My Friend Bill
Bill and Adam at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival
Shortly after Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel died, sportswriter Jim Murray wrote that ďGod must be getting an earful today.Ē When my friend Bill Henry died, I could not help thinking that God must be getting an earful again. Iím sure that God has now heard about the first time Bill saw Star Wars, why Jean Luc Godard is overrated, how Bill Parcells turned around the New York Jets, and that Billís sister made the perfect Caesar salad. I just hope God was ready for Bill.
I met Bill in the late 90s, when I noticed him at film screenings. He was always in the front row, dead center. Bill joked that he wanted to be the first one to see the movie, even if only by milliseconds. He had this booming laugh, one that his friend Chuck Rich said should be recorded for posterity. Eventually I introduced myself, and became a fan of his. We shared a love of movies and I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge. He was the original Movie Database before the IMDb. I learned so much about movies from him. Bill saw everything, but it was more than that. He could describe his views and experiences so eloquently that I simply enjoyed listening to him.
Quickly I grew to admire Bill, especially when he and Joe Barber began their Movie Guys talks at Borders. Bill and Joe also hosted the Oscars Parties and trailer programs for the DC Film Society. For a while they hosted a Sunday morning cinema club at a Fairfax theater. They kidded each other, argued and bickered, and had undeniable chemistry. As a friend once said, they were our Siskel and Ebert. I became loyal to them, so much so that when that Fairfax theater replaced Bill and Joe at the cinema club, I never went to that theater again. Not until I told Bill and he laughed, telling me that he had been going back to the theater for months.
Gradually we became friends, and we would discuss films, even argue about them. I could not understand why he liked the Timothy Dalton Bond films, no more than he could grasp how I enjoyed the Star Wars prequels. Bill described my paragraph about Whiplash in my 2014 Top Ten list as the worst thing Iíd ever written. He always had a cogent, impassioned point of view. Even we when disagreed, the exchange was fun and often enlightening.
I cared more about Billís opinion on film than anyone elseís, in part because he cared about film more than anyone Iíve ever known. He cared enough to always tell the truth as he saw it. Bill could not stand pretentious filmmakers or critics, and never bought into the ďIf I canít understand the film, it must be goodĒ line of thinking. As his friend Greg Kitsock said, Bill would hold every film to the same standards, whether it was a Bergman film or a superhero movie. Greg reminded me that Bill did not believe in ďguilty pleasures.Ē If he enjoyed a film, there was nothing guilty about it. When I or others would complain about Oscar nominations, Bill would tell you succinctly why the Oscars were worthless. Iíd have to remind him that he would be co-hosting the DCFS Oscars party, and that this wasnít good for business. Heíd glare at me, and I understood that this didnít matter to him.
Bill had plenty of other passions. He used to say ďI donít follow Major League Baseball. Iím a Mets fan.Ē He could talk about the Ď73 Mets or the Ď86 Mets like they played yesterday. Bill was the same with the Jets. He never missed a game, even if that meant finding the one dive bar in the area that had it on TV. When we went to the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, he still located a bar showing the game and adjusted his schedule accordingly. I once asked him to join my fantasy football league and he politely declined, explaining that he would only pick Jets players so he didnít see the point.
As our friendship grew, we would also discuss politics, our faiths, and our families. Bill was the rare friend who defined the term ďloyalty.Ē He helped me move twice. He would drive me to the airport even when it was clearly out of his way. When there was a blizzard right before the Super Bowl and no one else came to my party, Bill showed up. Of course he also got me into more screenings than I could count.
Bill was like that with all of his friends. He gave more rides than most Uber drivers. Bill would complain about Joe to anyone who would listen, but as Joeís health deteriorated, Bill was always there to help him. My wife Sarit would tease Bill that ďDonít worry, we wonít tell anyone that youíre a kind and generous person. Your secret is safe with us.Ē But of course it was no secret. We all knew the type of man Bill was.
What held everything about Bill together, whether it was his family, his friends, his faith, film, sports, or politics, is that Bill cared, passionately and deeply. Sometimes I would ask him why he insisted on seeing every movie he could. He no longer had an obligation to do this. Iíd mention a certain film and say ďYouíre not going to like it, and you know youíre not going to like it. Why are you doing this?Ē His answer was that someone may ask him about a film, and he wanted to have an educated opinion. Bill did things all the way. He didnít believe in shortcuts.
I think of Bill and me going back to Toronto last year for the film festival after a long time away. Iíve already forgotten some of the films, but long after Iíve forgotten most of them, Iíll remember hanging out with Bill. Sometimes it would be seeing the films together and sometimes it would be going our own ways, meeting up for the midnight film and comparing notes. My favorite times came when Bill would tell me about a masterpiece he just saw. Bill wanted every film to be great, and when he found one worthy of the label his eyes would light up. Iíll miss that, but then again Iíll miss many things about Bill.
As a member of the DC Film Society Iíll miss everything Bill added to our events. As a friend, Iíll miss him telling me about the last Jets game, seeing him on birthdays, bringing the ice for the Super Bowl party, knowing that I could call him for anything, and so much more than I could ever put into words. As a fellow movie lover, Iíll miss him talking to me and other friends before a screening, and then giving his take as soon as the lights came up. Those screenings will never be the same now, just as the Super Bowls, trailer programs and Oscar parties will all feel different.
The finality of it all is both frustrating and heartbreaking. Attempts at consolation feel so hollow, but attempt I must. I need to remind myself that I was privileged to have a friend of Billís quality for 15 years. His wisdom and humor have not died. I just hope that as long as I keep going to movies, writing about them, and talking about them, a piece of Bill will always be with me.
Adam, Sarit, Greg Kitsock and Bill at Capital Brewfest
Go here for "Remembering Bill."
June 1, 2015
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