He tells the story of one of them in Forever Professor, a 32-minute collaborative documentary that made its world premiere March 19 in the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF). Johnson’s film made the cut from more than 1,500 submissions and is featured among a lineup that includes 193 feature films and 234 short films representing 60 countries.
The opening scene of Forever Professor introduces us to the film’s inspiration, Mark McKinley, who has taught psychology at Lorain County Community College for more than 48 years (actually, 48 years, 6 months and 3 days and counting since the filming wrapped last summer). Or in a word, forever.
We see McKinley with his signature thick, white hair riding a personal transponder toward the camera. It’s a fitting beginning, because he holds the Guinness World Record for the longest uninterrupted series of figure-eights on a personal transporter in under 2 minutes. He also owns more than 1,006 talking clocks, certified by Guinness as the largest collection in the world.
Johnson, 39, an Oberlin College grad and former student of McKinley’s, uses his 1,920 seconds of film to tackle weighty concepts of time, psychology, the unconscious mind and the dream world.
“For me, it’s a huge honor to be accepted as a filmmaker,” says Johnson about having Forever Professor selected to be shown at CIFF. He grew up in Amherst but has lived in California, Japan, Europe and New York. He is now living in the Czech Republic and will miss the premiere of his movie because of his teaching schedule.
“It was a really big deal for me to come back to the place where I grew up and to make films about people that I knew there,” says Johnson, whose previous directing work includes The Amerikans, a series of 15 vignettes — 14 of which were about unique people in Northeast Ohio. “I’m more interested in turning the camera back on who we are and getting as close to someone’s subjective world as possible. Mark is a fascinating person to me because of the way his mind works.”
After reconnecting with McKinley years after being his student, Johnson was drawn to the professor he remembered as a handsome chain-smoker who captivated students with his lectures.
“My attraction to McKinley’s story came from this poetic overlap that I saw between his life and habits, his interest in time and specific aspects of psychology, especially dreams and the unconscious,” Johnson says.
You could say McKinley is obsessed with time and order. In the film, he says he has determined the ideal time to leave his house is 8:13 a.m. to avoid traffic snarls on his 17-minute commute. But McKinley’s massive collection of talking clocks gives the movie an undercurrent of whimsy and animation.
“The collection isn’t just about talking clocks,” Johnson says. “It’s about something more universal in how we relate to time, which reminds us of our mortality. Time also structures our days and passes differently depending on what we do. But most relevant to the film’s narrative is that McKinley has constructed a collection that mirrors all of the ways in which time is an object of fascination.”
Johnson plans to enter Forever Professor in festivals throughout the year, including Sundance Film Festival, and is launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the effort.