Cinema St. Louis executive director Cliff Froehlich pays tribute to the legacy of programmer David Kinder, creator of the Webster University Film Series and co-founder of the St. Louis International Film Festival
Old-timers whose roots in the St. Louis film community reach sufficiently deep were saddened to learn of the death of David Kinder on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles. David endured an endless series of health setbacks from diabetes — including the loss of a leg — and he spent the last several years cycling in and out of the hospital. Even in those final years, however, David remained enthusiastically engaged with the art form he loved by watching narrative-feature submissions for the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) and providing perceptive evaluations.
David was a towering figure in St. Louis film during his tenure as the founder and longtime head of the Webster University Film Series, which began in 1981. But his dazzling run concluded — bleakly — in early 1994, when he was fired for embezzling funds from the series’ box office. That distinctly non-Hollywood ending has to a large degree erased David’s legacy here in St. Louis, and although that’s certainly understandable, it’s also immensely unfair. David deserves to be remembered and celebrated for his vast contributions to the local (and national) film culture, but because his best work occurred in a pre-Internet age, the evidence of his importance is now buried in microfilm reels, bound volumes of yellowing newspapers, and seldom-opened file drawers. An initial Google search for David’s name yielded little more than his brief obituary in the LA Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a deeper dive turned up only a Jerry Berger item on his Webster dismissal and a few laudatory mentions by former Post film critic Harper Barnes.
So let me provide a short refresher course on David Kinder, who not only exerted a profound influence on St. Louis’ general cinema culture but also vastly expanded my own film knowledge and helped shape my future programming sensibility.
I first met David in 1983, a few months after I began reviewing films on a freelance basis for The Riverfront Times. I had begun writing for the RFT in May of that year, starting with commercial fare and eventually broadening my brief to include the art-house films that screened at the Tivoli, Hi-Pointe, and a few other (now-defunct) theaters such as the Varsity and Fine Arts. A diligent promoter, David soon tracked me down and began a relentless push for blanket coverage of the Webster U. Film Series. Over the subsequent decade, as I moved from freelancer to the paper’s executive editor and expanded the RFT’s film coverage by adding new critics, I willingly bowed to David’s insistent demands: The work he was programming fully merited our lavish attention.
Eventually, after I invested in an outlandishly expensive VCR in 1985, I watched many of Webster’s offerings on VHS tape, but in my early reviewing years, I’d journey to campus in the evening or on the weekend, David would set up a 16mm projector in an unused Webster Hall classroom, we’d pull the curtains, and he’d screen films for me reel by individual reel. I still vividly remember an epic week in which I watched the eight programs from the Webster series “The AFI Presents the BFI” — including Peter Greenaway’s “The Falls” and Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey’s “Crystal Gazing” — and the nearly 16 hours of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (tapes of which David played for me on a TV as a favor to the Tivoli, which was the venue actually screening the film). Estimable local film critic Robert Hunt shared the same memory in a lovely tribute on the RFT website. (Robert — my once and future colleague at The Riverfront Times — was then reviewing for the long-shuttered St. Louis Weekly.)
The first Webster film I reviewed was a documentary, “The Great Chess Movie,” and that proved a clear portent of things to come: Documentaries were a consistent focus of David’s programming, and the film series was my (and many other St. Louisans’) first real introduction to the form in all its glorious permutations. David’s eye for talent was acute, and he developed ongoing relationships with an array of documentarians whose new work consistently played at Webster. The preeminent example: David supported a young, still largely unknown Ken Burns, screening his early “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Statue of Liberty,” and “Huey Long.” David was rewarded for his prescience when “The Civil War” (pictured left) — the series that catapulted Burns to outsized fame — received it world premiere at Webster U. in 1990.
The great documentarian Les Blank was a particular favorite of David’s, and he was a frequent guest of the series, receiving an ambitious retrospective in 1984 and returning frequently with fresh films. Music specialist Robert Mugge was another regular, and his essential docs on Sun Ra, Gil Scott-Heron, Al Green, and Sonny Rollins (among many others) all played at the series. David also introduced St. Louis to the work of such major figures as Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) and Terry Zwigoff (“Louie Bluie”) and to the documentaries of Werner Herzog, Michael Apted, and Martin Scorsese (who were then known to most moviegoers exclusively as narrative filmmakers). And where else but Webster would a St. Louis cinephile encounter the personal documentaries of Tony Buba (“Lightning Over Braddock”), a vastly underappreciated chronicler of working-class life? David was especially fond of politically engaged films, and the Webster calendar was filled with such proudly left-leaning docs as “The Battle of Chile,” “Seeing Red,” “The Good Fight,” and “Guatemala: When the Mountains Tremble.” Issues of social and racial justice also were regularly addressed by the series, including a week in 1987 devoted to the six parts of “Eyes on the Prize,” native St. Louisan Henry Hampton’s sweeping chronicle of the civil-rights movement.
Animation was another of David’s passions, and in 1986 he introduced an annual festival, “Art in Motion,” that surveyed the field in an impressively catholic fashion, freely mixing classic, avant-garde, and independent films and filmmakers. The first fest, for example, included appearances by Claymation master Will Vinton, Sally Cruikshank (“Quasi at the Quackadero”), and Steve Segal (cult fave “Futuropolis”). In subsequent years, such legends as Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones (“What’s Opera, Doc?” “Duck Amuck”) and animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (two of Disney’s famed Nine Old Men) presented illuminating programs; historian John Canemaker hosted a retrospective of shorts by pioneering animator Winsor McCay; and films by such diverse artists as Bill Plympton, the Brothers Quay, Karen Aqua, and Jan Svankmajer screened.
