Remembering Stuart Gordon

On Film / The Daily — Mar 26, 2020
Stuart Gordon

When he was around twenty, Stuart Gordon, the film and theater director who passed away on Tuesday at the age of seventy-two, staged his first production with the company he’d founded, the Screw Theater. The year was 1968, the city was Chicago, and Gordon reimagined Peter Pan as a political allegory with, as Peter Sobczynski notes in his remembrance at RogerEbert.com, Captain Hook recast as Mayor Richard M. Daley and “a psychedelic light show projected on the bodies of several naked actors.” Gordon and his future wife and collaborator, Carolyn Purdy, were arrested on obscenity charges.

They married and cofounded the Organic Theater Company, which launched David Mamet's plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Bleacher Bums. When Gordon’s first feature, Re-Animator, the story of a medical student who invents a substance that can revive the dead, opened in 1985, “you could sense his history in experimental theater by the way he staged gore gags,” writes filmmaker Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter) at IndieWire. “Re-Animator put filmmaker Stuart Gordon squarely in the company of iconic horror auteurs John Carpenter and George Romero, and it began his life-long affinity for H. P. Lovecraft adaptations.”

Talkhouse Film editor Nick Dawson has asked Fessenden, Joe Dante, and several other friends, admirers, and collaborators to send in tributes and memories, and the collection makes for touching reading. Barbara Crampton, one of the stars of Re-Animator who would go on to work with Gordon for more than thirty years, happily remembers that the film was “called ‘pop Buñuel’ by Pauline Kael. Janet Maslin said it had ‘grisly vitality.’ Roger Ebert walked out of the theater saying he was ‘surprised and reinvigorated.’ Most agreed it was daring, exciting, and original.”

Director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Color Out of Space) credits Gordon with playing “a pivotal role in widening the reach of Lovecraft’s mythos and cementing its place in popular culture.” Re-Animator is “a film I’ve watched and rewatched countless times (and even showed clips from when I was teaching at a film school),” writes filmmaker Rodney Ascher (Room 237), “but the trio of neo-noirs he directed in the 2000s (King of the Ants, Edmond—or as I like to call it ‘David Mamet’s Eyes Wide Shut’—and Stuck) riveted and shocked me in ways that are increasingly rare. All four of those films did things I assumed couldn’t be done, broke rules that I assumed were carved in stone, and delighted me as they did it.”

All up and down that page at Talkhouse, contributors note over and again that, for all the gruesomeness of his films, Gordon was a gentle man who eagerly encouraged fellow filmmakers and writers. Jim Hemphill writes that “in my experience meeting filmmakers like Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, I’ve often found that directors who make the most savage movies can be the nicest, most well-adjusted human beings on the planet.”

Even though the black comedy Stuck (2007) was the last film Gordon was able to make, Gordon carried on working in theater. In 2014, he directed Benjamin Brand’s Taste, which, as Jen Yamato notes in the Los Angeles Times, is “based on a true incidence of stranger-than-fiction cannibalism.” Gordon “sent a wafting fragrance of onions into the audience that left an indelible sense memory.” Talking to Keith Phipps at the A.V. Club in 2002, Gordon said that he was “always looking for ways to get under people’s skin, to throw something at them that they’re not prepared for, to surprise them and to go someplace where they don’t think you’re going to go. Sometimes people hate it, and some people really enjoy it. I’m one of those people who enjoy it.”

The Latest

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is currently streaming its fifty-eighth edition through Sunday. Other festivals preparing virtual editions are the TCM Classic Film Festival (April 16 through 19) and Switzerland’s Visions du Réel (April 17 through May 2), where Claire Denis is scheduled to deliver a master class; as Giorgia Del Don reports at Cineuropa, we can expect full details on Monday. Ben Kenigsberg rounds up further festival and independent film offerings in the New York Times, and to his list we can add Knoxville’s Public Cinema, which is currently streaming two features by Thomas Southerland through April 8. And as Elisa Wouk Almino reports for Hyperallergic, the popular Cathode Cinema series presented by the Coaxial Arts Foundation in Los Angeles will soon become Cathode TV, featuring “experimental shorts, bizarre television feeds, and special themed programs” every weekday, or rather, every week night. Programming will stream from eight in the evening to eight in the morning, California time.

On Tuesday, David Fincher surprised 450 quarantined students of the National Film and Television School in the UK with a master class delivered via Zoom. Zack Sharf has the story at IndieWire. And finally for now, once again, the latest from Film Comment—because these really are excellent conversations. Critic Nick Pinkerton, the latest guest on the podcast, talks about how all our home viewing these days may be impacting the very notion of contemporary cinema—he’s been watching everything from Luis Buñuel to Godzilla—and Brooklyn Academy of Music director of film programming Ashley Clark discusses the nuts and bolts of ditching months’ worth of preparation and the frustrations of facing an uncertain future.

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