The Tallgrass Film Festival has added the Jake Euker Stubbornly Independent award to its lineup this year. They will award it to one of six nominees on October 20 at the Stubbornly Independent Gala. Jake, who died this summer at the age of 50, had volunteered for years for Tallgrass, and was the one who suggested the Tallgrass tagline “stubbornly independent” during a brainstorming meeting.
In addition to his volunteer work with Tallgrass Film Festival, he had a long run directing a top- notch movie series at the Wichita Center for the Arts. He also wrote film reviews for Wichita alternative papers F5 and City Paper, and for PopMatters online.
He had one movie role himself—several onscreen minutes as a vampire victim in Leif Jonker’s 1991 horror movie Darkness. The movie was made locally for $5000; the video became a cult classic, highly regarded for its abundant gore, specifically, multiple exploding heads. Jake was proud of his role, but early on he mainly liked to mention that in the Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon game, he was now a mere three degrees removed from Bacon.
Of course, “stubborn” and “independent” aptly describe Jake himself. He really wasn’t iffy or ambivalent about much, ever. After learning that the award would be named for Jake, a mutual friend wondered: Would the award’s judges select the one Jake would? I myself have glanced at the list of nominees, movies I know nothing whatsoever about, and have imagined Jake somewhere saying, “This one! This one! Pick this one!” about one, and “Oh my God! What are they even thinking?” about another.
For years, thanks to being friends with Jake, I had the luxury of never having to go out of my way to end up at a great movie, or in some cases, a movie that was hilariously terrible, though the latter might nevertheless be unendurable. Mostly, at least after high school, we—anyone around-- saw movies he wanted to see. And thank goodness.
Books and art meant the world to him, but remembering Jake for me means considering the ways in which the movies seemed to be a life necessity for him, more important than food and shelter at least, and at least as important as stylish clothes. Even after he had watched thousands of films, he still would, with complete hope and anticipation, take a seat in a theatre or slip in the DVD expecting something great. Someone movie-jaded might have silently approved of a film without thoroughly enjoying it, but Jake applied himself. He always laughed out loud, sometimes relishing that one great salvageable line when it finally appeared. He still gasped—along with emitting other sounds signaling Jake-fear—during a scary moment. (Jedd Beaudoin, writer and host of KMUW’s Strange Currency, wrote recently that once when watching a movie with Jake, the men onscreen began fighting: “Guys are hitting each other. Duking it out. It's tense. Jake says, ‘Are they angry?’ ” )
I never figured out why some movies were extremely scary to him, or why he liked it so much when they were. Poltergeist, which seemed tame to me, terrified him. He loved to recount his first viewing—when he was admittedly under the influence. Traumatized, he shouted at the character onscreen to Grab the knife! Grab the knife! He probably wouldn’t have remembered it, or sobered up on the spot a bit, if some stranger in the dark hadn’t finally called out in the theatre, “She’ll get the knife.”
If Jake started a sentence with “Remember when. . .” it might veer either way—to a story about friends or to a movie scene. For some reason, lately I recall him bringing up a line he’d plucked from the movie E.T. and then relished for years. In the E.T. scene, the boy Elliott returns to his room to find E.T. in the closet, dressed in a curly wig and dress, thanks to Elliott’s little sister. Elliott screams. A six-year-old Drew Barrymore, playing the sister, explains, pleased with herself, “He knows how to talk. I taught him how to talk.”
Someone out there, unlikely as it seems, might not know that Robert Altman’s Nashville was Jake’s absolute favorite movie. He used the title for his internet passwords—and then told everyone he did. Tallgrass asked him to introduce that movie one year at a festival showing, and he did, and then afterwards was both thrilled and mortified to learn that someone who’d worked on the movie was in the audience. What had he said? He was sure he had mainly gushed in a way that later seemed to him—a language perfectionist—incomprehensible.
To be fair, Jake had a few other Best Movies that you HAD to see. Maybe he reconsidered the lineup from time to time, or maybe the one he’d already declared his favorite, or maybe he just thought they all deserved to be #1. Some days, for example, Rosemary’s Baby was the best movie ever made.
And it took him years to ease up on hounding his friends to rent Beat the Devil. It’s a 1953 film directed by John Huston; the cast includes Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida. Truman Capote wrote the script, or at least scribbled out the next day’s scenes each night during the filming. (They were all literally making up the thing as they went along.) We watched that video while in the basement—well, people sporadically hanging out in the basement watched parts of it at different times during one particularly lazy summer. I arrived once when Jake and another friend were watching. Onscreen, a strange and glamorous group exchanged nonsensical statements. This all delighted Jake, who assured me that watching the whole movie would make no more sense than that scene, as if this alone qualified the movie as a winner.
Recently while packing to move, I found a long folded piece of heavy-stock paper reading, “The 1955 movie Night of the Hunter will change Elizabeth’s life,” a note he had written on his way out the door one day this spring. My find was a relief, since I was regretting throwing away the note that promised Harvard vs. Yale would change my life. (It didn’t, but still.)
My passive approach to movie-going, and absolute confidence in his choices, began years ago. At KU, he insisted I accompany him to movies at the student union. Inevitably the titles held no appeal beforehand, and inevitably he was always right about how much I’d like John Waters movies and Truffaut movies and (before it was annually foisted upon the public) It’s A Wonderful Life. Of course, I also got a lesson in Pauline Kael and her Capra-corn category for that privilege. We saw The Shining, which scared me so much that for years afterward he would announce which horror movies he’d banned for me.
