In memory of Bob Ellis (1951–2018)

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I knew of Bob long before I met him.  I’d seen his white shock of hair at countless movies at the Biograph Theatre, where it seemed to us employees that he was in constant attendance.  He was a familiar figure too on the VCU campus as a popular and long-time adjunct in the English department.  It would not be until 1994 that we would be introduced.

The occasion was a late Sunday night at Joe’s Inn, and Trent Nicholas and I were celebrating the wrap of the first James River Festival of the Moving Image (later the James River Film Festival).  A couple of booths away my friend Ron Childs was seated with the white-haired guy everyone called “Bob”.

As we ordered a second round, Ron came over and said I want you to meet Bob Ellis. So I walked over and Ron introduced, “Spike, this is Ellis”.  I said that I’d seen around and knew of him, and Bob smiled and said:” Of course!”

And as spoken in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a “beautiful friendship”.  Bob became active with the James River Short Film competition as a juror and soon established (proclaimed) himself as the James River Film group’s resident critic—he even looked like Roger Ebert!  He cajoled and worked the fellow jurors’ choices toward the more experimental and the avant-garde film submissions and in the process helped forge an identity, a brand of what kind of films we like to show and why.

One year he delivered an impromptu manifesto to a Grace Street Theater crowd gathered to screen the winners of the competition.

Bob’s introduction to Richard Myers’ Akran was lauded by the filmmaker as the best intro he’d ever heard about his own work!  Among his other films championed were Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and the sexplosion Swedish imports I Am Curious Yellow/ I Am Curious Blue and his admiration for Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard’s films bordered on religious.

As he lived for a long while just down the street from my own Fan residence, I’d drink beer (frozen Busch beer that we pried out of his over iced freezer compartment) and listen to records from his dusty collection, and talk music (Patti Smith, Ramones, Iggy Pop, Nina Simone), poetry (Billy Collins, the Beats, Sonia Sanchez whom he’d met), literature (Updike, Woolf, Stegner,Oates) and of course, cinema. He also became dear to my wife and daughter and cat Sassy, and would spontaneously compose songs for their birthdays, which he sang and played to us on his Martin guitar.

I never knew anyone who lived for literature and art in general like Bob, and I’ll miss those long roundabout discussions and the frosty beers. I knew of Bob long before we met, and I’ll know of him long after his passing.

-Mike Jones 

President JRFS

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