In memoriam: Stephen Prince, professor of cinema studies
March 2, 2021
Stephen Prince loved the big screen and the open road. He loved his family; his sweetheart, Susan; and his Great Dane, Tess. And he loved teaching.
After a short battle with cancer, Prince died in his Blacksburg home on December 30. He was 65 years old.
For 32 years, Prince taught cinema at Virginia Tech, where he cited “the lively interaction with students” and “the opportunity to share the great works of cinema history with students” as the supreme joys of his work.
In addition to earning the devotion of generations of students, Prince, who was a professor of cinema in the School of Performing Arts, was recognized for his groundbreaking scholarship. He published 16 books that examine film in its historical, aesthetic, social, and technological contexts; his 17th book, “Apocalypse Cinema,” will appear posthumously.
He especially enjoyed the films of Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, and John Ford, saying, “All the possibilities of cinema are contained in their work.” His auteur studies included books on Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Sam Peckinpah, and he provided audio commentaries for DVDs and Blu-rays featuring the films of Kurosawa, Peckinpah, and others.
His strong interest in the social and political implications of film were evident in his first book, “Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film,” published in 1992, and “Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism,” published eight years later. “Firestorm” was the first book to examine the depiction of 9/11 and its aftermath in film and television; Choice magazine listed the book as an Outstanding Academic Title of 2010.
Prince authored widely used textbooks, including “Movies and Meaning: An Introduction,” now in its sixth edition, and “An Introduction to Film Genres,” which he coauthored in 2013. He wrote several works on the history of American film, contributing the 1980s volume to Scribner’s prestigious History of American Cinema series, and he published two influential books on digital cinema.
He also explored film violence in two books, “Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1968,” which he authored in 2003, and “Screening Violence,” which he edited in 2000.
It was for such prolific and significant contributions that Prince received Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Research in 2012.
“The range and importance of Stephen’s work is enormous,” said professor of theatre arts Patricia Raun at the time. “Virginia Tech’s reputation as a significant and comprehensive research institution is enhanced by his extraordinary scholarship. I find all of Stephen’s work to be insightful and surprisingly accessible, even to people unfamiliar with cinematic scholarship.”
Prince earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
He served as book review editor of Film Quarterly for 11 years and as editor of the prize-winning Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind for six years.
In addition, he was a former president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the world’s largest organization of film scholars. Until his resignation several weeks before his death, he also served as president of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image.
Prince lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for more than three decades. He loved touring the region and the country by motorcycle, and he was the ardent owner at various times of a Triumph Thunderbird, a Triumph Bonneville, and an Indian Roadmaster motorbike. It was on the Roadmaster that he toured Yellowstone, the Canyonlands, the Arches, and the Grand Tetons, landscapes often depicted in the Westerns he so loved on the big screen.
Among the many tributes that have poured in since his death are mentions not just of his passionate support of film studies and his insightful scholarship, but also of his kindness and generosity.
“Steve was a good friend to many, a prolific scholar with a deep love of cinema, a beloved teacher, a trusted and valued colleague, and a generous mentor to younger scholars,” wrote fellow film professors Carl Plantinga and Malcolm Turvey in an online tribute on behalf of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
“A giant of a scholar, an incredible member of our community, and an all-round lovely man,” wrote another colleague. “Our loss is incalculable.”
Still another cogently summed up what many felt about the beloved scholar: “A true Prince!”
Stephen Prince was preceded in death by his mother, Jean Lummis Prince. He is survived by his father, Robert Emmett Prince, of Sykesville, Maryland; his sister and brother-in-law, Cynthia Jean Prince Kazyak and John Christopher Kazyak, Sr., of Manila, Arkansas; his nephews, William Joseph Kazyak and John Christopher Kazyak, Jr., and niece, Marie Bernadette Kazyak, also of Manila; and his long-time sweetheart, Susan Sanders, of Blacksburg.
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