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April 17, 2007 7:18 AM
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Remembering Jim Lyons: 1960 - 2007

James Lyons. Photo by Richard Cohen

James Lyons, known for his frequent work with Todd Haynes, died last week in New York. The editor and actor starred in and edited Haynes' "Poison," winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Lyons edited Haynes' other projects: "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," "Dottie Gets Spanked," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine" (for which he also co-wrote the story) and "Far From Heaven." He also edited Esther Robinson's Berlinale Teddy Award winning documentary "A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory," which will have its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. Born in October of 1960, James Lyons was a member of Act Up and was treated for H.I.V. for many years. He died of cancer on Thursday in a New York City hospital.

Lyons' other editing credits include Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," Jesse Peretz's "First Love, Last Rites," and "The Chateau," along with Peter Friedman's "Silverlake Life" and Ronnie Larson's "Shooting Porn," as well as Dan Harris' "Imaginary Heroes," Christopher Herrmann's "Ghostlight," Erik Skjoldbjaerg's "Prozac Nation," Tom Gilroy's "Spring Forward," Rea Tajiri's "Strawberry Fields," and John Johnson's "Ratchet."

James Lyons in a scene from "Poison" (1991). Photo provided by Killer Films

In addition to his work as an actor in "Poison," Lyons also appeared as Billy Name in Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol," played artist David Wojnarowicz in Steve McLean's "Postcards from America," and also acted in "The Chateau," and Todd Verow's "Frisk."

A number of friends who worked with James Lyons throughout his career shared their remembrances for this tribute. Among those participating were "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" creator John Cameron Mitchell, "Spring Forward" director Tom Gilroy, film critic Amy Taubin, filmmakeer Esther Robinson, Strand Releasing co-president Marcus Hu, and producers Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot of Open City Films and HDNet Films.

A memorial visitation will be held today (Tuesday) in Port Washington, NY. In lieu of flowers donations are suggested to the James K. Lyons Memorial Fund, 47 Davis Road, Port Washington, NY 11050.

indieWIRE readers are invited to share thoughts and memories in the space provided at the end of this memorial.

---

We met in the early 90's at the "Poison" party at Limelight. He and his boyfriend Todd were impossibly glamorous. I was embarrassed to invite them to see me in "The Secret Garden" where I sang to birds. They came. He said he loved it. I cringed. He was only being kind. We became friends. He was the coolest. Not only did he have great taste, he was also brilliant. And funny! And hot. A dark, sexy, sexual man. Melancholy. We almost worked together but not quite. Two years ago he was going to make his short film. A beautiful story about Andy Warhol going home to feed his cat. A haunting image of him undressing for bed. He's wearing a diamond necklace under his shirt. Then he touches the scar on his chest. From the attempt on his life.

Last Wednesday. I'd been avoiding visiting. Too hard to watch him waste away. I texted him to see if he wanted me to come. No answer. John Bruce said he was too sick for a visit. Jim had been editing John's film from his hospital bed up until a couple of months ago. Terry suddenly called to say that Jim wanted to see us.

Friends in their early middle-age huddle in the cafeteria talking about the new bad news. "He wants to see people in ones and twos." "Hospice care." "Last chance chemo?" "Too weak." Amy says, "I told him there's a time to let go." Jim whispered, "There is a time to rest." What does that mean? A call comes. He's ready to see John and me.

