By Nick Pinkerton
Elliott Stein, a longtime contributor to The Village Voice, as well as
Mr. Stein was born in Bensonhurst and grew up on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, back when the RKO Albee was among the borough’s movie palaces. Mr. Stein recollected the Albee, along with other reminiscences of jewel box theaters past, in his seminal work of movie-love autobiography, the marvelously anecdotal 1977 Rolling Stone piece “My Life with Kong,” published between the release of Dino DeLaurentiis’ Kong remake’s and the demolition of the Albee. Through the prism of a 43-year personal history with “the most moving passion play ever seen on the screen,” Stein filters details of a continent-hopping life — he moved to Paris in 1948 and stayed on for decades — and, incidentally, his various ineffaceable identities: queer, Jewish, Brooklynite.
Readable via the rollingstone.com archive for four clams, “My Life with Kong” is accompanied by a brief author bio: “Stein has worked on several films, the last of which was Les Apprentis Sorciers, a melodramatic comedy about South American political refugees in Paris, with Dennis Hopper and Marie-France Pisier. In it, he played Ezra Fickletoes, an odious movie producer — and he wrote his own scenes.”
This was, it seems, only the tip of the iceberg. BAMcinématek, where Stein hosted 120 editions of the “Cinemachat” movie series that he curated, called Stein “a living Zelig” in their press release tribute, which cited ample evidence backing up this claim:
“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… 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.“
Stein spoke about the last point in an interview with Gay City News conducted by David Noh (who also wrote a fine obituary notice) in February of this year: “It’s on the record in several books… I was a great influence on her Notes on Camp thing. She came to see me in Paris and I had decorated my room in, I suppose you could call it, a campy way, with all kinds of objects, sexual, movie star stuff. It was a gay apartment, and she vaguely understood and was sympathetic about it. We talked about it at some length and eventually it became her essay. I can’t claim credit for it, but I supplied a lot of the background.” (Stein interviewed Sontag for The Voice here.)
Many personal tributes have cropped up in the week since Mr. Stein’s passing, including critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s eulogy, which remembers Mr. Stein’s pack-rat dwellings as well as his status as an “outspoken, card-carrying sadist” — an interest reflected in his lovely essay for the Criterion release of Barbet Schroeder’s La Maîtresse, which includes the memorable line “Like the best cinema, S & M is about mise-en-scène.” At CriticWire, former Voice intern Matt Singer recollects his onetime job of “typing up Elliott,” transcribing Mr. Stein’s handwritten articles — though former Film section editress Allison Benedikt reports that, during her tenure at the Voice, Mr. Stein had taken to delivering his pieces on typewritten paper in crisp manila envelopes.
I have no personal recollection to add. I knew Mr. Stein not as a friend, but as a fan — his catholic tastes were the most simpatico of any critic I knew — and, accordingly, my memories are a spectator’s: Watching him conduct a 2005 Q & A in the snug Maya Deren Theater of Anthology Film Archives with the great Curtis Harrington, who would die not much more than a year later, the two talking fluently of Albert Lewin and Fabian in Hound-Dog Man as though speaking of people they’d seen only yesterday.
The Killing Kind, Harrington’s masterpiece of psychopathology, was among Stein’s Cinemachat picks, though I will always remember with especial fondness a sold-out screening of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, a benchmark of disreputability which Stein presented as though its qualities as art were entirely self-evident. Jake Perlin, a former BAMcinématek programmer and close colleague of Mr. Stein’s, recalled to me his imperial presence as emcee: “After the chat for Exorcist II, someone stood and said how much they didn’t like the film when they saw it on first release, how they didn’t like it years later when they saw it on TV, and how they still didn’t like it. I think the guy was half-expecting a defense, but at that point Elliott just said ‘So, why are you here?'”
Like many, I also knew Mr. Stein through his writing. He was a master of the breezy, curtly comprehensive biographical paragraph (“Count Luchino Visconti’s main passion was breeding horses until Coco Chanel introduced him to Jean Renoir”) and the dishy little-known-fact: Did you know that was Arthur Freed dubbing Leon Ames in Meet Me in St. Louis? That Al Capone thought that Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets was the best gangster picture ever made? That Stephen Sondheim once intended to adapt Julien Duvivier’s Un carnet de bal as a musical?
Mr. Stein’s strength was as an enthusiast rather than debunker — on the whole, a sympathetic way to be — and his journalism abounds with the Glorious, the Gorgeous, the Startling, and the Winning. His enthusiasms were legion, rivaling Rivette in his indefatigable viewing, while Mr. Stein’s comprehensive knowledge of cinema gave the impression that he’d been firsthand witness to every stage of the medium’s progress since the days of Edison and the Lumieres. He made fantasy and horror a particular specialty, having been a member in good standing of the artist Jean Boullet’s Société des Amis de Bram Stoker in ’50s Paris, and can be found in The Village Voice Film Guide giving an early positive notice to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. A trip through the Voice‘s online archives, which only reach back as far as 1998, reveals many more of Stein’s passions:
– “Palace Walks – On the Road with the Theatre Historical Society” – 8/ 10/ 1999
A tour of remaining Northeastern movie palaces that’s nothing if not “charming,” to use another of the author’s favorite adjectives: “The last day of the conclave, one of my dreams came true. I’ve always wanted to meet someone who wore ‘the pants of a Roxy usher.'”
– “Valerio Zurlini’s Autumn Tales” – 8/ 22/ 2000
“He became something of a lost generation unto himself — he’s not even mentioned in several putative histories of Italian cinema… this series makes plain as a pikestaff that those books on Italian cinema must be revised.” BAM will screen Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars in December.
–“Recycle It!” -3/14/2000
On the “sturdy if pimpled butt” of Joe Dallesandro, transvestite Holly Woodlawn, “(‘I saw some nice garbage up on 24th Street,’ she yaps at one point, with a voice like an auto accident),” and Paul Morrssey’s Trash: “In its heart of hearts, it’s the cleanest dirty movie ever made.”
–“Once Upon a Mattress” -5/29/2001
A succinct explanation of Hollywood before-and-after the Code: “Simply put, the anomalous religious picture was that Catholic organizations were dictating to Jewish studio heads the content of films to be shown in a preponderantly Protestant country.” (In “My Life with Kong,” Stein recalls the “censorial vandalism” of darkening prints to obscure violence in Kong‘s 1938 re-release.)
–“Aztec Camera” -6/22/2004
Singling out cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa for attention in Film Forum’s Cine Mexico, Stein exhibits one of his laudable traits — a willingness to attribute creative genius to someone other than the director.
If I have concentrated on the early aughts, it is only because this is when Stein is most frequently writing long for The Voice — a collection of his capsule reviews, however, would make an invaluable viewer’s guide, along the lines of Pauline Kael’s 1,001 Nights at the Movies. The old saw is that a critic must leave behind a great book in order to face posterity, but to all evidence the peripatetic Stein was too busy living and talking and writing and who-knows-what-else to collect his output between covers. His absence is greatly felt by those who knew him, in person or on the page… and if anyone did care to put that book together, I bet it’d be a doozy.