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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

In Memoriam 2003

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

As long as I can remember, death has fascinated me. Not so much the act of dying itself, though I'd be a liar if I said I've never stooped so low as to watch a Faces of Death video. My main interest has always been in the reaction to death by the living. How we carry on after someone who has meant so much to us is gone. It's something we all face sooner or later and, unfortunately, we have to deal with it more often than we'd like.

When someone famous dies, public reaction can be overwhelming. It's an odd thing, seeing how many people are touched by individuals they've never met. In some cases, their work had a profound impact. In others, the person reminds them of friends and family who are no longer with us and the passing of the celebrity just reinforces the fact that the person they knew is gone. In any event, the death of the celebrity provides a moment of reflection. It reminds us that in the end, they were still only human and can give us a chance to pay our respects and thank them for the effect they've had on our lives.

Like anybody else, I've had to deal with the loss of friends and family members I was extremely close to. And, like anybody else, I've had to deal with the loss of public figures whose work had an impact on my life. In many cases, I didn't even realize how important these artists were to me until they were gone. The sense of grief I felt after hearing about the deaths of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jim Henson, George Harrison, and James Stewart was no less than if I had known each and every one of them personally. The work they had done mattered to me and even today, I miss each and every one of them.

When I was given the opportunity to write this column, one of the things I wanted to do was occasionally look back on the filmmakers, musicians, writers, and artists we'd lost. At the time, I thought it would be a short annual event. Little did I know that so many giants would be taken from us this year. I cannot say this has been the easiest column I've written. But, with your kind indulgence, I will continue to pay our respects on a yearly basis. God willing, next year's column will not be nearly as long.

Needless to say, the people mentioned here are only a fraction of those who passed on this year. If I've overlooked one of your favorites, I apologize. But each of the men and women in this column had some effect on me. Some big, some small. But in each case, the news of their death gave me a moment's pause and caused me to mourn their passing. This is my small way of saying thank you.

Stan Brakhage

While I was working at Troma, I came into contact with a wide array of famous and semi-famous figures. There were only two that made me fannishly nervous to speak to them and, strangely enough, they were both named Stan. One was Lee. The other, Brakhage. Like a lot of folks from my generation, weaned as we were on Spielberg and Star Wars, I had a pretty limited view of what movies could and should do. The few "art" films I'd seen had struck me as more amateurish than artistic. The films of Stan Brakhage opened my eyes. With films like Mothlight, Dog Star Man, and The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, I realized that film didn't need to be narrative to make its point and that low-to-no-budget art films didn't need to look like crap. Stan Brakhage was an experimental filmmaker who wasn't afraid to experiment, literally scratching and drawing images onto the film itself. For decades, he created his own unique brand of art, proving that all you needed to make a movie was film and a vision. I only spoke to Stan a couple times by telephone, but I was struck by how amazingly unpretentious he was. Like the best artists in any medium, he didn't feel the need to explain or justify anything. His work spoke for itself. And it will continue to, even with the artist himself gone.

Charles Bronson

If you're anything like me, really coming into your own as a movie fanatic in the early 1980's, perhaps you can be forgiven for your initial impression of Charles Bronson. Back then, many of us looked at Bronson as a low-rent Clint Eastwood, stuck appearing in Canon fodder like The Evil That Men Do and the seemingly endless Death Wish cycle. Boy, were we wrong. Go back to the beginning of his career and you'll understand what made Charles Bronson a movie star in the first place. He stood tall in impressive ensembles like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. In 1960's The Magnificent Seven, Bronson was the only actor who seemed like he would be equally at home amidst Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Go back to the original Death Wish and try to imagine anyone else effectively portraying both the bleeding heart liberal and vengeance-minded vigilante sides of Paul Kersey. But for millions of us, Charles Bronson will always be the Man with the Harmonica in Sergio Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. If this was the only film he'd ever done, Charles Bronson would be assured his place in film history.

Art Carney

And now, we address the ball. I've seen that episode of The Honeymooners dozens of times and every time, I laugh like it's the freshest, most original joke I've ever heard. And if you've seen it, you know exactly what episode I'm talking about even without the punchline. That was the magic of Art Carney as Ed Norton. His delivery, his voice, his body language, everything added up to sell the joke. And every single time, he gets the laugh. If Carney's film career wasn't quite as distinguished as his work in television, it might be enough to acknowledge that he contributed to one of the greatest TV shows in the medium's history and anything he did in film would pale in comparison. But there are a couple of gems in Carney's filmography. Martin Brest's 1979 comedy Going in Style is an underrated delight. And Carney deserved the Best Actor Oscar he won in 1974 for the lyrical road movie Harry and Tonto, even when you realize his competition included Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II. A typical Carney story: the day after winning the Oscar, Carney got a call from Jackie Gleason. "Hey, Carney," Gleason said, "what did you do last night?" Without missing a beat, Carney replied, "I went to see Chinatown."

