Celluloid Atrocities August 2015: In Memory of Joe Williams

joe-williams 75It’s going to be very strange to see movies without Joe around.

 

 

 

This morning when I woke up, literally before I had gotten out of bed, I received the news that last night, July 26th, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s main film critic Joe Williams had died in a one-car accident (while on his way to a movie theater, no less). In my bleariness I had trouble moving past disbelief, and even now, hopefully not so bleary, my brain is trying to fight off this information as best it can, all the while making me feel like there’s surely something that I should do. Joe is St. Louis’s most prominent film critic by some margin, and, like the loss of John Thompson at the Tivoli in February 2014, it’s going to be very strange to see movies without him around.

Joe started writing film reviews for the Post in 2000 (though he joined the paper three years prior), and I started writing movie reviews, period, in 2001, so he’s pretty much always been around for any press screenings I’ve ever attended. My social skills aren’t the greatest, but around the time I was able to match his name to his face, circa late 2002 (this well after becoming familiar with his writing), I once saw him from a distance clutching a copy of the print edition of PLAYBACK:stl, which I was very pleased by. Not long after that he approached me at a closing night party for the St. Louis International Film Festival and we talked about all the best and worst of what we’d seen from that year’s SLIFF. And I’m not talking about a brief, five-minutes-while-standing-in-line conversation; it lasted at least a good hour. And while it’s maybe not amazing that he was so willing to talk about films, the thing that sticks with me is that he had no good reason to talk to me—I do my best to hide in a corner and sulk while at parties, so any initiative to start a conversation was all on him. Meanwhile, I was in my early 20s, had not been on the St. Louis film criticism scene for long, and generally didn’t open my mouth unless it was to say something nasty.

Later I came to identify Joe’s presence as a likely indicator of a good time to be had—it wasn’t even required that I interact with him, but if he was there, you knew you were in the right spot. Though I didn’t expect to see him there, earlier this year I caught him in Columbia, Missouri (his old stomping ground; he got his Master’s at Mizzou) at the True/False Film Festival just outside of a screening of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear. On Christmas morning 2014, he was at the first screening of The Interview at the Chase Park Plaza, which to my knowledge was the first theatrical screening of that film anywhere in St. Louis (as I was leaving the auditorium, he was being interviewed for TV news). 2006 was Joe’s first trip to the Sundance Film Festival for the occasion of St. Louis native Brian Jun’s feature Steel City premiering in competition there—among other encounters, Joe and I sat together for the press screening of Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sleeping Dogs Lie (showing then under the title Stay), and spent a good half-hour before the screening exchanging tips on films we’d seen. The previous year, I ran into Joe at the Cannes Film Festival, where he quickly enthused that the real France is just like the France Pavilion at the Epcot Center. Cannes divvies up its accredited press according to color—yellow was the worst, then blue, then pink, with white being the best (almost no one gets a white badge, outside of the New York Times). I was a yellow and Joe was a pink, but that didn’t keep him from shouting across rows and rows of people at me. Again, this led to the exchange of tips on things we’d seen, and, when he saw Me & You & Everyone We Know in the International Critics Week sidebar on my recommendation, he saw fit to cite me for my recommendation of it in his final Cannes wrap-up. This led to lots of correspondence from embarrassing family members who were excited to see my name in the paper.

Mr. Williams was even present on one of the best nights of my life. In October of 2008 the Laumeier Sculpture Park held a gala opening of their John Waters art installation. I went to the opening, as I’m a huge dork for John Waters (backup evidence: the name of my column), and in the one charitable donation of my life, I gave Laumeier a sum of money significant enough for me to score an invite to a VIP party after the public opening. I attended the opening with an old friend of mine, and, to lift a line from Frank O’Hara, we were acting perfectly disgraceful (what are you supposed to do, behave yourself at a John Waters art opening?!). All the same, Joe found us (he didn’t know my friend) and hung out with the two of us for a good chunk of the evening. When it came time to go to the VIP party, I assumed Joe was going, given that he is a VIP (see above re: him being the highest-profile film critic in St. Louis), but it turned out he hadn’t gotten an invite. He suggested he would go and play the “do you know who I think I am?” card (his words, not mine) when they were checking names at the door. We lost track of him after that, but then saw him again inside the VIP party, so apparently they were impressed by who he thought he was. It was all a hell of a good time.

As can be gathered by these minor anecdotes, Joe never lost the joie de vivre of seeing movies. He would occasionally sideline me to parlay his excitement over something-or-other: He just saw Night of the Living Dead projected onto a screen floating off the coast of the French Riviera! His friend Oliver Stone is coming to St. Louis for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK! Tom Hardy sure was a hulking mass in The Dark Knight Rises, wasn’t he?! One particularly memorable one had him haranguing me in a men’s room about his experience of seeing Her for the first time: he spent the whole movie wondering how they made Los Angeles look so futuristic, and then it dawned on him—he had been on that street corner! That was Shanghai! They used Shanghai as a stand-in for a future L.A.!

Lately I’ve come to actually work with Joe a little more closely than I’d had opportunity to in the past; early last year he was elected President of the St. Louis Film Critics Association, and I the Membership Liaison, so we’ve endured countless (and often unpleasant) board meetings together. In these meetings he consistently exhibited the generosity of spirit and willingness to encourage that I first witnessed when he talked my ear off at a SLIFF party more than a decade before. Film critics are often stereotyped as being snobby and inclusive. I propagate this stereotype in my words and actions quite regularly, but Joe rarely ever did. Clearly I had a lot more to learn from him, and I’m deeply sorry that I won’t have the opportunity. | Pete Timmermann

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