09/12/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Remembering Saul Landau


In the early 1980s, as a college student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I had the great privilege to have taken several courses on media studies with Saul Landau. He was a truly inspiring and gifted teacher. Every class meeting was filled with new revelations not only about how the world works but also about one's place inside that world.

Looking back at it now I can see that Saul's methods of pedagogy inside the classroom were consciously designed to light a fire of curiosity in his students. It certainly did for me. Upon hearing the news of his death, it began to really sink in what an impression this person had on me at a young age.

I remember at one class meeting he showed a segment of a film, which I believe was The Jail, a 1972 documentary he created exploring the intimate life inside a county jail. The film shows that within its walls sanity is in short supply for jailers and prisoners alike. At one point in the film two African-American inmates are running "the dozens" on each other, escalating insults, and it's clearly a tense confrontation. Suddenly, in Brechtian fashion, (although I didn't know that at the time), the viewer can see the moviemaker clapperboard ease its way into the frame. Saul stopped the film at that point and asked the students why he chose to do that. He then went into a brilliant discussion about how he sought to remind the viewers that these men were aware that they were being filmed and that the presence of the camera itself was now part of the story he was telling. Saul had a way about him that demystified film grammar for his students and he forced us to think about how visual imagery can be used to either manipulate or enlighten.

He also sent our class out to do all kinds of journalistic writing assignments. He had us write letters to the editor, radio copy, editorials, book reviews, and film criticism. Of all the professors I studied with during my undergraduate years Saul (who was a visiting adjunct professor) was the one teacher who took the time with my written work to tell me to quit using the passive voice so damn much and get rid of all those adverbs!

Saul is best known for his award winning films but his books remain as relevant as ever. One book, The Dangerous Doctrine: National Security and U.S. Foreign Policy (1988), is a finely tuned analysis of the swords' edge of American foreign policy during the Cold War. It has a special dissection of the history of the national security state, the Truman Doctrine, CIA interventions, and all the twists and turns of the seamier side of the U.S. role in world affairs up to that time. One of the book's central questions is whether the United States could continue to function as a republic and as an empire.

"Using as justification the vague words national security," Landau writes in the Preface of The Dangerous Doctrine, "presidents and appointed officials repeatedly have declared crises and emergencies that in effect have removed U.S. government officials from the civilized precepts and limits imposed by both divine and natural law. . . . The U.S. public must understand how and why this has happened if it is to restore the principles upon which the United States was founded."

Another extremely important work is the two-volume book that he co-edited with Paul Jacobs: To Serve the Devil (1971). These books are compilations of rare historical texts from non-white peoples in America who were often excluded from the grand narrative of American history. Like Howard Zinn's work, Landau and Jacobs were retrieving a piece of America's lesser known past. The subtitle for both volumes is: "A Documentary Analysis of America's Racial History and Why It Has Been Kept Hidden." These primary source materials that Landau and Jacobs assembled are as relevant as ever to our understanding of American history.

The wider view of U.S. interventionism (with or without the Cold War) comprised much of the subject matter of Saul Landau's life's work. Through films, books, articles, and radio commentary, he helped us understand that the social costs of feeding the "national security" beast, along with the limits it imposes in determining what's possible in our domestic politics, is still the central question facing us. Voices like his are extremely rare and it's truly a loss when one falls silent.