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Society for Cinema & Media Studies

Gerald Mast: 1940-88

Author(s): Tag Gallagher
Source: Cinema Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Spring, 1989), pp. 18-21
Published by: University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media
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Gerald Mast: 1940-88
by Tag Gallagher

On 1 September 1988, Gerald Mast, writer, director, teacher and friend, professor
of humanities and chairman of the English Department at the University of
Chicago, died.
His importance in America will be compared to Jean Mitry's in France.
They were their nations' film-scholar laureates, but seldom acknowledged as such.
Mitry, though ever in the avant-garde and forever hurling broadsides at the latest
decadences in theory, inevitably seemed a traditionalist at the time of his death
at eighty-one. Gerald Mast, living life at a faster pace, achieved an identical fate
at forty-eight-"the same age as John Lennon," he liked to say. Where critics
like Godard, Rohmer, and Sarris had fired their coteries with a mystique of
cinema as a mode of existence, Mast and Mitry spoke to their nations at large,
summed up where scholarship had solidly arrived, emphasized its integration
within the humanist tradition, and sat as watchdogs over the sometimes scurvy
commotion of their contemporaries. In the world of academia, notorious for its
laziness and procrastination, both published with the energies of Dumas, though
neither was obliged to do it.
In the Encyclopaedia Britannica it is Mast who has written our official
account of "Motion Pictures, History of." In our classrooms it is Mast who wrote
the textbook, Short History, that year after year since 1971 has been the most
used. At one of our premier universities he chaired the English department and
taught movies under conditions that, in contrast to the travesties demanded by
most "schools," were almost ideal. He had a condominium in Chicago where he
taught; a house in Provincetown on Cape Cod where he wrote; a co-op in
Manhattan where he most loved to be (and where during his tenure at Richmond
College he had owned an elegantly furnished townhouse on Greenwich Village's
loveliest street); a BMW; a Macintosh; and a St. Bernard named Izzy (after Irving
Berlin) that he had trained not to eat until "Blue Skies" was sung. Thus, having
gained stature, position, and money, he did not need to go on writing.
Yet deliberately and repeatedly he targeted his books in directions where
he felt his colleagues least respected him. Told he was no theorist, he wrote
Film/Cinema/Movie; denounced as uncomprehending of Hollywood auteurism,
he wrote Howard Hawks, Storyteller; scorned for neglecting facts, he produced
The Movies in Our Midst. He did so because risk-taking was one of the aspects
of life he most enjoyed; and because he utterly lacked vanity-almost. Typically,
after Bruce Kawin published a review savaging the Short History, Mast paid

Tag Gallagher is the author of John Ford: The Man and His Films and forthcoming
books on Roberto Rossellini and Max Ophuls.
? 1989 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

18 Cinema Journal 28, No. 3, Spring 1989

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him to detail his criticisms so that he could improve the book's next edition.
And when he hired me to do the same, I could hear his smile on the phone:
"You're really going to love doing this," he chortled.
Mast was too excited by thought to reverence his own excessively. Ideas
were less sacred to him than the process of creating them. This was consistent
with his formation at the University of Chicago (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) where-as
one of its graduates put it-there is "commitment to intellectual inquiry in
general [and] concern with judging scholarship by the interest of the questions
the scholar generates and the thoroughness and ingenuity with which these
questions are pursued."
But Jerry had his own way. "Perhaps the strongest memory I have of him
is his love of argument," one of his colleagues told me. "It was always a blast
to argue with him," one of his students told me. I already knew this: we had
been arguing for seven or eight years about whether The Searchers is racist and
though our discussions did sometimes lose cordiality, they never lost hedonism;
but after his death I discovered that he had ringed his life with people who took
pleasure arguing with him. It was the ticket of admission to his respect, and
easily presented, because he made you feel encouraged to be your best. He was
willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get you to feel that way, because that,
after all, was his purpose. It was generous, for example, that in my case he read
and annotated an eight-hundred page manuscript; but it was typical of him that
for a year afterward he continued to argue his suggestions and respond to my
defenses via ten-page letters and hour-long phone calls. It was what I needed
and so it was what he gave me.
Characteristically, when he learned he had AIDS, his reaction was to ignore
it completely, to start a new book, prepare new courses, make a trip to Europe,
and get in as many arguments as possible. It was impossible to believe anyone
so enthusiastic was dying.
Jerry's charisma, along with his material wealth, developed out of his career
as an actor. At age eight he was playing "Gerald the Intellectual," wearing glasses,
and saying "indubitably" on a Los Angeles TV show called Sandy Dreams.
Innumerable bit parts in movies, theater, and musical comedy followed during
the next twelve years. By then he had started directing as well: college productions
of Ibsen, Shaw, Beckett, and Brecht, an off-Broadway production of Ubu Roi.
It was not surprising then that his courses, despite being demanding and
tough, were always oversubscribed. "Using no notes, he lectured dynamically,
freely incorporating questions and comments from the class," recalls A. L. Knight.
"But the real magic came when he would jump up (he usually lectured sitting
down) and analyze a clip-then the feeling of possibility, of spontaneity, of
importance would electrify the class." That same passion and love of presentation
came through on the lecture circuit. Mast would show up accompanied by his
own analyzer projector, and years later his audiences were still talking about
how he had made them see the richness of art.
It is an indication of the respect accorded Gerald Mast that his colleagues

