Dennis Grunes, the literary critic, poet, and critic and historian of world cinema, died in Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital, in Portland, Oregon, on June 15, 2013. According to his integrated care consultant, Dr. Teresa Diaz, the cause was aspiration pneumontis, owing to end-state renal disease.
Although Dr. Grunes [pronounced GREW-niss] was not famous as a mass-media critic, his literate, informed, and, often, deeply moving writings on film, especially, were avidly followed by working filmmakers, other critics and historians, and armchair cineastes throughout the U.S. and abroad. His film critic’s blog, on WordPress, contains thousands of critical entries—most of them precisely 300 words long but some essays on individual masterpieces much longer than that. He loved the pictures of 20th-century Russia and France, in particular; however, he made it his business to evaluate films as old as 19th-century Russian, French, and American silents and filmmakers as far-flung as those of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and he found masters and masterpieces to appreciate in every category. He was also a vigorous partisan of nonpareil independent filmmakers of the past quarter century—especially Chris Marker, Jon Jost, and Gus Van Sant.
Like many online critics, Dr. Grunes also amassed lists: the 100 Greatest Films of All Time (his pride and joy), the 25 Greatest Film Performances by Actresses, the 10 Greatest Films on the Holocaust, and so forth. These lists were never set in stone, however; and where Orson Welles might top a list one year he could be dethroned by Michelangelo Antonioni in another. Because the lists reflected Dr. Grunes’s tremendous erudition in film, one consulted them often to, so to speak, take the temperature of the critic’s enthusiasms, which encompassed every genre of filmmaking (the short and long feature, the documentary, the film essay) and every kind of tone or temperament (comic, tragic, dispassionate, engaged) and also represented his appetite and limitless capacity for revisiting individual films many, many times.
Dennis Scott Grunes was born on January 31, 1948, in Brooklyn, New York, to Ann and Casper Grunes. He earned his B.A., in English at the State University of New York at Binghamton, in 1969, and his Ph.D., in English with a minor in film, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in 1974, where his mentor was Leslie Fiedler. His thesis, The Romantic Brother, a brilliant study of fraternal myth and motifs in Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and others, was published in 1973 by SUNY/Buffalo. The 1970s and ‘80s were gruesome decades for English Ph.D.s who sought full-time teaching jobs; and, despite not only completing his doctoral thesis in three years but having it published, and publishing many essays and articles in such distinguished scholarly journals as Transcendental Quarterly, the Emily Dickinson Bulletin, Contemporary Poetry, and Studies in the Humanities, Dr. Grunes could not find a sustaining perch in academe. With the exception of one year as a public relations writer for the Bet On A Vet program in Buffalo, he never enjoyed a full-time job; instead, he patched together a living from adjunct teaching, business and governmental-report writing, and tutoring. In 1976, he was one of three featured young scholars in “A Generation of ‘Lost’ Scholars,” a cover story, by Darcy O’Brien, of The New York Times Magazine. Although the article attracted much attention, it didn’t help to bring Dr. Grunes secure work as a teacher.
In 1980, Dr. Grunes moved from Buffalo to Portland, Oregon, where friends were living, and he began to write for general audiences on various arts, publishing over 100 reviews and features in local magazines, and to teach literature and composition, again as an adjunct, at Portland State University and, by mail, for the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, for which he also wrote four independent student course guides. From the early 1980s, as well, Dr. Grunes assisted his friend Tony Bacon on editorial projects. When, in 1995, Mr. Bacon established The Daily Insider, an online community news periodical, published on weekdays for southwest Washington State, Dr. Grunes became the valued editor and continued, after Mr. Bacon’s death, at the behest of Mrs. Bacon, until shortly before Dr. Grunes’s death. Some of Dr. Grunes’s film writings were published there.
In 2007, thanks to numerous telephone tutorials with Chicagoan Denise Gaeta, Dr. Grunes established his blog on world film and contributed to it many times a week, up until a few weeks before his death. Its title was simply “Dennis Grunes.”
In 2010, Olivier Stockman, of the Sands Films Cinema Club, in London, England, published a compendium of Dr. Grunes’s film writings, A Short Chronology of World Cinema (still in print, in paperback), with the following foreword:
“In his book Histoire du Cinema Mondial, Georges Sadoul tried to put each film in its context; in an appendix, he added a chronology, giving for each year, from 1892 to 1966, a list of notable titles. Sadoul’s list became the main inspiration for Sands Films Cinema Club and programming films by year of production.
“The necessity of cinema clubs and film societies is demonstrated by the fact that many of Sadoul’s 5,000 listed titles have not been seen since their original release; and when a film is lost, forgotten, or locked in the vault of a remote cinematheque, it ceases to exist: a film exists only when it is screened to an audience.
“Searching for information about films I have not seen, I came across someone who seems to have seen everything. I then discovered that Dennis Grunes has written about almost each film he has seen during the last 40 years or so. This massive work cannot be improvised nor even commissioned: it is a lifetime commitment. Taken individually, each entry is, at the very least, an introduction to a film, but edited together and classified by year, these neat 300-word entries become a remarkable survey of the history of world cinema. Publishing this book became therefore the natural continuation of the club’s activity and purpose.
“Dennis Grunes is a sharp critic, opinionated and well informed, his passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Ironically, Dennis Grunes has never been to Sands Films Cinema Club, we have never met, we have never watched a film together and, perhaps, we never will: he lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Several thousand email messages exchanges supplied the material for this book, composed with care and discipline by an exacting writer.”
Another tribute from a reader who only knew Dr. Grunes online comes from the writer Tom Zaniello:
“Because I never met Dennis, I knew him through his reviews and his e-mails and was always pleased to read both. They were unfailingly fascinating; often the result was that I would rush off to locate the film he had written about so I could see it. Dennis was a virtual film school. He took time out not too long ago to send me a few critiques of sections of a Hitchcock book I am writing. Whence comes such another?! He will be very, very missed.”
Dr. Grunes never married, although he enjoyed long friendships with many individuals. He is survived by his elder brother, Rodney; his sister-in-law, Judith; his nephew Jeff; and his great-nephew Avi Jacob.
In August of 2012, he last updated his list of “50 Best Films of All Time.” The first five entries are, in order: L’eclisse by Antonioni, A Sixth of the World by Dziga Vertov, Ordet by Carl Dreyer, Earth by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Early Summer by Yasujiro Ozu. The entire list, as well as his other film writings and some of his poetry, are still available on his blog: HYPERLINK “http://www.grunes.wordpress.com” http://www.grunes.wordpress.com
In his own foreword to A Short Chronology of World Cinema, Dr. Grunes wrote:
“I have tried to emphasize the expressive nature of films—those aspects that certify cinema as an art form rather than as a medium of diversion. Like most paintings, poems or whatever, most films aren’t especially expressive; they simply fail as art. They may take as their primary aim the filmmaker’s relationship with an audience, which the filmmaker tries to manipulate or entertain. A serious filmmaker places his or her primary interest elsewhere: in developing themes, which entails finding—by intellection or intuition, for different artists work very differently—the expressive means for doing this. Substantial films therefore require considerable focus for their creation, and they require, by us, scarcely less in their viewing and consideration. Diversions glide over us; art, on the other hand, makes demands on us—and rewards us generously when we meet those demands.”
~ Mindy Aloff, August 2013