Speaker for the Dead

Death has been busy. 2016 as a year has been taking an outstanding amount of public figures – from musical legends and icons of the likes of Prince to the humanitarian figures like Abdul Sattar Edhi and ranging from the expected such as the aging champion Muhammad Ali to the unexpected like Anton Yelchin. I wish I could say it’s been kept more to headlines than around me, but that’s not the case. So, I want to take a moment to identify, somewhere in the overwhelming statistic, that these were people who died and not just credits on screen (or page or stage) and so on. This page will take a while to be updated and completed, but it also allows for time to be given to recognize and identify each individual’s contribution to film rather than some arbitrary numerical body count attached to an arbitrary numerical year.

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I can only admit to knowing Don Calfa (3 December 1929 – 1 December 2016) from his work in Return of the Living Dead, which is admittedly a film I’m fond enough for that one association to matter. Especially since his character is the one I remember most from the movie save for Tarman and Suicide. I fondly recall regarding his character – given his getup and elements – as Nazi Pat Smear.

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Robin Hardy (2 October 1929 – 1 July 2016) made one movie and then spent the rest of his career just trying to remake it unofficially. I can’t give him much credit for imagination, but I can give him credit for that first movie that really left an impression in my formative high school years – The Wicker Man. How big an impression? Well, first I think its pleasant soundtrack both opened me up to European folk music while introducing me to how movies can use happy tunes ironically to unnerve viewers. But the bigger one is how it suddenly made me re-examine religion’s place in the world and how religious ideologies respond to each and so on and so forth that began interesting questions I still find fascinating today. Which are probably on the part of my own overthinking but not bad for a movie that’s essentially just trying to be an evil town horror flick with some very one-sided atheist attitudes.

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There are, in this world, people who have avoided the 1931 Spanish production of Drácula because they don’t want to watch the Spanish version of a movie they already saw and even further… people in the world who saw both versions and prefer the English one starring Lugosi Bela. Good for you. I personally am on Team Drácula and part of the reason is for Lupita Tovar (27 July 1910 – 12 November 2016) having charisma and chemistry and personality enough to play Mina as a human being that I should care about and not the cardboard that Helen Chandler acted like.

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There’s a great mistake early in Michael Massee (1 September 1952 – 20 October 2016)’s career that haunted over him for the rest of his life that was never his fault and I think it’s unfair, especially in consideration of how it made the headlines alongside his name in the time of his death. Most people familiar with the name would already remember it and the morbidly curious can look it up, so I won’t bother stating it. Instead, I insist my favorite performance of his is a small (for there’s hardly any lead roles under his belt) but nevertheless memorable one from David Fincher’s Se7en, where he plays a witness to a murder and his casual attitude towards it (without denying his shock at something horrifying taking place at his premises) is one of several moments that exhausts Brad Pitt’s character. That sort of reactionary acting that is the backbone of Se7en could only have worked if the performances against the lead had something apathetic or cruel to bounce off of and Massee’s apathy in the scene is off-putting yet understandable in consideration of everything else.

Nick Menza (23 July 1964 – 21 May 2016) didn’t have to wait until his death to stop him from drumming. He could have ended it early when he had a tumor. When he needed knee surgery. When he was unceremoniously kicked out of Megadeth by Mustaine. When he nearly lost his arm. When the Life After Death tour got shelved because two of his bandmates died at once.

But he was still kicking until he literally collapsed on stage mid-show last night. Menza, like anybody else from classic-era Megadeth, was a warrior. He didn’t take prisoners.

He didn’t take any shit.