His head is a rotting fruit on a stalk, the oxygen mask like a candy dish on his face. But he's still all there. Still Jim. Responding to the nurse with his funny Long Island Jewish shrugs. "Do you want more pain medicine?" Shrug, like "Meh." He wants to be lucid. "Agitated? Do you want Ativan?" Another shrug, like " What's the point, doll? I'm dying." John and I didn't know what to say. We can't understand his words, only the shrugs, which make us laugh. We don't know if we should. It was hard for him to write, words written over other words, like Cranium when you have to draw blindfolded. I try to make it out: "I don't...have anything to say... except...I love you...guys." We're barely able to speak ourselves. He tries to write again. We can't read it. This upsets him. King Lear: "When you can say it's the worst, it's not the worst." What is this then? Does he need something? He starts to write it again. Oh God. Wait... "What...are...you...up to?" Jesus Christ. I try to be light. "I'm looking at a script. Thinking about acting again. It's about..." He starts to nod off. That's how I felt about the script. The nurse wakes him. She's worried. He starts to write again. I shout out the words like it's a game show: "I need to pee soon!" She says, "You're wearing a catheter, hon. Go ahead." He lets go. A brief moment of relief on his face. We're starting to choke up. I say, "You've got a lot of wonderful friends downstairs, honey. High-caliber friends." He writes. We can't read it. He starts over. He tries to speak. It's a garbled cry. He must be feeling pain. Does he want his mother? She's lying down in the next room. What is he writing? Is the oxygen working? He writes: "High...fiber..count...friends." We burst out laughing. Goddamn it, Jim! "Your timing has not failed you I see. You're like a Beckett character," I say. He nods slowly. It's hard for him to see. I want him to see me seeing him. I move closer and look into his right eye. Very still, we stare, a single eye into a single eye, unblinking. I look so hard into that eye: "I love you. I love you. I love you." He hears. He doesn't blink. He's been so close to death so many times. Never has anyone clung so fiercely to life and been so ready for death. We kiss him on the forehead and mumble a few broken words. We don't want to take up his precious time. There are more people to say goodbye to. More people that he loves and that love him. We go down to the cafeteria and tell Tom that Jim wants to see him now. -- John Cameron Mitchell


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Although Jim was a dear friend and peer, he was, in many ways, the closest thing I ever had to a mentor. To me, he was the complete embodiment of PUNK, with all its rebellion, mixture of high and low art, D.I.Y.-sensibility, political activism, working class ethos and identification, at once macho and sympathetic, opinionated yet soft-voiced. He was utterly unpretentious, a person who recognized and simply assumed his undeniable place in the culture's continuum. I felt I could take him everywhere and would always be proud of him. He taught me more about film than anyone, and he always answered my requests for advice with unlimited time and insight and love.

The book he gave me -- David Bordwell's "Figures Traced In Light" -- is a compass to my work, even in the writing stages.

Jim used to do this thing where he'd very casually drop a transcendent idea into your head in a way that was so informal it was like he was telling you what kind of bagel to order.

While editing a piece of mine one afternoon, Jim said he'd felt a building rhythm in some dialogue, and so he'd composed a series of shots with a complementing rhythm. As we watched his cut, I mumbled something about rhythm helping me arrive at a new idea and Jim pinched his chin and said, 'yeah, yeah, like incantation -- calling it up. Incantatory.'

I knew instantly what he'd meant but I'd never really understood that word before. I'd kind of blocked it out after hearing it too many times in Church. It was a dead word to me. But hearing that word at that moment was like a little flower landing on my forehead.

This was typical of Jim, to so casually link religion and the creative spirit and film and writing, while simultaneously illuminating the power of rhythm in both prayer and dialogue. He'd do all this and even compare it to a Ramones song, just for good measure. And it would come out of his mouth as humbly and unassumingly as, 'do you have any gum?'

About a year ago I heard on the car radio that Eno's favorite band was Abba. Last week I read some media analysis where the writer theorized William Burrough's 'cut-up' writing style presaged channel-surfing. Both these ideas made me think of Jim because they felt at once radically new and yet completely obvious, like the moment he breathed new life into 'incantatory' for me. It's like he's cut a refrain into the rhythm of my brain.

That was Jim's gift; he could draw out of people their next step in thinking.

The world will be a worse place without him, but it was immeasurably improved by his having been here.

When we last looked at each other I felt he knew that, that up until his last moments he was seen as he wanted to be seen -- the 'Renaissance Man' personified -- in a black leather jacket. There was nothing more to say to him and nothing more to hear from him. We were clear. -- Tom Gilroy


-


Right now, all I can think of is the way Jim said "yeah, yeah, yeah," so that the words and the head nods that accompanied them signaled not only agreement and enthusiasm but also encouragement to go further. He was the most encouraging and supportive person I've ever known, which, in part, is the reason he was a wonderful editor.

