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Elliott Stein (1928-2012)

Elliott Stein (1928-2012)

When I was an intern at the Village Voice in the mid 2000s, one of my frequent responsibilities was to “type up Elliott.” Elliott was Elliott Stein, the critic, programmer, and historian who wrote reviews and capsules for the paper’s listings section. He was also the only Voice contributor who didn’t use email; Stein’s pieces were always hand delivered to the film department, often by the author himself. Transcribing Stein’s words was one of the best parts of being a Village Voice intern, and always an education — both in the art of criticism and in film itself, as the man had a stunningly encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. I learned something from every piece I typed up.

It is with a great deal of sadness that I report that Elliott Stein passed away on Wednesday at the age of 83. Below, you’ll find a lovely tribute to Stein from his colleagues at BAMcinématek, where he programmed the popular “Cinemachat” series for more than a decade. He led a remarkable life and will be missed.

“Elliott Stein was a film critic, historian, programmer, and script writer — a true cinematic multihyphenate. He wrote for The Village Voice, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, the Financial Times, Opera, and many other publications. 

Born December 5, 1928 in Bensonhurst, Elliott saw the original ‘King Kong’ in first run in 1933 at Radio City Music Hall. He saw the film more than any other in his life, way into the many hundreds of times, and decades later on the eve of the 1976 remake — to this day referred to as the definitive story on the original film — he wrote ‘My Life with Kong,’ an article for Rolling Stone. Falling in love with the movies at a very young age, he ended up at NYU at age 15 in the 1940s where he was one of the first students to study film, before cinema studies was an established course of study. Elliott moved to Paris in 1948 and lived there for more than two decades, an experience that shaped a sensitivity and knowledge of film that was then original for an American writer and critic. 

In his Paris years, Elliott visited the Cinémathèque Française nearly daily (and remarked the only person he saw there every time he went, even if the house was otherwise empty, was Jacques Rivette), and befriended many important intellectual figures of the time; he is mentioned in the memoirs of Edmund White, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Ned Rorem, and Richard Olney. He also became a film critic for the Financial Times and an opera critic for Opera (he wrote the libretto for his friend Ned Rorem’s first opera ‘A Childhood Miracle’), worked with Kenneth Anger on ‘Hollywood Babylon,’ managed a literary review, taught English to Yves Montand, and acted in a few films, most notably Edouard Luntz’s ‘Les coeurs verts.’ Later, Elliott wrote and acted in Antony Balch’s ‘Bizarre’ and played a character named Ficletoes in Edgardo Cozarinsky’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ opposite Zouzou, Marie-France Pisier, Dennis Hopper, Pierre Clémenti, Raoul Ruiz, and others. He also lived in ‘Giovanni’s Room’ (he was friends with James Baldwin) and his friendship and intellectual rapport with Susan Sontag was a source of her landmark essay ‘Notes on Camp.’ 

Elliott then worked uncredited as a co-scriptwriter on several films made in France and England, moved to Brazil in the early 70s taking a job as FT’s South American culture reporter, and then went back to his hometown in the mid-70s. And during this time, he revised and edited the American edition of Léon Barsacq’s ‘Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions,’ the earliest history of art direction in the cinema.  

Since BAMcinématek’s inception in 1999, Elliott programmed, hosted, and presented over 120 ‘Cinemachats’ at which he’d host a post-film talk peppered with his one-of-a-kind erudition. His first-ever chat was for John Brahm’s ‘Hangover Square’ in December 1999, and his last was just weeks ago on October 8 where he showed André De Toth’s ‘Ramrod’ with friend and fellow film historian Howard Mandelbaum.

Elliott defined eclectic taste, programming silent classics (Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’), 30s rough-and-tumble pictures (Lang’s ‘Fury’), mid-century art house hits (De Santis’ ‘Bitter Rice’ and Kalatozov’s ‘Letter Never Sent’), recent auterist work (Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ and Cronenberg’s ‘Spider’), and everything in between, from ‘Mandingo’ to ‘Monkey Shines.’ Elliott also presented ‘Gertrud,’ Dreyer’s film maudit, which he resolutely championed for its original 1964 release in Paris, penning a seminal review of it in Sight and Sound. He possessed a deep reservoir of knowledge of great, overlooked films — from Roland West’s ‘The Bat Whispers’ to Curtis Harrington’s ‘The Killing Kind’ — which he brought to BAMcinématek audiences; they were revelations to many, baffling to others. He even made a compelling case for John Boorman’s ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ — the making of a classic Cinemachat. 

In December, we will screen one of his favorite films, Valerio Zurlini’s ‘The Desert of the Tartars.’ In 2000 Elliott wrote a beautiful appreciation of the Italian director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective in The Village Voice.

Elliott Stein was a true film lover, a remarkable story teller, a walking encyclopedia, a living Zelig, and one of the warmest and kindest people we’ve ever known. It was an honor to work so closely with him. We will miss him dearly.

Details of a memorial film program to be announced.

The BAMcinématek team”

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