I remember the nerves the most.
The first time I saw Joe Williams, it was at an advance screening for an upcoming movie. A young film critic rewriting a page of dialogue over and over in his head, I was merely trying to come up with a way to start conversation with the veteran film critic I grew up reading. Williams wasn't the warmest person on the planet, but if you had the courage, he had the time.
After the screening, I gave my two cents to the Allied rep and made my way to Joe. The first few moments after you watch a movie that will result in a written or spoken review can be a frenzy. You are trying to break down what you just watched in your head and put it into understandable words. Williams finished and I walked up with the intent of asking him what he thought, but being the guy who talked too much, I blurted out an uneven take on the film myself. He laughed, I swallowed my tongue, and we exchanged a few lines. Before I knew it, he was gone, out the door finding his own way.
Today, the St. Louis Post Dispatch is celebrating "National Joe Day", noting the semi-famous regional names that city dwellers should know (Yes, I'm waiting for National Dan Day). They missed out on Williams, who died suddenly in July of 2015 in a one-car crash. Missing out on one of St. Louis' most notable film critics is a mistake that I am trying to mend here with a look back at his work.
Let me preface this by saying Joe and I weren't friends. We didn't meet up at the pub after or before films. I can count on both hands the amount of times I've spoken with him extensively about a film or life. Mostly, I'd see him walk into the theater, gripping a QT soft drink and handling a bag of goods that followed him everywhere. Williams looked like an extra from a Robert Atlman film who walked onto a Coen Brothers film set and got a bigger part. He had his own look, sporting a fair number of beads on his wrists at all times and wearing a hat that only Columbo could pull off. Eccentricities aside, he wouldn't stand off film critics with his words, but he wasn't afraid to disagree with you. This included not loving something the majority of critics did.
I recall one evening when Denis Villenueve's Prisoners was screened, and the group of critics afterwards were raving about its quiet power and Hugh Jackman's performance. Williams wasn't having any of it; he wasn't impressed at all. Critics like Max Foizey and I were dumbfounded at this guy's inability to feel the things that we felt as parents. Movies can do that to a mind and heart. They can make you defend the film like one would defend their own family. Williams stood his ground.
It took me a few weeks to respect that, and a little while longer to learn from it. After all, I was a rookie film critic learning the ropes and how to separate my point of view from the rest. Indirectly, Joe helped with that. These days, I feel like St. Louis Post Dispatch film critic Calvin Wilson, Foizey, Lynn Venhaus, and Zeke Film's Jim Tudor are picking up the torch that Williams left and keeping the honor of film criticism going. I'm doing my part, learning a little something with each review that I write.
When Williams passed away, Joe Hollerman wrote that "Joe didn't march to the beat of a different drummer; he strolled with his own rhythm section." That sounds about right.
Similar to ex-Cardinals columnist, Joe Strauss, Williams refused to cater his preferences to where pop culture and audience preferred. He reviewed films with a blunt edge and didn't relent. At times, he'd enrage me. Other times, he'd inspire me. I didn't know he was quietly teaching me and others how to be honest with film. He loved movies and wore his St. Louis pride like a shield of armor.
Nearly three years later, I still walk out of a film and wonder what he'd think. That's what a legacy means.
The Post Dispatch made a mistake in forgetting one of their own. One of their best. I had to rectify that here.
Thanks for reading.