Johnny & June Carter Cash

Not to sound callous but was anybody else shocked to learn that June Carter Cash died before her husband? For years, she had been Johnny Cash's rock, seeing him through drug addiction and a myriad of health problems. Her sudden death provided a tragic end to this love story, one worthy of a great country song. But June Carter Cash was a lot more than just Mrs. Johnny Cash. An immensely talented singer and songwriter, her 1999 album Press On should be in the library of anyone with even the remotest interest in country music. She even dabbled in acting on occasion, as witnessed by her role in Robert Duvall's underappreciated The Apostle. But it's the Cash love story that will be remembered. Johnny and June shared a bond that only connects a lucky few. Their devotion to each other was tender and unforced. Like June wrote in "Ring of Fire", one of the greatest love songs ever written, it burns, burns, burns.

As for Johnny Cash, well... what can one say about someone who had such a profound impact on the sound of the twentieth century? A lot of people said Johnny Cash was country music for people who hated country music but that's not exactly true. Johnny Cash couldn't be defined by such easy labels as country or rock and roll. The best description of his music is the one that covers his final albums: American Recordings. This is American music. Not the blindly patriotic music one usually associates with such a description, but music that suits the landscape of the country. Johnny Cash wrote and sang about love, family, faith, devotion, and the pioneer spirit... as well as murder, infidelity, pain, addiction, and injustice. That's America, the good and the bad, and Johnny Cash embraced it all. Some music defines a generation. The music of Johnny Cash helped define a nation. We were lucky to have him.

Leslie Cheung

Even in Hong Kong, pop stars turn to acting with alarming frequency. But few have done so with such total success, either in the East or West, as Leslie Cheung. Although he never enjoyed the crossover success as Chow Yun-Fat, his costar in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II, Cheung was arguably the better actor. Chow exudes cool with effortless grace but Cheung tackled complex, often deeply troubled characters and was always up to the challenge. As the lead in A Chinese Ghost Story and the brilliant The Bride with White Hair, Cheung earned his place in HK film history. His status as an actor to watch was cemented with riveting performances in Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together. Sadly, Cheung had long suffered from depression and earlier this year, took his own life. To fans of HK cinema, the death of Leslie Cheung marks the end of an era.

Kinji Fukasaku

For a long time, American moviegoers labored under the false belief that Japanese cinema began and ended with Akira Kurosawa. That's beginning to change, as we Westerners are rediscovering the wilder side of Japan in the 60's, through the work of directors like Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku. For a long time, Fukasaku was best known in this country as co-director of Tora! Tora! Tora! But today, it's relatively easy for Western audiences to find the rest of his richly varied work, from great yakuza films like Fight Without Honor and Humanity to such unhinged masterpieces as Black Lizard and Black Rose Mansion. Fukasaku went out on a high note. His final film was one of his best, the violent satire Battle Royale. One of Japan's most prolific filmmakers, he was busy prepping its sequel at the time of his death. If you think you've seen it all, seek out the films of Kinji Fukasaku, gone too soon at the age of 72.

Conrad L. Hall

Often, people equate great cinematography with films that are simply pretty to look at. By that overly simplistic definition, Conrad L. Hall is certainly a great cinematographer. But the best directors of photography know that it isn't enough to just make something look nice. The image must be in harmony with the story, the characters, and the overall vision of the film. It's for this reason that Hall deserves his place among the giants of the field. Few cinematic images are as memorable or as haunting as the stark black and white shot of Robert Blake from In Cold Blood, the reflection of rain coursing down the window streaming down his face. In one of my favorite but least-seen films of the 1990's, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Hall's cinematography helps make a compelling, dynamic film out of chess, hardly the most action-packed pastime. Hall won Oscars for both of his last two films, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Had he lived, Hall probably would have continued to be nominated for every subsequent film he did. Hall was one of those rare artists who only got better as he went along.

Katharine Hepburn

There is no other actress, from any age of cinema, quite like Katharine Hepburn. When you think of her, you think of strength and dignity, qualities on display in films like The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond. But it's surprising to realize how many of her best films were comedies. Unlike many of the modern actresses who are frequently compared to her, Hepburn was equally at home in screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby), adventures (The African Queen), love stories (Summertime), and stage adaptation (Long Day's Journey Into Night). The films she made with Spencer Tracy, including Adam's Rib and Desk Set, stand out as ideal Hollywood entertainments. But for me, her best film will always be The Philadelphia Story. It was a make-or-break movie for her, her last shot at overcoming the "box office poison" tag she'd been labeled with. It became a perfect combination of stars, director and material. Cary Grant and James Stewart are great but it's Hepburn I'll remember. Smart, sexy and totally in command, it's her movie all the way. No one else could have played that role and, without her, one of the best movies of the 1940's would never have existed.

