Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tribute to David: Kevin Courrier

Given the sad passing of our friend and colleague David Churchill, we've decided to honour him in a manner totally fitting to our memory of him. We felt strongly that we could best salute our late columnist by creating an Omnibus of David. From April 16 until April 24, we plan to publish – daily – the best of David Churchill as chosen by our writers.

Today's piece is from Kevin Courrier.

– The Editors at Critics at Large.

Three years ago, I had an idea to begin an online arts publication that we would call Critics at Large. Having watched film and other arts journalism become more compromised by survivalist careerism, ineptness and a blatant catering to consumerism, I felt the need to create an alternative. Of course, I thought of two people to include in the project, my friend Shlomo Schwartzberg, who had just been callously slandered by our editor at Boxoffice Magazine in Los Angeles; and my dear friend, David Churchill. What I couldn't foresee was how strongly David would become a peerless advocate of the website. He not only came up with ideas such as an omnibus to commemorate 9/11, but that omnibus also led to our first published e-book which was made up of those pieces. After tirelessly editing that book, he pushed for another series of pieces commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Many of our writers, including Mark Clamen, Deirdre Kelly, Bob Douglas and Steve Vineberg, came to know David best during this time because he always read their pieces and wrote to every writer encouraging them and offering critical advice. He was the abiding spirit of Critics at Large and we all know that we can’t replace him.

But David has also been my best friend for over three decades so his loss is felt by me as a deeply personal one. We both worked as film critics, disagreeing on about as many movies as we agreed on, but we quickly saw that the common ground for friendship wasn't about seeking the safety of agreement, it was about the risk of respectfully opening up a space for yourself in the person you cared for. With that in mind, I offered him the opportunity to review movies with me back in the Eighties at CJRT-FM where I produced and co-hosted an arts program (On the Arts). Although he took to the format quickly, David’s rapid-fire manner of speaking took some getting used to – even for listeners who sometimes missed his best points. (But he would also come to meet the love of his life there: his darling wife, Rose, as she was our receptionist.) 

David hadn't written criticism for some time when I invited him onboard Critics at Large, but I sensed that he might be ready for the opportunity. Given the recent tragedy of his passing, I'm eternally glad that I followed my instincts because there are now over 170 fine pieces that David contributed to the site. People all week have been, with their touching tributes, reminding me daily of what a stellar critic (and human being) that he was. Not only could he see sides of a work that might glide past you, he sometimes found interesting arguments in hailing work that most people dismissed. (For an example, simply read his fascinating appraisal of The Invasion.) Although we talked plenty on the phone, sometimes for longer than his employers would have permitted, our conversations sometimes took place between our articles. While he truly enjoyed Mad Men, for example, I found it condescendingly artful. I think it frustrated him that I wrote my piece first because he followed with not one, but two passionate and smart posts that implicitly took the underpinnings out of my critique. (Since I bailed on the show after writing my article, I have no idea if I'd agree with David, but his views are sharply argued.) His lovely piece on Last Orders came from one of my promptings for him to seek out his video shelf for ideas when he, Shlomo and myself were still the only writers at Critics at Large. We desperately needed material to continue to run daily and he always responded – sometimes out of desperation. His fun follow-up to an addendum for his Mini-Masterpieces in Bad Movies post (Cruise into Terror) became a running joke for all of us who kept seeing the damn thing become one of our most popular posts.

Today as I tried to find a post of David's to put up, I was stymied. There are so many that I admire and reading them is still a little daunting since his voice (as Shlomo reminded us in his tribute) is so much a part of what he writes. I hear him talking in almost every article and I know how deeply I'm going to miss hearing that voice. It still stings. His voice had a way, as Susan Green reminded us in her tribute, of disarming us. You can hear that disarming quality so clearly, too, in his lament for the late TV show Invasion and his passionate shot at the elitism of film critics and programmers when selecting their best film lists. One other gift David had was a sure instinct for including aspects of personal memoir when he sometimes wrote. And I always encouraged him in this area because he often didn't reveal these kinds of feelings in everyday conversation. (Just read his appraisal of Peter Jackson's misguided The Lovely Bones for a perfect example.) So I decided today to include a piece of David's which happens to be my favourite in that spirit of self-revelation, as a way of bringing his loving personality into clear focus. After his father died in 2010, I could tell he was grieving, but he was doing it quietly. I wanted him to write a tribute to his dad despite his stoicism. But his father and he weren't truly kindred spirits. They weren't rivals exactly, they just had little in common. So when I prompted him to see if there was any common ground between them, or some unexamined area of their life that he might explore, he phoned me back the next day telling me that he might have found something. Of course, he did. It was a movie that they both enjoyed. As a tribute to both men, and in dedication to their families and for those of us they've left behind, I offer David's most compassionate review. 

Rest in peace, my dear friend.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

The bond between fathers and sons is always fraught with ups and downs. As his sons grow, the father tries to understand these independent creatures that live under his roof. The sons try to comprehend the 'old man's' archaic attitude. It is a centuries old struggle that continues to confound all father/son relationships. This was not dissimilar to my own relationship with my father, Ken Churchill. Last Sunday morning, he passed away at age 87 and it got me ruminating about my own bond with my Dad.

Over the years, I'm convinced he often times had no idea what to make of his artsy son. Here was a man who climbed hydro poles in the early part of his career, and continued working for Ontario Hydro, in a variety of positions, for almost 40 years. To his children – myself and my older siblings, Neil and Teresa – my Dad was a good father. Unlike most fathers in Parry Sound, he played with us and the rest of the neighbourhood kids (touch football, street hockey, etc.) He taught us to swim (it was a bit of struggle with me, his sink-like-a-rock youngest son), fish, drive a boat, drive a car, ride a bike, skate, ski (downhill and cross country – I sucked at downhill, but I was a pretty good X-country skier) and tie knots (he was in the Navy during WW2). Yet, when it came to the arts, my obsession, I think he was at a loss.

My Dad grew up in a household where music was not important, so he never really liked music that much (yet, he married my Mom, Eileen, whose father and oldest brother loved to sing and did it very well; all three of Dad's children have always been music mad; and more than one grandchild has studied singing at a post-secondary facility). When we were growing up, the only radio station he listened to was CFRB, a talk-radio station. Unless it was a CFL, or NHL game, Dad could take or leave television. Unless it was a James Bond movie, my Dad could take or leave movies, too. Unless it was a book by Jack Higgins (author of the book, The Eagle Has Landed, which became the Michael Caine film), he wasn't the biggest reader (he read more in later life, but usually, but not always, a Higgins book). Theatre, art galleries, museums? Very rarely. My Dad was an active man who loved to run around doing errands and was always going here, there and everywhere.

So what to make of his music-movie-and-book-loving son who has gone on to a career as a writer? I never did find out because we never really talked about it (a typical father/son dynamic). But just before I entered university, he gave me a six-word piece of advice that I have carried with me ever since. A few days before I was to leave to attend the University of Toronto, I said, “what if I fail?” Without missing a beat, he said. “It doesn't matter whether you fail.” That was all I needed to hear. He was a man of very few words, but sometimes those words were absolutely filled with meaning. Which brings me to a moment I still cherish and can still recall with complete clarity.

In early 2004, I was visiting my parents in Kelowna, BC, where they'd retired to in 1985. One Friday or Saturday late afternoon, I'd suggested to my parents that we go see Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of World which was still playing in the Kelowna theatres. Mom was game, but I think Dad went along just for something to do. For me, this film is one of the finest American films of the first decade of the 21st century. The movie is long (2 hours and 20 minutes), so I had no idea how long he, or his bladder, would last. He stayed in his seat the entire running time. As the lights came up on this compelling picture, Dad turned to me, his eyes shining a bit (he was always, ironically, an emotional guy), and said “That was fantastic.” My Dad had NEVER said that about anything to do with the arts. But his love of this film made perfect sense to him and his life. It was about the navy (albeit an early 19th century one), dealt with esprit de corps, and it spent its entire running time mostly on the ocean. For my Dad, I believe the best time in his early life was the years he spent in the Navy. He never actually shipped overseas, as the war ended before that, but it left a lifelong imprint on his life. Weir's film was a celebration of the men, regardless of what era, who went to sea. My Dad could relate to that. And on that day, for a few brief moments, I think he understood some of my obsessions, because this film, as so many films have for me, meant something to him. I will miss him deeply. But I will always retain all the things, directly or indirectly, he taught me.   

– originally published on October 28, 2010. 

– David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information.

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