by Hilary Kaiser, OLLI member
Born and raised in New Jersey before moving to Connecticut, Russell Merritt grew up going to the movies. “It was the thing to do,” he says. He became seriously interested in film in high school and college; it became a gateway to the other arts, particularly literature, history, and painting. By the time he entered graduate school, he was specializing in Renaissance literature, and then seized the opportunity to apply what he learned in other disciplines to the world of film. His first academic article was on Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.”
Russell’s Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University was on D.W. Griffith, “the father of film,” whom he discovered in high school watching “Birth of a Nation.” Centering his study on the 485 short- to full-length films Griffith made between 1908 and 1913, he spent hours at the Library of Congress viewing them. His interest in Griffith led to a more general fascination with silent film and with various film styles and genres—from animation to national cinema (French, Italian, Japanese, and German), to the films of the 50s, to name just a few. When asked which film he thought had the most influential impact on him, Russell thinks for a moment and then replies: “La Règle du Jeu” (“Rules of the Game”, made by Jean Renoir in 1939).
After teaching for 20 years as a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin, Russell moved to California in 1986 to join his friend and classmate from graduate school, Bill Nestrick, founder of UC Berkeley’s film program. In addition to teaching film at Berkeley, he has also taught at the University of Southern California, Stanford, and San Francisco State University.
Wearing another hat, Russell is also producer and director of “The Great Nickelodeon Show,” a 90-minute recreation of a turn-of-the-century film exhibition with live acts and illustrated lectures. This original program has been performed at film festivals throughout the country and abroad. “It recreates what it was like going to the movies back then,” he says.
Russell and his wife Karen, who is retired from the President’s Office at UC Berkeley, are avid San Francisco opera and symphony goers and staunch supporters of the Berkeley Art Museum. Eclectic in his musical tastes, Merritt also loves American pop music from the 50s and 60s. He and Karen have traveled extensively abroad. As part of the commemoration of the First World War, Russell will attend a film conference in Macedonia to lecture on how film was used to interpret and “sell” the war to Americans.
Russell is very much looking forward to giving his first class at OLLI. “I’ve had some students from OLLI in my classes at the Pacific Archive mixed in with undergraduates. It’s going to be fun teaching exclusively to people my own age and getting their input,” he says. Russell will be concentrating on hidden themes of the 50s and illustrating his lectures with a wide variety of film clips, slides, and animation shorts. As for the feature films, they will be determined by what films are available for students to see outside of class, but they will include the classics such as On the Waterfront, exploitation films such as [The Incredible Shrinking Man] and the one-of-a-kinds, like Sweet Smell of Success and Shadows. “The course will be all about a decade you only thought you knew.”