Judith Crist was a force of nature. Depending on your age, you may have known the film critic best by her byline in the New York Herald Tribune, her early morning critiques on the Today show or the crop of emerging American filmmakers (Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen) she championed. I was one of the few lucky enough to know her as a teacher — the smartest, harshest and most inspiring mentor of my life.
One of the unshakable pillars of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she taught for 50 years, Crist continued to shape and mold young writers until this past spring. She died Tuesday at the age of the 90 — read a full appreciation here — and I am willing to venture that my personal tribute to her will be only the first of many to follow. There is a sizable Crist contingent working in journalism today — critics, essayists and writers who were driven to write savvier, and think bigger, by this professor’s blunt assessments. Nothing stung more than her red scrawl in the margins, but nothing was more rewarding than her appraisal that you had taken a commanding stance and argued your point persuasively.
It is a credit to her fervent talent that she could so quickly and decisively dissect and dismiss a phrase, an opinion or a critical assessment. But it is a credit to her warmth and compassion that she channeled such confident expertise into lifting up the next generation of tastemakers. When I auditioned for Crist’s class in 2005, she must have seen right through this naïve Midwestern transplant. She asked why I was here, and what I hoped to accomplish, and I pointed to the influence that Roger Ebert’s criticism had had on my lifelong obsession with film. She said she remembered meeting Ebert, that he seemed to be fan of hers. That night I Googled the two together and arrived at the 1990 Chicago Tribune article that cited Ebert’s praise of Crist: “The high profile of film critics actually can be traced by to Judith Crist at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s…Crist attacked ‘Cleopatra’ and was banned by Fox from their screenings, and that got an avalanche of national publicity, which led to every paper in the country saying, ‘Hey, we ought to get a real movie critic.’ When I got my job in ’67, that was still part of the fallout from Crist.”
(READ: Richard Corliss on great American film critic Andrew Sarris)
If Ebert inspired my journey, Crist inspired his, and so it was with great trepidation that I filed my assignments in her class. Challenging us to critique everything from professional artworks to public spaces, Crist placed a special emphasis on peer review — choosing a handful of assignments each class to be read aloud without byline, and to open the floor to comments from the class. These were agonizing but unforgettable interactions, leaving exposed and insecure writers aware of their printed flaws while the remainder of the class was subtly converted into more discerning and demanding editors. To some degree, those charged readings and communal assessments emerged as her real teaching legacy. I can recall how obvious my writing flaws became when read aloud, as well as how illuminating it was to hear my peers twist and tear at my arguments. I also remember how three weeks in her class instantly made me a more critical reader and self-editor, leaving me much more inclined to scrutinize my own work for the flaws that she would inevitably find. Whereas other criticism instructors may have focused on the fine art of dissection, Crist was a mainstream reviewer who relished in the interaction. Anyone could have an opinion, she would tell me, and it was a critic’s responsibility to take a stand, whip up discussion, and embrace one’s ego.
As a student still learning the ropes, questioning the value of my opinion and my grasp of film history, it was a powerful point for Crist to make: the value of my review was to be found in the authority of my voice, and my willingness to construct prose as precisely and palpably as possible. So much about writing comes down to confidence, and Judith Crist was a master at obliterating arrogance into humility, and then building students back up with skill, voice and poise.
Halfway into the course, not long after I received a particularly scathing edit of a piece that questioned not just my appraisal but also my background facts, I somehow found the nerve to ask Crist to line edit my three most cherished film reviews to date. She agreed, and I printed out the pieces (she was always averse to e-mails), and when the final day of class came and went, I assumed she had forgotten all about the request. But near the end of the semester, when she invited the class over to her Upper West Side home for cocktails, she handed me a sealed envelope with meticulous, exhaustive notes. There were dismissals (“we can skip the clichés”) and irritated asides (“this paragraph is quite pointless”) to spare. But in the years to come, as I continued to return to this red blueprint of what not to do, bristling at all the excised paragraphs and crisscrossing arrows that suggested a new order for my argumentation, I started to see beyond her critiques. She was also careful to dot the reviews with words of encouragement and praise, noting hints of a fully formed opinion that I had shied away from, and seeing glimpses of the confident zealousness that she said defined every great critic.
(LIST: All-TIME 100 Movies)
I had a lot to learn, still have a lot to learn, and Judith Crist made sure that her students always thought that. But she also saw the talent that was evident, and hinted at the path that would get us from here to there. Rare are the teachers who lodge themselves into a pupil’s soul, but Crist’s class was ultimately about a whole lot more than words on paper, and her influence extended well past a passing grade. She shaped the way Hollywood and Main Street thought about movies, and challenged a generation of critics to maintain the standards she helped to create. I’m pretty sure she’d have an issue here with my grandiosity — I can see her questioning the word count wasted on sentimental excess — but I would retort that we all have an obligation to sing the praises of those who defined our lives. I might not be fully qualified to assess Judith Crist the film critic, but I can tell you with that she was one of the world’s great teachers. And given the remembrances already rolling in to the Columbia journalism school’s website, I’m hardly alone.