 

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As a child, my brother’s friend at one point suggested some stupid sounding movie called Singin’ in the Rain to watch and I just told him to beat it like the punk he sounded like suggesting some fancy dancy flick like that. For that reason, not only did it take me until 2009 to watch what would remain one of my favorite movies of all time since for all its energy and joy expanded by performances like hers, but I’m this close to assuming my very first encounter with the legendary Debbie Reynolds (1 April 1932 – 28 December 2016) was as the kindly maternal witch Aggie Cromwell in the Halloweentown series of Disney Channel Original Movies. Because yes, I’m showing my age… I literally watched those as they premiered on the television. But that’s also assuming I didn’t first encounter her kindly warm voice as the titular spider in Charlotte’s Web. So despite watching her many times as a young peppy dancer, my first image of Reynolds is as a warm and motherly figure.

More particularly, a warm motherly figure who had a crazy envious set of movie memorabilia. Reynolds was a staunch advocate of preservation towards our film history in a manner that is largely ignored by those who can or can’t afford it and held on to a lot of priceless collectible material in order to memorialize the history of Hollywood cinema.

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I’m not saying anything new by reporting that Carrie Fisher (21 October 1956 – 27 December 2016) died in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

Because that’s a fact.

I’d be lying in claiming that Fisher was ever thought highly of to me as an actor, with the only performances of hers ever truly being of note to me from Hannah and Her Sisters and Maps to the Stars. But there’s a reason for that last one that reflects upon what I really admired out of Fisher… her work as a writer. Which is the sort of stuff filled with candidness, wit, and confidence that makes me green with envy. Her sense of humor in works like Wishful Drinking never undercut her bravery towards her personal struggles and her own Devil-May-Care lifestyle while I would not be saying anything about Postcards from the Edge that other people haven’t put in better words than me.

Beyond that, she was also brave in the aspect of mental illness and bringing attention to it as a cause.

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And yet she’s not the only major Star Wars name to have passed either. One remembers Kenny Baker (24 August 1934 – 13 August 2016) having given life to R2-D2, a particularly well-loved droid and comic foil to C-3PO, imbuing into life into a robot without us ever being able to see R2-D2’s face.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, mother and daughter that they were, were only one among several shocking amounts of pairings in death occurring including two previous cinematographers for Steven Spielberg before he stuck Janusz Kaminski, Vilmos Zsigmond (16 June 1930 – 1 January 2016) who lensed Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s mix of New Hollywood earthiness and the fantastically dark mystery behind it… but Close Encounters of the Third Kind also had pick-up work by Douglas Slocombe (10 February 1913 – 22 February 2016), who also shot the great popcorn action cinema of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. Together, the two men are responsible for some of the cinematic images I’ve watched most in my life.

Guy Hamilton (16 September 1922 – 20 April 2016) directed several James Bond films, including arguably the most famous Goldfinger, and is responsible (along with director Terrence Young) for really getting Bond into stylish camp male fantasy form that we all know him for. But production designer Ken Adam (5 February 1921 – 10 March 2016) was the real source of all the visual elements of Bond’s adventures, especially those fiendish lairs during the Sean Connery run. And that’s only the tip of Adam’s career iceberg in consideration with his iconic War Room et al. work on Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and lovely historical recreations in Barry Lyndon.

It’s kind of a stretch but Larry Drake and Ron Glass both made appearances in Firefly, my favorite show as an adolescent that still remains something dear to me. Albeit Drake’s appearance and brief and frankly not very remarkable as opposed to the multitude of villainous characters he indulged in playing – my favorite being a deranged Santa Claus from the second episode of Tales from the Crypt – while Glass’ warm and wise performance of the Christian Shepherd Book, imbuing wisdom with dangerous mystery, made Book pretty much my favorite character on the show that wasn’t Mal (because whose favorite character wasn’t Mal) and set the stage for my disappointment when the character had limited screentime in Serenity despite being a regular on the show.