Jim and I bonded over our passion for film and punk rock, and over the fact that for some reason, which was never entirely clear to either of us, we were neither of us film directors. I think that if Jim had lived just a few years more, he would have turned his elegant, poignant script about Andy Warhol into a movie and then his incomplete monster of a script about Foucault into another. Or maybe not. What matters is that he understood and conveyed through his work as an editor, his conversation, and his writing that poetry and politics are inseparable in great art. Indeed, they were inseparable in the way he lived his life, just as his intellectual brilliance was inseparable from his generosity and tenderness of heart.

I was so very lucky to share a friendship with him. He kept me honest and focused on what matters, and I suspect everyone who knew him and worked with him would say the same. -- Amy Taubin

James Lyons in a scene from "Postcards from America" (1994). Photo provided by Killer Films

-


Love. It's not a word used much on indie wire, but it's the force that elevates everything we do beyond the ordinary. A feeling beyond reason. It is the bedrock on which all great work and all enviable lives are built. And it was the essence of Jim Lyons. He loved big and hard and with such intelligence that he propelled each of us to reach beyond ourselves to make something bigger and braver than we thought possible. And not just work. While his contributions to my filmmaking are immeasurable, his love made my entire life larger and more incandescent. Even today it asks me to try harder, to be bigger, to live more.

We cannot make lives or art without this kind of love. On our own we are not up to the task. We get frightened and fatigued from the difficulty of charting these new paths. And we must rely on our friends to inspire us beyond the average and the easy. Jim's faith in art and love and friendship was a core component of so many lives. His vision for what life could deliver moved each of us to fearlessly reach farther. His love remains fierce and incendiary and brave. It is asking us to live outside the safe and the known; to fight for a more difficult but rewarding path that places the messy hopefulness of love and art over the staid predictability of safety. To fight, to laugh, to create, to live, beyond expectation and in the realm of grace.

He will be immeasurably missed. -- Esther Robinson


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Jim Lyons was a dear friend, a work colleague and a consumate professional. Whether he was talent coordinating interviews for "Postcards From America', or as an actor working on our super no-budget shoot of "Frisk" in San Francisco, or as an editor helping us fine tune our films, Jim was always there for you.

I have fond remembrances of travelling the festival circuit with him and his kind and gentle ways were always an indelible memory. Todd Haynes and Jim Lyon's collaborations are history, they complimented each other both personally and professionally and their work together represents some of the richest independent cinema of the past few decades. I always knew of his health issues, Jim was never one to shy away from letting his friends know where he stood, but his vibrant life and his dedication to a craft will always be part of what got a lot of us where we are today.

I will always remember his toothy smile, his sexy wink of the eye and his "aw shucks" nod when I walked into a room. -- Marcus Hu


-


We worked with Jim on a number of projects through the years, and soon became friends. Every editing session spent with Jim, every dinner we had together, seemed to be imbued with more intensity than everyday life. Philosophical questions always popped up, naturally, as if one were talking of the banalities that so often take over regular conversations. Sometimes, just sitting with Jim in a room as music played was a form of communication - it was so obvious that he was listening, and thinking, as would we... those moments of being that seemed heightened by being in Jim's presence. We once remember Jim saying that we always had the best music playing in the background at our home - it was an offhand remark - but to us it felt like a great complement.

It's hard to accept the fact that we won't see you anymore. Your wonderful, warm smile, your hilariously awkward hugs (we don't think anyone under 6'2" doesn't remember almost being thrown to the ground every time you were hugged by Jim!), your wise words and extraordinary generosity. Every time we would ask you to come to a cut of a film or ours for notes you would show up, and always give the most profound notes in the gentlest way. It's hard to imagine how many films you must have improved just with your words.

To say working with Jim was unlike any other professional relationship is an understatement. Who can't remember Jim walking out of the edit room in the middle of the day, saying he needed some time to think! At first, we felt he was not being professional. He wasn't. But when he would return to the room with a solution to a scene, we began to understand that "professionalism" isn't all it's cut out to be. Artists need space, their own space, and Jim was undeniably a great artist. He taught us that there are no rules to the process of creation. We hope to never forget that lesson. It was also such a joy to watch Jim cut a scene. He felt time in frames, as if they were breathing or he was breathing them. He just knew when a scene should start or end in the most natural, organic way.

