VN 08 22 18 John Cuniberti in Memoriam

To the Editor:

Retired professor John Cuniberti, who taught film classes at WCC for 50 years, passed away on Monday, July 2, 2018. Thousands of his students will remember his charismatic personality, and the lessons he taught about the craft of cinema and the art of life.  

For me, John was more than a colleague and friend. He was my inspiration as a young film teacher, and an abiding mentor during my formative years.

In the early 1970s John was a ground-breaking pioneer. Well before the days of video or DVD, he invented a system for capturing screenshots directly from the projector’s lens. By showing students slides of individual frames and analyzing a sequence shot by shot, he was able to reveal the tricks that filmmakers use to foster the illusion of continuous action. He published a formal shot-by-shot analysis of director D.W. Griffith’s classic The Birth of a Nation on microfiche in 1979, before such things were possible in other media.

John always favored intellectual freedom, exciting the young minds of his students to think outside the boxes of convention. He preferred to poke and prod, to incite them into insight, to provoke them into thinking for themselves.

Georges Méliès, Luis Buñuel, and Alfred Hitchcock were among his favorite directors, and he always found a way to make these challenging film artists accessible and understandable… Once, I remember, he showed Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, a social satire in which a roomful of party guests find themselves mysteriously unable to leave. The effect was so hypnotic that no one in John’s classroom dared to leave his seat for a long while after the closing credits!

Yet for all his bravura performances, he was always kind, generous, and modest. After a class, students would huddle around him for an extra inning of his time… Another side that colleagues may not have known about was his home life. John was a good neighbor and a loving family man. He was proud of his caring wife Marlene and his four talented children. He was highly regarded in his Englewood Cliffs community.

It is impossible to sum up any one man’s life, and John was an extraordinary individual. Because of him, several generations of students were able to explore their love of movies, hone a keener critical perspective, and open their minds to new ways of thinking. So was I. For some 48 years now, John’s influential voice has never been far from every class I’ve taught, and I will be forever grateful.

  • William Costanzo, SUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Film

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