Michael Jeter & Sydney Lassick

The remarkable thing about character actors is that once they really stand out in a project, you see them everywhere. The character actor's job is theoretically to disappear within a character. But if they're great actors, like so many of them are, once they steal a scene, you can never not notice them again. With Michael Jeter, that awakening happened in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. Anyone who has walked out of that film singing "Everything's Coming Up Videos" can relate. Jeter was instantly recognizable after that, in projects ranging from the sitcom Evening Shade to a standout performance as the mouse-loving inmate on The Green Mile.

As for Sydney Lassick, he'll be best remembered for screaming for his cigarettes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But like all great character actors, his round baby face kept popping up over the years when you least expected it... from Brian De Palma's Carrie to Bobcat Goldthwait's Shakes the Clown. Because their names are not as recognizable as their faces, we often don't take notice when character actors die. Jeter and Lassick were top-notch scene-stealers and their presence will be missed.

Michael Kamen

Perhaps because they do so many, a film composer's work can vary wildly in quality. When you score half a dozen or more movies a year, not every single one is going to be a gem. Michael Kamen had a better average than some with several scores that should be considered classics. His work for Terry Gilliam, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, are two of the finest musical scores Gilliam was ever blessed with. When David Cronenberg's usual composer, Howard Shore, was unavailable to work on The Dead Zone, Kamen stepped in and created something chilly, haunting and memorable. Kamen's work on the animated classic The Iron Giant helped set that film apart, avoiding the musical cliches that would have made the movie feel like warmed-over Disney. And Kamen's orchestrations helped give Pink Floyd - The Wall much of its sonic bombast. These are just a handful of the dozens of projects Michael Kamen worked on over his career. He helped shape the way movies sound in the 80's and 90's.

Elia Kazan

Is it possible to separate a man's life from his art? For many, the answer is no and that's why Elia Kazan remained a controversial figure right up until his death. You can believe what you like about Kazan's politics and his decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee back in the 1950's. What can't be argued is the influence Kazan had on modern film. Movies like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront marked a clear break from the cinematic traditions that had come before. My favorite Kazan films, Baby Doll and A Face in the Crowd, were unlike anything else from that era that I'd yet seen. I'm sure styles in movies would have eventually changed even if Elia Kazan had never shot a single frame. But without him, it would have been a slower, more gradual shift.

Robert Palmer

Some might classify Robert Palmer's music as a guilty pleasure. Not me. Back in the 80's, I was a big fan. Compared to a lot of the synthesized music on the radio back then, the beat of "Addicted To Love" was downright driving and relentless. The album recorded with The Power Station was a lot better than most high-profile side projects either before or since. Perhaps what was most surprising about Palmer's death was that many of us hadn't really thought of him in awhile, despite the fact that his influence has remained pretty constant since his heyday. The patented Robert Palmer video style just popped up yet again in the holiday hit Love Actually. And mark my words, we'll see it again. Robert Palmer was one of the smoothest voices of the decade of excess and it will continue to be heard, and his style will continue to be imitated and parodied for decades.

Gregory Peck

To me, Gregory Peck always seemed to be an in-between movie star. He came on the scene too late to be grouped among legends like Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart or James Stewart. But he was too old and too stolid to fit in with the next generation of stars, hellraisers like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. In the end, it was probably those very qualities that stood him apart and made his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird the most admired character in movies, according to the AFI. Peck was a voice of calm and authority when movies needed one most, when the rules were being chucked out the window. He anchored his best films, including Roman Holiday, The Guns of Navarone, and, yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, with a natural strength and dignity.

George Plimpton

George Plimpton came across as the stuffiest stuffed shirt in American history. The reason most of us have that impression is because Plimpton knew we did and had enough of a sense of humor to play around with it. George Plimpton came to prominence as a writer and journalist, collaborating on a great oral history on the life of Edie Sedgwick. But eventually his voice and look landed him in the movies, where, more often than not, he was called upon to poke fun at his own image. He was Tom Hanks' blue-blooded father in Volunteers and the straight-arrow new weatherman in Steve Martin's L.A. Story. Perhaps my favorite Plimpton appearance was his cameo as himself on The Simpsons, emceeing the national spelling bee. As he makes his exit, he says, "And off I go, back to whatever it is I do."

Leni Riefenstahl

What I said for Elia Kazan goes triple for Leni Riefenstahl. For many, her entire life will be eternally be defined by her direction of the most terrifying film ever made, Triumph of the Will. It isn't merely that it's a Nazi propaganda film. Of course they made propaganda films. So did we, so has just about everybody else. What makes Triumph of the Will so insidious is Riefenstahl's undeniable talent as a filmmaker. She did what she was asked and she did it well. But beyond that, Riefenstahl was simply one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century. Her life spanned continents, from the highest European peaks to the depths of the ocean. Read her memoir, watch the epic documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, and try not to be utterly absorbed at this woman's journey.

