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Tribute to a Friend

by Matthew Robbins


The death of Irvin Kershner on November 27 will come as sad news to his many friends and colleagues in Hollywood. For "Kersh", as he was known, was always an outsized presence, a generous and passionate advocate for humanism in film.


Best known for "The Empire Strikes Back", now widely regarded as the best of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, Kershner applied both his enthusiasm and his skepticism to all his artistic endeavors, which included painting, music and photography. As an exacting and restless creator, he had a long-lasting aversion to cliché and convention; he set himself high standards in an increasingly homogenized movie culture. The actors who worked with him can attest to this. Few directors have challenged cast members as did Kershner in pursuit of freshness and surprise. This probing, critical sensibility was the key to his filmmaking.


As a young man, he studied painting with Hans Hofmann and made documentaries for the United States Information Service. Moving into the realm of feature film, his wide-ranging interests enabled him to engage in melodrama ( "The Hoodlum Priest”,"The Eyes of Laura Mars"), comedy ("A Fine Madness," "The Flim-Flam Man"), science fiction ("RoboCop 2") and a memorable western ("Return of a Man Called Horse.") Kershner delighted in bringing to all his projects the same impatience with convention and sentimentality.


His many professional collaborators will remember first and foremost his enthusiasm. This, along with a sly sense of humor, made him a beloved leader for the film crews he headed over the years around the world. Kersh inspired and even demanded other professionals to do their best; he was a generous critic and appreciated the artistic talent of others. To many, he represented the best in what American filmmaking could do with its enviable resources and catholic traditions.


He believed in emotion as the basis for all dramatic storytelling. For him, the worst cinematic crime was flatness, or lack of feeling. In his many interactions with film students, frequently at the University of Southern California, he drove home this point in analyzing the scripts and short films by emerging writer/directors. Few who encountered Kershner either on the set or in the classroom will forget his almost ruthless pursuit of honesty and recognizable, complex human motivation.


In recent years, Kershner returned to one of his early loves: still photography. His camera work was a source of pride for him and something of a revelation for admirers of his movies. No matter what the subject matter - still life or cityscapes - he was not content with standard imagery or simple beauty. As always, he rejected formula. He set artistic goals that would elicit surprise and even wonder in the viewer.


The loss of Irvin Kershner, like that of his contemporary Arthur Penn, represents the passing of something important and scarce in American film today: the celebration of life - messy, hilarious, sad and often inexplicable.


His son David writes that in September of this year, he said, ""You have to throw yourself into things. There is no second way. Passion gives you energy." This is the Kershner that those who knew him best will never forget, a man who felt things intensely and had the gift to carry this vitality into everything he did.

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Tribute to a Friend
Written by Matthew Robbins
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