You live, Jim. You've been a wonderful teacher, and your spirit has affected so many of us. And of course, you live as an actor, writer, editor and director in the films you created. We will never forget you, and you are a part of us all.

Love,

Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot


---


indieWIRE readers are invited to share thoughts and memories in the space provided below.

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12 Comments

  • chestyboy | May 6, 2007 8:09 AMReply

    When I think of Jim, I think about his smile. Actually, no, I think about his 'grin'. Jim had the most amazing grin, and when I'd see him, there would be that grin that just broke through whatever silliness or chaos or madness that happened to be swirling around us at the moment. That grin made you feel as though he had just been thinking about you and - magic - here you are. His grin was 'knowing'. It was real.

    When I met Jim, I was working on SWOON and I met him as the star of POISON. I met him as a fellow actor doing queer work (this doesn't happen every day - especially then) and he eased a sense of isolation I remember feeling. I felt like I understood him and that he knew something that I did, that we had similar experiences back to back, so in a way he felt almost like a half-brother and I remember finding comfort in his presence. After that, I worked with him on both "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "Frisk". Many people remember him as an editor and he did so many amazing things with his talent, but I always think of him as a fellow actor, a peer.

    I remember a scene in "Warhol" where Lilly Taylor (as Valerie Solanis) loses it and throws a table at me and Jared Harris. Jim (as Billy Name) had to drag her out of the Factory, while she screamed and called us 'cocksuckers' or something awful - it was a very violent move across a very long room while she kicked and screamed and Jim had to restrain her. I'll never forget the way Jim was affected by the scene, the rage and intensity of Lilly's performance. Aftewards, he felt so 'bad' about having to man-handle her in such a way. He forgot it was pretend, he was lost in the moment and worried about Lilly. Jim was an empath, a true artist in every sense of the word but posessed a a humility that is rare. He was the opposite of pretentious, he was warm. He was gentle. I will miss seeing that grin. I will never forget it. --- Craig Chester

  • danharris | April 25, 2007 9:33 AMReply

    Jim Lyons entered my life at the right time. I was 22, I had just finished shooting what was a largely autobiographical feature film, and I wanted him to cut it. He said yes, and we ventured into that editor/director journey we all know so well. We locked ourselves into a cutting room first in New York, and then later in a bizarre structure above a Nissan dealership in Studio City. I respected the previous work he'd done so much that I knew I was in for a lesson in editing. What I got was so much more - a lesson in filmmaking, yes, but honestly - a lesson in life - (and cutting). I was young, I didn't really know anything despite thinking I knew it all. What I did know was that Jim came from a world of artists in New York that I dreamed about being part of. I hoped a little of that would rub off on me -- and it hit me like a truck. I've never had such an honest working relationship in my life, and it saddens me deeply that I will not be able to have it again on the next film that I make. It saddens me more that Jim will not have a chance to put his mark on something again. Jim held my hand through career-first-moments that meant so much. He led me through the first ever test screening of my work - he told me what to expect (I didn't believe him but he was right); he took me back to the editing room that night in tears (me, not him) -- and he showed me how we were going to turn it around. He made me have multiple early screenings at my house, and he invited his wonderful, smart friends (many who have posted here). What he did sounds simple: he showed me a process for making a film and refining it in his 'unique' style. What he didn't realize was that I was 22 and much more scared and confused than I ever let on. What he didn't realize was that he branded that style onto me over six months, and it is the way I will work for the rest of my life. Thank you, Jim.

    Today I pulled up all of the emails I ever received from Jim, and I read them so I could live a little longer with his voice in my head. For those who knew him, it was a unique voice. And from this unique voice I saw an answer to a request from the Imaginary Heroes/Sony P.R. people for a quote about me and about the film. I'd never read it before -- it must have gotten buried at the time, but now -- hearing it in his voice struck a nerve. Because what he was saying about me I believe also about HIM! I believe that so much of my crooked outlook on life came from this wonderfully crooked man. If someone asked me what I thought about Jim Lyons, I would tell them this, the same thing he once said about me:

    "His voice is strong and clear: the world can be beautiful; the world can be awful;. but most often its just crazily dopey and funny. When it turns ugly you laugh derisively, then you summon up some truth and you fight for yourself and the people you love."

