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The man with a movie passion: remembering Vlada Petric

Vlada Petric (right) with filmmaker Tony Conrad at the Harvard Film Archive in 2008.Marcus Halevi

One of the reasons some of us love movies is because of some of the other people who love movies. Vlada Petric died in his home city of Belgrade, on Nov. 13, at 91. Maybe you never heard of him, but he directly and indirectly transformed the intellectual history of film in Boston and beyond, and he loomed magnanimously large in the lives of everyone who met him.

A thumbnail biography: Petric was a founding member with Robert Gardner in 1979 of the Harvard Film Archive and served as head curator for its first two decades, establishing the Archive as an indispensable collection of cinematic holdings. He also personally set its restless, far-reaching approach in programming the work of the world’s best and most challenging filmmakers, now and of the past.


But the HFA was only the most visible peak in an absurdly rich life. Petric served as Henry Luce chair of cinema at Harvard from 1972 to 1997, and just about everyone who took a class with him has a story, almost always delivered in Vlada’s stormy Eastern European accent.

As a boy, Petric witnessed Hitler’s army marching into Vienna in 1938. He studied cinematography with the legendary Lev Kuleshov in Moscow and somehow wangled his way into a cameo part in Mel Brooks’s “The Twelve Chairs,” which filmed in Yugoslavia. Upon emigrating, he was the first person in America to receive a PhD in film studies, from NYU in 1970.

His years at Harvard were, shall we say, colorful. There was the time in the 1970s when members of the university’s Black Panthers dragged Petric from the podium as he was introducing “The Birth of a Nation.” Virtually every person who accompanied Vlada on a mid-1980s multidisciplinary world tour remembers the time in Bali, during a gamelan concert in a monsoon, when Petric appeared wearing only a towel and got everyone to dance in the rain.


He wrote books, staged plays, worked in TV. He made movies, too, including a feature-length manifesto/autobiography called “The Wall of Memories” — it can be found on YouTube — that is about as close as a person can get to mainlining Vlada Petric and his theories of “cinematic perception” in the flesh.

Also available on YouTube is a very funny clip from filmmaker and Harvard colleague Ross McElwee’s 2003 documentary, “Bright Leaves.” McElwee wants a simple talking-head interview; instead, Petric straps him into a wheelchair and rolls him backward around a North Carolina film set while dispensing cinematic judgments from on high. “Vlada, is this really necessary?” asks McElwee from behind the camera. “Vell, I like unnecessary things,” insists Petric, “because only from unnecessary things in art you can expect something unexpected to occur, something special.”

Vlada Petric was himself something special, as attested to by the following anecdotes, fielded from e-mails and online postings of those who knew him, loved him, and worked with him. I wish I could print the whole lot, but we’d be here all day.

“He was notorious for talking through the movies. If the film was good, he would talk less, but if the film was bad, he would talk through the elements that make the film bad. . . . His motto was ‘See, you can learn so much about what makes a great film by watching and discussing bad films.’ ” — Sasha Lekic, Petric’s longtime assistant


Vlada Petric (left) with longtime Harvard Film Archive projectionist Steve Livernash (center), and HFA director Haden Guest, in 2008. Tony Conrad/Marcus Halevi/courtesy Harvard Film Archive

“He would run 16mm prints through his analytic projector so he could freeze the frame, and run it backward and forward, slow it down. It was a piece of magic, being able to hear him wax poetic about a single shot, a camera move, a perfect cut that we would observe frame by frame. He was always in search of those rare and perfect moments where form met content, for that which he would consider ‘cinematic.’ ” — film editor and former Petric teaching assistant Sabrina Zanella-Foresi

“The terms ‘cinematic’ and ‘oneiric’ peppered his daily proclamations, and spilled out in enthusiastic rants accompanied with waving arm movements, very theatrical gestures for an academic film scholar. . . . I am thoroughly convinced that he was invented by the comedian Mel Brooks.” — Bruce Posner, former HFA assistant curator and founder of the Hanover, N.H.-based Filmmakers Showcase

