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Ken NolleyKen Nolley

Ken Nolley

It's been a long journey in film.

A fascination with film and a genuine love of teaching have kept English Professor Ken Nolley at Willamette, "with alarming regularity," for nearly 40 years. He wears jeans, Birkenstocks, and a black and white tweed blazer, which he jazzes up with a small button that reads "eracism." He has white-gray hair and a warm smile, and can be seen most any day dashing across campus with a manila file folder in his hand.

Behind his back, his students regard him as brilliant, admiring his tenacity for making sense of film and life. But Nolley doesn't claim to "make sense" of all the films he experiences - or life, for that matter. What he craves, and what has compelled him to study cinema all these years, are encounters with films that "take the top of my head off, the films that are mind-boggling."

When asked what sparked his interest in cinema, Nolley replies thoughtfully, "The most honest thing, I suppose, is to say that I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical home where movies were wicked, something you just didn't do." Nolley left his home in Montana to attend Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school in Santa Barbara, Calif. "I went into college a Republican fundamentalist Christian, but one thing Westmont did was encourage its students to examine their faith," says Nolley. "Though I am sure this wasn't their intent, I left after my freshman year having abandoned my conservative Christian roots."

Fearful that film might corrupt good Christians, Westmont had its students sign "the code" until the early 1960s. It was a contract that prohibited the undersigned from watching movies, among other supposedly sinful activities. By Nolley's junior year, the code had been modified to allow students to watch films. At that time, says Nolley, "movies became the most exciting things, in part because of their forbidden allure. They made me think things I'd never thought before."

While Nolley finished his undergraduate studies, and even as he worked toward his master's degree in American literature at the University of Virginia, movies were just his hobby. "In those days," he says, "no one studied film." He was offered his first teaching job at Willamette in 1967 and taught part-time as he earned his Ph.D. in 19th century literature from the University of Oregon. Upon completing his doctoral degree, he accepted a tenure-track position at Willamette.

A few years later, the English Department chair recognized Nolley's intense interest in cinema and asked him teach a film course. The opportunity was delightful, but Nolley's first reaction was, "I've got to see more films." He began watching movies systematically, to the tune of 300 in one year. From there, his appetite for mind-boggling movies expanded and opened the door to an entirely new mode of scholarship, film studies - and Nolley found himself most captivated by documentary films.

"We have a particular, ongoing fascination with the problematic relationship between the cinematic image and life - life as we experience it, as well as life as it has been experienced by others in the past," says Nolley. In any group discussion of film, whether it is a group of scholars and critics or a classroom of students, "we represent a fertile, and occasionally volatile, combination of different orientations. This mix means that any discussion of the relationship between the image and life is sure to be fueled by the variety of our various perspectives."

In 1977, Nolley attended a film conference, one of the first of its kind, and there he watched a retrospective of films by Peter Watkins. Enthralled with Watkins' The War Game (1966), Nolley began watching all of the award-winning filmmaker's movies. Then, in 1979, he acquired a Graves Award, a grant that enables educators to experience something that will enhance their teaching. For Nolley, this extracurricular experience would be participation in the shooting of Peter Watkins' latest film project, The Journey: A Film for Peace.

"I said, 'Look, I've never actually worked on a film. But I'm not that interested in mainstream film. I want to work on an independent piece. I know Peter Watkins is working on something right now, and I'd really like to work with him,'" recalls Nolley.

Watkins' film, The Journey, was a pioneering effort to make truly international cinema. The 14½-hour film, made between 1984 and 1987, was shot in the United States, Canada, Norway, Scotland, France, West Germany, Mozambique, Japan, Australia, Tahiti and Mexico. It looked at the nuclear arms race through the eyes of families, the survivors of bombings and indigenous communities. Although Nolley had met previously with Watkins in Stockholm and England, he joined him on the set of The Journey in the United States.

"The film never had the impact Watkins wanted," says Nolley, "but it is a powerful study of documentary. Watkins wanted a film that makes you think without thinking for you, but its length doesn't lend itself well to a mainstream audience." Since participating in the production side of Watkins' film, Nolley has edited the book, Peter Watkins' The Journey: A Film in the Global Interest.

In addition to Watkins' work, Nolley has written and communicated widely about the virtues and troubling complexities of documentary film across the history of cinema. From Nanook of the North (1922) to Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), his thoughtful critiques are food for thought among critics, scholars and his students. His ongoing engagement with film has borne a small film studies program within Willamette's English Department, and soon, he says, "We may have a film studies major."

Nolley suggests that cinema deserves as much attention as literature, and that perhaps its increasing presence in academia reflects our understanding that "the relationship between the cinematic image and the world we inhabit" is a significant one indeed. Many of Nolley's students - whether or not they plan to study and produce films after college - have learned to look deeply at the images they find on screen and to never take for granted the field of representation. It's not offbeat to say that these are lessons for real life.