    I wish I could have fought more for Jim.

    As a final note, it's wonderful to see the names on this page -- they are great people, and many of them I was able to meet and befriend solely through Jim. Thank you, Jim, for helping me find myself, for helping me recognize art, for teaching me the ropes of life. Though I may have just registered as a blip on the timeline of his life, he was deeply important to mine.

    With much love,
    Dan Harris

  • japter | April 25, 2007 8:27 AMReply

    Jim's viewpoint and candor were always refreshing, and his commitment to process had a devilish enthusiasm. Whether screening an ancient 16mm copy of Jean Jenet's, "Un Chant d'Amour" or deconstructing Roland Barthes essay on Greta Garbo's face, his methods were curious and his curiosity endless.

    I hope to share some of Jim's insight through the lectures he gave at the Motion Picture Editors Guild. Though only a fraction of the man in person, Jim's take on the craft of editing is full of vitality, humor and honesty.

    With the belief that anything you do can be elevated to an art form, Jim's life was his art, both in the way he lived it and how fully he shared from it.

    Please visit http://www.mewshop.com to hear Jim speak, and see video from his events.

  • julieh | April 25, 2007 5:20 AMReply

    I keep running across his emails ("when I get out of the hopital...") and phone number(s) and have to remember again that he died. I'm grateful for the tributes here and especially for John Cameron Mitchell's remembrance of the last time he saw James. I had hoped to make it up to the city around the beginning of May to see Jim and reading his post was as close to experiencing that visit that I will ever get.
    James and I have been friends for 30 years since we met at NYU.
    Some memories:
    -Spending a Saturday as freshmen scouring all the Village record stores for obscure bargains.
    -Still in college, "in a fight with Jim" for some stupid reason, I am room-spinning drink at the Peppermint Lounge and he shows up and I start sobbing and we hug, friends again.
    -Visiting him in a cutting room only to find him despressed and frustrated by the whole political thing surrounding the film.
    -We had a private joke on the phone, we'd talk to each other like relatives who could barely stand each other saying stuff like "I try so hard, I wish just once you could be civil for an entire phone coversation." I don't know why that cracked us up so much.
    -Stalking fish in upstate New York, watching short films made by his friends, waiting for Terry to finish cooking dinner.

    The last time I talked to him he was so sad, he was lonely in the hospital. He asked me to tell him that I loved him. And I did. That's the last time I talked to him and I am grateful that's the last thing I ever said to him.

  • mikerstein | April 19, 2007 7:07 AMReply

    I first met Jim when he hired me as his assistant on a film called First Love, Last Rights. I wanted desperately to work with him because of his work on Poison and Safe. He was the quintessential artist and he had a habit of being incredibly disorganized - a slob in the Avid bins. I would spend my nights trying to organize the many, many sequences he would cut for a single scene and it was worth every precious second. In all those cuts I saw his mind at work. He would try different performance - shorter, longer, with a pause, without a pause, and structure, structure, structure... Then there were the dissolves. Now it might seem weird to say how much you might like a dissolve, but here I am. He blended such beautiful images together and I hope to spend a lifetime trying to emulate his work. Jim brought such a spirit to making art and reminded me constantly how important it was to care. When Jim asked me to work with him again on Velvet Goldmine, I felt that he was handing me a wonderful gift. He taught me how you could make a rock film rock, while being the rock star. I was so proud to be a part of it. You were my mentor, boss, and friend. Your spirit and brilliance will live on in your work and in those that you inspired and taught.

