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Little Man Hate

Judy Stone
Hey Judy, Don't Bring Me Down: She may have retired, but critic Judy Stone doesn't shy away from sharing her cantankerous opinions on Ameircan cinema.



Retired film writer Judy Stone on cinema, politics, and the Chronicle's despised symbol

By Richard von Busack

Judy Stone, late of the San Francisco Chronicle, would like to distance herself from her former co-worker, the Little Man. The Little Man, the cartoon audient (i.e., single member of an audience), is the Chronicle mascot--probably the best-known member of the Chron's staff, really, now that Herb Caen is gone, even though the Little Man only does one of four things: jumps up in his seat, leans forward with interest, slumps listlessly or dozes. "I hate the Little Man," Stone said during an interview at the cafe in the lobby of the Kabuki Theatre. "People just look at what the Little Man is doing and don't read the reviews--reviews that someone spent a lot of time working on."

Stone, a physically small but quite formidable lady in her 70s, was being honored at the SF International Film Festival on the release of her book Eye on the World--Conversations With International Filmmakers (826 pages, Silman-James, $35.) The book collects interviews with some 200 directors Stone has encountered, including local heroes Coppola and Lucas, and the lesser-known but just as important San Francisco film director Philip Kaufman. Stone also talked to such titans of cinema such as Luis Buñuel, John Huston, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. The book caps Stone's nearly 30-year tenure as the most powerful print film critic in the Bay Area.

Eye on the World reflects Stone's best assets as a reporter: a strong sense of social responsibility and a lack of prudery--a fault quite common in daily critics--that allowed her to see the quality of raw films such as Jean-Clause Lauzon's harrowing 1992 Leolo, or Dusan Makavejev's 1974 Sweet Movie: "I really understood what Makavejev was doing. I worked really hard writing about Sweet Movie. It got dumped on here."

And the title Eye on the World honors one aspect of foreign film: its ability to give a periscope view into parts of the earth you'd never see otherwise. "Writing about these films was all a learning process," she said. "I didn't go to these films always knowing about the countries they came from. It was a lot of work. Critics ought to provide some context for the American audience. Often I saw critics, and I won't mention their names, who wrote about films concerning the Irish troubles without knowing anything about the situation in Ireland."

Stone wrote her first review more than 60 years ago for the student newspaper at Jay Cooke Junior High in Philadelphia; the film was the Gary Cooper/Madeleine Carroll picture The General Died at Dawn co-starring Akim Tamiroff as a Chinese warlord. ("I liked it," she remembers.) Stone is the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and the sister of the famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone. "I have three older brothers who are journalists, and they're all influences," she replied when asked if "Izzy" Stone led her into the newspaper business.

Stone dropped out of school to work in a radio-parts factory during World War II. She was managing editor for The Square Dealer, the newspaper of her union, the United Electrical, Radio Machine Workers of America CIO. After the war, Stone worked for the Marin Independent-Journal as a reporter.

Following a hiatus of a few years in New York, Stone returned to the West to start work on the copy desk at the Chronicle. She was also freelancing for Ramparts, editor Warren Hinckley's radical subversion of a small, discreet Catholic magazine. At Ramparts, Stone wrote about Traven and Luis Buñuel. An early interview with Walter Huston, star of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, doubled back on her later in life when Stone wrote a book about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre's elusive author, B. Traven. "I don't think I'll ever really know if the man I interviewed was Traven," Stone said.

In 1965, Stone also covered the disintegration of the Hollywood production code for Ramparts. Stone then transferred to the Datebook section of the Chronicle, right when American film was about to leave censorship behind. Since Stone received a buy-out offer from the Chronicle, she's retired from daily reporting.

To Stone, covering film was covering a beat, and she was undazzled by star power. Asked what a high point of her career was, she said: "I'm very proud of one quote-scoop-unquote." Stone was attending a film festival in Moscow and was the only American reporter to see Alexsandr Askoldov's long-banned 1968 film Commisar. "It's about a pregnant woman commissar who had to stay with a poor Jewish family," she said. "It was the first time in years a Jewish family or anything Jewish had turned up in a Russian movie. After I filed the story with the Chron, I called the Moscow correspondent from The New York Times about it, and two weeks later their story turned up in the Times.

"I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic. When you work for a daily paper you don't get a chance to go into depth; I leave that to [Pauline] Kael. I'm not a film buff," she said briskly. "I don't want to see every movie ever made. There's a lot of garbage out there."

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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