Tom Brandau (1960-2021)
By Greg Carlson
When I first made his acquaintance, I didn’t think I liked Tom Brandau.
And I was certain the feeling was mutual.
Following the unexpected death of Minnesota State University Moorhead film studies professor Ted Larson -- a mentor to me and to Rusty Casselton and to many others -- Rusty left Concordia to direct the film program at MSUM and I moved from MSUM into Rusty’s spot at Concordia.
Tom arrived a few years later to help Rusty expand opportunities for students and to grow and transform the major at my alma mater. Still hurting from the loss of Ted, I didn’t immediately realize that the addition of Tom was monumental. We regarded each other warily, mostly keeping our distance. The first unlikely icebreaker happened the day the Baltimore native noticed me wearing an Orioles cap. I grew up in Minnesota and cheer for the Twins, but since childhood I have also enjoyed the O’s: orange and black like the Spuds, Eddie Murray at 1B, and that irresistible logo design.
Slowly, steadily, gradually, my friendship with Tom expanded and deepened. I came to recognize that any jealousy or territoriality that once existed out of professional rivalry had completely disappeared. Tom fell in love with Janet, and his kindness and generosity only increased. He continued to pursue creative work and teaching, twin passions he approached with rigor and accomplished with humility. To both, he brought an unwavering commitment to the value of teamwork.
Since the announcement of Tom’s death on March 3, 2021, we have taken comfort in the memories being shared on social media. Each one of those anecdotes and testimonials lifts a heavy heart. I have read expressions of love and grief from Tom’s students, friends, colleagues, and collaborators -- a large number known to me but others unknown. I feast on the specificity of these stories. I marvel at Tom’s largesse. Surely he must have cloned himself to find the time to nurture so many relationships. To actively and genuinely support others and take real interest in their projects.
Tom’s deep knowledge of the movies electrified a multitude of conversations. From the finer points of Vincent Price and Mercedes McCambridge in roles large and small to the special artistry of Verna Fields and James Wong Howe, Tom engaged fellow cinephiles with the exuberance of a kid unwrapping toys on Christmas morning. Some of the best discussions concerned Orson Welles, a Tom favorite. A trip down the rabbit hole of directorial technique in “The Lady from Shanghai” could wind its way toward a tragicomic accounting of late-career commercial work -- “We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there.”
When “Star Wars” special effects photography legend Richard Edlund visited the Fargo Film Festival to receive the Ted M. Larson Award in 2019 (an honor bestowed on Tom the next year), Tom was undergoing cancer treatment and did not feel well enough to attend in person. I conspired with Janet to surprise Tom at home with a visit from Edlund. The arrangements were made but when the time came, Tom was not up to seeing anyone.
On closing night of the festival, Janet found me and Edlund in the crowd before the session began. She came bearing Tom’s signature gift: specially selected and carefully wrapped original lobby cards accompanied by handwritten notes. One for Edlund and one for me. I had witnessed Tom’s habit of giving lobby cards from his personal collection to mark special occasions. For years, I secretly hoped to be the recipient of one.
Leave it to Tom to express such gratitude for something that didn’t even get to happen.
I will miss him.
September 26th 2021
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