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Judith Crist: Personal and Professional Style

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The death last week of the film critic Judith Crist, at 90, gave newspapers and websites the chance to reprint some of her best zingers -- the kind of withering takedowns that leapt off the pages of the morning edition and haunted the dreams of Hollywood directors. To say Crist embraced her fearsome reputation would be an understatement. Her reviews spawned a subgenre of counterstrikes from the likes of Billy Wilder, who said that inviting Crist to review a film was "like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage." In an introduction to her 1968 collection, The Private Eye, the Cowboy, and the Very Naked Girl, she wrote, "I am, admittedly, a severe critic ('severe' is the polite word that has been applied to me; 'acerbic' is the usual one, and a triple-S rating, as a 'snide, sarcastic, supercilious bitch,' is the most glorious epithet I've gotten from an industry man)."

She'd been honing that wit and occasional savagery not only in the pages of The New York Herald Tribune, New York magazine and TV Guide, but as a professor at Columbia University, where she taught "Personal and Professional Style," a master's class on the art of cultural criticism. In her later years, she taught out of her apartment on Riverside Drive in the 90s, and in the spring of 2007 I was among the latest crop of students to enter that tasteful lion's den. It was an atmosphere dominated by Professor Crist's wit but also by generational strife (more on this in a minute). There were elements of the prayer circle and the shooting range, where books, movies, anything that might fall beneath the broad heading of Culture were up for discussion, dissection, and frequently, execution.

The class's chief demand -- passing judgment on works of art -- constituted a minor crisis for those of us enrolled, and the sight of a frail, 85-year-old woman prone to coughing fits threw our ignorance into sharp relief. We hadn't lived very much, didn't know very much, and we were pretty sure we didn't have anything to say. To her, our cultural illiteracy was a mild scandal. Had we really not read Russell Baker, or Pauline Kael? Could we really not name all of James Agee's screenwriting credits? Or quote Edna St. Vincent Millay on demand? "I used to say to my students that it seemed as if they were born yesterday," she told us more than once. "But you seem as if you were born at 3am today."

Our collective protest -- that she had a 60-year head start -- was a silent one. We sat there, sufficiently shamed, eying the cat the wandered the room, wondering about the life expectancy of cats (i.e. how many critical smackdowns had this particular cat witnessed?). We took our lashings along with gulps of coffee and stiff drinks from her prodigious liquor cabinet. She liked that we drank, but was perplexed that we did not smoke. Once, almost all students smoked, she told us, with an approving nod to the past. Each class, she would announce a cigarette break and disappear alone, or in the company of a European student, into one of the apartment's back rooms.

"Ours is the age of the expert," Crist wrote in 1968, "where we sit and wait to get the word from on high, to operate on a consensus of what the ephemeral 'they' think." Four decades later, that age has mostly crumbled, in our profession at least. The journalistic world she'd inhabited -- of high circulations, of staff writing jobs at newspapers and magazines, of audiences sitting and waiting for word on high -- unspooled before us... or was it behind us? (I don't know what the exact equivalent is -- maybe it's a young West Point cadet today who believes that with hard work, and a little luck, he will get to fight in World War II.)

Still, as she wrote, and often said, "All is preparation." Yes, we were born at 3am today, but time would heal the wound of our youthful inadequacy. And far more than those zingers, or the margins full of red ink, the real education lay in the picture she gave to us, a picture as romantic and well-lit as any movie still: of a life lived in New York; of a profession that might illuminate and entertain; and the unspoken promise that if we hung around long enough and had the least bit of taste, we might claw our way to respectability and have great stories to tell.

When it came to stories, she dazzled, reveling in the unfair advantage of her years. In our age of post-9/11 anxiety, she recalled seeing a plane fly into the Empire State Building in 1945. She quoted cab drivers who, half a century ago, refused to take her to the gritty Upper West Side. She had covered the Lady Chatterly's Lover obscenity trial. (Cue the old-person jokes: She covered the Hindenburg! The transcontinental railroad! The fall of Rome!) The tall windows that ran the length of her apartment overlooked Riverside Drive and the Hudson River, and she told us, with equal parts wistfulness and critical ire, that over the decades the trees had grown and spoiled her once glorious view of the Hudson and its crawling barges. In her own way, she told us how the world had changed in her time and invited us to wonder how it might change in ours.