically engaged? Surely there are more important areas of activism? And for Chuck and my generation, there was an added element of Anglophone intellectual disdain attached to the popular arts. Over the past couple of years, I have been recording interviews with folk seeking to understand how, given this unfertile context, we all came to cinema studies.
Talking to Chuck and Julia was crucial for this project. For one thing, their stellar contribution demonstrated that my vision of the field’s marginality is way off the mark and that had to be acknowledged. The radical body of work Chuck has left us is a model of what engagement can mean and this conversation, I hope, illuminates its foundation. But more than that: this unavoidable task was no sweat. Every encounter with Chuck constantly confirmed the appositeness of his email handle – chuckkle. Nothing can be more missed than his needle-sharp amused take on the low dishonest times in which we live. And our field cannot more urgently need scholarship as committed and relevant as his to find our way through them.
We honoured Chuck and Julia at VisEv XXII in Toronto and their message to us then was a simple one: ‘Just do it.’ Chuck’s life was a celebration of this injunction.
Interview with Chuck Kleinhans, 2016 and 2017
BW: Tell us your tale.
Chuck: I grew up in the city of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood but then my family moved to the suburbs when I was in high school. There I was really alienated from the high school environment but got relief by going into downtown Chicago and seeing foreign films.
BW: Why foreign films?
Chuck: They were more interesting, an alternative to the culture I had to live in as a dependent child. Luckily my folks always expected that from the time I was about six-years old, I’d use public transport to go anywhere in Chicago – that was just taken for granted. My first real interest in film was seeing works like the Cranes Are Flying and most of the neo-realist films that came with the arrival of European art films in the late 1950s to the United States.
Then I went to University of Wisconsin from 1960-64. A small film theatre in the student union made a practice of programming the latest films just released in New York. So I saw and was incredibly moved by films like Shadows, all kinds of work by the realists, Lionel Rogosin, and revivals of classic works I hadn’t seen earlier. Wisconsin had a terrific film society, one of the best in the country at the time, so you could fill in your film education that way.
But my main interest was in theatre, and I was involved in an alternative theatre group sponsored by the religious society and campus groups, Mime and Man Theatre. We did the Theatre of the Absurd as it was just emerging — everything that couldn’t be done in the University theatre. So I was involved with all this alternative stuff.
BW: Were you involved as an actor or a director?
Chuck: Stage work. But because the plays were sponsored by a religious group they wanted an educational factor, so at the end of every performance we had a discussion between cast, crew, any of the audience that wanted to stay, and a professor. That became my greatest interest. I remember that when we did a Camus play, Germaine Brée – the scholar from the French Department who knew Camus personally — came and talked with us about it. Mime and Man gathered this incredible loyalty. We were doing this eccentric thing in the Midwest, putting on Theatre of the Absurd, and at the same time we were building a very loyal audience. That shaped the way I thought media and theatre could be used.
I was also a photographer and the photography editor of both my high school and college year book. I’d been doing journalism and sports photography at high school so I was really used to being in an environment of taking images while moving fast and documenting things.
BW: Were you aware of a cultural hierarchy of film being at the bottom of the pecking order?
Chuck: Only faintly. My father had been raised as a Methodist so there was a family suspicion of mass entertainment. He always applied a formula that a film should be uplifting. I remember once having this discussion with him when I was in about 7th or 8th grade. I’d gone to see a double bill and one film was a mindless farcical comedy by a television comedian George Gobel, who played a dumb guy. I wanted to see it because I had seen Gobel’s TV show then wanted to see his movie. The double bill had a Humphrey Bogart film, The Harder They Fall. I came back and said, “I didn’t like that George Gobel film, but I liked the Humphrey Bogart one.” My father, who loved Humphrey Bogart, said, “Yes, that’s the difference – one is very depressing but you gained something from it, didn’t you?” It was like some moral education, dealing with something profound.
BW: Was your background radical?
Chuck: Well, my family background was Taft Republican/Midwestern Republican, which was the norm. When I went off to college I lived in an inexpensive rooming house with a bunch of New Yorkers, who included some former CP-oriented people. One was Gene Dennis, who was the son of Eugene Dennis Sr., who had been indicted under the Smith Act for being the head of the Communist Party in 1952, jailed for eight years, and recently let out to die of cancer. When I met this guy Gene, we were just playing football and running around and doing stuff together. I knew he had these really crazy, radical, left ideas, but I didn’t know the fact of who he was until someone from New York said that his father was the head of the Communist Party. I said, “No, I didn’t know that!” [laughs]
At the same time I had already signed up for Naval R.O.T.C.. After college, I went off to spend two years in active duty in the Navy. Going in three weeks before Tonkin Gulf, I was serving during the beginning of the Vietnam War. But even with that commitment, I incorporated this funny kind of skepticism. When I was in R.O.T.C., my social group were these New York Lefties. I would go to the military ball on a Saturday night after which there was always an anti-military ball on Sunday [laughs], and I would go to both!
