Photo courtesy of Karen Frazer
"At some point during the free-for-all brawl that climaxes The Swinging Cheerleaders, I remember thinking to myself, "This has got to be one of the most American movies ever made." I was reacting in part to the iconography--cheerleaders fighting policeman fighting college footballers, almost in the manner of a silent comedy, as Scott Joplin plays on the soundtrack--but also to the mood of the film, in which converging themes of corruption and cynicism lead to an eruption of chaotic, comic violence, and open-hearted jocks make way for joyous optimism to prevail."
-Bryant Frazer on The Swinging Cheerleaders
FILM FREAK CENTRAL's own Bryant Frazer passed away unexpectedly on October 22, 2021.
I first encountered Bryant's writing in the mid-'90s when a friend introduced me to Usenet. For the younglings reading this, Usenet was a precursor to Internet forums in which users could read and add to threads within a plethora of newsgroups via newsreaders such as Free Agent. Usenet was a haven for dilettantes, aficionados, and perverts of seemingly every stripe at a time when the World Wide Web was just ramping up; if you could think it, there was probably a newsgroup for it. Once the novelty of downloading Claire Danes "binaries"--images posted as multiple discrete blocks of text that newsreaders could decrypt--wore off, I started lurking in the rec.arts.movies newsgroups, which had become an incubator for online film critics and criticism.
A lot of writers who are now elder statesmen of online criticism--which is actually just "criticism" at this point--planted a flag there and all of them evinced talent from the beginning. But one voice stood out to me and became appointment reading, and that was Bryant's. He struck me as a critic's critic, the kind of reviewer whose depth of knowledge was clear without him having to show off, who was equally well-versed in Andrei Tarkovsky and Herschell Gordon Lewis, who had no trouble breaking a movie down either politically or formally, who made you want to see something not with hyperbole but with a cinephilic enthusiasm that read as an appeal to the reader's good taste. (I recall his review of Scream 2 putting me straight on a bus to downtown Toronto to see it.) He could also, in comments on other posts, assess the merits of a LaserDisc or those newfangled DVDs with the same casual authority. Few critics have the bandwidth to write well about film and physical media as separate entities--and as someone who had probably been the youngest-ever subscriber of VIDEO REVIEW (where wonkish jargon shared space with Andrew Sarris prose), that was my sweet spot. It's here that I should mention Bryant was mentored by none other than the late, great Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado and took an enormous amount of pride in that. He touched on their time together in his review of Fantasia and brought his intimate knowledge of experimental filmmaking to a mammoth critique of Criterion's A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, but nearly all roads led to Brakhage in conversations with Bryant. Even the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Though I was too self-conscious to reach out to Bryant on Usenet, in the late-'90s, I launched FILM FREAK CENTRAL--on the late lamented GeoCities--and was invited to join the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) around the same time as Bryant. We quickly bonded on the OFCS message boards over all things DVD. A short while later, a member of the OFCS who shall remain nameless turned spiteful for no reason, causing a mass exodus that included Bryant. He had no tolerance for bullshit drama. I stayed behind--I suppose I had some romantic notion about not letting this agitator win by surrender--and Bryant and the other refugees went on to form CINEMARATI. I worried this was the end of our burgeoning friendship, but that wasn't how Bryant rolled, thank God.
"You may start to wonder about the condition of these fresh-faced young actors made to crawl on all fours, leashed as dogs; to mime the experience of gagging on excrement; and to place themselves on display during the climactic torture tableaux, staked out in the dirt like gazelles at the waterhole. Where are they from? Are any of them professionals? Did they know what they were getting into? Were they scarred for life?"
-Bryant on Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
I finally talked Bryant into writing for us in 2008, although I had made overtures before then. I suppose he couldn't resist the allure of free Blu-rays, or the opportunity to delve into the particulars of physical media, which he'd always resisted doing at his home base of DEEP FOCUS for one reason or another, maybe because there he was mainly catering to his tribe of New York moviegoers. (A link to "a field guide to New York movie theaters" at Bryant's short-lived side project GOTHAM @ 24FPS was embedded in early iterations of DEEP FOCUS.) I don't even know if our readers appreciate that we talk about that stuff in our disc reviews, but I was attempting to emulate the likes of DVD RESOURCE and DVD FILE in launching FILM FREAK CENTRAL, envisioning the site as a member of the same club. And I've always felt like ignoring the presentational side when you're given a disc to review is only doing half the work.