Film history, with a particular emphasis on silent movies, was another of David’s primary interests. The second Webster documentary I reviewed, in fact, was Charles Musser’s “Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter.” In addition to his work at Webster, David programmed films at the Saint Louis Art Museum in the early ’80s, and his revelatory series on Buster Keaton was the first chance many St. Louisans were given to experience the films of the comic genius firsthand. Screening Keaton’s work in those days required dealing with the notoriously contentious Raymond Rohauer, who controlled most of the filmmaker’s core catalog, and not everyone was up to the task — David was one of those indomitable programmers who persevered. In subsequent years, David never failed to take advantage of an opportunity to feature Keaton at Webster. In 1988, for example, he screened the “lost” “Le Roi des Champs- Élysées” — a Keaton talkie made in France in the 1930s — and followed it later that year with a sprawling retrospective of the comic’s silent films.
Silents, often with live musical accompaniment, became a series mainstay, including the six-part touring program “Before Hollywood: Turn-of-the-Century Film from American Archives,” co-curated by historians Charles Musser — who attended the first screening — and Jay Leyda. (Images from that 1988 program still decorate the walls in Room 123 at Webster’s Sverdrup Complex, which was completed the year “Before Hollywood” screened.) David developed an especially fruitful relationship with historian and legendary movie collector William K. Everson — author of the classic “American Silent Film” — and he made periodic appearances at Webster with films from his extensive personal archive of 16mm prints (including that obscure Keaton French feature mentioned above). I remember with particular fondness the Everson-curated series “Rarities: Lost … and Rediscovered,” a 10-film selection of early-’30s Hollywood films (with one silent ringer, the Howard Hawks-directed “Fazil” from 1928).
Documentary, animation, and silent film may have received a bit more of his loving attention, but David’s programming ranged widely, from avant-garde provocations to mainstream Hollywood fare (the latter often used as a means of paying for the former). Webster was where you turned to find the film and video selections from the Whitney Biennial, works by feminist filmmakers (Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielmann,” Yvonne Rainer’s “The Man Who Envied Women,” Lizzie Borden’s “Born in Flames”), and films from cutting-edge American independents (Jon Jost, Rick Schmidt, Beth and Scott B) and international directors (Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s “A Time to Live, A Time to Die,” Robert Bresson’s “L’Argent”).
And no one else in St. Louis mounted the sort of thorough retrospectives and smartly curated samplers that Webster featured on a regular basis, whether a survey of classic film noir, a selection of Ernst Lubitsch comedies (with biographer Scott Eyman in attendance), or absolutely eye-opening 13-film programs on British directors Mike Leigh in 1992 and Alan Clarke in 1994 (one of David’s final pieces of Webster programming).
David’s work at Webster U. and SLAM would have been accomplishment enough, but he also launched an ambitious series at COCA in 1988 that, in its regrettably few years of existence, featured equally impressive programming. The COCA series emphasized international film, both classic and contemporary, and among the worthies receiving retrospectives were Marcel Pagnol (a French country dinner accompanied one of the screenings), Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Austrian filmmaker Axel Corti (with his “Where To and Back” trilogy). David’s stint at COCA was tucked under the umbrella of Legacy Productions, a media-arts nonprofit co-founded by Webster U. film professor — and longtime Cinema St. Louis board member — Kathy Corley. As a board member of Legacy, David also helped enable a passel of Missouri-related documentaries and videos by filmmakers such as Corley, Jill Petzal, and Van McElwee.
So omnipresent was David in the St. Louis film community — he even had short flings as the programmer of a screen at Harman Moseley’s old Kirkwood Theatre and as the film booker at Joe Edwards’ Tivoli Theatre (before Landmark resumed its stewardship of the venue) — that enumerating all of his many accomplishments is impossible. But one of his most enduring contributions remains the co-founding of the St. Louis Film Festival (as it was originally known). David was a vital member of the consortium of individuals and organizations that, after more than two long years of planning, produced the first festival in April 1992. With such key collaborators as managing director Barbara Jones, artistic director Robert Hunt, and artistic-committee members Diane Carson, Dan Reich, R D Zurick, and Van McElwee, David helped lay the foundation on which Cinema St. Louis was built.
The Webster U. Film Series — under the successive stewardships of Vicki Woods, Mike Steinberg, and current head James Harrison — also serves as a proud continuation of David’s vision. Each of the smart, talented folks who followed David at Webster have produced their own unique programming triumphs, but I suspect that none of them would claim to have quite cleared the dauntingly high bar set by the series’ founder.
On a purely personal level, David was far more than just a friend and colleague — his influence over my life can scarcely be overestimated. We spent countless hours over the years talking about film, of course, and — as noted above — his programming served as an essential supplement to my ongoing film education. But David also enabled several key opportunities that have shaped my career. Shortly after we met, for example, he recruited me as an adjunct faculty member at Webster U.; 33 years later, I’m still teaching courses in film studies at the school. And then, in 1991, it was at David’s urging that I attended my first film festival — in Telluride — and that heady experience planted a seed that eventually bore fruit when I first became SLIFF’s executive director in 2001.
A few years after his fraught departure from Webster, David left St. Louis for a fresh start in Los Angeles, where he served in various film-production capacities until the manifold complications of diabetes left him unable to work. Sadly, he never again was able to employ his programming genius in a meaningful way. Although I’m happy that SLIFF was able to make some small use of his skills in David’s last years — and I know he was grateful for the role — I will always regret that such a remarkable programming artist was denied a proper canvas for such a cruelly long time.
But back when he was at the height of his creative abilities — at Webster U., at SLAM, at COCA — David Kinder painted glorious if evanescent masterpieces with projector, screen, celluloid, and animating light.