I loved being in the Navy: driving ships around in the ocean is one of the greatest things in the world. The military as an institution is absolutely oppressive and stupid, and it tolerates and promotes stupidity, so it was easy to be skeptical. It was also easy to be skeptical of the Vietnam War. In fact, if you were in the Navy all your training involved working with the model of counter-insurgency; you know, you work in the grassroots, you build up your local base. But of course the Vietnam War was run by the Army and Air Force who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. They thought they could bomb peasants out of existence and commit other atrocities and win a conventional war. If you were in the Navy, you would be skeptical.
My work in the Navy also relates to my film career. I was assigned to a small destroyer that was mostly used for training purposes, so we only had half of a regular crew because we brought on these reservists and took them out for a week or weekend for their training and then brought them back. I was the most junior officer but had more power than any other junior officer would have at that stage because we were a training ship. So I was immediately elevated to the position of first lieutenant, which means you’re in charge of the entire deck division. This normally would have taken two years to get to. I’m also the junior officer on board. The guy who was my senior officer – in terms of the watches that we were keeping – was a bachelor who loved movies and he wanted to see at least two or three movies a night.
In the Navy you get these Hollywood films, and the crew, the officers, and the non-commissioned officers watch them, so the same movie gets watched three times on three different projectors. Every time I had duty with this guy I had to be the projectionist so I got used to showing two or three movies a night. I’ve seen every Beach Party movie ever made about five times; I saw every Western from the late 1950s and early 1960s at least ten times. I got this incredible education in mainstream films, just by watching these movies.
And I also got the greatest insight into ideology and mainstream film. It happened when we showed Doctor Strangelove. All the officers thought it was hilarious because it criticized the Air Force and they were such dummies, weren’t they?! And I’m sitting there thinking, “Yes! Those Air Force guys are such assholes!” Wait a minute; ideology, how does it work in films?! [laughs]
Then I go back to grad school at Indiana University and I do theatre studies and literary theory, mostly from a French perspective because my main language was French. Again I’m in comparative literature — I’m doing theory and theatre and then decide to do my dissertation on farce in late nineteenth century France and England, a pretty unconventional topic at that time. I went to grad school with bad grades actually, so I made A’s the first year to show that I could do it. But I also almost immediately get involved in the underground newspaper. I joined the underground paper that fall; we were the voice of the anti-war student-reform left at the time in 1966 at Indiana University. Later Julia arrived at IU in about 1970/71.
Because I got involved in the activist anti-war left as a veteran, I came at it from a slightly different position than the other parts of the anti-war movement did. In the student reform movement, I was in a sort of postgraduate-style-SDS called New University Conference that faculty and graduate students formed. As staff who were trying to forge a New Left approach to higher education, we had an incredible critique of that institution. I worked for NUC for years as an organizer and was sent as a project organizer to Michigan, so I was a paid underground outside agitator for a year in the middle of graduate school, which was a healthy thing to do.
Then I ran into Julia and she was all interested in film; I liked film, but I wasn’t obsessed with it. I was already versed in Continental theory. Then when I go to Julia’s dorm room, she says these are the books you need to know about film; read those six books and you’re fine. Julia’s going off to France to meet and interview Godard, unaware that he had just had a motorcycle accident and wasn’t available to anyone. Our plan was to go to Paris, meet up with Godard and interview him about how Brecht had influenced him. I’m going as a tag-along and I’m writing my dissertation, by hand, in Paris at the time.
Julia says, “Oh, the Cahiers du Cinema editors are going to have this workshop at the Avignon theatre festival.” And I hear “theatre festival” and it’s like oh great! So Avignon has a theatre festival, and I’m really eager to go since all the best groups from Europe are going to be there. During the daytime, which is dead time during a theatre festival, Cahiers du Cinema editors are having a workshop – this is just as they had become super Maoist. I’m happy to go to that because every afternoon they’ll be showing another movie. The workshop showed films by Godard and Gorin in their Dziga Vertov period, very didactic, and also widescreen documentaries from Maoist China. So, we go to hear these supposedly most advanced Marxist and Leninist thinkers talk about film and it takes about half an hour to figure out what’s wrong with them. It’s conclusive by the time you get to lunch when these five or six guys who have been holding forth (I always thought discuter meant discuss, not proclaim what the truth is from their point of view) at about a quarter to noon when their girlfriends come in in their sundresses carrying their little bags from shopping that morning and they all go off to lunch; and in the afternoon there is going to be a movie. At that point, after going through this thing, I figure if these are supposed to be the smartest people in Marxist and Leninist film criticism and I can see what’s wrong with them, then maybe I have something to contribute here. Then to cap it all off, we went to the UK and the BFI summer workshop run by Sam Rohdie in Sterling, Scotland. That clinched it. I had been sitting in Paris reading Althusser as well as having read Barthes, and I come in and these people depend on their secretary for translations.