In the meanwhile, Jon Polito and David Huddleston were two character actors and cast members from The Coen brothers cult detective comedy The Big Lebowski in pretty recognizable roles (especially since Huddleston portrayed the title character). Polito in particular was a regular collaborator for the Coens during the 90s leading to one of my favorite performances in Miller’s Crossing, while Huddleston worked all over including Blazing Saddles which co-starred…

Gene Wilder (11 June 19 1933 – 29 August 2016) who could be remembered for his charming chemistry with another late comedy legend in Richard Pryor, his inexhaustible energy for Mel Brooks’ multiple comedies such as SaddlesThe Producers, and Young Frankenstein, or just for the warm ability to be the best possible image of Willy Wonka we’ll ever have, given the off-kilter yet never less than genial nature of the performance.

Andrzej Wajda (6 March 1926 – 9 October 2016) and Andrzej Żuławski (22 November 1940 – 17 February 2016) are more than just the foremost names in Polish cinema with the same first name. They were essentially master and apprentice, the latter having started off as an assistant to the former. In the middle of their careers, they put out the most challenging works of cinema including Man of Iron and the Wajda’s war film trilogy for the former and Possession and Cosmos for the latter.

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Vanity (4 January 1959 – 15 February 2016) remains a staple of beauty in 1980s music and cinema as her group Vanity 6 was one of several acts the legendary artist Prince (7 June 1958 – 21 April 2016) put together. Prince himself is of course an absolute polymath of talent in both music and image. I would never be able to touch upon how far his versatility went.

I don’t think with the death of Keith Emerson (2 November 1944 – 11 March 2016) – arguably the greatest keyboardist of all time – and Greg Lake (10 November 1947 – 7 December 2016) – one of the greatest bassists – 2016 is probably not a fan of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Which is understandable for they’re one of those overachieving prog acts that like to show off their skill and turn into a music lesson, but nevertheless, they’re still enjoyable enough to revisit some great tracks and made up by some of the greatest musicians that ever lived. I would have expected the year to go and take another world-class musician, drummer Carl Palmer, to complete the band… but then one remembers Arnold Palmer (10 September 1929 – 25 September 2016), a world-class figure in a different field involving sticks… golf… to complete the Titled hat trick.

Everybody was on about Severus Snape when Alan Rickman (21 February 1926 – 14 January 2016) and I can understand it absolutely, since hell, I grew up with the same character as a young child at the time Harry Potter became a phenomenon. But my favorite story of Rickman doesn’t involve that at all. The man had already won a Tony in ’87 for his performance as Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dangerous Liaisons. When his co-leads were grabbed for the subsequent film adaptation, he wasn’t. He was replaced by John Malkovich for the role.

No, instead Rickman’s film debut was Die Hard. Because who wouldn’t want to first be introduced to the world via Die Hard. It’s Die Hard.

My very first introduction to Angus Scrimm (19 August 1926 – 9 January 2016) was from his own introduction to the laserdisc release of Phantasm, a segue into the movie that already promised me that the man behind the imposing Tall Man was one who simply enjoyed the craft of acting – especially the moment in the video where he overthinks the meaning of “alien” – and working with somebody he knew as well as Don Coscarelli. Scrimm’s eager presence in every movie by Coscarelli and long association with him established him as an indie horror lucky charm and added to a very homestyle feel to a filmmaker I never got tired of watching. Thanks for the joy, Scrimm.

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I know bitter ass people like to pretend that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and their success was what killed New Hollywood Cinema, but I submit instead the actual murderer who did the deed was Michael Cimino (3 February 1939 – 2 July 2016). Not necessarily because the man did anything wrong – although people will talk shit about Heaven’s Gate, I’ll defend to my own grave – but because he simply did not ever give up on his ambitions and that imploded in the end. One can see how that becomes an Achilles Heel financially as an artist, but we need more self-indulgence in cinema as great as Heaven’s Gate, not less.

I really can’t say more about Herschell Gordon Lewis (15 June 1926 – 26 September 2016) that I didn’t already say in my Blood Feast post or History of the Slasher Film, but I’d be remiss to go without mentioning the Godfather of Gore here.