John Ritter

Possibly the year's most surprising death, John Ritter personified what made a great TV star. It isn't that he was a performer of limited ability best suited to the small screen. His performance in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade suggested that he was an actor of untapped resources who could have done much more. Instead, John Ritter seemed like one of the most decent, approachable people in Hollywood. That's the sort of person audiences invite into their homes week after week. Warm, funny and human, Ritter was a TV staple for decades. His sudden passing came as such a shock because he'd seemed ageless. Whether or not you were a regular viewer of Three's Company or 8 Simple Rules (and if you're honest with yourself, you probably were of one or the other), John Ritter was a familiar, welcome presence.

Wesley Willis

They say in heaven, you know they've got a hell of a band. I can only imagine what they're making of Wesley Willis right now. I suppose most would classify his songs as "outsider music" but Wesley wouldn't. As far as he was concerned, songs like "I Am Sorry That I Got Fat" and "Drink That Whiskey" were straightforward, rock and roll classics. And in their own way, that's exactly what they are. Wesley Willis' enthusiasm and spirit could be heard in every song. I hope that band up in heaven has welcomed Wesley Willis and that right now Wesley, Elvis and Kurt Cobain are jamming on a cover version of "Suck My Dog's Dick". Rock over London! Rock on Chicago!

Warren Zevon

I said pretty much everything I wanted to say about the late, great Mr. Zevon over on Matt Rowe's MusicTAP in the days following his passing. But he's a fitting close to this column and not just alphabetically. Warren dealt with death in song throughout his career. And unlike most of us, Warren received the curse... or the gift... of a death sentence. Some of us wouldn't be able to cope with that knowledge. Warren took it and embraced it, making his farewells, appreciating what he had, and working like a man possessed, releasing one of his finest albums, The Wind, just days before his inevitable death. You might not care about Warren Zevon. You might not like his music and that's fine. He probably didn't like yours, either. But imagine how amazing it would be if we could all deal with death, and life, like he did. No morose, woe-is-me self-pitying. Just acceptance, self-awareness, and appreciation.

Time and space prevents paying respects to each and every person who passed away in 2003. However, I'd like to acknowledge as many as possible. The following list is by no means complete but our thanks and appreciation go out to the following (a recommended work or two by each of them follows in parenthesis):

George Axelrod (writer, The Manchurian Candidate/director, Lord Love a Duck)
Alan Bates (actor, Women in Love & Gosford Park)
David Brinkley (newscaster)
Rand Brooks (actor, Gone with the Wind)
Horst Buchholz (actor, The Magnificent Seven)
Lana Clarkson (actress, Deathstalker)
Richard Crenna (actor, Body Heat & First Blood)
Hume Cronyn (actor, Shadow of a Doubt & Cocoon/screenwriter, Rope)
Buddy Ebsen (actor, Breakfast at Tiffany's & The Beverly Hillbillies)
Jack Elam (actor, High Noon & The Cannonball Run)
Maurice Gibb (musician, Saturday Night Fever)
Ron Goodwin (composer, Frenzy)
Buddy Hackett (actor/comedian, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World)
David Hemmings (actor, Blow-Up & Last Orders)
Dame Wendy Hiller (actress, I Know Where I'm Going!)
Earl Hindman (actor, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three & Home Improvement)
Gregory Hines (actor/dancer, The Cotton Club & White Nights)
Bob Hope (actor/comedian, The Paleface)
Gordon Jump (actor, WKRP in Cincinnati)
Hope Lange (actress, Peyton Place & Blue Velvet)
William Marshall (actor, Blacula)
N!xau (bushman, The Gods Must Be Crazy)
David Newman (screenwriter, Bonnie and Clyde & Superman)
Donald O'Connor (actor, Singin' in the Rain)
Neil Postman (author, Amusing Ourselves to Death)
Fred Rogers (neighbor, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood)
John Schlesinger (director, Midnight Cowboy & Marathon Man)
Nina Simone (musician, The Best of Nina Simone - album)
Elliott Smith (musician, XO - album)
Robert Stack (actor, House of Bamboo & Airplane!)
Edwin Starr (musician, "War")
William Steig (author/cartoonist, Shrek)
Peter Stone (screenwriter, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three)
Lynne Thigpen (actress, The Insider)
Leopoldo Trieste (actor, The Godfather Part II)
Leon Uris (author, Topaz)
Barry White (musician, Can't Get Enough - album)
Sheb Wooley (musician/actor, High Noon)

Next time, I'll talk about DVD, I swear. Until then, happy new year and enjoy every sandwich.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com
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