All of us in the film game fall into categories: We're this type of director, that type of festival director, or journalist, or whatever. Bingham Ray was in his own unique category. Nobody could ever, in any shape or form, fill that gap. Mike Leigh (Director, Turner, Another Year, Secrets and Lies)
Soon after the tragic and untimely death of my friend Bingham Ray during the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, I began interviewing people who knew him best—his wife Nancy, friends from school, college and bar-tending days, his former acting teacher, his employer at the Bleecker Street Cinema, his trusted business partner at October, his boss at UA, filmmakers and close pals. People were raw and fragile but unfailingly generous.
A long-form magazine style piece, based on these interviews, was the original idea but when I tried to pull it together, it didn’t hold. Writing about Bingham in the past tense when he was still very much alive in people’s hearts felt wrong, and as if I was foreshortening perspectives on his life. I hesitated: the back-story was missing and I'd dodged a bigger question that shadows Bingham's journey. He had described himself as a “vagabond explorer on a continuous adventure”; that was key, suddenly his unruly ghost was messing with my head and tearing up my well-laid, pedestrian plans.
When I was in New York for Bingham’s memorial service, I’d been to an exhibition about the documentaries and work of BBC journalist Adam Curtis; there was something he’d said in an interview that stuck:
Moods move through society. It’s something we are unaware of these days because we’re so obsessed by our own experience, that the mood we feel is probably common to a lot of other people...
It gave me the idea to dig beyond the present (Bingham’s death) and into the past—not only the events of Bingham’s life but moods and experiences belonging to other people, other times that influenced who he became. I tripped down rabbit holes seemingly un-related to Bingham’s story, and didn’t imagine they would find a way into my unwieldy narrative, but they resonated in ways not obvious. Just a few of those subjects touched on include: the chilling Black List era (where one of Donald Trump’s mentors Roy Cohn had a starring role with McCarthy), director Joseph Losey’s nervous breakdown as a result of being denied a living or place in the US after being branded a communist, the mercurial career of Nicolas Ray (no relation but Bingham did name his son after the director), the influence of Ray’s film Rebel with a Cause on Bob Dylan, the film reviews of JG Ballard, a letter sent c/o the Bleecker cinema from Jean-Luc Godard, the short reign of UK producer David Puttnam—in charge at Columbia in the early 80s until he was shown the door for not playing by the rules of Hollywood, the recollections of David Picker, an executive at UA during the 70s who backed and shepherded some of the studio's great films (Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, the first James Bond films)… Picker operated with the kind of autonomy Bingham could only dream about.
We get misty-eyed about the films of the 70s (Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick, Shampoo by Hal Ashby, Chinatown by Roman Polanksi, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Milos Forman)—but don’t always connect these films with the executive decision-making that took place within studios. In those days, a smart, highly placed executive with taste, believing in an idea and a filmmaker and talking it over with a couple of trusted colleagues—made a film happen. There were no committees, no running the numbers, no marketing bible. They loved movies and money, and they took risks. It wasn’t only in the 70s, or at the studios that this was the case and there are instances of it still, but it’s increasingly rare and that’s a real loss for the art of cinema.
Plenty has been written about the ‘rebel’ filmmakers who made art within a system designed for commerce but less about executives and distributors like Bingham who worked within the studio system and outside it. Unlike the mogul-y types who cast themselves as movie-loving wise guys who talk deals and sit in the front row of fashion shows, Bingham belongs to another bloodline entirely—the messier artistic tradition of rupture and rebellion.
The Bingham Project, as I referred to it, became part memoir, part biography, part idiosyncratic film history, part celebration, part cautionary tale. I wrote a book proposal but put it aside; I doubted myself and missed Bingham's wild humor and uncensored voice on the page. My anxiety about the bleak state of cinema also nagged at me—Do people really give a damn about cinema as an art form and the values by which Bingham operated? Because that is, in large part, what his story, and others like him, is about.
I left it alone for a year but two un-related events took place—one minor, the other major—and they signaled a radical shift in America's mood.
From the early days of silent cinema, film has always been a popular medium—unlike painting or classical music—and the studios have almost always mirrored the mainstream zeitgeist. In 2014, United Artists (UA), the studio founded in the twenties by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W Griffith, morphed into an entity headed up and co-owned by the producer of the television reality series Survivor. UA had become a content producer and distributor of faith (Christian) and family fare. After some additional corporate shape-shifting, the once revered ‘Filmmakers Studio’ as it was known, was no more than a logo, an in-name subsidiary of MGM. It was a depressing sign of the times.
Fifteen years into the new century, studios were out of specialty film and it has barely survived as a business. There are several established auteur directors who continue to make films but they are mostly financed by billionaires; the rest work in television. Hollywood is evidently sticking to profit-friendly franchises, action movies and animated family films. The corporations that own them are no doubt relieved to be off the hook. And those of us, who were and are the audience for grown up films, now binge-watch long form dramas and occasionally venture out to a film festival. I missed the formal language of cinema, and sitting undistracted in the dark, like I missed my friend.
In January 2017, Donald Trump, an entrepreneur and Reality TV star was elected President of the United States. Protest and resistance has returned to America. Here's hoping cinema finds a new way forward. In the meantime, I trust there are people, other than those who knew and loved Bingham Ray, interested in his story because now, more than ever, we need the Bingham’s.