A Beautiful Mind: Anne Friedberg, 1952-2009
Los Angeles lost a visionary film scholar on Friday, October 9, when Anne Friedberg, University of Southern California Cinematic Arts professor, died of cancer. Author of the 1993 book Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern and the more recent The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (2006), Friedberg possessed a style of writing that deftly wove together her interests in visual culture, architecture, philosophy, cinema and new technologies, offering a model for contemporary film scholarship and interdisciplinary thinking, as well as demonstrating incisive analysis and expansive historical breadth.
Friedberg brought these attributes into various university contexts, including the University of California, Irvine, where she taught from 1985 to 2003, and USC, where, among other things, she helped to craft the Interdivisional Media Arts and Practice program, uniting critical studies and interactive media. Whether in the classroom or at the workshops, conferences and film and video festivals she attended so enthusiastically, Friedberg brought intellectual rigor and grace, invariably helping to frame things — as if through the various windows that were a motif in her work — with attention to nuance and detail as well as the bigger, political picture.
In her more recent endeavors, Friedberg was interested in pushing scholarship in new directions. For The Virtual Window, she created an innovative companion Web site, offering readers a way to experience the ideas through media, and for her next project, which was to be based on filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich, she planned to write “in the digital,” exploring new modes of scholarly writing. “We’re all struggling to learn to write with images and text,” she said recently of shifts in academic communication, adding, “We’re simply not there — we don’t have that kind of imagination yet.” Friedberg did have that kind of imagination, and Los Angeles will miss her deeply.
Anne Friedberg was a friend long before, as chair of the Critical Studies department at the USC School of Cinema, she became my boss. We all knew she was a formidable and innovative brain. “She truly dragged film studies out of its pomegranate-seedy little room and into the 21st century,” her husband, screenwriter Howard Rodman, wrote me as he finally brought the terrible news we’d been dreading for weeks.
When Anne walked into the office, the fabulous quotient went through the roof. Tiny as she was, with her auburn bob and chunky jewels and designer threads in brilliant shades of red, white and black, she brought playful melodrama to the party. I called her the grand fromage. She had an extraordinarily musical voice. She was always ready for lunch-and-a-kvetch à deux. She was droll and dry of wit, and a solicitous Jewish mother lurked just beneath the glamour-girl pizzazz. Wherever she was, she had a quiet way of making sure everyone was doing okay. “Is the ship all right?” she would ask Bill Whittington, the assistant chair of Critical Studies. She adored her succession of giant poodles only slightly less than she did Howard and her son, Tristan. At Thanksgiving, you only had to murmur how tasty the side dish was, and an Anne-otated recipe for Beachwood yams would come sailing over the Internet the following morning.
Anne was already confined to her house and feeling lousy when I got laid off from my job at this paper, but she immediately got busy spraying e-mails in the right direction to get me back onboard at USC. Visiting her over the summer, I understood that not just her health and radiance had been taken away from her but also her life — being productive and useful and wondrously put-together. Wherever you are, dear fromage, I hope it’s raining poodles up there. I hope you have a ship to steer, and scads of basic black to wear. Down here, I’ll be roasting Beachwood yams every Thanksgiving in your honor.
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