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Anybody who spent enough time around me knows Blue Öyster Cult are one of my biggest jams, almost certainly the reason I got interested in music to begin with, and Sandy Pearlman (5 August 1943 – 26 July 2016) essentially made them from the ground up, from writing many of my favorite songs (including “Astronomy”), to forcing in the supernatural Lovecraft (and historical element) into their music, to producing pretty much all their classic albums. Pearlman is responsible for pretty every single thing I love about the BÖC that other Buck Dharma’s guitar playing. BÖC was already just one of those old legends that still play, but Pearlman’s death really nails in that they’ll never hit that gloriously weird mix of run-of-the-mill rock music with absurdly strange lyricism and production decisions that give it an old-timey nostalgic yet nonetheless monstrous feel – like if a Stephen King character returned to Maine and thought “wasn’t it great that one time I was chased by zombies in these woods as a young man?”

I make it sound less accessible than it is. But it was my type of weird. If Blue Oyster Cult were a film, Pearlman would be the auteur.

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Steve Dillon (22 March 1962 – 22 October 2016) probably best known for his work on Judge Dredd and the Punisher and spent the majority of his career collaborating with Garth Ennis, but given that my favorite comic in high school was Preacher, it should be hardly any surprise that it’s what I’m gonna remember him for. Guy did all 66 issues with Ennis writing and I can’t imagine it being drawn by anyone else for reasons beyond that…

Preacher matters to me as story of America from the perspective of non-Americans (Ennis is Irish, Dillon was English). Since the West no longer exists, Ennis and especially Dillon’s art gave it the country as a whole this revisionist lens as a grungy horizon and that – along with the romantic idealism behind Jesse Custer as a character and his relationship to Tulip O’Hare – gives the series its heart as a Western tale, while the geek show presentation of imperfect attitudes, profane and violent atmospheres, and still a clear-eyed humanity for anybody who isn’t out-and-out evil (it’s why the story can still live for me after high school) give it its horror-show blanket.

Everything about Dillon’s artwork MADE Preacher for me. Ennis is perfectly fine trying to tone down his “hurrhurrsoedgy” r/atheism attitude to give a road narrative and Custer would not be Custer without Ennis’ writing him to be THE COOLEST GUY EVER, but Dillon’s alternating between wide, broad-colored landscapes (usually of the desert night) cooling us after a moment of sudden carnage or boxing the characters travelling (usually the trio of Custer, Tulip, and Cassidy) together as they bond and learn each other’s doubts and fears in different ways. But my REAL favorite thing – something I think is a result of Dillon really trying to get into the American spirit – is the earthy manner he draws his characters. It doesn’t make them ugly and it’s not a barrage of lines trying to rough up the faces, but they’re rugged, they’re bright almost like they’re constantly sweating, they’re unkempt, and you just get the right amount of severity to feel like you’re in the room staring them in the face (and still whenever Custer uses the Word of God power, Dillon found a way to make him seem subtly alien by enlarging Custer’s eyes by just a bit and dousing the iris in red). Even in the masculine facial structure of Tulip and her shock-ended blonde hair, you get the feeling of worn youth with our heroes. And the villains – they’re ghouls, outright monsters. Jody and Starr still have that earthiness, but Jesse’s grandmother is an emaciated Satan of angles and sagging skin, T.C. is an uncomprehensible montage of round surfaces on his face that just make him look like a bug-eyed ghoul, Allfather D’Aronique is a giant emblem of glut and power, Odin Quincannon literally looks more like a penis than Starr as far as I’m concerned (btw, a lot of dick jokes about Starr’s appearance. It’s that kind of story.), and the Saint of Killers… he’s just Clint Eastwood with longer hair and his facial features more forced to the center. Dillon took time designing these characters, it was never one size fits all here and it’s how the story gets away with trying to mix genres that couldn’t be very easy to do (and in a style that could really only exist in the 90s while being a great salvation from the anatomical overkill in musculature that came from the character designs of Todd MacFarlane or Rob Liefield).

