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Randall Conrad

January 22, 1944 ~ December 6, 2017 (age 73)

Randall Conrad, independent scholar, filmmaker, teacher

His mother entered labor while watching The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) in a Washington, D.C., movie theater. Family lore has it that the early imprint of flickering light, dialogue and sounds gave the spark to Randall’s future as an award-winning independent filmmaker, scholar and writer. The exuberant curiosity and love of learning he developed as a child shaped him and his life’s work much more.

He grew up in Cleveland with his father, Jim, and mother, Joanne, until going by scholarship to Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, earning a classical diploma there and later highest honors at Harvard and Columbia. At the Université de Paris he pursued a PhD in the competitive professor prep ENS program, devoured world literature and philosophy, and happily swallowed several languages whole.

Randall’s growing knowledge of history and culture helped form his social conscience and made him an early supporter of antiracism, prison reform, and the women’s and gay rights movements. Experiences in New York, where he was a member of Newsreel, the national filmmakers’ activist collective and news service, and Paris in 1968 during massive movements for social and economic reform and against the Vietnam War, pulled him away from a career in academia.

He regrouped as a welfare counselor, Head Start worker, taxi driver, researcher for a public television series, filmmaker and leader in the independent film and video wave emerging in the ’70s and ’80s. He was a founding member of the national Independent Feature Project and co-founder of the Boston Film Video Foundation, the city’s premier regional production and exhibition center, to support independent film, video and performance artists through shared resources and exhibition.

Randall made his first film, Three Thousand Years and Life, about conditions in the Massachusetts maximum-security Walpole State Prison that led to prisoner revolt. His documentary Cutting Up Old Touches, about Bobby Scollard’s life trip from reform school through prison and back to his home streets of Dorchester, premiered at Boston’s ICA and New York’s MoMA.

He founded Calliope Films with his wife, Christine. Their feature, The Dozens, shared the grand prize for best drama at Sundance in 1980, toured the international film festival circuit and premiered theatrically in NYC. His A Little Rebellion about Shays’ Rebellion, the 1786 insurrection against the government by farmers and Revolutionary War veterans is still in widespread educational distribution.

Returning to the classroom, Randall taught art history, history of cinema and film studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts, MIT and Boston University. He was an authority on the great directors of the French New Wave and Italian cinema, Luis Buñuel and surrealism, and wrote articles for Cahiers du Cinéma, the magazine dedicated to New Wave Film, and reviews and interviews in the journals Film Quarterly and Cineaste. He also wrote regularly as a film critic for Boston’s alternative weekly periodicals The Phoenix and The Real Paper.

Randall’s natural aptitude for scholarship that earlier won him Woodrow Wilson and Fulbright awards led him to ever-branching new subjects of interest. Applied to Henry David Thoreau’s ideas and influence, it made him an international expert on the naturalist author and his times and led to conference presentations, book reviews and articles in The American Transcendental Quarterly, Thoreau Society Bulletin and The Concord Saunterer. He developed the Thoreau Project website as a free resource for other researchers.

Quietly modest about his own talents, Randall eagerly shared the ideas and work of others, translating, editing, fact checking, indexing and promoting their publication. These included French film critic and author Robert Benayoun’s The Look of Buster Keaton, Sarah Getty’s second collection of poems, Bring Me Her Heart, nominated for a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 2006, François Specq’s essays on Thoreau in the volume Transcendence, and Laura Dassow Walls’ 2017 biography Henry David Thoreau, A Life.

Recently, before decades of a chronic health issue stopped him, Randall was working on a children’s book about fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins and teaching ESL at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Kind, with an instant wit and instinct to question everything, he was beloved by his students and adored teaching and learning with them, often expanding classes with detours into U.S. history, cultural comparisons and events in the news, and leading expeditions into Harvard’s museums for extended talks.

Randall leaves Christine, his partner in life and work for 42 years. He introduced himself at an MIT screening of one of her films and pursued her with the enticement of a possible distribution contract. On a lunch date at the legendary F&T eatery in Cambridge’s old Kendall Square, he knew she was the one when she wolfed down a beer, burger and fries between bites of film talk. On a second date, she knew he was the one when he took her to a Brattle Theatre screening of Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. This was a man who could interest her for a lifetime, and he did. His genuine sweetness, sly humor and loving patience were gifts.

His son, Pierce, lighted Randall’s life with his generous heart, creative talents, an aptitude for mathematics that eluded his father, and a shared devotion to the wonders of spicy Korean food. His grandchildren, Amir and Kedar, gave him wide-open love and joy and the chance to practice skills as an on-call dramatist. His sisters, Alexa and Carla, completed a trio of siblings whose humor, interests and love kept them connected, often through volumes of correspondence, despite geographical distance.

Randall lived a purposeful and rich life. His trove of knowledge and joy in sharing it enriched the lives of all who knew him. He was unforgettable and irreplaceable, and is deeply missed.

 

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