William Moritz

Scholar of avant-garde and experimental cinema

William Moritz, teacher, film-maker and film historian: born Williams, Arizona 6 May 1941; died Mokelumne Hill, California 12 March 2004.

William Moritz was the world's leading authority on experimental cinema, abstract animation and visual music. His academic and educational accomplishments in an area previously noted for its lack of published scholarship, and in particular in documenting the long-overlooked career of the avant-garde film-maker Oskar Fischinger, made him a highly respected and popular figure worldwide.

He was brought up in Arizona and southern California. His formative years were divided between high and low culture: "high" involved train trips to the big city (Los Angeles or Phoenix) to attend the opera with his German pianist father; "low" comprised short hops to the local fleapit for the Saturday matinée antics of such animated luminaries as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Woody Woodpecker. Such a grounding proved both muse and pointer to his higher education and future métier: he went on to study at the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and earned his PhD in comparative literature there in 1968.

His career as a teacher began in 1965, when he became an instructor in film and humanities at a succession of colleges in both southern California and India. He was made a professor at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in 1987, as well as being an associate professor at his old Alma Mater, USC. Besides his official duties, as an unofficial ambassador for the art form, at various points he promoted, distributed and wrote about film and animation, particularly in its lesser-known guises.

He was voted President of the Society for Animation Studies and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 for his efforts on behalf of visual music (an abstract art form, involving "a moving abstract image as fluid and harmonic as auditory music") from the Royal Academy of the Netherlands.

Moritz's passion for film led him towards both renovation and innovation: in addition to cataloguing and preserving historical animation by experimental film-makers such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger, he created 44 avant-garde cartoons and live-action films of his own. Old and new works alike he would promote with equal vigour in one-man interactive shows, and these and his lectures on animation (in up to eight languages other than English) were widely acclaimed. Nor was he shy of the camera, appearing on screen in television documentaries in the United States, France and Britain.

His literary output was prolific: starting in 1969, he was to write over 100 articles and essays, including the chapters on animation in the Oxford History of World Cinema (1995), 200 pages on the "History of Experimental Animation" for the Absolut Panushka experimental animation website, and a history of visual music published in 1985 in the review Cantrills Filmnotes. As well as writing a monograph on James Whitney published in Sightlines (1985-86), he was also an accomplished poet and playwright.

But his chef d'oeuvre was undoubtedly Optical Poetry: the life and work of Oskar Fischinger, his definitive biography of the German painter-animator who emigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s and was, in Moritz's words, "the first underground film-maker". The rehabilitation of Fischinger's eclipsed reputation and simultaneous restoration of his old films from the original decaying nitrates had become a labour of love for Moritz ever since he had first come across Fischinger's work in 1958.

It is ironic that Moritz's masterpiece was finally published in the week of his death.

Alan Woollcombe

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