The Bishop’s Farewell to UCLA

The John Bishop Experience Video

After 12 years, I left UCLA and moved to Portland. My last classes were in the Winter of 2008, and this lecture was my parting gesture. It happened February 28, 2008 at The UCLA Department of World Arts & Cultures, produced by Tiff Graham and videotaped by Tony Arias. The original two hours has been cut to 58 minutes and divided into seven parts that stream below. The text, which loosely follows the video, were the notes I used (and sometimes didn’t use). In fact, in many places the notes and what I said have no correspondance.

[What are we going to do today?
The same thing we do every day; try to take over the world.
That sounds like fun, I guess I’ll just go sit down and enjoy the show.
John, you are the show.
I thought I would just sit here and everyone would say nice things about me, maybe read excerpts from my student evaluations—John is a very nice person but he should be more organized. ]


PART IHow I learned to edit and my first film (with live musical accompaniment by Shannon Graham).

You are a courageous audience to enter an auditorium with a filmmaker and a projector, I did happen to bring copies of all my films with me…

Wisdom is a febrile thing; it comes and goes.  I was rolling in it last week, and I hoped it would carry over to this afternoon.   But unfortunately it didn’t and I am once more adrift in the existential ocean. However, I kissed the Blarney Stone when I was seven; it took a while to catch, but once I started talking…

Tonight we will begin with the first film I ever made.  I was a philosophy major at Berkeley, there was no such thing as film curriculum back then, but a visiting professor taught a class and showed many classic films, and frankly introduced me to film history.  And he said—You can’t understand film until you make one…  The entire class had to make a short film with any camera we could borrow.  There was no video back then.  I borrowed a friend’s regular 8mm Bolex with three lenses, and my mother’s splicing block

Nicolette and how I learned to edit…

Anyway, I made this film. I don’t think anyone ever looked at it except me and the people who were in it. I found it last year cleaning my studio, kind of shrunken, and had it transferred to video. So this is its first and probably last public screening.

Bottle of Wine

PART IIA Documentary Life

Despite my impressive start in dramatic narrative, my film work has been mostly in folklore, anthropology, and dance.

One of the first things I learned, as a documentary filmmaker, was that everyone pays lip service to the Fetish of Documentation—but nobody, not even one person in the entire universe, gives a rat’s ass about documentation.  The word looks good on a grant application, but in practice it is like making funerary objects to be buried in the pharaoh’s tomb. Besides, a lot of events are probably better celebrated in legend and song than on videotape.


If you remember anything from this afternoon…

People don’t want to be documented; they want to be loved.

That’s what I do.
Like Britney SpearsOpps I did it again, caught myself falling in love, but I’m not that innocent…

I grab some technology (and I do enjoy my technology) and go out and fall in love—frequently and indiscriminately

There’s probably a medication for that, but I don’t do drugs

Film Clips
Hand Play
Hosay Trinidad
Yoyo Man
Himalayan Herders opening
Blue Goose (New England Dances)
The Last Window
Land Where the Blues Began


PART IIIStory, Truth, and Reality

It’s not just love—
You also owe your subjects a certain level of skill and craft and ability to deliver.

Graceful, insightful camerawork, like any other art form, just looks natural, inevitable—but it is the product of a lot of practice and reflection.  Acuity of observation is an acquired skill.

How is this situation unique?
How is it universal?
What the heck is going on?
How can I capture a slice from the enormity of the moment that will evoke the entirety in some distant time and place?

I realized early on was that I was fascinated by how things got done, including how films got made
How music worked
Making a stained glass window
The processes of living in a Himalayan Village, or the Kalahari dessert

It is not a catalog, it is not a record—

Muriel Rekeyser, the poet said—THE UNIVERSE IS MADE OF STORIES, NOT ATOMS

As far as human consciousness is concerned that is true.

Part of wanting to be loved, is everyone’s desire to tell their unique story

The minister in LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN wrapped up his preaching by referring to other sermons he wanted to go back and preach (he was a freelancer) and he said he wanted to preach Calvary, Jonah in the Belly of the Whale

And The Man Who Has Something to Tell

I’ve never heard that sermon, but I imagine it is a bit like the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner who stopethed one of three and held him with his glittering eye until he had unburdened his story.

