Park City—The tone was somber at the Highwest Distillery on Park Avenue Monday afternoon, as the San Francisco Film Society hosted a memorial service for beloved film leader, Bingham Ray.
The SFFS had canceled its Sundance party just this morning. But by late afternoon, as the chilling news that he had passed away spread, so did word that there would be a memorial.
As I walked in, Marian Koltai-Levine was standing with Susan Margolin. “We needed to stop going to movies and have this thing,” she explained.
Some 100 people gathered in a large room and remembered their friend. One of the first speakers was Keri Putnam of the Sundance Film Institute. “All of us are devastated by this news,” she began. “It’s at times like these when we feel we are part of a community.” She read a statement that Sundance founder Robert Redford had written. “We lost a true warrior,” it began, and continued, “Most importantly, he was a humanist and lived a life that meant something.”
Ray had only just begun his new job as the director of the SF Film Festival, and the loss was doubly sad for the San Francisco community, given that its previous director, Graham Leggat, had passed away in August of cancer at the age of 51.
Cassian Elwes recalled that when he began in the indie business heading up William Morris’ independent film division, Ray was near the top of the list of people he wanted to meet. He reminded the room that Ray “made this a business” and was “part of this” and “helped create this,” while making some of the “greatest indie films ever made.”
Geoff Gilmore, former head of the Sundance Film Festival, added, “Bingham wasn’t the film guy above all. He was the people guy. He knew how to deal with people… He was the life of the party—in so many ways.”
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said she had panned a lot of Ray’s movies over the years, but that he had remained gracious and a friend. “I remember having a dinner date with him the night when I panned his movie ‘Lars and the Real Girl,’” she said, but, she recalled, he didn’t treat her any differently.
Susan Wurbel, one of the first hires when Ray was at October Films, said, “He’s old school. He was a legend, and I thank him for everything I have.”
Next up was Eugene Hernandez, the co-founder of IndieWire and current director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Eugene had recently worked with Ray at the Film Society and grown especially close to him during the past two years. “He was so excited about San Francisco,” he said, adding, “Talking about movies—that’s what Bingham liked to do most and why we’re going to miss him.”
Veteran indie producer Christine Vachon echoed a feeling pulsing through the room, “One of the many things about tonight is to realize how long we have all known each other.” Recalling a year in the early 90s when she brought both “Safe” and “Kids” to Park City, she said Ray told her, “They are both kick-ass films.” She concluded by saying she will miss someone “who I can have these amazing conversations with.”
Columbia University’s Ira Deutchman admitted to having had a “complicated relationship” with Ray but said the loss was “incredibly devastating.” Noting the double loss the San Francisco Film Society had experienced over the past year, he said “we want you to survive and thrive.”
Many people remembered Ray’s inimitable humor. IndieWire Editor-in-Chief Dana Harris said he was “just a joy to be with” and that “we are a family and Bingham personified that.” Producer Jason Kliot, wiho came up with his wife, Joana Vincete, Executive Director of the IFP, referred to Bingham as a “mythical figure” who “listened and thought you would one day be something”—referring to Bingham’s beloved belief in people and their projects.
Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, said, “Bingham mentioned us all, regardless of whether we wanted him to…. He was the most talented person I have known” and Sehring’s first friend in the business.
This sometimes reporter had wanted to say something but shied from it. Perhaps I would have quoted from memory from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1, when Hal, still a prince but soon to be a king, turns to Falstaff, with whom he had been friends in earlier times, and says, “I know you not old man, fall to your prayers.” In other words, the party is over. That solemnity and austerity can easily make me think of a world without Bingham Ray. Falstaff later cries back, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” To which Hal responds, “I do; I will.”
This is perhaps the way many of us at the memorial were feeling: That some essential part of our lives in the independent film world, some Falstaffian spirit if you will, had drifted off into the brisk Park City evening.