Sundance 2012: Bingham Ray remembered by Kenneth Turan
I've been attending Sundance since 1985, and no event in my experience has hit this film festival with the impact of the stroke that took Bingham Ray's life on Monday. It was not just a death, it was a death in the family in the most profound way.
Though his name would not mean much to casual moviegoers, inside the world of people fervently committed to creating and distributing films -- and the journalists and critics who write about them -- Bingham loomed heroically large. Not only for what he accomplished, but also for the kind of person he was and the kinds of people he brought together.
As a key figure in companies including October Films and United Artists, as the man who, almost by force of will alone, created a market for directors as diverse as Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier and Michael Moore, Ray was indisputably a commanding figure in the creation of the independent film world that Sundance is a key player in.
That's why, after word of his death spread in Park City, Utah, people sought one another out to share hugs, tears and shocked commiseration. And this from a group not usually known for overt expressions of emotion. Not Bingham. It just couldn't be.
Bingham -- who named his son Nicholas after the director Nicholas Ray -- had a passion for film that was gargantuan and impossible to extinguish. And it was all delivered with a live-wire jolt of life-force energy and a wicked look in his eyes that made even casual encounters impossible to forget.
Though we met up a few times in Los Angeles and New York, my encounters with Bingham were mostly at festivals like Sundance, where we had dinner every year, to gossip about the business and share enthusiasms. He was so focused on you when he talked, it was almost a shock to realize that he was focusing on other people with equal fervor and interest when he was talking to them. Bingham spoiled you for other people.
As Mike Leigh replied when someone with a poor command of English asked for "antidotes" about Bingham Ray instead of anecdotes, "There is no antidote for Bingham Ray."
Not that he was easygoing. Descriptions like "abrasive," "contentious" and "easy to love from afar" were used at a crowded and impromptu Park City wake held Monday night. Bingham was combative and never forgot a slight. He relished relating how one executive he worked for, on returning from seeing a film he'd liked, asked why his company never got projects like that. Bingham had to tell the man that he had, in fact, turned that very film down. Yet such was the purity and intensity of Bingham's love for film that holding a grudge seemed to elevate not diminish him.
One of the ironies of the Park City wake is that the space used was rented for an event planned by Bingham for another purpose entirely: to get publicity and attention for his latest employer, the San Francisco Film Society and its attendant festival. For more than a hour, a stream of friends, colleagues and associates told Bingham stories, like his proposed advertising campaign for a movie from Iran ("From a Country You Hate, a Movie You'll Love") that illustrated his ever-present and ever-wicked sense of humor.
Several people in the crowd observed that Park City was the place where more of Bingham's friends would be gathered in one place than anywhere else. "This is his last gift to us," someone said. "It's like he said, '[Screw] it, I'm going to go out at Sundance so all the people I love will have the chance to get together and have a party.'"
Bingham's death did something else as well. It made the festival regulars and cinematic travelers, people who see one another only a few times a year, realize that we were a family of sorts, what someone called a circus family, always meeting up again when the tents have moved on to the next fairgrounds. We may not have known it before, but Bingham's death made us realize that we were one another's next of kin.
As I headed for the bar, another friend of Bingham's caught my eye. "He loved you, man," he said. I loved him, too, I replied. I loved him, too.
-- Kenneth Turan in Park City, Utah
Photo: Bingham Ray, left, with fellow October Films co-managing executives John Schmidt and Amir Malin in 1996. Credit: October Films