“It was the introductory meeting of Humanities 193, History of Film: The Evolution of Cinematic Expression, fall 1977. You will recall that a certain famous film had opened the previous Memorial Day weekend. Some foolhardy soul raised his hand to ask why there weren’t more recent releases on the syllabus. Petric’s eyes bugged out. He drew himself up to his full height. The reply, delivered in his Lugosi-thick accent, was withering. “Oh, so your idea of a great feelm is perhaps [pause for effect] ‘Stuh-HAR Vors’?!”Boston Globe critic Mark Feeney


“He could be tough. He was my adviser for a class senior year at Harvard in which he insisted I watch all four (or maybe it was five) screenings of Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon,’ a four-hour silent epic. . . . It was, needless to say, a very long weekend. Perhaps this was meant to test my love and dedication for the art of cinema, or my passion for watching light dance across the screen. And with Vlada, passion was a must. Pretenders need not apply.” — writer-director Yule Caise

"I remember listening to Vlada tell the story of how one of his favorite high school teachers was removed from Vlada’s class by the police for relating an ethnic joke about Russians. She was sent to a rehabilitation camp where she later died. This would have been shortly after World War II, I think. Vlada broke into tears as he related the story, as if it had happened yesterday.” — retired HFA administrator Steffen Pierce

“[To be read in a Bosnian accent]: ‘Film produces the oneiric effect. Twenty-four frames per second. This is REM sleep. But. I do not sleep. I watch film at 24 frames per second and do not need to sleep.’ I’m not sure whether [Vlada] actually said that or not. But in my dreamlike memories, he always did — and still does.“ — former student Brad Marshland Dang

“In the late 1970s I was at a film studies conference. . . . The day’s topic was [the silent Soviet classic] ‘Man With the Movie Camera’ and Vlada, the author of a book on the film, was on the panel. The first speaker was Dwight Macdonald, who recounted the high opinion he once had of the film and about seeing it again for the occasion. He now found it a tremendous bore and went on expounding his new view in excruciating detail. Each panelist had been allotted a limited time to speak, and after a while Macdonald asked, “How long have I been speaking?” Vlada leaned forward to his microphone and asked in his Yugoslav basso profundo, “Objectively? Or subjectively?” — Harvard film professor Alfred Guzzetti


“Vlada loved films that embodied the ‘cinematic’; immersive, engrossing films that are able to stir the heart and open new vistas. By this definition Vlada was himself truly cinematic for the ways he captivated and inspired us with that intense love and insight and knowledge, all the while animated by his wild gestures and piercing eyes and that cologne that lingered in the air long after he was gone.” — Haden Guest, current director of the HFA

“When we became filmmakers and he would watch our films, he would explain that video sadly did not have the same effect on the brain as film and was flawed cinematically by definition (in the nicest of terms, as he tried to be supportive of our failed efforts). But even when he gently criticized our work, he was always our friend as well as teacher, and always made time for us when we passed through Cambridge in the decades that followed.” — filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (“Queen of Versailles”)

“He insisted we had to know the titles of all films in their original language — not only English, French, and Russian, but also Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, etc. This demand produced hilarious scenes at the exams when we, his students, tried to pronounce film titles in unfamiliar languages.” — Branka Bogdanov, former film and video director, Institute of Contemporary Art

“The trick to appreciating Vlada was that he was incredibly funny. . . . He was inimitable yet everybody imitated him. You had to imitate him to get through what it was like to be with Vlada, which was very intense. He had these Classics of World Cinema courses in which you really felt as though you were in the midst of something powerful and important, and it was his view of cinema that was powerful and important. That affected the department and I think a generation of people who came through Harvard and beyond that, because of the Archive.” — Harvard film professor Robb Moss

“He was a notorious insomniac. He said he would roam around Cambridge for hours in the middle of the night, going into what he called the White Chicken but I think he meant White Hen Pantry. He would strike up conversations with strangers . . . that went like this (as he told me). "So what do you do? Oh, a truck driver? Interesting. I am a film theoretician.” — former student Hugh Taylor