Christ, none of that matters.
Before saying yes, Bryant warned me, "Just so you know, I can't do what Walter does." I said, "That's good, I already have a Walter. I need a Bryant." That would prove prescient indeed, very possibly to his chagrin, as Bryant became my guru of all things hardware- and software-related. He affably and generously shared his expertise with me (for most of his tenure at FILM FREAK CENTRAL, he was an editor at the now-defunct STUDIO DAILY, a trade journal devoted to the technical side of the film industry), and seemed to take particular delight in questions that stumped him, since it meant he would learn something new, too, in the act of deducing the answer. I can say with certainty that he loved a good riddle when it intersected with his interests. No one has ever indulged my curiosity the way Bryant did, at least not with his absence of condescension. He made being dumb fun. I wish I'd asked him if he ever considered teaching for a living.
"You could accurately describe All That Jazz as a musical comedy about death, but that short-changes the visceral sense of fear at its raw and bloody heart--fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of oblivion. I first saw it at the age of 12, and already it held me rapt, dazzled, and frightened by the adult world it seemed to reveal."
-Bryant on All That Jazz
For 13 years, Bryant reviewed discs and I "edited" those reviews, which mostly entailed trying not to maim what was, reliably, stupendously clean copy. He wrote long and was always surprised when I didn't do much pruning, especially of his personal asides. Truth is, I was a glutton for his stuff. And if something engages me, that's the only barometer I have--no sense second-guessing the readers, decades into this experiment in navel-gazing. Bryant was also extremely conscientious about not reducing anyone with his language, always asking for extra-special care if the movie's subject matter was a political minefield. The first time I remember this happening was when he reviewed Salò, a piece he absolutely sweated over. We spent several days going through it, and I decided to commemorate the journey by making him a Salò T-shirt that left him nauseated. I was pretty much the Goofus to his Gallant in all our interactions over the years. Which isn't to say we couldn't swap roles: Bryant is the first and so far only person to successfully Rick-roll me.
Consistently, he went above and beyond the call of duty, not to mention his pay grade. While reviewing a Blu-ray of Lifeforce, he wanted to know more about the unusually extreme wide-angle lenses used at a key moment in the film and decided to cold-call Joe Dunton at home in England. "Joe Dunton, as in the JD in J-D-C Scope?!" I asked. "That's the one." Joe Dunton had been a leading inventor of lenses and other camera equipment for motion-picture production, and the rival anamorphic shooting format (J-D-C Scope) he founded in 1981 is still in use today. Me: "I didn't know you knew him." Bryant: "Oh, I don't." Dunton, it turned out, was delighted to answer questions about his work on Lifeforce out of the blue like this--he considered the film to be a career pinnacle, for reasons that will make sense if you read the endnote to that review.
The following year, Bryant was writing about the Criterion release of All That Jazz and wanted to know the provenance of the disc's bizarrely-configured three-channel audio. So he reached out to the film's music mixer, Glenn Berger, whom I gather went to lunch with Bryant the following day. While there are plenty of All That Jazz reviews, I'd wager that only one solves a filmmaking mystery using primary sources. Then there was the time I asked him if he was interested in covering the "Love + Anarchism" Kiju Yoshida box set from Arrow. He said yes, provided he could have time to educate himself on Japan's political climate circa the late-'60s and early-'70s. We knew the ratio of effort to traffic wouldn't balance out; the challenge was its own reward if it was going to expand his horizons. (That's why he rarely said yes to TV collections: they were merely time-consuming.) Maybe this will stir up interest in that review, one of his finest.
"Dead Ringers begins and ends extraordinarily, with the soft swelling of Howard Shore's title music. It starts with the slow emergence of strings, which are eventually layered with harp and woodwinds, mining uncommon veins of sadness in a major key. Set against on-screen illustrations of an anatomical and explicitly gynecological nature, the music serves the obvious function of undercutting the film's pointedly unsettling subject matter with unalloyed lyricism. It's like a statement of purpose. But Shore's melody goes farther than that, somehow. It's remarkably haunting, for one thing--the theme is one of the most potent sensory triggers I know, instantly evoking both beauty and despair. Just the first four bars are enough to set me weeping."
