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Film professor Jurkiewicz looks back on 42-year career as retirement approaches


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Kenneth Jurkiewicz poses for a photo in his office, in 1979. 

When the Spring 2018 semester ends, so to will the 42-year teaching career of broadcast and cinematic arts faculty member Kenneth Jurkiewicz.

Jurkiewicz came to Central Michigan University in 1976, originally a professor in the English department. Jurkiewicz credits his arrival at CMU to the graduate dissertation he wrote on the experimental films of Norman Mailer for the University of Detroit, where he double-majored in English and journalism.

Throughout his adolescence, Jurkiewicz had ambitions of becoming a film critic — the “next Roger Ebert” — though when he realized how little opportunities there are for that particular career path, his set his sights on the next best thing: film education. 

As director of film studies within the BCA department, Jurkiewicz has taught many prospective film students at CMU. He has hosted classes on the history of cinema and film theory, as well as courses on specific directors and film genres — from the Coen Brothers to gangster films.

On April 16, Jurkiewicz sat down with the hosts of Central Michigan Life's film-centric podcast "Moving Pictures" to discuss his views on the film industry and give the "exit interview" of his long career in film education.

For the full interview with Jurkiewicz, listen to "Moving Pictures" at www.cm-life.com/multimedia or stream the episode on iTunes, Soundcloud or Spotify.

CM Life: What got you into film originally?

Jurkiewicz: DC comic books (and) a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland — exactly the same kind of comic books and schlock literature people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas read and sometimes even wrote for.

I was always sort of the nerdy geek who knew too much about comic books. This was before Marvel (Comics) became the big comic book dynamo of the 60's and 70's — I was always more into DC (Comics).

Now, the same kind of films that I end up talking about when I teach about the history of Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s — these were exactly the same kinds of films I would go and watch in movie theaters.

I grew up in Hamtramck, and the neighborhood movie theater was literally two blocks from where I lived. As as young lad, I would clutch my 25 cents in my pudgy fingers and waddle over to the local movie-house, every Saturday and sometimes Sunday, and see a double-feature of creature-features and monster flicks. 

That was how I spent my misspent youth. 

Here's the sad part of the story: I was an obsessive collector of film magazines (and comic books) when I was a kid. I owned — in perfect condition — every DC comic book (published between) 1958 to 1965. 

When I was a teenager, I thought, "I'm much too sophisticated to keep this stuff," so I sold my thousands of copies of these perfect-condition comic books for 3 cents each to the local comic book store.

I could have retired by this point if I still owned that stuff.

What are some of your favorite films?

Recently, a film that actually frightened me — gave me nightmares — was a picture called "The Witch." That film was beautifully crafted. 

I know some things about Puritanism, and "The Witch" is one of the few historical period films where you really get a sense of this was how people looked, how they acted (and) how they treated each other. (The filmmakers) got the audience into that mindset, and that is incredibly difficult to do.

One good thing about teaching (film) classes is that you can pick your favorite stuff and throw it in there, and be gratified when (students) like it too. 

One of my top five favorite films of all time — it flopped when it came out in the mid-1950’s — is called "The Night of the Hunter" with Robert Mitchum. It has this kind of fairytale quality to it, and yet it is scarier than hell, and just beautifully done in this sort of expressionistic black-and-white.

My wife and I will turn on cable and go through the dial, and if one of our favorite movies is on — I don't care how many times we've seen it — we'll sit down and watch the rest of it. That includes films like "The Exorcist" and Hitchcock's "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Frenzy."

John Carpenter's "The Thing," which I think is one of the best films of the 1980's — a superb example of pre-CGI special-effects. Even though it's a special effects film — a horror/sci-fi film — it's character-driven. 

What are you going to miss the most about teaching?

Probably sharing some of these films we've been talking about. I would often show these same films in BCA 101 and be surprised — either in a positive way or in a negative way — about (students') response, or lack of response.

I would show "The Gold Rush," for example, and in the same week we watch my all-time favorite comedians: Laurel and Hardy.

I'm going to miss sharing that kind of stuff with students.

Do you have any specific post-retirement plans?

I'm going to binge-watch a lot of movies and TV shows, and take the grandkids to Universal (Studios) and Disney (World) in Florida. That's my ambition — not necessarily in that order.

Are you going to buy back your comic book collection?

Next question, please.

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