It must have been around thirty years ago that I first saw The Luck of Ginger Coffey. At the time, so early on in my experience with the world of cinema, I thought it was an extraordinary film. As I saw more movies, I thought, perhaps, it was not perfect as I imagined but it never fell from my top ten of the best working class dramas of the sixties. It is an excellent film with a commanding performance by Robert Shaw at its center. But its look, its feel, its pacing and its just right touch of pathos and humor can be credited to one man who time and time again exhibited the kind of skill and talent that made several more popular movies work but for which he rarely got noticed. That man, director Irvin Kershner, died on November 27, 2010 and the world of cinema may not quite realize just how great a director it lost.
Kershner wasn't working on any current films so the loss isn't one of immediate impact. There won't be any unfinished work that can't go on without him. The loss is that there is now no time left to honor a director that the world of cinema should have honored a long time ago. Of course, his films will continue to honor him but I would have liked to have seen the man himself share in that honor that seemed to constantly elude him.
On the obituaries you see all over the internet right now, from the major media outlets, three movies are listed front and center by which to remember Kershner: The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop 2 and Never Say Never Again. And I understand, too. Popular titles dealing with franchises such as Star Wars, Robocop and James Bond should not be ignored and if that gets people to notice him, more power to them. Certainly his turn with the Star Wars Saga was the best of the series and took an already excellent screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, and through his expert choices in framing and editing, added layers of depth unknown to any other movie in the Star Wars Universe.
But he did more, so much more, and the pinnacle of his other achievements was The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the impact it had on me cannot be overestimated. When I first saw it, on TBS back in the very early eighties, I was in the opening stages of advanced cinephilia. I had checked out all the classics, from Rules of the Game to Citizen Kane to 8 1/2 to Chinatown, and was steadily taking in more every week. When Ginger Coffey popped up on the schedule I had never heard of it. None of my many "History of the Movies" books had so much as mentioned the title. Kershner wasn't mentioned either, anywhere. So, I watched it with little expectations of anything more than a run-of-the-mill drama, directed by, as it turns out, that guy who did the last Star Wars movie.
Then I saw it, and everything changed. I was floored by how good it was and amazed it wasn't mentioned anywhere. And then, at that moment, I learned my first life lesson of cinephilia: Movie books, critics and historians lean heavily on a select few works, what might be called "the canon", and rarely venture outside of that safety zone. If you want to be a cinephile, you've got to stop relying on the movie books to guide you and make your own way.
It's a lesson movie blogs have really driven home with me, as in the last nearly four years of blogging I have discovered so many great films, films that I would easily rank alongside the canonical ones, that I hadn't even heard of until some adventurous blogger sought it out and wrote it up. It doesn't mean those films in the canon aren't worthy, they are. It simply means there is so much more that's been ignored or overlooked that deserves our attention. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is one of those films for me. In fact, it was one of the first reviews I did on Cinema Styles, something I didn't do often then and still don't but something I wanted to do to call attention to such a good film. It's a review I don't think too much of now, heavily relying on plot description more than anything else, but there it is anyway, one of only four reviews listed on IMDB's "external reviews" for the film, a sad testament to how undervalued it is.
Irvin Kershner died on Saturday and took with him a talent and skill for character in drama that made films like The Empire Strikes Back stand out from the rest of the series and made dramas like Ginger Coffey that much more resonant. He will be missed.