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Veteran Time, Film Comment Film Critic Richard Corliss Dies at 71

Veteran Time, Film Comment Film Critic Richard Corliss Dies at 71

Richard Corliss, the veteran Time critic and former editor of Film Comment, has died at the age of 71. According to Time, who broke the news late this morning, he suffered a major stroke last week, and passed away Thursday night. The magazine has honored him with several articles, beginning with Richard Zoglin’s obituary:

As a movie critic, his tastes were populist but eclectic. He was a fan of Chinese kung-fu movies and Disney animation (he put “Finding Nemo” on his list of the 100 greatest films of all time, along with Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master II”), but also the more demanding works of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He revered the classical storytelling of Hollywood greats like David Lean, but was also drawn to dazzling, over-the-top stylists like Baz Lurhmann. Before coming to Time he wrote a dismissive review of a surprise hit called “Star Wars” (“The movie’s ‘legs’ will prove as vulnerable as C-3PO’s,” he sniffed), but he quickly became a champion of the fantasy-adventure films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. “Not since the glory days of the Walt Disney Productions — 40 years ago, when “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” first worked their seductive magic on moviegoers of every age — has a film so acutely evoked the twin senses of everyday wonder and otherworldly awe,” he wrote of Spielberg’s “E.T.” in a 1982 cover story (which, as Corliss was fond of pointing out, was bumped from the cover by the outbreak of the Falklands War). “The movie is a perfectly poised mixture of sweet comedy and ten-speed melodrama, of death and resurrection, of a friendship so pure and powerful it seems like an idealized love.”

As Zoglin points out, Corliss habitually answered the question “What’s worth seeing?” with “Everything is worth seeing,” and his populism was not calculated. He loved the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” enough to write about it twice, unabashedly calling it “the future of movies.” 

Lavish indeed, and relentless — a hallucinatory workout for the eyes. On his show this Monday, Stephen Colbert described “Speed Racer” as “the classic story of boy meets seizure-inducing lights,” and noted that, to get a sense of the picture’s cinema style, you should “put 80 pounds of fireworks into an industrial dryer, crawl right in there with them, turn it on and then light the fuse. It’ll give you a good idea of the visual onslaught you’ll be enduring.” As usual with Colbert, the humor highlighted a sneaky truth: in its assaultive creativity, its high-speed, multilayered imagineering, “Speed Racer” is like nothing you’ve ever seen. And it is gorgeous: a totally designed environment that is a rich, cartoonish dream: non-stop Op art.

As a writer for one of the country’s largest-circulation magazines (or so it was when he started) and a past editor of Film Comment, Corliss fused populist open-mindedness with formal analysis, able, as in his ahead-of-the-curve analysis of “Speed Racer,” to locate the avant-garde virtues in a superficially lightweight work. It was Corliss, along with Martin Scorsese, who birthed the idea for Film Comment’s “Guilty Pleasures,” where revered filmmakers expressed their enthusiasm for less-than-reputable films. His annual Top 10 lists recognized not only masterpieces of the cinema but episodes of  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “The Simpsons”; the latter’s “Black Widower” was his Number 1 for 1992. He was among many contemporary critics to miss the boat on Spike Lee’s “false and pernicious” “Do the Right Thing,” but praised “Fast Five” as “the kind of picture Hollywood makes best.” 

Corliss also wrote several books, including a BFI monograph on Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” but the most important may be “Talking Pictures,” a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters that served as a gentle rebuttal to auteurism’s director-first approach. 

The magazine collects 25 of his best reviews, from “Raging Bull” to “Boyhood,” as well as more broad-ranging essays and quirky reviews, like the “Crying Game” notice that reveals the movie’s big twist through an acrostic in the opening paragraph.

RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote:

He was one of those rare people who could make everyone he talked to feel important, just by making it clear that he was really listening to them. Even though personal qualities shouldn’t be at the forefront of a career appreciation, which is what this mainly is, I mention them because they were reflected in Corliss’ writing, in every outlet he worked for. You got the sense that he could get along with anyone while still being his own man and not cutting the legs out from under anybody else, and that he could disagree without being disagreeable. These are rare qualities, and they came through in his work. All of it.

Variety’s Justin Chang paid tribute:

The body of criticism he leaves behind is notable not only for its elegance and erudition, but above all for its thrilling openness to every kind of cinema. Fittingly enough for someone who didn’t mind scolding the scolds, whatever the default setting of their brows, he drew precious few distinctions between the high and the low — or between, say, the visceral pleasures of a Zhang Yimou wuxia epic and the intellectual rigors of an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece. Here was a movie lover adventurous and engaged enough to name “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” the best film of one year and Werner Herzog’s “The White Diamond” the next

And Indiewire’s Anne Thompson acknowledged the debt she owed to her mentor:

Corliss toiled long and hard on his pieces for Time. All-nighters were common. You don’t write as well as he did without putting in the hours. He never slacked. He was a tireless and enthusiastic workaholic. As many writers over 50 were losing their jobs in this challenging time for journalism, Corliss kept his. That’s because he could report on anything — as a business reporter on Disney, on Bollywood or other Asian cinemas for international editions, on theater, television, music, sports, yoga, or anything they threw at him. He handed in two dozen cover stories and over 1000 reviews. He was worth keeping around

Colleagues and critics who were touched by Corliss promptly took to Twitter to express their grief and admiration:

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