by Ann Martin and Rob White
from Film Quarterly Summer 2012, Vol. 65, No. 4
Ernest Callenbach was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1929. Family lore reveals that he acquired his nickname after his father, a poultry science professor, was told by a student: “Professor Callenbach, you’ve hatched a cute little chick there!” Chick studied at the University of Chicago and spent time as an American cinephile in Paris before taking employment as a blurb writer for the University of California Press. Shortly afterwards, in 1958, he founded this journal. He edited it for an astonishing thirty-three years, until his retirement from the Press in 1991, and for twenty years after that he was a wise, warm, and authoritative presence on the Film Quarterly editorial board. His peaceful death on April 16 marked the end of an extraordinarily creative and happy life.
It is salutary to remember that in 1958 there was no dedicated forum for the intellectually ambitious writing about cinema that was starting to emerge in the U.S. There was no American Cahiers du Cinéma, there was no American Sight and Sound. When Chick accepted the invitation from the Press’s director, August Frug., to create something new out of the ashes of the Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, it was therefore a momentous event. In “Da Capo” (published in the fall 2008 fiftieth anniversary issue and available at www.filmquarterly.org), his eloquent summation of the history of the journal, of the study of film in America, and of what might be called his own love affair with the cinema, Chick recalled: “In our first decade it became normal for educated people to take film directors as seriously as they took novelists. Film won acceptance as a kind of visual literature, part of a vibrant political-cultural life, something urgently talked and argued about, and Film Quarterly plunged into this pool of energy.”
What he went on to say is worth noting too: “We managed to mobilize a sizable and far-flung group of early contributors, including journalists and some film-crazed academics, usually from literature departments.” For if there existed no serious journal, neither was there any academic study of cinema. As editor of both Film Quarterly and the Press’s film books, Chick had as much of a role as anyone in the process that led to Film Studies finding its rightful home in universities. In 1995 the Society for Cinema and Media Studies acknowledged his contribution by awarding him its Distinguished Career Achievement Award, but it must be added that Chick always held true to the founding ethos of Film Quarterly summarized in “Da Capo”: “to create a broad universe of discourse accessible to people who take film seriously, but who may not themselves be scholars.” This meant that he expressed caution about academic specialization. In his final editorial before retiring (“The Unbearable Lightness of Leaving,” fall 1991), he wrote: “I have heard film academics remark disparagingly that someone’s writing was ‘outside the Discourse.’ Well, so in their time were Freud’s, and Buddha’s, and that of most thinkers who matter. And what if the Discourse itself becomes smug, ingrown, functionally reactionary despite radical terminology?”
Those who knew Chick well will recognize in those remarks not only the kind of principled, engaged, far-sighted view that he always took, but also the light, witty touch that accompanied any statement likely to be uncongenial to some in its audience. Editorial board member Leo Braudy says: “He had so much personal force and integrity, and yet it was enwrapped in a courtliness and almost shy diffidence that perhaps it is only in retrospect that the power of his nature and his sensibility becomes clear.” That gets to the heart of the man we knew—a man who was able to resolve into a synthesis attitudes that most of us cannot hold together without stress or contradiction. Chick’s wife of thirty-four years, Christine Leefeldt, remembers that he always cherished people, ideas, and events for the best they contained, but without needing either to disavow what was less pleasing or to give ground under pressure. (This is probably more in keeping with Buddha than Freud, and indeed, Chick was sympathetic to Buddhism in an informal way.) An admirable balancing act can also be discerned in his highly influential work as a progressive writer, which ranged from a manual for thrifty sustainable living that reflects the values of his Depression-era childhood, Living Poor with Style (1972), to the widely admired futuristic novel, Ecotopia (1975). Chick was never content with abstraction, and in their different ways both of these groundbreaking books grasp the nettle of putting utopian ideas into everyday practice. Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large Nina Power observes: “Callenbach’s Ecotopia is strangely memorable, quirky, and in some ways tethered to the optimistic moment it sprang from. Yet for all its supposed naivety—and this goes for many other utopian or radical ideas of the time—it remains not only strangely prescient but also remarkably rational. In a world where short-term gain and the maximalization of profit for the empathy-less elites reigns supreme, where toxic ways of living daily threaten health and sustainability, Callenbach’s environmental alternative is less idealistic than downright sane.” The success of this activist writing depends again on the subtlety with which Chick resolved what for someone else would have remained a conflict between levelheadedness and speculation.
The combination of integrity and tact meant that Chick was a tremendously skillful editor, and one who inspired intense loyalty and affection in those who had the good fortune to work with him. Former editorial board member Linda Williams, who first met Chick as a Berkeley sophomore in 1965, recalls: “Twenty-three years later I met Chick again as the editor of my book manuscript, Hard Core—though it was he who gave it that name. I met him in Berkeley for a real ‘publisher’s lunch,’ and I was immensely proud to ‘have’ an editor though I didn’t yet realize what that meant. Today, for academic books, it means very little beyond ‘acquisition.’ You are lucky if the editor who acquires your book even reads it, let alone talks to you about it. But back then, at least with Chick, you could send him each chapter as you revised it and he would get it back to you—in the mail, mind you—within a couple of weeks. He didn’t just pronounce judgment on the whole, he helped imagine and shape it as you wrote. It was an extraordinary experience of collaboration and gentle prodding. I vividly remember him reminding me that I wasn’t just writing for the ‘feminist sisters’ but to others who might be interested. Chick was wiser than anyone I knew.” Longtime contributor and another Berkeley neighbor, Paul Thomas, adds: “Chick knew as an editor exactly what to do, exactly the right advice to proffer, at exactly the right time. He was more hands-on and determined than his gentle manner might suggest. He was never intrusive or in-your-face, but always knew what he wanted, what would work—and these were always the same qualities.” And editorial board member Marsha Kinder concurs: “He was a great editor—the best I’ve ever worked with. I only wish I had listened to more of his advice when he worked with me on Playing with Power. For he correctly predicted what things would date, not only the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but also for Jacques Lacan. He was always both supportive and critical in productive ways.”
In these fond recollections there once more appears the benevolently resolved contradiction—gentle and determined, supportive and productively critical—that Chick again and again achieved with the extra gracefulness of never drawing attention to the unshakeable strength of character and profound fellow feeling it entailed. What he said about the power of cinema in “Da Capo” expresses as well this rare, marvelous gift for synthesis that benefited so many of us: “A great film holds reality and meaning in magical suspension. So we, entranced, enraptured, ensorcelled, will keep watching, thinking, and writing about that magic.” We, his successor editors, are honored to pay our own fond tribute to our dear mentor and friend, who was the heart and soul of Film Quarterly for more than fifty years.
Ann Martin was editor of Film Quarterly, 1991–2006.
Rob White is the current editor of Film Quarterly.