Knowing this duality makes understanding why Joe Williams, who died in a motor accident on July 26 at the age of 56, was so much more than a film critic. Williams worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1997 and served as its lead film critic since 2000.
A lot of film critics go to the screening they are reviewing, write their reviews and that’s it, until the next film comes along. Not Joe, his passion for cinema permeated through every fiber of his being and his appetite for movies was unquenchable and contagious. Armed with a great smile, a quick wit and a very deep knowledge of popular culture, Williams was made of Teflon in that he never let those who didn’t appreciate his reviews get to him. He persevered on, shrugged it off and, more other than not, went to back the movies. To those who knew him both well and professionally this childlike wonder and passion for film was one of things we admired the most about him.
Personally I met Joe for the first time in 2002 at a movie screening. He was very pleasant and welcoming. From the start I knew he was a pretty big deal in the world of cinematic criticism. But what I found refreshing was that Joe managed to strip away the snobbishness and intellectual elitism that often surrounds film critics. He was jovial, kind and he made it a point to greet people. His down to earth personality neutralized my predisposition of his assumed intensity. This is where I learned that the Joe Williams you read in print, was pretty much the Joe Williams you met in person. As a critic and a fan he walked and talked movies…a lot.
Although I wasn’t a close friend of his I can’t remember a time that he didn’t make me feel that I wasn’t. Nick Hornby once wrote, ‘books, records, films—these things matter.’ He wasn’t talking about Joe specifically but he very well could have been. Joe’s boundless energy for all of these was at times exhausting. He had gusto about these passions and made no bones about it. He had very strong opinions on them and he was quite recalcitrant in his likes and dislikes.
I knew Joe was affiliated with Jet Lag, a music fanzine of my adolescence and I took full advantage of that to discuss music with him whenever I could. We both liked music and I remember having several conversations about Guided By Voices that were as engaging, succinct and compelling as his film analysis. I invited him to come on my radio show several times and sit in and play some of his favorite records, but of course the movies awaited and he was either seeing a preview, traveling or on a deadline. At one time or another we talked about old punk, soundtracks, Elvis Costello and this cool band called Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Nonetheless whenever we talked about music, it ultimately led back to film.
He chastised me for never seeing It’s A Wonderful Life, and when I told him I finally saw it, it was like a high school quiz as he ran off trivia and facts about the film in rapid-fire succession. It was an experience like no other, part Jeopardy and part bootcamp.
In 2012 Joe wrote a book entitled Hollywood Myths: The Shocking truth Behind Film’s Most Incredible Secrets And Scandals. To help promote the book Joe agreed to do a book signing and talk at the store where I worked. At the time I handled some of the marketing and promotion duties for author events and I didn’t know it at the time but this would be an incredibly amazing experience for me. I got to spend some time with Joe before and during the event and I am glad I did because I got to really appreciate him as an all around decent and compassionate human being.
I knew of our mutual interest in film and music. But here we got down to business and got to talk about books, drive ins, art and life. I knew of Joe’s penchant for conspiracy theories but here I got all of it full barrel; who killed JFK, what was up with Marilyn Monroe’s death and of course the lowdown on 9-11. Joe loved that stuff and he presented his point of view in an intelligent and engaging way that demystified the stigma that oftentimes surrounds these things. We also talked about the novels of his friend T.C. Boyle and the difference in music and film criticism amongst other things. Here is where I also learned that he generally raged against the machine in his own indomitable way.
Although Williams’ sartorial splendor was more pulp than paparazzi, nonetheless he was the king of bling. Decked out with rings, jewelry and other knick-knacks accessories he took great delight. I can’t remember ever recall seeing him without some sort of ring combination. In fact I would wager that most of the time Joe wore more rings than many shaman.
I’d like to think that working in a profession so consumed with meeting deadlines helped shape Joe’s free spirit and frequent lapses in punctuality. Sometimes his abundantly robust schedule led to his being late to film screenings, a facet of his personality that many of his contemporary critics would learn to embrace even though his tardiness frequently held up the proceedings.
When Joe was working, that is, watching a film to review, he was cerebral and focused. He was easy to see, nestled in his aisle seat often oblivious to the things around him. But if he hated a movie you knew it. Never one to suffer bad films lightly, he had no compunction walking out of a screening.
As a writer his reviews were always on point. He never held back or shied away from using an anecdote or humor to illustrate his points. At a time when newspapers are becoming digital Joe was an old school newspaper guy. He reviewed movies of all genres every week without pause while also serving as an ambassador for St. Louis’ film culture.
Joe Williams loved his job. He was President of the St. Louis Film Critics Association and often led Q & A sessions with special guests of the St. Louis International Film Festival. It was the latter that led to his being chummy with director Oliver Stone.
In closing I join his colleagues, close friends and family in feeling the numbness of disbelief that he is gone. He was avuncular, funny, warm and whip smart. Joe was one of the most vibrant individuals I’ve ever met. He was a whirling dervish of high-octane enthusiasm who indulged his passions with great reverence and vigor. Tragically this beloved box office classic will not have a sequel.
Visitation is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.on Saturday, August 1, at the Kutis Funeral Home South County, 255 Lemay Ferry Road.