    -Myron Kerstein

  • lawrence chua | April 18, 2007 2:21 AMReply

    I was a young hack when I met Jim Lyons. I

  • george camrose | April 17, 2007 11:52 AMReply

    Jim was a hell of a guy. One of those people that I can't say I knew intimately or for very long, and yet someone who I think of often, and always fondly. In spite of it all, I really thought he'd live forever. I loved his take on movies (and on music). Like most editors he communicated about the movies he saw incredibly vividly. And like most editors, he was always very clear about his struggles and what could've been better about the movies he made. His cutting room and job interview war stories were hilarious, and almost entirely unrepeatable here. He really struck me as a superfan. How can you not love a guy who just gushed about the performances and the moments and beats in Far From Heaven, as Jim did the second or third to last time (how horrible to have to count now) I ran into him, as if he'd just seen it, rather than helped to shape into the brilliant film that it is. The last time I saw him, we were at the same showing of Phil Morrison's Junebug at that two screen arthouse in Brroklyn Heights. After the lights went up, Jim rhapsodized about Phil's movie and then about Me And You And Everyone We Know, and a half dozen other films and records and books, until he and Terry walked out of the theater lobby and dissapeared into Brooklyn Heights. Jim was wearing bedroom slippers. I'm really gonna miss that guy.

  • filmhawk | April 17, 2007 10:25 AMReply

    Sweet, righteous, funny, wise, irreverent, passionate, generous, gentle (but laser sharp when needed), a zero reading on the bullshit meter. He changed any space he entered -- and his hugs WERE challenging! A true original on the indie film scene, one whose unique slant on things could never be replaced. A hole is left -- but a hole filled to the brim with his rich legacy,

    Bob Hawk

    P.S. I loved his e-mails seeking help -- jobs, housing, whatever -- for others.

  • eug | April 17, 2007 9:37 AMReply

    (the following comment was submitted to indieWIRE)

    While I personally only met Jim Lyons a handful of times, his body of work involved so many films of special significance to LGBT audiences, that LGBT film festivals such as NewFest will greatly miss him. As the editor of "Poison," one of the films that heralded the so-called "New Queer Cinema," and throughout his many collaborations with Todd Haynes, Jim Lyons contributed to a radical shift in both the public's, and the film industry's, perception about what films by or about gay people could be, and about their viability in the general marketplace. NewFest has been honored to feature a number of films that Jim worked on, stretching back to a number of New Queer Cinema titles, as well as Ronnie Larsen's documentary, "Shooting Porn," Christopher Herrmann's "Ghostlight," and an especially memorable standing room only video-clip lecture presentation by Wash Westmoreland ("Quinceanera"), Kingdom Come: Wash West and the Search for a New Gay Pornography.

    - Basil Tsiokos
    Artistic Director
    NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival

  • eug | April 17, 2007 9:19 AMReply

    Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay posted a remembrance about Jim Lyons on the magazine's blog, it includes comments from a number of readers:
    http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/blog/2007/04/james-lyons.php

  • dchin | April 17, 2007 3:30 AMReply

    The last time I saw Jim Lyons, it was on Houston Street maybe two years ago. I don't remember the exact nature of our conversation (I do know we discussed films he was working on, including Esther Robinson's then in-progress documentary about her uncle and Andy Warhol, and his ideas for scripts) but it's the memory of his gallant, gaunt and emaciated figure that remains. In addition to his work as an editor and sometime actor, one of my favorite memories relates to the project Jim curated with Christine Vachon for MIX, a "peepshow" presentation (at an adult bookstore in the City Hall area); for this, we spoke a few times, because there were questions about finding adequate lesbian representation (there were certain enough gay male examples to include). But Jim was someone to treasure, because he was adventurous, diligent, and very insightful. On every project he worked on, he brought immeasurable skill, passion and intelligence. He'll be missed by all of us who knew him.

  • rodney | April 17, 2007 2:58 AMReply

    There is one memory of Jim that I keep coming back to. I was the assistant editor on Spring Forward and Jim was the editor. I had spent a long time loading Sufi chants into the AVID and Jim had been cutting with them. We began singing our conversations to each other, dancing and improvising lyrics in the rhythms of the Sufi chants. We spent half an hour literally spinning around the editing room singing our lyrics to each other with heated faux drama. What a kind, sweet, sexy, yearning, irrepressibly funky man. He will be missed and there are so many memories I will hold in my heart. Rest In Peace.
    -Rodney Evans