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Most people who know me know how fond I am of Casablanca. Fond enough that it’s the only movie that could have tried to dethrone Blade Runner from my favorite movie of all time. Fond enough that I took my girlfriend on a date to see it in 35mm so she could see it for the first time. Fond enough that I really have to acknowledge Madeleine Lebeau (10 June 1923 – 1 May 2016) as the last surviving credited cast member to Casablanca, especially given her small yet notable part in moments like the singing of “La Marseillaise” as she was one of several people on the set who had personal ties to the situation happening in Europe at the time.

Allan Fish (birthday unknown to me 1973 – 29 August 2016) is an online film critic/buff who seems to have seen every movie ever made. I can’t imagine somebody else would be ambitious enough to write a fully ranked list of the 3000 best movies he ever saw otherwise, although his inclusion of unreleased 2014 titles when he expanded it to 5,000 early that year leaves quite a bit of room for doubt. That doubt is assuaged when you go to his site with Sam Juliano Wonders in the Dark – one of the first film blogs I ever visited – and thus see just how inexhaustive his enthusiasm was and how eager the man could be to say anything about every single film he watched. For somebody like me who’s taking forever just to get back on a David Lynch retrospective, this man was unstoppable and never had a take that didn’t seem fresh.

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I can’t find the source anymore but a long long time ago, I read about how David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) considers himself more of an actor than anything. Even if he never graced the silver screen in all of his career (and thank the world he has for such brilliance as Merry Christmas, Mr. LawrenceThe HungerThe Man Who Fell to Earth, and Labyrinth), that’s entirely believable. His albums are entire performances in themselves, his personal adoption of different personalities and characters he crafts up entirely like Ziggy Stardust or The Thin White Duke and completely embodies, even when it gets him into shit like his infamous Nazi interview. More method than most method actors just for recording music and heading on stage, Bowie is one of the few musicians for whom visionary is not simply a superlative but a direct description of how he got his work done and we’ll never have somebody in the music game like him again.

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Abbas Kiarostami (22 June 1940 – 4 July 2016) might have truthfully been my very first entry into how fluid film form can be and how the shape of narrative and non-fiction cinema can be mixed all around (the other possibility is Jim Jarmusch), but it’s more romantic to assume so for the purposes of this post. With a background in poetry, his films showcased that poet’s soul by always switching its structure all around and by his patient humane manner of storytelling. There is no greater blow to film in my opinion, this year, than the loss of this talented innovative man who was always interested in how cinema can be defined and re-defined over and over and over. There’s only one death of a public figure I never met personally that hit me harder…

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My dad and I have very very few things in common, I think. The strongest bond we have is in boxing. And him being a Muslim ex-boxer and me being a trash-talking ex-boxer, my dad had always blew up and hyped a particular figure, especially in my childhood, to be everything a man should be and more – steadfast in his beliefs, powerful and forceful in his conflicts, aware of when he’s wrong, relentless when he’s right, involved in the world around him, jovial no matter how severe the scenario, gentle with everyone (I’d say gentle with those who can’t match him, but we know it’s rare for him to be matched), smart on his feet when it counts, standing resistant when the pain comes, eloquent and expressive when given a penny for thoughts, and pretty oh so pretty. My dad especially had a story he relished sharing with me whenever he could of him meeting that figure in real life during the 80s – having gotten tasked by a local Sheikh to welcome him to London – and the figure’s playful response to challenge him to a fight. That story always brought him down to earth for me, but it’s absolutely no surprise – when I’ve been following and fanning over the figure since I was 5 years old at most – that I never saw the figure as less than larger than life.

On my bucket list is an entry to meet the man face to face one day and challenge him back to a fight. In spite of his late medical condition, it was still probably the most lethal entry in a list that includes self-immolation, but that’s ok, it doesn’t matter anymore.

My hero, Muhammad Ali (17 January 1942 – 3 June 2016), is dead.

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