Respected St. Louis Film Critic Dead at 56

Joe-Williams-3In a “big small town” such as St. Louis, there’s room for exactly one film critic to warrant the primary attention and focus of everyone else surrounding the movies on a local level. This was, without question, Joe Williams, the key Post-Dispatch film critic since 2000. He was the critic they’d hold the projector for at advance screenings, the one with a designated seat in any given auditorium. (Screen right, rear third, aisle seat.) Tragically, Joe died Sunday evening in a car accident, apparently on his way to the smalltown drive-in he loved so much, the Starlite. He was 56.

He knew and loved movies, and it showed. Although his tastes could run niche, his writing was always approachable to the newspaper’s mainstream readership. He championed great films no matter their ilk, and the public would listen to him.

On the grounds of one glowing full-star review from Joe, the small Clive Owen indie film Croupier played for six months (if memory serves) at the local Plaza Frontanac Cinema. Years later, when the Post-Dispatch struck up a partnership with KTRS 550 AM, it was Joe who took over ZekeFilm’s weekly film review slot on The Martin Kilcoyne Show. Knowing the hair-trigger nature of radio, I certainly couldn’t blame the station for going for the biggest fish in town.

Joe loved to travel the world (word was that his regular reports from the Toronto Film Festival were paid for out of his own pocket), but he was clearly happy to call St. Louis home. He loved the Cardinals, he loved working at the Post-Dispatch, and he was an outspoken advocate for St. Louis as a viable filmmaking town.

Last year, Joe Williams selflessly took over leadership of the St. Louis Film Critics Association (SLFCA), of which I am a proud member. The organization was heading into a time of unavoidable tumult, and without thinking too much about it, Joe stepped up at the eleventh hour to steer the ship. Joe loved movies, and as a critic he understood that all any of us in the profession have are our honesty and our opinions. Joe weilded both respectably – even when myself and whomever else frequently disagreed with him. One thing that we very much did agree on, though, was the desire to see the SLFCA begin to champion cinema adovcacy in new ways. “What is the purpose of film criticism? What does it mean to love movies?” “But everyone hates film critics”, I said. Without missing a beat, he pointed out, “Everyone hates film critics, but everyone also wants to be one!” Perhaps yet these public discussions of film can and will happen, in memory of Joe.

Although he was, at a glance, aloof and maybe a bit awkward, Joe was, as it turned out, articulate, giving, witty, encouraging of other critics, and very generous. (On a cold morning in November, in between back-to-back screenings of Avatar and Sherlock Holmes, Joe sprung for pizza for all the critics.) Before I got to know Joe, I admit I found him intimidating. There are film critics who come from journalism, like Joe, and then there are scores of others these days who come from fandom (myself, and a myriad of others). The former group has typically been dismissive of the latter, and vice versa. I wrongfully – very wrongfully – assumed that Joe Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was dismissive of critics like me. Joe was inclusive and accepting of others, even when he didn’t at all need to be.

ZekeFilm contributor Paul Hibbard pays tribute to Joe as he recalls an online run-in that could’ve been so much worse:

“This is terrible. I grew up reading his reviews. About two years ago I was talking shit about him on a movie page for his negative reviews of the movies “Holy Motors” and “Lincoln”. He was friend of a friend of someone on the page, and saw it and sent me a private message correcting me (it was another critic who panned Lincoln, not him). Then I apologized and he told me his deceased brother was named Paul and he can never hold ill will to someone with my name. He was very nice, especially since my initial post was pretty mean. He seemed like a great guy and critic. RIP”

Not being a fan of superheroes and Star Wars like I was, Joe’s barbed reviews of those types of films rankled me on more than one occasion. But one summer evening in 2005, on the way out of the screening of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, I found myself riffling through a stack of the film’s posters with Joe. He was in good spirits, having actually just enjoyed this zombie movie! Noticing Romero’s signature printed on the posters, he looked at me with mock wonder and said, “Wow, he signed them all!”, and took one with him. As a fledgling critic in town, I knew he was starting to recognize me, and somehow that meant something.

Later, I became Facebook friends with Joe. (No one could post “Vague Book” statuses better than Joe, God bless him.) Imagine my shock when he acklowledged having read my 1600 word review of the quickly-forgotten Gerard Butler film Machine Gun Preacher with a validating “Good job, Jim.” Later that year, immediately after seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we found ourselves pondering the meaning of one of the film’s final shots, a long shot of a bridge. I was saying something about it symbolizing the divides we must cross, or some such rambling. Joe opined that it had to do with death. “Maybe it’s saying that death isn’t a bad thing.” Internally, I vehemently disagreed, but I loved that he would go there. Today, particularly in the face of Joe’s untimely death, I maintain my opinion on the matter. I’m sorry Joe, but it’s wrong that you’ve left us. But, I’m sure that you of all people would appreciate me clinging to such a stance.

Joe Williams leaves more than that aisle seat vacant. His is a large, unique, and frankly impossible to fill gap in St. Louis cinema culture. Good job, Joe.