Few have the audacity to refer to themselves by their middle name accompanied by their first initial. Fewer still can get away with it. Though I often try, I cannot. P. Adams Sitney, on the other hand, has no such trouble.
With a sear sucker suit, a biting wit and whiskers to rival any Old Testament prophet, Sitney can get away with just about anything, and that includes being a beloved and well respected teacher on the Princeton campus.
Talking to Sitney in his book-filled office on the second floor of 185 Nassau last week was something like picking my way through a mine field. Ambiguity of language is not to be tolerated in that office. I learned that the hard way during the numerous but terrifying visits I made freshman year to discuss paper topics, and I had the good fortune to learn that lesson again while preparing to write this profile.
After the pleasantries and questions — "When and where were you born?" "August 9, 1944, New Haven, Conn." — I tossed out what I thought would be a great question, a real fast ball.
"So, Professor Sitney, why do you think the study of film is important?"
(Sitney knocks it out of the park; game over.) I was stunned to silence. This was supposed to be a piece on Sitney's film interests, and I could see it going up in flames. I was completely incapable of asking another question. Fortunately, he indulged me and proceeded without my having to ask: "What is important is the study of the Bible, Greek classics, Milton and others."
The ensuing conversation went smoothly. Sitney kept me on my toes, but he was relaxed and poised. As he talked about his life and his work, he was interesting and thoroughly enlightening. Leaving his office, able to breathe normally again, I realized in a way I hadn't since freshman year, that conversations with Sitney — while mentally trying — are perhaps the most intellectually stimulating I have ever had on this campus.
"I was a Yale townie," Sitney said leaning back in his chair. And not of the Nassau Street variety. "We were not even middle class. We were poor."
His parents were "uneducated," though his father had completed high school. His father owned a small grocery store that catered mostly to widows who had their groceries delivered to their homes.
Young Sitney attended what he described as a "ghetto grammar school." "By the time I was in sixth grade I was the only white male in my class."
But he was street smart and at a young age developed strong self-confidence. "About the time I was 10 years old I found that I could walk in anywhere in Yale University," he said.
Sitney realized that if he acted like he belonged, everyone would believe he did, and he began to satiate his extraordinary curiosity and intellectual drive with the resources he found at Yale.
At first he was interested in geology and other sciences. He dabbled in languages. ("I tried to teach myself Greek at age 13.") He took a position at the Yale Medical Center treating rats with LSD. Using his lab coat and scrubs, he falsely claimed to be a full-time employee in order to procure a library card. It worked.
Sitney remembers that the aristocratic professors of Yale led him to decide on a career in academia at a young age. By the time he entered high school he had left geology and found his way to the literature and art departments of Yale. He thought he had found his true calling in the study of literature.
Instead, he stumbled upon film. "When I was 14, I walked into a show of avant-garde film," he recalled. "I was profoundly changed."
In the next few years, Sitney's life became closely intertwined with the study of film. At the age of 16, he was publishing articles of critical commentary on the study of film. At the age of 17, he was asked to join the staff of Film Culture Magazine as editor.
After his freshman year at Yale, Sitney was invited to tour Europe lecturing on American avant-garde film. He took a year off from school, and lectured across Europe with about 40 hours of film. "My family was furious," he said, but the next summer he did the same in Buenos Aires.
Two years and a semester later, in the fall of his senior year, Sitney completed degrees in the study of Sanskrit and Greek. Yale awarded diplomas only in the spring, so Sitney stayed on as a graduate student in Sanskrit, "all the while thinking that I was about to go to jail."
This was 1967 and the draft was in full effect. Sitney, a Catholic, was a staunch conscientious objector. However, because his draft board did not view Catholicism as a religion that absolutely forbade war, it refused to grant him conscientious objector status.
His situation ambiguous, Sitney was sure that he would have to go to jail when "a wonderful professor [he] did not know very well" appeared before the draft board on Sitney's behalf. The professor convinced the board that Sitney would refuse to go to Vietnam and choose to go to jail if it came to that. There was both a quota on the number of conscientious objector statuses the board could grant and a quota on the number of people they could send to jail — and so, this professor proposed that Sitney be sent back to Europe to again lecture on film.
To Sitney's astonishment, the draft board agreed, and he was given governmental permission to travel to Europe in order to show anarchic, subversive, homoerotic and anti-Vietnam War films.
When Sitney returned after a two-year tour of Europe, his wife, whom he had married as an undergraduate at Yale, was pregnant. A father at age 24, Sitney was taken out of the draft for good, and the family moved to New York where Sitney began teaching film studies at New York University. He also commuted to New Haven by bus, leaving home at 4 a.m., to earn a Ph.D. from Yale in comparative literature.
Sitney said he was unhappy teaching at NYU. "It was too narrow," he said. "There was not enough cultural or historical resonance because we focused too narrowly on film." He left NYU and accepted a one-year position at Princeton in 1980.
Until 1988 Sitney received a series of one-year appointments, until he accepted a full-time position in the visual arts program. He said he favors the position here because there seems to be a better sense of priorities. "Most students study history or English or philosophy, so they bring these concerns into the discussion of serious films," he said.
Sitney also occasionally teaches the two-class humanities sequence, HUM 216/217: Approaches to Western Culture from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. He described the sequence as "the best course at this University" — illustrating again that he seems to have a set of priorities in which the study of film is not number one.
As I listened to Sitney recount stories of the courage and imagination with which he overcame his childhood days as a student in a "ghetto grammar school," my own bravado must have somehow increased. Despite my disastrous initial question on film study, I ventured into that territory again at the end of the interview. If the study of film is not necessarily important, why, I asked, does he devote so much of his scholarship to it?
"To suddenly encounter films like that, which were as mysterious and convincing as the most important modern poems I'd read or the 20th-century paintings I'd seen was a revelation to me," he replied. I knew then that he was thinking back to that moment when he first saw an avant-garde film so many years ago at Yale.
"Does this stay with you?" I wondered. "Oh yes," he said, "Just last week I showed one of the ones I saw when I was 14."
The film was a project on which Salvador Dali was a collaborator. I had no idea that Dali made films. I do know, however, that the wonder we sense from Dali's paintings — even from the over-replicated posters of his work, which hang in dozens of dorm rooms — is the same wonder Sitney can bring to the study of films for the hundreds of students he has reached.
It is the same wonder that the brilliant young child of a poor, uneducated grocer felt as he watched the poetic images of avant-garde film flicker across the screen of a Yale University theater. It is a wonder which he shares.
The day after I interviewed Sitney, I received an e-mail from him with the subject heading "Truth in Journalism." He had, it seemed, mentioned to his two young daughters that I had inquired about them during the course of the interview.
Sitney had told me the day before that his twins, Miranda and Augusta, thought that he "was the most incredible nerd" and "thoroughly uncool in every way." His e-mail informed me that they agreed fully with this assessment. Augusta, however, was horrified to learn that her father had failed to mention her passion for dogs and marine biology, and she entreated him to make that important part of her character known.
I returned Sitney's e-mail and asked him to assure her that the Princeton community would be duly informed.
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