Certainly when you show up with a camera, it seems that everyone has a story to tell.  And even if the whole story doesn’t mesmerize you, they often give you a gift, sometimes a moment of true revelation about themselves, or a single line that practically shouts—QUOTE THAT

Jerry RobichaudYou’ve got to pick up on your way down what you lost on your way up.

Diane WalkerIf it’s not your trip, don’t pick up the baggage.

Samuel JohnsonThe irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, but the mind can only repose on the stability of truth. (Shakespeare Preface 1765)

The kind of films I make—hard to characterize but they have something to do with Samuel Johnson.

Most movies go to enormous lengths to make a fiction seem real; that includes most documentaries. The ethnographic film tries to be real, even if it fails to look real.

Edmund Carpenter said that art fakes reveal themselves in about 40 years, because the fakes were drawing their energy and substance from the desires and expectations of the audience when they were made, and not from those things that motivated the art they are imitating.  (King Tut) I think the same is true for ethnographic film.  If the film is made to appeal to the audience, it will reveal itself (that authorship motivation) in the long run.  If you got it right with the subject, it will ring true forty years later.


PART IVAnthropology and Reflexivity

Paul Henley elaborated the idea of the anthropological film with four characteristics that I will try to paraphrase—

Culture is always a good thing (you don’t argue against other people’s world view) (you don’t go out to show how the shaman pulls off his tricks)(as opposed to missionary film about another culture).

The subject is more important than the audience—very radical idea

Ethnographic film is embedded in the idea of fieldwork, that transformative process implied by immersion in research.

The film assumes humility before the subject, which is reflected in a naturalistic style.

There has been a big stylistic push for reflexivity on filmmaking, which is the idea that if you lumber into the frame from time to time to explain yourself and your process, the film becomes more real.  This is a little bit of one of my attempts to get with the times.

First shot is S-8 made in 1971, the second part is a woman commenting in 2000 on a shot I made of her in 1986.  A zomo is a cross between a cow mother and a yak father.

CLIP—making of Himalayan Herders  (2:30)

PART VThe Natural Voice of the Instrument

I don’t have much personal wisdom today, but I can share a few things I picked up from other people.  I was filming a master class for the dean’s office when YoyoMa and Edgar Meyer were visiting.  I walked into Edgar Mayer’s class- he plays the double bass. A student was playing a transcription of Thelonius Monk on the double bass, all up close to the bridge.  And Mayer was very kind, said — very unusual—but He always liked to think of the natural voice of the instrument-  which in the case of the double bass is the introduction of the Ode to Joy theme in Beethoven’s choral symphony (hum it)

The natural voice of the instrument is an important concept.  It can refer to a dancer’s body, the singer’s voice, or a mechanical instrument.  You can always play outside the natural voice, but there is a strain.  Different cameras have different ways of seeing, approaches that they do better.

I was lucky to have lived in a time when I could shoot and edit on film, and then take those sensibilities in the digital video and computer editing we use today.

But if ever I felt my natural voice resonant with a camera, it was a 16mm Aaton with a fast 10mm lens and high-speed color negative film.  I saw through the camera like I was seeing without the camera.

This next shot was made with such a combination, and involves a double bass- so this all ties together somehow.

A PLACE FOR JAZZ was never released. My co-producers’ thought it was worth a lot of money, but that is just wishful thinking in jazz; and they lost the opportunity to release a great cult film.  This  shot impressed the Massachusetts Arts Commission so much that they voted us a grant.  Unfortunately the State ran out of money the next week and the grant was never funded.

Making the film, showing up at midnight at the 1369 in Porter Square Somerville, shoot a number, film some talk.  The stage was small and full of cables and mike stands, so I learned how to feel my way around the stage with one foot, while racking focus and attending to the music and visual composition.

Henry Threadgill said that the music is largely in his head, but that he has to play it to hear it back and experience how it sounds in the world.  The audience is welcome to listen and enjoy, but a lot of the music is self-referent.

Clip from A Place for Jazz Henry Threadgill

That line really twisted my wig.

If the audience is talking, that means I ain’t doing shit, and they ought to be talking. 

Eiko (A-ko) of the Buto dance of the team Eiko and Koma, is a thoughtful and philosophic person, and her visits to PEW Dance Media Program and WAC gave me a great deal to think about.

One time she echoed Threadgill’s sentiment.  She and Koma were performing a 3-hour piece in a glass trailer that they parked in shopping centers.  The assistant would open the shutters to the trailer and they would start in one configuration and glacially move into other configurations over three hours.  Like Threadgill, the important dimension of the performance was their engagement in it, like a meditation.

