Jim Hillier 1941-2014

The film scholar and film educationalist Jim Hillier has died after a long illness. He was the first film teacher I met and my experience of a week of seminars studying the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie at the BFI Summer School in Stirling in 1974 was the start of my formal engagement with film. At that time Jim was the Deputy Head of the ‘Educational Advisory Service’ of the British Film Institute at their old offices in Dean Street and in a key position to help kickstart film education in schools and colleges in the UK. What struck me then was how open and welcoming he was towards young teachers and what a difference his approach represented compared to some of the university teachers I had encountered a few years previously. Jim’s enthusiasm for film was infectious and I remember his stories about cycling across London to visit obscure suburban cinemas, soon to shut down, in the hope of seeing films by important directors which he had missed first time around.

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In 1975 Jim Hillier was one of a group scholars and teachers responsible for the revival of the journal Movie which had first been published in 1962 but had suffered two interruptions since then. The others involved comprised Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, Michael Walker and Ian Cameron and the first new volume carried articles by Doug Pye and Charles Barr. Movie didn’t survive in its third incarnation for very long but it provided a different take on the emerging field of film studies to that coming from Screen in the mid-1970s, providing examples of close reading of texts and leading the UK analysis of American cinema in particular. Jim Hillier was also on the boards of Screen and Screen Education at this point and also already a published author, having written Studies in Documentary with his colleague Alan Lovell for the Cinema One series in 1972. As a film scholar, Jim had many interests as demonstrated by some of the other titles in his impressive list of publications. The two volumes of selected translations of articles from Cahiers du Cinéma that he edited over many years and which emerged in 1985-6 and New Hollywood (1993 Studio Vista) represent essential resources for any film student. Later he co-authored The Film Studies Dictionary (Arnold 2001) with Steve Blandford and Barry Keith Grant and three of the BFI’s ‘100 Films’ Series with Alistair Phillips (Film Noirs, 2009), Barry Keith Grant (Documentaries, 2009) and Doug Pye (Film Musicals, 2011). Somehow he also found time to edit the BFI collection Howard Hawks: American Artist with Peter Wollen (1997)  and the Sight and Sound Reader on American Independent Cinema in 2008.

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That first book on Studies in Documentary in 1972 arose from Jim’s experience of the BFI/London University Extra-Mural Film Studies courses, the training ground for many later film teachers (and which eventually became the basis for Birkbeck College’s film and media degree programme). In 1979 I was invited to teach an Extra-Mural class with Jim. From him I learned the pleasures and great strengths of team teaching and I was also introduced to several of his less well-known film interests such as the avant-garde films of Jon Jost and both popular Hindi cinema in the form of Guru Dutt and the parallel cinema of Kumar Shahani. I taught again with him in 1987 and it was noticeable that despite his writing activities he still had the enthusiasm to offer the introductory courses in the programme. Working for the ILEA (Inner Education Authority) I was also aware of Jim’s part in the development of the ILEA Sixth Form Film Project, one of the first attempts to put film education into practice on a large scale across Inner London schools. Jim was involved in the development of the first GCE O Level in film in the early 1970s and then later the A Level in Film Studies in the 1990s. When Jim took up a post at Bulmershe College in Reading (which eventually became part of Reading University) he became a greatly respected and much-loved university teacher. The tributes on this blog with contributions from Doug Pye and other colleagues and students attest to the impact he had as tutor and scholar. It seems fitting that at the time of his death, Jim Hillier was still listed as a guest at the Midnight Film Festival in Finland, June 2014. Finnish Cinema was another of his interests and he had first written on New Cinema in Finland in 1972. Jim’s combination of inspirational teacher and scholar across so many different forms of cinema is rare and deserves to be long remembered.

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2 comments

  1. Christine Geraghty

    I too taught with Jim on the extra-mural classes. It was my first go at teaching and Jim’s knowledge and sense of humour got me through. He also commissioned my first piece of writing on Alice doesn’t Live Here Anymore for Movie. So he really was the start of everything for me as he was for many others.

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