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In Memoriam

Hubert I. Cohen, 1930-2024

Hubert Irwin (“Hugh” or “Hu”) Cohen, Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media and of Arts and Ideas in the Humanities in the Residential College, died March 1 at age 93. Still teaching a film class untilill health forced him to step down in early 2024, Professor Cohen was one of the longest-serving faculty members in University of Michigan history, having spent his entire career at the institution.

Born in Detroit in 1930, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Wayne University in 1953 and shortly afterward came to the University of Michigan to pursue graduate studies. Deciding to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, he left to spend two years in the army, then returned to finish his master’s degree in English in 1957. Cohen subsequently began the long path toward a doctorate, becoming an English department teaching fellow in 1961 and an instructor in Engineering English in 1965 before receiving his Ph. D. in 1970 with a dissertation titled The Grotesque in the Fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Affiliation with Cinema Guild 

Cohen’s wide-ranging interests included literature, classical music, fine wine, and sports, but his true passion was film. Despite repeated requests from students and faculty, the university had not deemed the subject worthy of academic attention, and with only basic production classes in place, student-run groups began to fill this gap. In 1960 Cohen joined theuniversity’s leading film society, Cinema Guild, and alongside future Joseph A. Labadie Collection curator Ed Weber helped the organization take on an educational mission. Over the next four decades, most of that time as its faculty advisor, Cohen would mentor dozens of undergraduate board members that included Big Chill writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, author/critic Neal Gabler, Still Alice co-director Richard Glatzer, Oscar-nominated film editor Jay Cassidy, and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Nelson.

In its pre-streaming, pre-home video heyday Cinema Guild presented films year-round from four to seven nights per week, with an eclectic schedule that ranged from silent films with live piano accompaniment to the latest offerings of auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as hosting special guests like Harold Lloyd, Sam Fuller, Frank Capra, and Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. The group also frequently programmed the work of experimental filmmakers, in part through the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which Cinema Guild co-sponsored from its inception in 1963. But with restrictive censorship laws still on the books, at a January 1967 screening of Jack Smith’s controversial Flaming Creatures Ann Arbor police stopped the film mid-reel and arrested Cohen and three 20-year-old undergraduates, who were charged with “showing or offering to show an obscene motion picture,” a high misdemeanor that could result in a year in jail and a $500 fine. The U-M administration refused to offer its support, and the case generated heated debate on campus and coverage in Variety and the New York Times. The film society planned a vigorous defense on free speech grounds, but as the trial began one of the students agreed to plead guilty to a lesser count and the charges against Cohen and the others were dropped.

Teaching Legacy

By this time Cinema Guild had earned a reputation as one of the leading film societies in the nation, and with pressure building to add the subject to the curriculum, in January 1968 the university offered its first film classes in both American Studies and Speech, spearheaded by popular English professor Marvin Felheim. With his newly-minted doctorate, in 1970 Cohen began teaching Humanities 236: Introduction to Elements and History of Film. Within a year its enrollment had grown from 25 to 250, and as more film courses appeared across campus a faculty group that included Felheim, Cohen, Diane Kirkpatrick, and Frank Beaver persuaded the university to unite them in the new Program in Film and Video Studies, offering a major in the subject for the first time. Launched in 1977, the unit’s rotating chairmanship was first held by art history professor Kirkpatrick, with Cohen taking the role two years later. Film/Video 236 would become the program’s gateway offering and gain cross-listing in the Residential College, where Cohen would also hold a joint appointment. 

His approach to the subject was rigorous, but not starchly academic. The syllabus noted: “Film is alive to the student, and we proceed at a great risk if we make film untouchable (except to professors and critics), that is, if we treat it as if it were an exhibit in an historical museum and place it behind the insulating glass of lectures.” In a 1973 interview with student researcher Steven Fetter, Cohen remarked: “The different elements the film-maker uses in making his film—such things as his choice of film stock, the way he moves his camera, the way he arranges people and objects before he begins shooting, the kind of lighting he asks for, the kind of actor he chooses, his manipulation of the sound, his manner of editing the footage he has shot, etc.— all affect the viewer psychologically and dramatically and thus shape the viewer’s response to the film. We will try to show the student how the director creates the film’s impact and its meaning and try to show him how these elements and techniques tip us off to the director’s attitude toward his subject matter.”

Cohen peppered each lecture with concise examples drawn from 16mm films, slides, and later videotapes and DVDs. His projectionists tried valiantly to keep up, and two technicians were sometimes required to manage the many reels of  film marked with paper slips indicating where to start and stop. He also developed a unique method of demonstrating the complexity of editing which involved a stopwatch and a volunteer with pen and paper. As the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was projected above, Cohen would call out the number of seconds each shot was held as the tally-keeper frantically scribbled them down for the seven-minute scene. Nearly out of breath at the end, his exercise invariably received a hearty round of applause, and more importantly made crystal clear to the class just how much work went into editing a film.

Offered almost every year from 1970 to 2016, Cohen’s 236 course inspired generations of students from a variety of disciplines and sometimes altered their career path. Neal Gabler became one of its first graduate student instructors when they were added in winter term, 1974. “He changed the entire course of my life when he invited me to take a break from law school and teach in his course. I did, and never went back to law.” With two features screened each week, plus keeping up with the readings and grading papers, the job was demanding, but Gabler enjoyed his work. “The teaching fellows would gather each week with Hu at Metzger's - always at Metzger's - and not only discuss that week's film assignment, but also film generally. It was a kind of cinema Agora at a time when film was only beginning to be taken seriously in academe. He was the most congenial filmgoing companion, and one of the most engaged.”

While Gabler would go on to a career as a critic and author of seminal books like An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, others Cohen mentored took roles in the industry. John Sloss was in a class that highlighted the films of Wim Wenders: “Hugh Cohen was an undeniably inspiring teacher. From his unlikely perch in Engineering he single-handedly legitimized film studies in the late 1970’s University curriculum for me. I’m not sure whether without him I would have pursued a career in the film industry.” After law school Sloss would become a producer or executive producer for independent filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, John Sayles, and Wenders himself. The many other alumni who cite Cohen’s influence include Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman, Emmy-winning Disney animator David Knott, silent film composer/accompanist Donald Sosin, and curator Philip Hallman, who oversees the university’s Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers Collection of the papers of filmmakers like Orson Welles, Robert Altman, John Sayles, and Jonathan Demme. In 2022 JABberwocky Literary Agency founder Joshua Bilmes made a gift of $250,000 to establish the Hubert I. Cohen Fellowship for researchers whose work would benefit from onsite access to this growing archive.

In 1975 Cohen received the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Service Award. In addition to Film/Video 236 he taught courses on Great Books; the Bible as Literature; the Western film; Fathers and Sons; and The Hero as Outsider, Outcast, or Outlaw. His publications include the book Ingmar Bergman: The Art of Confession (Twayne Publishers, 1993) and articles in Modern Fiction, Film Comment, Cinema Journal, Magill’s Cinema Annual, Journal of American Culture, Film and Literature Quarterly, and Film Criticism. He also edited U-M professor Carl Cohen’s A Conflict of Principles: The Battle Over Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (University Press of Kansas, 2014).

Cohen’s wife Ellen Rose Cohen preceded him in death. Gifts in his memory can be made to the University of Michigan Libraries Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers Collection

-- Frank Uhle

Photo by John Valadez