Remembered as both a heroic figure and a pain in the ass, Bingham Ray — who died at age 57 during the recent Sundance Film Festival — was celebrated with a deeply emotional and sometimes hilarious two and a half hour memorial service in New York City.
Mourners were struck immediately as they approached 5th Ave. and 58th St. in Manhattan on Friday morning. The marquee at the classy Paris Theater carried the name 'Bingham Ray' in bold letters. A celebration for beloved Bingham had displaced signage and forced the cancellation of two screenings of "The Artist." Attendees paused outside the theater to snap photos with their mobile phones before making their way into the cinema as a trio played live music.
"Bingham loved a full house," related Eamonn Bowles, the head of Magnolia Pictures and a longtime close friend of Bingham's for decades. The night before, he was one of many who gathered in a downtown bar across the street from the former Bleecker Street offices of October Films.
During film festivals, Ray would preside over gatherings where friends and competitors would get together to throw darts and toss back a few drinks together. Camaraderie and competition go hand-in-hand in the close-knit film community and Bingham Ray has been at the center of the scene for some thirty years. With his loss, many found themselves asking aloud, "Now what?"
A pained sense of nostalgia has gripped many since Bingham Ray was tragically struck down during a gathering of art house theater owners and operators ahead of this year's Sundance festival. It wasn't just the loss of a man that the film community mourned on Friday, but the loss of a time, noted John Schmidt who, alongside Bingham Ray, led October Films to prominence in the late 90s.
Over and over again on Friday speakers saluted their incredible achievements — awards and honors for films such as Breaking The Waves, Secrets and Lies, Lost Highway and more — but mourners also expressed profound sadness for a lost era. Triumphs in the '90s paved the way for battles with Hollywood when October Films was sold to Universal Studios. Bingham Ray left the company he created in a moment many now see as the end of a great era for independent film. He
"I don't think I ever heard [Bingham Ray] refer to movies as product," bemoaned Manohla Dargis, a lead film critic for The New York Times, praising him for his passion and noting how times have changed.
The balance today between art and industry is out of whack, she said somberly, criticizing a culture now focused more on box office grosses and Academy Awards.
"I believe he was the independent film world's Prospero," saluted Bingham Ray's close friend Patricia Clarkson, invoking Shakespeare. The actress added, "He was able to create rough magic."
Oliver Platt, another acting friend, standing alongside Clarkson, said that in Ray he found "a fellow deviant." That sentiment resonated as an appropriate attribute for the community of likeminded folks who make and champion independent film and international cinema. Friends who have worked together for more than thirty years mingled on Friday with notable filmmakers and some folks just getting started in film. Family and close friends rounded out the crowd.
"We've been through a lot together," noted Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker as he looked around the packed theater asking attendees to notice those seated near them at the service. "We should appreciate each other in a way we've never thought about," he encouraged.
Speakers recalled experiences at numerous Manhattan art house theaters that no longer exist. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch didn't intend to speak on Friday but took the stage to recall the times that Bingham Ray, when he ran the Bleecker Street Cinema, would let Jarmusch and partner Sara Driver sneak into the movie theater to see classic cinema when they couldn't afford to buy tickets.
Close friends from his youth spoke of a kid who dreamed of working in film. A short that Bingham Ray made as a teenager was screened. "He was raised by the movies," the audience was told.
The IFP, a film non-profit for which Bingham Ray served on the board of directors, announced the formation of the Bingham Ray Award to support emerging filmmakers.
Bingham Ray grew into a mischievous and passionate moviegoer as well as a family man who battled demons and surmounted troubles with alcohol that plagued him during his rise and fall in film. Friends said his ability to surmount personal obstacles in recent years were among his greatest achievements.
Countless tears were shed as Bingham's mass of mourners recounted his life and bemoaned his third act that was cut short.
After a short tenure at the Film Society of Lincoln Center where he helped the organization open a new three-screen art house cinema, Bingham Ray was recently installed as the new head of the San Francisco Film Society after it lost bold leader Graham Leggat to cancer last year. More than one speaker expressed deep regret that Ray died before he could make a mark in San Francisco, home of this country's oldest film festival.
"Bingham Ray, there will never be another," praised filmmaker Mike Leigh, in a letter read to the congregation on Friday. As folks exited, they gathered under the marquee that bore Bingham's name. A large group of alumni from October Films gathered for a group photo with the sign in the background.
On the sidewalk, New Yorkers pushed through the mob as it started to thin out, trying to make their way to the box office to buy tickets for the next showing at the movie theater.
Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a co-founder of Indiewire. Follow on Twitter: @eug.