August 07, 2013

John Reilly, 74

John Reilly of Hampton Bays, a major figure in documentary video, has died.

Mr. Reilly, long-time executive director, principal teacher and co-founder of the Global Village Resource Center in New York City and maker of numerous video documentaries—many aired on PBS—passed away in hospice in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on July 28.

Mr. Reilly's most celebrated documentary was Waiting for Beckett, the only U.S. documentary ever made with the cooperation of Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Released in 1993, having taken five years to make, it features the only known footage of Beckett at work. It received many awards and was shown throughout the world.

Mr. Reilly commented: "The reclusive Beckett was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but few people ever had a chance to know him. The opportunity to meet Beckett and make this documentary was the thrill of my lifetime."

Ailing in recent months, Mr. Reilly had gone to Florida for the winter with his wife, the artist Lauren Chambers. With his health declining — Mr. Reilly suffered a stroke in recent times— they remained there.

Mr. Reilly was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. He received a Bachelor's degree from Seton Hall University and a Master's degree from New York University where he attended its film school.

But it was the new medium of video that Mr. Reilly focused on.

In 1969, with Rudi Stern, he co-founded Global Village—its name taken from the term used by Marshall McLuhan who had coined it to describe the transition the world was making with television as its main medium of communication.

As Mr. Reilly said of Global Village in an interview, "To experiment with video was my aspiration and to have a space that we could present the video in various forms. And not have to worry about censorship, not have to worry about rejection by networks . . . Cable [TV] didn't exist. There was no such thing as access or anything else, that came later. So, if you think about it, where would you show anything . . . We created a place, part gallery, part theatre."

And Global Village, on Broome Street in SoHo, became "the center in New York for documentary video," as described in the 2002 book The New York Times Guide to the Arts of the 20th Century.

It became the center for teaching the making of video documentaries, establishing a relationship with the New School for Social Research with courses for New School credit being offered at Global Village. It also launched the Global Village Annual Documentary Festival presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.

Moreover, decades before the term "new media" became the buzzword in media and communications that it has become in recent years, Global Village was exploring and teaching about "new media." It published in 1981 The Global Village Handbook for Independent Producers: A Guide to Public Television and the New Media.

Mr. Reilly, in addition to being head of and the principal teacher at Global Village, taught elsewhere through the decades. He was chairman of the Film and Television Department at New York Institute of Technology and taught as well at Rutgers University, UCLA, the University of Kentucky in Lexington and the City University of New York.

In the 1990's until it closed in 2005, Mr. Reilly was a professor at Southampton College of Long Island University. He had become a full-time resident of Hampton Bays by then, having moved from SoHo. For many years before, he had lived in Hampton Bays part-time.

The video documentaries Mr. Reilly directed over the years included many with his first wife, Julie Gustafson, including Giving Birth and The Pursuit of Happiness.

His documentaries received numerous awards. His Waiting for Beckett alone won a Golden Apple at the International Educational Film and Video Festival, a Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival, and was selected to be a feature presentation at the American Film Institute Festival. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Koehler wrote that "Waiting for Beckett is sure to stand as one of the lasting records of Samuel Beckett's life and work."

A close friend, Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, said: "John Reilly was a giant in the new field of video documentary which he pioneered. With keen intelligence and his passion for social justice—and an extraordinary director's eye—he set the mark for superb documentary work."

Mr. Reilly, in addition to his wife, Lauren Chambers, leaves his son, Lars, and daughter, Maire.

  1. print email
    John Reilly
    August 09, 2013 | 07:53 PM

    I congratulate The Independent on this obituary. It is incredulous that The NY Times has missed this story. John was a giant and more than that a wonderful human being!

    Bruce Johnston
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