January 10, 2023
Russell Earl Banks, Adirondack Film co-founder and artistic consultant, died at his home in Saratoga Springs N.Y. on Jan. 7 at 82. The cause was identified as cancer from his literary agent, Ellen Levine.
It all began with a raging blizzard, a fitting scene for Banks’ American Victorian-esque writing style, where snow often fell. On one snowy, February night in Lake Placid, 1997, over 300 people braved the storm and marched into the Palace Theatre to attend the screening of Atom Egoyan’s film “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)—the twice—nominated Academy Award film adapted from Banks’ award-winning novel.
Banks was in attendance with Egoyan and Kathleen Carroll, the New York Daily News film critic and Lake Placid native. It is said that in a conversation after the screening, the event inspired Caroll and Banks to hold a film festival at the venue.
Soon after, Banks crafted a mission in collaboration with a group of others. This group included local artist, Naj Wikoff, Palace Theatre owner and guardian of its vintage 1926 Robert Morton theater organ, Reg Clark, New Jersey theater impresario, Nelson Page and local CPA, John Huttlinger. By 1999, the Adirondack Film Society was formed.
The mission was broad and included an independent film festival, year-round screenings of independent films, classic films, silent films and films of local filmmakers. They envisioned a student filmmaking competition, along with providing support for filmmakers who were looking to bring their productions to the Adirondacks. In October 1999, the Society hosted four successive Thursday evening screenings of classic silent films at The Palace Theatre, all with live accompaniment by Jeffrey Barker on the Robert Morton theater organ. The income from this event provided the seed money to launch the inaugural Lake Placid Film Forum in June 2000.
Banks was honored most recently by the Adirondack Film Society at the 2019 Tribute Gala.
To this day, Adirondack Film maintains its connection with the national and international independent film scene, and actively collaborates with local and regional filmmakers.
Banks later went on to host a screening of “Affliction” (1997), at the Palace Theatre. The film was adapted from his sixth novel that was shortlisted for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize. This feature film was also nominated for two Academy Awards, where actor James Coburn won best supporting actor. It explored the race and class wars of the American experience, which are similar themes of his other literary contributions, including the fiction Pulitzer Prize finalists “Cloudsplitter” and “Continental Drift,” with the latter known as his breakthrough novel.
''I was trying to understand my own life, and also my father's and grandfather's,” Banks said in a 2019 review of “Affliction” by the New York Times. ''I wanted to know what brought them to be the human beings they were, and why they inflicted so much suffering.''
Breathing life into history through artistic medium is a vision that transcended Adirondack Film to contribute to conversations of diversity and advocacy within its programming, which is evident through diversity celebrations such as collaborations with the John Brown Lives! Organization and the See Something That Means Something series.
“Russell lives in a space where most of us only strive to inhabit; that of true empathy and compassion for others,” said former Adirondack Film Chairman Nelson Page.
Banks believed in screening films in an intimate setting that encouraged collaboration and conversation. This, perhaps, was in part due to his appreciation for and transcendence of independent film. Banks told the Sundance Institute that he admired, respected and felt very close to independent directors and filmmakers such as Paul Schrader, Atom Egoyan and Raoul Peck.
Being somewhat of an underdog and breakout himself, Banks was candid throughout his life about the economic struggles and alcohol abuse within his family, particularly highlighting the rocky relationship with his father, a plumber of the working class.
Banks became the first of his family to attend college, receiving a full scholarship to Colgate University in 1958, although he only attended for less than one semester. He continued his education through the generous funding from the parents of his former wife, Mary Gunst. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he co-founded the “Lillabulero,” a small literary press and magazine, participated in protests as part of the Students for a Democratic Society and graduated with honors in 1967. At the end of his life, Banks had accumulated honorary doctorate degrees from seven institutions. He also was granted the honor of professor emeritus from Princeton University, where he began working in 1982.
By 1998, he was said to have been splitting his writing time between Princeton and the town of Keene, N.Y. — a small rural Adirondack town close to the John Brown farm and burial site. His appreciation of the Adirondacks is mirrored within his literature.
Banks also had ties to the rich history of the New England land through his own experience. Born on March 28, 1940, in Newton Mass., Banks was then raised in Barnstead, N.H., just northeast of the state’s capitol, Concord.
In his lifetime, Banks published 21 works of fiction and nonfiction; two volumes of poetry; and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper's, and many other publications.
He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Academy of Arts and Letters, served as president of the International Parliament of Writers, named the official New York State author from 2004 to 2008 and inducted into the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame.
He was also the recipient of the Common Wealth Award for Literature; the Guggenheim Fellowship; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships; Ingram Merrill Award; The St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction; O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award; The John Dos Passos Award; and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Banks is survived by his wife since 1989, Chase Twichell; along with Lea Banks, his daughter from his first marriage; three daughters, Caerthan, Maia and Danis Banks, from his second marriage; a brother, Stephen; a sister, Linda Banks; a half sister, Kathleen Banks-Nutter; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
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