Andrew Johnston, 1968-2008
My film-critic friends and I got some bad news Sunday overnight. Andrew Johnston died, at the age of 40. His death Sunday night was a real surprise and shock. He had been battling cancer for several years, but the last I heard from him on this subject was about a year ago, when he was brimming with optimism that he’d licked it, and the last time I saw him in person, whenever it was, he looked reasonably hail and had good weight on him.
Andrew was one of the circle of Internet pro-critic friends I have. He was most recently an editor at Time Out New York and had been previously been a critic for TONY, Us Weekly and other magazines, and served for a time as chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. I won’t pretend to be closer to him than I was. Because he was based in New York, I only saw him in person the five or so years we were both at the Toronto Film Festival. But before we’d ever met in person, when I mentioned summer 2001 in our Super-Secret Discussion Board that I’d be coming to the next TIFF, he e-mailed me with the words “Thank God — that means there’ll be at least one [guy] I can drink with!” since most of the rest of our circle was one-or-none types.
The note kinda typified what defined Andrew — a combination of menschness and enthusiasm. And that was him both personally and in his writing. In fact, the thing I remember best about Andrew was the enthusiasm he projected as a writer. He had more of a fan’s sensibility and a populist taste than many of us. (The year he was chairman, LORD OF THE RINGS 3 won the New York Critics top honor — which helped it build the momentum that ended with a historic Oscar sweep.) Andrew was the kind of guy who loved gushing to you about what he loved, rather than ranting to you about what he didn’t. That sort of personality was a welcome and sometimes needed antidote to the worldwise sang-froid that some of us are prone to, myself definitely not excluded.
Andrew was one among several pro critics who accepted me (and several other non-pros; the group was about 50-50 pros/nonpros) into their circle and the Super-Secret Group based on my postings in the late-90s on Usenet. And the thing I prized most about that was that never was I talked down to or ever treated as an inferior, an amateur interloper, etc. — not by Andrew or any of the others. Without their everyday-implicit approval I certainly would never have started this site and/or would have packed it in several times.
If Andrew thought I wrote something brilliant or brilliantly (first thing to come to mind was a post about the ending of CASABLANCA), he’d say so. If he thought I wrote something retarded, he’d say so. He took me to task once for attacking ROAD TO PERDITION as telegraphing everything (“what’s wrong with being clear and accessible to ordinary viewers”), and on another occasion for refusing on principle to watch Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES over the Soon-Yi affair (“You’re really cheating yourself by not seeing HUSBANDS AND WIVES … If you’re such a fan of his, why on Earth would you deny yourself this film?”). I relented on the Allen film and I’ll post the resulting review of HUSBANDS AND WIVES immediately after completing this post. On another occasion, I mentioned loading my Sicilian confessor my DVD of Visconti’s LA TERRA TREMA, which he called ridiculous since Father didn’t even like BICYCLE THIEF. At my request, that priest said a Mass for Andrew and the repose of his soul in the last day or so.
In our limited e-mail and personal interaction, Andrew and I hit it off well too. Via e-mail, we bonded over the surprising commonalities and few differences about the pop-culture and music exposure of our very different boyhoods just two years apart. I promised him once, when he posted some advance info about TROY that struck me as bad news: “please be wrong; I’ll put a Ralph Nader logo on my site if you say you made this up.” At one TIFF, we discussed a favorite director of both of ours — Stanley Kubrick, most especially A CLOCKWORK ORANGE — for a whole meal by ourselves at one end of the table and ignoring everyone else. That first year, I saw FROM HELL with Andrew, Mike and Theo, and we’re milling about at the Varsity lobby afterwards. As an amateur Ripperologist, I’m ranting (imagine Wallace Shawn in THE PRINCESS BRIDE) about how the Hughes Brothers’ theory was implausible and in any event decisively refuted by workhouse records of Annie Crook and the child’s birth certificate, etc. Mike and Theo also are holding their metaphorical noses at the film too. Theo then looks at Andrew’s face and says “lemme guess … you kinda liked it.” At that, Andrew says something like “I have to like something about this” and then pulled up his sleeve to show a tattoo of the Freemasons or some Masonic symbol on his deltoid.
Those of us who could see Andrew’s work unencumbered by space, formatting and audience-targeting considerations knew how good a critic he was. I unfortunately didn’t read much of his work the last couple of years mostly because he began writing more about television, which I gave up a couple of years ago and so couldn’t even follow. Everyone I know says this was when he best found his public voice. According to this piece at The House Next Door, even on his deathbed, he was watching and writing about MAD MEN, for which he was beating the drum very early (as I say, Andrew was an enthusiast first and last). “Mad Men Mondays” was a regular feature there. I think I owe it to him to pick up and start watching MAD MEN from the start after the election to see what was Andrew’s final love.
But probably my favorite Andrew post on The Group, which I’ll take the liberty of pasting in after the jump, was over APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which Andrew and I were virtually alone in thinking was an improvement on the original (the vote was 5 better / 19 worse). I wrote the following then in lieu of defending the changes myself.
When I saw the film last week, I thought it was even better than before. … [But] I didn’t say anything because I found that almost everything I wanted to say had been said, quite worthily, by Mr. Andrew Johnston in post 10626. We should all bow down before his brilliance. Dude, you da explosion.
Yes, he was. RIP and thanksbud.
Andrew on why APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX is an improvement on the original
I’m gonna abandon all pretense of spoiler-freedom now, but if any of the onlookers here are hardcore APOCALYPSE NOW fans, they probably already know what’s in the scenes.
I agree that the Playboy Bunnies encounter does seem a little dated, but I really liked how it showed Willard’s growing sense of responsibility for the crew’s well-being, as well as how it developed his relationship with the Chief. The sequence allowed subsequent scenes (which were there in the original) to give the impression that the Chief was developing a reluctant trust of/respect for Willard, a sense that was greatly muted in the original.
The French Plantation sequence does slow down the movie, and the music in it is awful, awful, awful — like James Newton Howard playing a $200 Casio. But losing it means losing Mr. Clean’s funeral, a scene that shows the crew processing their first significant loss. Their jaded attitude when they reach the Kurtz compound — and their relatively blase reaction to the Chief’s death and businesslike disposal of his corpse now makes a lot more sense.
Also, the dialogue over dinner at the plantation (re. the tenacity of the French) reinforces Kurtz’s point (which is probably really John Milius’s point) that America was losing the war because our troops were pampered babies who would forever remain “dilletantes as soldiers and tourists in Vietnam” so long as they pulled one-year tours and were placated with beer, steaks and Playboy bunnies (was that speech in the original? I don’t remember it). It’s as simplistic an explanation for the “loss” of the war as the RAMBO “they wouldn’t let us win it!” philosophy, but IMHO it makes more sense, and it certainly seems like the kind of belief someone like Kurtz would hold.
Other benefits of the Plantation sequence include Willard’s opium smoking — which shows how much the ordeal has been getting to him by following up on his refusal to smoke a joint with the boys earlier — and an added sense that they’re going backward in time as they go up the river. Without the sequence to set up that theme, the primitive, precolonial nature of the Kurtz compound is more suceptible to Edward Said-type criticism vis-a-vis demeaning the locals by depicting them that way. IMHO, anything the film loses in terms of pace and momentum from the sequence being there, it gains back in terms of additional texture.