Sunday, June 10, 2007

Words for Helen Hill

On Saturday afternoon, there was a screening of Helen's films in Adams House as part of our fifteenth reunion (the whole idea of reunions makes me crazy with irritation, they are so much not what I like about the whole business of these universities, not to mention the events are so expensive that a normal person quite simply cannot afford to attend, but I will attempt to contain my spleen and get down to the main point). Those films are quite the loveliest thing and I will link when they're being shown elsewhere--there should be a screening in New York sometime next year, at any rate. This is what I said about Helen afterwards.


A disproportionate number of my memories of Helen contain some kind of sweet, usually cake. I remember going to an academic conference in New Orleans in the spring of 2001, for instance, and receiving a most lovely welcome visit from Paul and Helen at my hotel the evening I got in—I was supposed to see them a couple days later, but Helen just didn’t think it was right not to welcome me personally. She had with her a slab of extremely sticky and dense-looking vegan cake, which she was fully bent on leaving with me in case I needed a snack, and only my most earnest entreaties and truthful warnings that I wasn’t going to eat it led her to take it away with her again!

But we had beignets at CafĂ© du Monde, of course, and the next time I saw Paul and Helen in New Orleans, in May of 2003, we went on an expedition to see the Bindlestiff Family Circus again bearing left-over cake—that technology that lets you go to the grocery store and get a photograph sort of laminated onto the top of the cake icing was peculiarly well suited to Helen’s aesthetic, this cake bore (am I remembering correctly?) an enchanting blue-haired portrait of Helen & was left over from her birthday (the cake had been carefully cut around the rim of the portrait so as to keep the important part of the picture intact).

There’s a sort of platonic ideal of cake that I see in my head when I think of Helen—personally I’m a fan of the luridly iced cupcake—and the cake I’m thinking of now is like what you’d see, oh, in one of those original Babar the Elephant illustrations, or an English children’s book from the 1950s. It’s a modest little cake, just big enough for one person, with beautiful pink icing and a little cherry on top, with a sort of classic outline and symmetry that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

I’ve been kicking myself all spring for a terrible missed opportunity. I never got to talk to Helen about teaching! Helen was an immensely talented person whose modesty led her to downplay many of her achievements. Her sense of playfulness may have sometimes been misleading, though in my opinion all the best artists in any field (from tennis-players to ophthalmologists) retain that sense of high-level play in their work. Good teaching more than most other things requires a sense of play as well as imagination, generosity of spirit and a high-level quality of attention, and of course these were exactly Helen’s qualities.

As I read the memories from film-school classmates and film students of Helen’s in the memorial zine, I was overwhelmed with the glimpses they gave me of an inspired teacher at work. Madam Winger Makes a Film shows us that side of Helen also. What a teacher Helen must have been—both by nature and nurture, I strongly suspect this was partly a gift from her mother—and the thing about teaching is that it leaves so much good stuff behind even when it’s gone. The results may not show up in concrete form, like a film or a poem or a song, but those students of Helen’s are out there in the world now not just remembering her and celebrating her when they make their own films, but also remembering and celebrating and carrying on her work in their teaching as well.

We can’t all make films (though Helen would say we can!), but we can make other things—we can even make cupcakes!—and we can teach other people how to stretch and expand their own minds and hearts, and when we do those things we will be doing them very much in Helen’s memory, and Helen’s spirit.


[Postscript. The eye doctor with a sense of playfulness and passion for his work--I am not sure if ophthalmologist really is the right term, but I thought it sounded better that way--is someone I actually met last week, I can't remember the last time I met someone so enthusiastic about his job! It was hilarious--the thing that got me in to deal with the eye thing is (a) needing prescription sunglasses for safe cycling and (b) really I have gotten awfully short-sighted, I must start wearing glasses much more of the time rather than just for plays and movies (I destroyed my eyesight by reading three times through the Riverside Shakespeare over one summer as part of a maniacal orals-studying initiative), just because I like wandering around in a short-sighted daydreamish haze does not mean it's a good idea and (c) I thought glasses-wearing would be more likely to happen if I got some new ones with more exciting frames and the non-reflective lenses I was too cheap to spring for the last time. So this guy just loves his job, I can't even tell you how much! "So, what color do you think the inside of your eye is?" he asked me as he bounced like a slender Tigger around the examining room. I disclaimed any knowledge of the color of the inside of my eye. "It's a pinky-orange, like raw salmon!" he said. The other highlight was him quite gleefully telling me that I had a harmless but interesting birthmark on the inside of my eye with the quite wonderful name Mittendorf dot. "So if anyone's ever looking into your eye in the future and wonders about it, you can tell them you have a Mittendorf dot!"]


  1. Oh please, can I meet this ophthalmologist? He sounds precisely like a person I would have a wonderful time chatting with!

  2. Jenny - Thank you so much for sharing these words. Absolutly beautiful and spot on. I totally agree with you about the reunion format, but it was great to see you nevertheless. Let me know if you decide to come splash around in Walden Pond...the boys and I like to dip our toes quietly around the edges, but Alex could keep you company as you charge across.