-Bryant on Dead Ringers
For 13 years, I considered Bryant both colleague and friend, though we rarely shared anything private for much of that. I sensed he preferred it that way, and I was happy to have a kind of safe space where I could leave my baggage behind. I knew he loved his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife Karen at a subatomic level; I knew he was a veteran cat dad (he and Karen were invaluable advice-givers in the first weeks after I adopted my rescue kitty, Babs, in 2014); and I knew he lived in Sleepy Hollow before moving back to Colorado last year. I once ran a Tumblr where I showcased art I made in childhood, and he said that as a connoisseur of kitsch clown art he liked a particular oil painting I had done of a clown marionette staring at his reflection in a puddle. I thought every word of that sentence was a joke. Nope. Later, I gave him the original of that painting. He and Karen sent me the occasional care package, always curated like an uncanny index of my hobby horses (Rambo III buttons, a gorgeous Popeye necktie that makes me want to dress up), and I had a little Sally Field moment each time. But I digress. In late 2019, I developed anemia and heart failure and spent a month in and out of the hospital, feeling very much like a dying man. Once I was out of the weeds, Bryant told me a harrowing story of his own cardiological misadventure, and I was floored--less by the fact that this had happened to him than by the fact that I had known him back then and was completely unaware.
It's fair to say, however, that the pandemic brought us closer. STUDIO DAILY ceased operations, and Bryant found himself with some downtime as he searched for freelance gigs. Neither of us could go anywhere, of course, because of lockdowns, so our DM chats grew more frequent. Personally, my social life was already on the verge of being entirely phantasmal, and I felt like I would drift away, Clooney-style, unless I secured these tethers to the people in my life. We still mostly talked about 4K discs, upcoming Criterions, and techy stuff (he was studiously following advances in AI and the impact they would have on the post-production chain), but the melancholy if not outright depressed cultural mood seemed to give way to sudden reminiscing about the Before Times. Bryant could describe a 70mm screening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in his youth in a way that would make Proust blush. He would touch on his upbringing with a sweet and sour nostalgia that reminded me of a less crude Al Swearengen. I told him he should write of those early years with his grandmother, though I doubt I conveyed my sincerity. Nor did I tell him enough what a role model he was to me: a good husband, a friend to animals, a good writer, a good thinker. (Please substitute "extraordinary" for every "good" in that sentence.) High standards without a trace of arrogance. Humble, not falsely modest. Intellectually curious and rigorous. Patient. Kind. Decent.
"Töre's subsequent avowal of faith is exceptionally moving to me, a long-declared atheist, and I can't tell you exactly why. It doesn't make me feel any better about the hideous violation that is the centrepiece of The Virgin Spring, or about the idea of vigilante justice. It definitely doesn't help me make sense of the complicated emotional satisfaction I get from revenge fantasies. Nor does it make me any more likely to become a believer. Still, the idea that God deigns, every once in a while, to throw miracle crumbs to us humans just to encourage our sustained faith, no matter how bad things get down here? I guess I find that depiction of our humble perseverance in the face of horrible abuse to be an insightful rendering of the human condition."
-Bryant on The Virgin Spring
I miss Bryant terribly. A couple of days ago, it was announced that a print of George A. Romero's 3½-hour cut of Martin had surfaced at last following a decades-long search. Bryant was a Romero-stan and the upcoming 4K reissue of Martin's theatrical cut was already one of his most-anticipated releases; this news would have sent him. I started to DM him about it, then caught myself. That's the third or fourth time this has happened since he died. Michael Cioni of FRAME.IO, for whom Bryant had begun to write late in the summer (it sounded like his dream job), has published a lovely tribute to him that you should also read, and if you search Bryant's name or his two handles on Twitter, you will find many a toast from the OG Usenet critics who knew him first. Still, the best tribute to Bryant is Bryant's own body of work. Who he was, how he was, it's all there in black and white.
Read him and weep.