She said that some people came and watched raptly for three hours–
Others would walk by once, or a few times, and note what was happening–
Others would watch for five or ten minutes–
Some would watch for a few minutes and fall asleep, watch a bit more, fall asleep again–

And it was all good.  They were doing the performance, and everyone got out of it what they could, or what they needed.  And they took something away and thought about it in their own way.

As a teacher whose students frequently drift from my scintillating discourse to their Facebook page, and sometimes nod off just as I’m getting to the good part—I take comfort in her perspective.

PART VIThe Times They Are A Changing

Show another clip, from a film that taught me a lot about clarity in shooting, and economy of editing.

It is from a 1982 march and civil disobedience action in New York in support of a Nuclear Freeze.

Ruth Gordon, an actress, said that it is tiresome to be against things, better to be for things.


Taking over the world, it is actually a serious challenge.  Maybe we don’t really want to take over the world.  Maybe we just want to get a different balance of power.  And one of the most troubling challenges I faced as a teacher, was reconciling the world we shared and that my student will inherit.  So I’m going to sing a song that was everywhere when I started college.


That was an anthem of my college days, as a cohort, the leading edge of the boomers, we felt a separation and alienation from our parents.  I’m not sure why.

We visualized a different, a more just world, and actually expected the injustices in 1960s America would spark a revolution. It didn’t happen.  The Summer of Love succeeded in getting people to smoke weed and men to have long hair and funny clothes, and obsess about lifestyle.  There were significant changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement.

But the real revolution was a quiet one by the neo-conservative movement.  It was meticulously planned, and carried out over decades, and slipped into power bloodlessly. People like me got sucker punched by the suits, our ideals marginalized, and our gains in labor, anti-nuclear, environment, undercut.

And part of the revolution has been a boutiquing of protest, activism, making them lifestyle adornments.

  1. Black kids on the school bus and the long quiet run up to the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. My experience of Free Speech Movement– don’t look to the university for activism, it is the man.

3-  The world changes rapidly, and the valances of power shift, so the paradigms of the past are not always useful.  The assumptions of the old left in the 1960s did not fit the exigencies of the Vietnam era.  Probably America, as the current de facto Empire, will not be the locus of insight and energy to renegotiate he social contract in this century.

It feels pretty wishy washy to segue from The Times They are a Changing to not having any advice.

But my heart is with you.  Negotiating a moral life is a huge challenge, and a big part of it is also embracing and enjoying the great pleasure and wonder of being alive.

PART VII- Peroration and Hick’s Farwell

I have learned a great many things over the time I’ve been at UCLA.  In the balance I’ve learned more from my students about life, and what is important, and being a good person, than anything I have been able to teach them.

As I move toward the door, I feel like the scene in ,  turning thirty and having to go upstairs for being too old- reprise one last performance but what will it be… it truly is no country for old men.

I have been many people in my life (though inside I’m just a 14 year old girl). I feel sorry for people with single personality disorder.

The reckoning of age by the Tibetans with whom I work is by cycles of 12 years—I was born in the Dog Year, in the first cycle you go from 0-12, a big period of physical and social maturation.

At the end of the next cycle you are 24 and might even consider becoming an adult, though there’s no rush.

Next time around you are 36 enmeshed in work and family and have deep experience of joy and sadness.  I had done fieldwork in Nepal with my wife, made several films, had three books published written a lot of magazine articles to keep oil in the tank to get us through cold New England winters. And had two children.

At the next turning I had already shot my most important films, established myself as a filmmaker, and although I didn’t realize it, was nearing the end of a good run as a freelance cameraman.  We moved to California, my children went through college and went out on their own, my parents died, I finished several big films, and taught at UCLA.  I came this close )( to growing up.

Now the Year of the Dog has passed again, I’ve left California, I’m leaving UCLA, and am going to be a grandfather.  Life looks good for the next cycle, but as Eliot put it—I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker and I know that I will be lucky to be here when the year of the dog comes around again.

Hick’s Farewell

The time is swiftly rolling on
When I must faint and die,
My body to the dust return
And there forgotten lie.

The little children near my heart
Whom nature seems to bind
It grieves me sorely to depart
And leave them all behind

Oftimes you have looked for me
And ofttimes seen me come
But now I must depart from thee
And never more return.

John Bishop Email

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