C.S. Leigh: A life (1965-2016)


A few months back, I got word that my friend – and in some ways mentor and inspiration – the filmmaker C.S. Leigh –  passed away in 2016. For Christian to be out of touch for long periods of time was not unusual (he always protested against suggestions that he had once “vanished” by saying that this was merely ex-directory before mobile technology became commonplace) but when I emailed him letting him know I’d been to the Seoul MMCA’s Jonas Mekas exhibition and complementary sprawling retrospective, and didn’t hear back, I felt a pang of worry. Christian hated talking about himself and his work (at least to me), but he loved to talk about films.

While I mulled over whether to write this or not, award season sashayed past. As people  applauded the right-on sheen applied to the Oscars, I reflected that the film world had lost one of its most talented artists without even realising that he existed in the first place – and that’s still true several months later, as I tipsily put the final touches to this piece. So far only myself and my acquaintance and fellow Leigh enthusiast Neil Thomas Ward  seem to be the only people to have have acknowledged his passing in pieces of any significant length.

But Christian hated fame. In some ways, I feel like he wasn’t so bothered that many of his films never received a proper release. Process, a formally exquisite, harrowing cry of pain, came close to getting a DVD release. Christian was able to show me certain sequences from the sprawling American Widow on his laptop, while other parts of it – he said – lay gathering dust in the various international locations where those sequences had been filmed. It didn’t matter. He made them, and they were stunning. That was enough.

But many of the people who Christian knew and worked with are famous: the musicians John Cale, Cat Power and Thurston Moore (the latter provided tinnitus-inducing noise for Christian’s short piece I Was Jack Goldstein) fellow filmmaker Leos Carax, and those who, like Christian, left us too soon:  Katya Golubeva, Guillaume Depardieu, Jack Goldstein, and Christian’s mentor,  the producer Humbert Balsam.

It’s true I only met Christian once, when we huddled in the corner of London’s National Theatre and spent a lengthy afternoon talking about his work, film, art, everything. He told me later that he read the article I wrote about him with one had in front of his eyes. peeking at a sentence at a time, but eventually he found that he didn’t hate it. Perhaps he suspected that I can only read my own writing the same way.

After that, we corresponded a lot, exchanging countless emails about film, and the emotions the artform evoked in us, discussing films as diverse as Pickpocket and Gremlins 2. I never quite got to the bottom of some things I really wanted to know: how his films were funded (I assumed he’d find this a boring question), and whether he really was the “rip-off artist” Vice claimed him to be, and other publications had also insinuated over the years. I didn’t ask about this last one for obvious reasons.He was a highly private person who barely mentioned any details of his personal life. Nothing about him suggested to me that he was the charming sociopath he’s been made out to be numerous times.

So, based on one face-to-face meeting, and a welter of recondite correspondence, why do I call Christian a friend, mentor, and inspiration? He took me seriously as a writer and always encouraged me to do more. Few other people who didn’t have the emotional or familial connections that make such exhortations compulsory have done so. He convinced me to listen to Barbara Streisand’s music. He spoke frankly and unrelentingly about art. His films, at least the ones we can easily access, are as brutal as they are beautiful,  and speak for themselves. I’ll miss Christian, and when film history catches up with him, I won’t be the only one to wish he’d been around for longer.

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