A Tribute to Professor Robert Bird

Robert Bird

It is with profound sorrow that the Department of Cinema and Media Studies mourns the passing of Robert Bird on September 7, 2020 after a nine-month battle with colon cancer. Even before joining the department as a full faculty member in 2012, Robert would regularly cross-list his classes with CMS, including “Narratives of Suspense in European and Russian Literature and Cinema,” “Poetic Cinema,” and “The Soviet Imaginary.” As a full member of CMS, Robert expanded the geo-political and aesthetic horizon of our curriculum in countless ways. He offered a rich and diverse range of graduate and undergraduate classes in CMS, becoming a cherished mentor to countless students in the department, University, and College. Robert was central to the intellectual vitality of the department. A steady beacon of scholarly, creative, and collegial integrity, Robert freely shared his profound wisdom, offered his opinions with gentle candor, and played a central role in the cultural mission of CMS within the University, the South Side, and greater Chicago. When Robert served as interim Chair of CMS during the 2013-2014 academic year, he steadfastly shepherded the department at a historical moment of expansion and transformation. Under his leadership, and with Robert’s dedication to the study of cinema and the department, CMS became a better, richer, and more dynamic community. His impact on students, colleagues, and the field of Cinema and Media Studies will be felt for generations to come.

As a prolific and gifted scholar, Robert wrote on a wide range of topics in Russian and Soviet poetry, literature and religious philosophy, including books on Fyodor Dostoevsky (2012), Viacheslav Ivanov (2006), and several much-valued collections and translations.  A volume of his collected essays in Russian, edited by Elena Takho-Godi for the series Sovremennaia Rusistika, will be published in 2021. But alongside his abiding commitment to the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian Modernism, film and cinema contributed a profound dimension to Robert’s vast erudition as a scholar and translator. Robert’s expertise and passionate inquiry seemed to know no bounds as he explored the cinema’s various forms and complex relationships to artistic, literary, and political culture—from Soviet and Russian film to international experimental film and video traditions to contemporary moving image practice. A true intellectual, Robert always remained open to discovery and was assiduous in his research and criticism.

In his 2004 volume on Andrei Rublev for the BFI Film Classics series, Robert began to transform how historians, theorists, and students had previously understood Andrei Tarkovsky’s film. In this volume, which would later be translated into Czech and French, Robert drew upon his deep knowledge of Russian intellectual and art history in order to crucially reframe key assumptions about Tarkovsky’s existential themes and film style that both unequivocally challenged standing representational conventions and withstood theoretical clichés. (The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray edition of Andrei Rublev includes an interview with Robert.)

Robert was immediately renowned for his 2008 monograph, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, which was internationally reviewed with praise and subsequently translated into Chinese, Farsi, and Portuguese. Later in 2020 the book will appear in Robert’s own Russian translation and revision from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. Beyond signaling a new era in Tarkovsky scholarship, Elements of Cinema was a critical tour-de-force not least for Robert’s archival research and his translation of previously unknown primary documents. In what one critic called “the new bible in Tarkovsky studies second to Tarkovsky’s films and writings,” Robert recast our perception of what he defines as the filmmaker’s “cinematic pitch” by discerning its different frequencies as they emerge from the spatio-temporal, discursive, and atmospheric “elements” of Tarkovsky’s cinematic aesthetics that also construct the films’ social imaginary. By extending his analysis of Tarkovsky’s cinematic temporality to the contemporary video art of Douglas Gordon (and others), Robert demonstrated the depth of his critical expertise on moving image aesthetics writ large. From his anthologized essay on the contemporary Russian artist Olga Chernysheva to his critical reviews on contemporary art (see, for example, Art Agenda) to his film programing projects to his numerous curatorial endeavors including Vision and Communism (Smart Museum, 2011), Red Press (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, 2017-2018), and Revolution Every Day (Smart Museum, 2017-2018; co-curated with his wife, art historian Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill), Robert shared his expansive knowledge with innovative vigor, grace, and generosity. In all of these endeavors, Robert illuminated how film and cinema are not isolated phenomena, but part of the deep fabric of cultural production more broadly. His conceptualization for the Revolution Everyday exhibition catalog similarly strived to put the reader into proximity with the closely intertwined nature of politics, aesthetics, and lived experience: with his experimental design that took the compact form of an 800-page Soviet-style illustrated calendar easily held in the hand like a brick, Robert encouraged the reader to experience Soviet visuality, culture, and the temporal flow of the everyday.

In 2017, Robert began a long-term project with contemporary filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith whose film Three Songs about Liberation was commissioned for the Revolution Every Day exhibition. Give it or Leave it, the title of their collaboration funded by a Gray Center Mellon Collaborative Fellowship, was to continue with a visual media project on Paul and Eslanda Robeson. A written account of their trip to the Moscow film archives, “Moscow Diaries,” was published in Portable Gray. A book documenting Robert and Smith’s collaboration is currently being planned, and will include Robert’s essay “Einstein’s Robeson.”  

Robert’s work with Smith illustrates how his intellectual enterprise was fueled equally by historical questions and contemporary issues and forms, but it also encapsulates his unending fascination in the relationship between film and revolution. For the last several years, and in this vein, Robert developed new film classes on “The Aesthetics of Socialist Realism,” “Russian Cinema,” “Long-Take Cinema,” "Symbolism and Cinema,” and “The Underground” (a tremendously popular Signature Course that introduced College students to revolutionary film experiments). He simultaneously oversaw many large-scale projects, film programs, special journal issues, and conferences such as “Revolutionology: Philosophy of Revolution” (The Neubauer Collegium, 21-22 May 2018), “1968 Decentered” (The Neubauer Collegium, 18-20 October 2018; South Atlantic Quarterly’s special issue on this topic can be found here, and “Deep History in the Age of Revolution” (The Center in Paris, 30-31 March 2019). But he was also engrossed in the research and writing of his new book, Soul Machine: How Soviet Film Modeled Socialism. Among the many ambitions of Soul Machine, Robert aims to clarify the singular and crucial role the film form played in developing the aesthetic mode of Socialist Realism, our understanding of which the book will radically revise. He brilliantly seizes upon the scale-model as a modern object of contemplation for the Soviets as it appears in films, but also as the film itself functioned as a model for the world-building project of Soviet Russia. In his analyses of specific films from the 1920s and 1930s, he challenges the abiding distinction between Constructivism and Socialist Realism, revealing them instead to be, in Robert’s words, “contiguous stages in the development of a revolutionary film aesthetic, i.e. one directed at the remodeling of the natural and social world.”

Although future conversations with Robert have been tragically cut short, the posthumous publication of Soul Machine will undoubtedly inspire countless readers upward toward their better selves as scholars and humanists. For Robert was, in no short order, a model scholar. But he was equally a model colleague, teacher, collaborator, translator, curator, friend, and human being. As Zachary Cahill put it succinctly in his remembrance of Robert for Critical Inquiry, Robert embodied all of the characteristics of the comrade: that special variety of a person whose rigor, character, solidarity, and kindness— across all of life’s domains— were nothing short of revolutionary.

As you said of Tarkovsky in your last published essay, Robert, your silence may now be permanent, but your life and your work provide solace and grace in this “misbegotten cosmos we inhabit.” Your memory, in all its subtle forms, emboldens us to adopt a renewed view of what you also called “the fragile wonder of the world we share, as taut and fluid as the ocean.”

—Jennifer Wild

Other tributes to the life of Robert Bird: