A distinctive voice in Texas criticism was lost February 16 when Dallas Morning News film writer Russell Smith died in his Dallas home of AIDS complications. He was 38.
Born and raised in Dallas, he joined the Dallas Morning News 12 years ago, working as a copy editor and a pop music reviewer before moving on to film and video criticism full time. Although he could review and enjoy popcorn pictures, his favored haunt was the art house; he wrote most keenly of movies with higher artistic ambitions--and he held such films to higher standards.
Most film reviews found in daily newspapers these days fall into one of two stylistic categories: the direct, reader-friendly, populist style epitomized by Roger Ebert (and locally, by Russell's colleague, Philip Wuntch), and the freewheeling, subjective, emotional style cultivated by a long line of New Yorker critics.
Russell's work resembled neither. It had deeper critical roots. Spare and precise and intellectually rigorous, it evoked the work of James Agee and Stanley Kauffmann--clear-eyed writers with a sharp sense of structure, rhythm, tone, and overall effect. With few exceptions, Russell didn't riff on films, get lost in them or swept away--partly because to do so wasn't his style, but mostly because he felt a responsibility to be more clearheaded and dispassionate than the average viewer.
And yet, although he wrote forcefully about censorship, sexism, homophobia, the new black cinema, and gay and lesbian films, Russell refused to grant a picture points for having unpopular political views or an outsider's perspective. He asked that each film prove itself on its own distinct terms. (That a mind as precise as Russell's could possess a sly, prankish sense of humor was icing on the critical cake. I'll always treasure his review of the superserious three-hour missionary melodrama At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in which he wrote that Tom Berenger's half-Indian chopper pilot, with his chili-bowl haircut and skimpy loincloth, looked like the Three Stooges' Moe Howard gone native.)
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He was a polite, soft-spoken man who approached his job with an intensely private devotion. Talking shop with other critics was never his idea of a grand old time; he often preferred to duck out of screenings during the end credits rather than get caught up in the standard post-movie schmoozing, with the understanding that anything worth saying was worth saying in print.
Like a lot of quiet men, Russell did his job with such understated grace that perhaps only now, in his absence, will his friends, colleagues, and readers realize what a substantial mark he made on his profession and what a rich and varied legacy he left behind. He was, as my colleague Jimmy Fowler noted, a gentleman critic.
A public memorial for Smith will be held February 24 at the Inwood Theater.
--Matt Zoller Seitz firstname.lastname@example.org