Ronnie Scheib, Variety’s longtime New York-based freelance film critic, died Oct. 4 after a three-year battle with lung cancer. She was 71.
Scheib began reviewing films for Variety in 2002, starting with an assessment of Frederick Wiseman’s “Domestic Violence.” Documentaries of every kind would become one of her many specialties as she spent the next 13 years covering the New York independent and festival scene, enthusiastically tackling dysfunctional-family comedies, mumblecore movies, French romances, Japanese dramas, avant-garde works and any other titles that came her way.
Scheib’s reviews were distinguished by their erudition and richness of language, as well as a delight in narrative and formal experimentation (Godard was a particular favorite) that never hindered her appreciation of more straightforward dramatic fare. Over the course of her 13-year Variety career, she attended the Venice, Locarno and Montreal World film festivals, though she spent most of her year covering the events in and around her own backyard, including the New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, the Hamptons Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, NewFest, and the New York Jewish and New York Asian film festivals.
Among the docs she reviewed for Variety in recent years were Michel Gondry’s animated Noam Chomsky portrait, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”; Amy Berg’s controversial inside-Hollywood-sex-abuse piece, “An Open Secret”; and Albert Maysles’ final film, “Iris.” She also weighed in on Sony’s recent redo of “Annie,” writing: “While there are several possible good reasons to remake the Depression-set musical ‘Annie’ in 2014, none of them seem to have informed Will Gluck’s overblown yet undernourished treatment.”
Like most critics, she was more favorably inclined toward “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which she reviewed from its first screening at the New York Film Festival. “Adapting the cold language of data encryption to recount a dramatic saga of abuse of power and justified paranoia, Poitras brilliantly demonstrates that information is a weapon that cuts both ways,” Scheib wrote.
She was particularly prized for her stamina and willingness to review films of a marathon length that few other critics would raise their hands for, including Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s 7½-hour “Melancholia” and his nearly nine-hour “Death in the Land of Encantos,” proclaiming that the latter “confirms the helmer’s status as a brilliant but consummately non-commercial artist.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Scheib received a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis U. She earned a master’s degree from McGill and a doctorate from Yale, both in French literature. Her command of the language served her well as a translator for non-English speakers, and as a teacher of French literature at UCLA and Rutgers. She also was active in community theater, playing Laura Partridge in a local production of Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman’s “The Solid Gold Cadillac.”
For the most part, though, Scheib lived a life steeped in cinema old and new, shared with her partner of 40 years, the animation director and Warner Bros. veteran Greg Ford. Before it was destroyed in a 2010 fire, their Crosby Street apartment was a treasure trove of old film prints, which the couple screened for friends and guests, including the critic Manny Farber.
Scheib wrote for Film Comment in the 1970s and ’80s. Her work for the magazine included a 1981 piece on Charles Schnee, screenwriter of “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town,” and a 1980 appreciation of director Ida Lupino. She later co-produced a Kino Intl. video series on Lupino.
Her film criticism also appeared in the Chicago Reader, American Film, Metro and Framework, for which she wrote a piece on Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” (titled “Tough Nuts to Crack”).
Ford often edited Scheib’s reviews before she filed them to Variety, and she in turn contributed to a number of his Bugs Bunny shorts. She received story credit on “(Blooper) Bunny” (1997), as well as dialogue credits on “Bugs Bunny’s Creature Features” (1992) and “Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers” (1992).
“She wrote especially good Daffy Duck dialogue; it couldn’t have been better,” Ford said, “She just came up with it spontaneously, and my God, it’d be perfect.” Scheib’s explanation for this, which she liked to repeat from time to time, was “Daffy Duck, c’est moi.”
She is survived by Ford and her brother, Jeff Scheib.
(Note: Justin Chang edited Ronnie Scheib’s Variety reviews from 2006-15.)