There was a pall cast over the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, at least for those of us who knew him, with the announcement Monday of the death of Bingham Ray.
I've known Bingham for more than a dozen years, from the time he was running October Films in the mid-1990s. He was sharp, funny, perceptive, opinionated and passionate -- about the movies that he was involved with, and about movies in general.
We both lived in Westchester County, north of Manhattan, and were both involved at the start of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, a not-for-profit art house that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. I started a film club at the beginning of the Burns that was affiliated with the newspaper I worked for at the time and, when I left the newspaper (and was effectively excommunicated from the Burns), Bingham later took over the hosting and producing chores of the film club.
But he only lasted a year or so because his taste could be a little, well, adventurous for the audience. I ran into him after he was replaced as the film club's host and we had a laugh: "They only wanted me to feed them cookies," he cracked about the audience, instead of the meat-and-potatoes cinema (or even cinematic spinach) that he wanted to mix into their diet.
Bingham was a major force in the independent film world exactly because of that adventurous taste. You need only search "October Films" on IMDB to get a sample of the kind of filmmakers whose work he championed, before October was bought by Universal, eventually morphing into USA Films and then Focus Features.
And he was a good guy, always a treat to run into and talk film with, whether at various festivals (he died after suffering a stroke at Sundance last week) or just around town. We shared a love of the Grateful Dead and an irreverent sense of humor. He was feisty but engaging -- and he had just launched a new venture, as director of the San Francisco Film Festival, when he died.
His death comes as a shock and leaves a big hole in the film world, one that will not be easily filled.
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Of the films I saw on Monday, the two I liked the best were About Face, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' documentary about supermodels of yesteryear, and Save the Date, a bittersweet tale of young adult romance that features a breakout performance by actress Lizzy Caplan.
Directed and cowritten by Mark Mohan, Save the Date features Caplan as a bookstore manager who has just moved in with her longtime boyfriend (Geoffrey Arend), a rising indie rocker. But she has commitment issues -- and, when, in the middle of one of her boyfriend's shows, he publicly asks her to marry him, she freaks, bolting from the room leaving him flat-footed in the middle of the club.
The film also stars Alison Brie as her sister, who serves as her sounding-board and, frequently, her goad. It's as honest a portrait of that blend of support and irritation in close sibling relationships as I've seen.
Caplan captures focus in virtually every scene she's in, even when it's not her scene, because of her exceptional focus and ability to make stillness and indecision seem alternately dramatic, tragic and funny. It's an exceptional film about one young woman trying to sort through her confused feelings about love and life, even as everyone else around her is pushing her to do it faster.
Greenfield-Sanders' About Face is a fascinating look at the world of modeling from the viewpoint of some of the most famous faces ever to grace a Vogue cover or pose for Avedon or Scavullo. They talk about being young and naïve -- and about being older and, surprisingly, much more secure. Modeling, as several point out, is not a career that breeds self-confidence; just the opposite, in fact.
This commentary continues on my website.