Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quite THE Memoir on Film...and Judy Stone

One of the first persons I've had the distinct pleasure to meet at the SFIFF is Judy Stone. Showing the fearlessness she is well known for in not only reviewing the issues - and films - of the day, but an open friendliness that is immediately warm, and has surely gained her entrance into the confidence of the mighty and disenfranchised alike. We struck up a conversation while we sat in the cafe area in the newly renovated Sundance Kabuki Theater. Looking twenty years younger than her 80+, she has a new book. Would I be interested in having it? I looked at the contents. Absolutely!! As she identified herself, and noting her brother I.F. Stone, I let her know he had been a long-time hero of mine, as a champion for social justice and journalistic integrity. Then I recalled her own legacy as a film reviewer (she would disavow being a critic), and we quickly exchanged stories and films, which films had we already seen, what films were on our schedule. The book is about film, yes, but also about this amazing artist, as well. I heartily and highly recommend her book, "Not Quite A Memoir." What follows is a brief bio and review of the book. Film lovers everywhere should pick up a copy!

[Bio from]
Stone wrote her first review more than 60 years ago for the student newspaper at Jay Cooke Junior High in Philadelphia; the film was the Gary Cooper/Madeleine Carroll picture The General Died at Dawn, co-starring Akim Tamiroff as a Chinese warlord. ("I liked it," she remembers.) Stone is the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and the sister of the famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone. "I have three older brothers who are journalists, and they're all influences," she replied when asked if "Izzy" Stone led her into the newspaper business. Stone dropped out of school to work in a radio-parts factory during World War II. She was managing editor for The Square Dealer, the newspaper of her union, the United Electrical, Radio Machine Workers of America CIO. After the war, Stone worked for the Marin Independent-Journal as a reporter. Following a hiatus of a few years in New York, Stone returned to the West to start work on the copy desk at the San Francisco Chronicle. She was also freelancing for Ramparts, editor Warren Hinckley's radical subversion of a small, discreet Catholic magazine. At Ramparts, Stone wrote about Traven and Luis Buñuel. An early interview with Walter Huston, star of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, doubled back on her later in life when Stone wrote a book about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre's elusive author, B. Traven. "I don't think I'll ever really know if the man I interviewed was Traven," Stone said.
In 1965, Stone also covered the disintegration of the Hollywood production code for Ramparts. Stone then transferred to the Datebook section of the Chronicle, right when American film was about to leave censorship behind. Since Stone received a buy-out offer from the Chronicle, she's retired from daily reporting. To Stone, covering film was covering a beat, and she was undazzled by star power. Asked what a high point of her career was, she said: "I'm very proud of one quote-scoop-unquote." Stone was attending a film festival in Moscow and was the only American reporter to see Alexsandr Askoldov's long-banned 1968 film Commisar. "It's about a pregnant woman commissar who had to stay with a poor Jewish family," she said. "It was the first time in years a Jewish family or anything Jewish had turned up in a Russian movie. After I filed the story with the Chron, I called the Moscow correspondent from The New York Times about it, and two weeks later their story turned up in the Times. "I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic. When you work for a daily paper you don't get a chance to go into depth; I leave that to [Pauline] Kael. I'm not a film buff," she said briskly. "I don't want to see every movie ever made. There's a lot of garbage out there."
Here's a review from Janos Gereben, at Entertainment Insiders, "Where film buffs get their fix."
For Film Fans, `Quite a Book'
Judy Stone's just-published "Not Quite a Memoir" is a rich tapestry of life, politics, philosophy, travel, and insights, but mostly it is what Stone herself is about: the movies. This erudite film critic, always marching to her own (leftist, humanistic) drum, has spent almost all of her 80 years in and around movie theaters.
During her three decades with the San Francisco Chronicle, she became a kind of West Coast Pauline Kael (not an appellation Stone would necessarily approve of), writing complex, highly intellectual - and yet honestly visceral - reviews and interviews, concentrating heavily on European and Third World cinema, in preference of turning her thumb up or down on Hollywood.
The child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Stone is the sister of the late, famed investigative journalist I. F. "Izzy" Stone, and two other older brothers, both journalists.
She was still in junior high school when she wrote her first movie review, of the 1936 "The General Died at Dawn," with Gary Cooper and Akim Tamiroff. Still in high school, she interviewed Madame Curie's daughter, Eve, William Saroyan, and Paul Robeson, among others. Throughout her career, which is still ongoing, interviews represented her best thinking and writing, even as turning out reviews daily.
A wonderful anthology of Stone's interviews with some of history's greatest film directors appeared a decade ago, in "Eye on the World". Before then, she published works about the mysterious B. Traven, author of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
In the nearly 500-page long "Not Quite a Memoir," there are additional scores of interviews, and features - none more memorable and moving than the final chapter, "Encounter in Montenegro," a 1959 story about the discomfort of "being American" abroad, strangely, unhappily timely after almost a half a century.
The list of interviews is much to long to include here, but - just as a teaser - it includes Nobel-Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz ("We went on the wrong track sometime in the 18th century, and we have been continuing ever since on the wrong track..."), E.L. Doctorow ("Protecting the free world with one bomb after the other, you suddenly discover you're what the world has to worry about..."), Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad ("I wanted to understand how life changes when you have an appointment with death..."), Korean director Im Kwon Taek ("What happens [in an age of globalization] to the culture of a people who have kept themselves, for the most part, historically self-contained?..."), and Maya Angelou ("I have decided for myself that the easiest way to teach is not use bluster...").
Of special interest are such unforgettable stories as African-American model Donyale Luna's dream of becoming Snow White, Jean Genet's explaining the reasons for his support for the Black Panthers, Carlos Saura's childhood nightmares from being bombed in the Spanish Civil War, the genesis of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits," and Salma Hayek's dedication to Frida Kahlo, "the crippled artist who turned her pain into paintings," plus the richest selection of interviews with Iranian artists you'll find anywhere.
Stone's interest in the lives and works of Jews, of oppressed minorities, of society's underdogs runs through the book as a thread, but there are also hundreds of unexpected bits here. For example, there is Alfred Hitchcock, in a 1976 closed-circuit press conference, anti-pontificating:
"Staircases are meant to go up and down. Light switches symbolize light. The seance is a seance. He regaled his interlocutors with stories of his meticulous concern for the infinite advance detail, his cool contempt for improvisation. In measured tones that recall the glory of Winston Churchill declaring war on the forces of darkness, he recalled his unceasing battle to vanquish the ever-present threat of the insidious cliché."
I wonder if Stone realized when writing about Hitchcock that she did a pretty good job describing herself, and her work.

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