Film critic Judith Crist taught her students well

Who remembers the great names of the city room? In a single generation, someone said, paraphrasing Kipling, they are one with Nineveh and Tyre, covered over with dust and forgotten.

Which is one reason why it was so satisfying to see the sizable obituaries for film critic Judith Crist, who died Tuesday at age 90. Though regularly passed over in the deserved attention paid to the twin towers of Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, Crist was a force to be reckoned with in her prime, writing successively for the New York Herald Tribune, New York Magazine and TV Guide and appearing regularly on "The Today Show."

But to me Judith Crist was not just an illustrious professional forebearer. She was the person who more than anyone else made me a critic. More years ago than I want to remember, I took her class in film reviewing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and nothing has been the same since.

I had always loved film and loved writing, but I had never really thought about putting the two of them together until that class. It was Judith Crist who first made me believe I could do this professionally, and, as anyone who ever met her knows, when Judith Crist spoke, you listened.

Though she was not the only critic who taught, no one passed on the art and craft of journalistic reviewing with as much passion or longevity as she did. Crist taught that criticism class for more than 50 years, longer than anyone taught any single course in the entire history of the journalism school. She was still teaching it this past February, and her other alumni include film critic David Denby of the New Yorker and New York Times critics Anna Kisselgoff and Margo Jefferson.

While it's an occupational hazard for critics to be inwardly directed, to focus exclusively and excessively on their own thoughts, in both her reviewing and her teaching Crist was outwardly motivated. She wrote to help people decide what to see, and she taught because she wanted to pass on a way of writing and thinking she felt was worth promulgating.

One of the many things Crist's workshop class taught was that what was important was not whether you liked or disliked a given film, but how you articulated those feelings. She went over our weekly review assignments meticulously, pointing out what worked and what didn't, and though she had a reputation for savage lines, she was far from an advocate of scorched-earth criticism.

"Resist the temptation," she said more than once, "to sell your grandmother down the river for a good line." Showing off was not the point of criticism, and anything you said, even a flashy line, had to be in the service of a point you were making. Though she never explicitly said you had to love film to do this job well, it was implicit in everything she did.

Crist took her students to the same screenings she attended, and as much as anything she schooled us in screening room etiquette, making sure we respected the perks of the job. Being on time was critical, as was not screaming your thoughts across a crowded room. After the film was over, she mandated silence about your opinion until you were at least a block away from the theater, considering anything else rudeness to the host. These are rules I try to follow to this day.

Though it wasn't part of the curriculum, Crist also passed on pithy career advice. One of my favorites was wisdom she heard from a commencement speaker at her own high school graduation: "The secret to success is written on the doors of this auditorium. One side says 'Push,' the other side says 'Pull.'"

Judith Crist, however, did more than place me on a career path. She showed, by example, the power and value of teaching. She demonstrated how much influence you can have on a young student's life by intelligent encouragement. Because of what her class meant to me, I've taught an identical one for more than a dozen years, first at Berkeley and now at USC, and nothing makes me prouder than seeing my former students find gainful employment as critics, writers, even at one point my editor here at The Times.

When I received the Columbia Journalism School's Alumni Award a few years ago, I was more than pleased that Crist was in the audience when I accepted it. In my speech I talked about a concept in Yiddish culture called "die goldene keit," "the golden chain" of language that links generations. Though I didn't know it at the time, her class made me a link in that kind of a chain, something I am grateful for to this day.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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