Remembering Michael Wilmington

Mike Wilmington, You Earned Your Eternal Rest

Often when I am at a funeral or memorial service, and I hear a friend or family member go on and on about their relationship with the deceased, I get short of temper and silently wish that they would stop talking about themselves and just pay homage to the newly departed soul.

In the case of Michael Wilmington, film critic, film scholar, screenwriter, actor, director, and child of the 60s, I find it impossible. My unbridled desire is to celebrate his extraordinary life and the influence that he had on a very formative time in my life.

I have put on a pot of coffee and will share these remembrances:

When I first met Mike, he was writing for Madison, Wisconsin’s underground newspaper Take Over under the nom de guerre The Wiz. Other reviews would run occasionally in The Capitol Times. I was well aware of his scholarly pieces in the Wisconsin Film Society’s journal The Velvet Light Trap and his book on John Ford with Joseph McBride. What set Michael apart from his colleagues was not only his encyclopedic knowledge but also his clear brisk prose; all points were well taken, and every adjective was in its proper place and doing its intended job.

When I became arts editor of The Daily Cardinal, I had the opportunity to run some of Mike’s longer pieces, including a retrospective on Roberto Rossellini and a very tight obit for Charley Chaplin, who had passed away while we were composing the Cardinal film Issue. He pulled this together in less than 20 minutes, and to this day, it is one of my very favorites.

This was before there was a Chinese wall between production and theory. Perhaps taking a page from the critics at Calais du Cinema, a lot of the Madison writers sought to cross over to production. After all, didn’t Roger Ebert in Chicago, sell to Russ Myers? Joe McBride went to work for Roger Corman (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School). Mike went to work with Barry Alexander Brown (The War at Home and Wild Style) on a sci-fi, 3D project about what a bowling alley might be like in the year 2500 as well as the thriller Disco Psycho. Mike would also let me know about rewrites and story synopses he would do for friends or colleagues, sometimes taking payment in a 16mm print of one of his favorite films for his ever growing  film collection.

Mike was also a very talented actor and director. He did a season of summer stock theater in Door County where he befriended Harrison Ford. I will never forget the production of Zoo Story performed at the altar of the university Catholic Center, in which he played the antagonist and directed. He was an antagonist in a way to all of us, criticizing, illuminating, and inspiring.

Mike was also a victim of his times. He would walk State Street conspicuously dressed as Zorro, black cape, black hat, red neck piece. One day a mentally ill man assaulted him, for no apparent reason, from behind with a hammer. Mike nearly died and suffered the mental and physical aftereffects of this attack for many years. Later he would ask me to interview the assailant’s brother so that he could have a more complete understanding of the incident. When Alan Ginsburg came to Madison for a poetry event, Mike was in attendance, and Ginsburg silently walked up to him and kissed the prominent scar on his cranium.

I once attended the New York Film Festival with Michael and watched him intrigue the likes of Truffaut, Kurosawa, and De Palma, who all were well aware of the work he did and recognized him as a giant in film history and theory.

Mike was most concerned with his next assignment. He loved being alone with his films, his books, and of course, his devoted mom, Edna, who would listen in on our conversations and cook hamburgers and hand make coleslaw for us.

I last spent time with Mike at the Cardinal Centennial in 1993. We had a very nice short catch up over cocktail hour, with neither of us partaking. Later that evening, I felt the need to walk off the memories and found myself doing a couple of laps around the state capitol. I looked up, and there was Wilmington; we started off where we had left off – Sam Fuller, Nick Ray, D Sirk, the state of the latest indie trends. Oh my, what a mind you had. It was a blessing to know you Mike.    

Paul Kornblueh

Chelsea NYC