Cinema Journal 28, No. 3, Spring 1989 1 9

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sometimes seemed to hold it against him that he did not write the definitive
treatises on film. But the facts remain that after seventeen years no one has
surpassed his Short History for close textual analysis and breadth; that after fifteen
years his Comic Mind is still the only substantial treatment of screen comedy;
that after fourteen years his Film Theory and Criticism is still the best anthology
of texts; that in the whole history of writing about movies no one has managed
to deal so enjoyably with film theory as he does in the first section of Film/
Cinema/Movie. He was glad he provoked intellectuals. But he never relinquished
the responsibility of bringing the general public into the movies. He deliberately
cultivated an off-the-cuff approach that could be infuriating, particularly in
contrast, say, to the solemnly fractured convolutions that, as annual SCS confer-
ences suggested, had become de rigueur in professionally self-admiring circles.
"Haven't we built a class system," he taunted philandering Marxists, "into our
very way of thinking and anointed ourselves as priests? No wonder most people
would rather see movies than read our patronizing essays."
"He was a kind of Johnny Appleseed," a friend joked. "Others tried to
cultivate the perfect hothouse apple; he wanted good apples everywhere. He
was one of three or four people who made the world conscious of the deliciousness
of cinema."
Virtually alone among the big names in film studies (most of the others had
"sold out," he claimed) he was willing to criticize the American Film Institute
out loud. "[It] has become a publicly funded organization for a private industry,
a public-relations arm of the film industry itself, designed to hype the current
product," he charged in Cinema Journal, when the AFI cut back its commitment
to film education.
Even at the University of Chicago, after he had been offered a splendid
appointment, he did not accept until plans were fully in place for a Film Study
Center--a large library of films and moviolas to analyze them on-and until
he had obtained a hundred-thousand-dollar grant from outside the University
with which to fund it, because otherwise, at a school where the first question in
grad courses is "Where's your text?", he knew he and cinema studies would
always be vulnerable. Time and time again, whenever he heard of some quiet
practice routinely outraging people in film studies at some other institution, Mast
would remark, matter-of-factly but sounding a bit like John Wayne, "Well, they
are not serious about film."
What a pity they never heard him say it.

Gerald Mast's Published Writings

A Short History of the Movies. New York: Pegasus, 1971. Fourth edition, New York:
Macmillan, 1986.
The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Second
edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Filmguide to Rules of the Game. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Coeditor with Marshall Cohen. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Third edition: 1985.

20 Cinema Journal 28, No. 3, Spring 1989

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Film/Cinema/Movie: A Theory of Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. Second
edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
The Movies in Our Midst: Readings in the Cultural History of Film in America. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Howard Hawks, Storyteller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Can't Help Singin': The American Musical on Stage and Screen. New York: Overlook
Press, 1987.
Bringing up Baby (Rutgers "Films in Print") New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 1988.
"Pinter's Homecoming." Drama Survey, 6, 3 (Spring 1968).
"The Logic of Illogic: Ionesco's Victims of Duty," Modern Drama (Fall 1970).
"The Gold Rush and the General," Cinema Journal, 9, 2 (Spring 1970). Reprinted in
Focus on Chaplin, ed. Donald W. McCaffrey (Prentice-Hall, 1971) and Classic
Cinema: Essays in Criticism, ed. Stanley J. Soloman (Harcourt-Brace, 1973).
"The Studio System," The American Cinema, ed. Donald Staples, Voice of America
Forum Series, 1973.
"Motion Pictures, History of." Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 15, 1974.
"What Isn't Cinema?" Critical Inquiry, 1, 2 (December, 1974).
"Film History and Film Histories." Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 1, 3 (Summer
"Whatever Happened to Black and White?" The New Republic, 27 August 1975.
"Surrealistic Burlesque," The New Republic, 26 September 1975.
"In Memoriam: Central Casting." The New Republic, 27 December 1975.
"American Politics in the Movie Mirror." The New Republic, February, 1976.
"Kracauer's Two Tendencies and the Early History of Film Narrative," Critical Inquiry,
4, 4 (Spring 1979).
"Film Study and the Copyright Act." Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4, 3 (Summer
1979). Reprinted in Fair Use and Free Inquiry (Ablex, 1980).
"Film, History of." American Academic Encyclopedia 1 (1980; revised 1986).
"Literature and Film." Interrelations of Literature, ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli and Joseph
Gibaldi, Modern Language Association, 1982.
"Film Study and the University of Chicago." Film and the Undergraduate Curriculum,
ed. Grant, Modern Language Association, 1983.
"On Framing." Critical Inquiry 11, 1 (Fall 1984).
"Woody Allen," "Charles Chaplin," "Howard Hawks," "Buster Keaton," "Mack Sennett,"
"Francois Truffaut," "The Gold Rush," "The Great Dictator," "The Kid," "Lime-
light," "Red River," "Scarface": St. James International Dictionary of Films and
Filmmakers, 1984.
"Charles Chaplin," "D. W. Griffith," "Howard Hawks," "Mack Sennett," The H. W
Wilson Encyclopedia of World Directors, 1987.

Cinema Journal 28, No. 3, Spring 1989 21

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