Usually, though, even years later his recommendations for me, tailored for my weaknesses, were dead on, if occasionally not flattering. Once he called me in New York and told me—with some resignation, I was certain—that I was going to have to go see a new movie called Dirty Dancing. “They made the ending especially for you,” he said, not entirely enthusiastically, and not committing to liking a frame of it himself. (In my defense, I’d like to point out that even then, Patrick Swayze’s head-bobbing during the final number really bugged me. And does more so with each viewing.) Winter’s Bone, he told me a few years ago, was required, and he was correct.
It was next to impossible to tip him off to a great movie, but it happened. Blue Velvet really shouldn’t count, because he was bound to see and love that anyway, but I should at least get points for knowing before he saw it that it would be his favorite ever. Another coup was Near Dark, a 1987 vampire movie, although he didn’t confirm that he agreed it was great for twenty years.
A few times I have disastrously tried to take the lead in movie plans. Once, when he was staying with my then-husband and my brother and me in New York, I dragged them to The Lemon Sisters. It had Diane Keaton in it! Carol Kane!
It was one of those painfully bad movies, awful awful awful. You hope that the otherwise likeable stars at least partied on location at night, in this case in Atlantic City, once they realized the catastrophe they were creating.
Jake, Jim, and Barry stayed mum while we walked out of the theatre onto Broadway afterwards. I complained, “That was so bad.” There was a collective, relieved and loud “Whew!” among them, and then they all freely clarified how bad they thought it was. Jake said, “Oh thank God! We thought it was just something women might understand or something.” Why else would we all have continued to sit there? Their initial tact that evening always seemed touching. And as lore, it became the movie that marked how you should act when a friend has taken you to a bad movie—hold off until the friend has a chance to confess, or at least defend.
Jake and I had talked a lot about music the year we met as fourth-graders (he hogged the record player on the Friday bring-your-own-records days), but I don’t remember that we ever talked movies then. Still, a year or so later, he began to keep track of movies he watched, writing on index cards the names of directors and actors, as well as his first movie reviews. And Jake began religiously reading Pauline Kael’s reviews in The New Yorker.
My own family moved away and took on new configurations; the same magazine arrived in our mailbox, but if I read past the cartoons, it was only for the short stories. And when visiting my father in Colorado, for example, my dad’s answer for any empty afternoons or evenings was Go see a movie, and he didn’t see any point in avoiding those covering adult subjects since he was paying for the tickets. Everyone, it seems, was seeing more movies, but Jake was making his mother drive him to the Fox in Hutchinson and sometimes to Wichita so that he could see something Kael had reviewed favorably—and everything else showing.
In high school, we were at least older and living in the same area, which meant we had access to cars and didn’t have to catch up in one annual phone call. We hadn’t actually seen each other in a few years when Jake invited me out to Goddard to see Bergman’s Wild Strawberries at his house. I was reminded of this when someone at his wake this summer mentioned Euker Theatre, a regular event he hosted for his Goddard High School classmates in the seventies; I imagine they were all treated to Wild Strawberries and the like, and that they, too, were as spoiled by his take-charge approach to getting everyone to see good movies.
At some point, I would have to learn to choose my own; after several decades, Netflix made the first baby steps of that easier. But every time I watched a heavily advertised loser, I’d imagine Jake saying, “I could have told you it was that bad.” (And he would have.) On the other hand, when we did discuss the great ones after a few years of my immersion study, Jake seemed pleased to be answering improved questions. It felt like I was finally taking part in the conversation he’d started somewhere around 1978. It was now amazing, wasn’t it, to think that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was a popular movie in the 70s? And the French and Italians—hadn’t they fallen from artistic grace? He smiled patiently when I was wrong: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits was a marvel, but Jake wouldn’t even entertain the idea of it being a great movie.
Starting sometime late this spring, he asked, and then nagged me, about seeing Song of Bernadette, a 1957 Janet Jones movie. Our scheduling attempts went on for weeks, as it usually did with Jake in the last few years. We failed repeatedly to set an official date and follow through. A last message on my phone has him telling me that he went ahead and watched it because he really wanted to see it, but it was okay because he was buying it and then we could watch it together.
I may hold off on renting that one. I’ve seen a couple of movies in the last few months that I desperately need to talk to him about. Also, we need to talk about Catherine Keener. I know he would have loved one of last month’s rentals, commercial as it was, unoriginal plot and all. Throughout the whole movie, I couldn’t stop imagining him adoring those characters, repeatedly forgetting we couldn’t see it together.
A few years ago, he had stopped at my place needing to use the phone, or have some coffee, or something. He was getting a call every minute, and between calls I would hear great sighs of discontent and bother. He finally explained, exasperated, “I ALWAYS have to be the one who decided where to go. I’m ALWAYS the one who has to pick the movie.”
I know better, but part of me waits for him to call again and I’ll insist we go see this one movie I know he’ll love. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of appealing to the angels of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, or a Capra Clarence type, or maybe one of the screw-ups from one of the Heaven Can Wait movies. Hey--it’s Jake. He really needs to see this funny movie scene. And sometimes in the movies, anything seems possible.