We’re closed Nov 23–24 for Thanksgiving. See special hours.
Have any questions?
David Filipi, Melissa Starker, and Chris Stults
Feb 08, 2022
Longtime Columbus Dispatch film critic Frank Gabrenya died on Saturday at the age of 75. The Dispatch published a lovely obituary that speaks with many who worked with and/or loved him. Frank was a longtime supporter of the film programming at the Wexner Center and a number of us who work here had decades-long relationships with him. Here are a few memories:
The Wex film program was a bit of a square peg in a round hole to Frank. Unlike most of the films Frank reviewed, the Wex might show a new film only one or two times, and these films would not have a press screening and might require a bit of nudging to attract Frank’s attention. Or, there might not be any way for Frank to watch films that were part of an upcoming series or retrospective, so he would sometimes have to take our word for it when it came to the merits of an upcoming program. So, for roughly 15 years I would talk with Frank over the phone (and occasionally at the Dispatch or at a restaurant) about what films were on the horizon that might be of interest. Over the years, it became easier to know what would excite him and what would not, but to his great credit, his tastes could often surprise. I remember Frank championing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life, and the film was a huge success for us, thanks in no small part to his rave review and it’s placement within the Dispatch. He loved the films of Guy Maddin, which was great for us because Guy visited often and it was fun arranging for Frank to be able to spend some time with him.
In 2010, I wrote this for our website: “At the beginning of the decade we presented a retrospective of the work of Taiwanese director Hou-Hsiao-hsien, who had just been named the director of the 1990s by the then-influential Village Voice poll, despite the fact that almost no one in the US had even heard of him. Frank Gabrenya, the former longtime Dispatch critic, wrote about the 'discovery of Hou and gave prominent coverage to the unknown director even though the director wasn't visiting and nothing more special than the films were being presented. The series did better than we could ever imagined, thanks in no small part to Frank's open-mind and the coverage that resulted. We'd never get the same type of article today.”
Frank delighted in taking the air out of things. He was always critiquing our promotional copy. If we ever referred to our “big screen,” Frank would ask how big it was or how big it was compared to other screens in town. I remember he would often question words such as “iconic” or “legendary” and opine that we were not using the words properly. When conversation would turn to Billy Wilder – our shared favorite director – Frank would always explain why his favorite Wilder film (Some Like it Hot) was better than my favorite Wilder film (Sunset Boulevard). And even though Wilder was his favorite director, he selected Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) to introduce as his Critic’s Choice in January 1996. He was excited that we were able to show the film with Pollack’s personal print, but he also never stopped grumbling that then-New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty had selected the film he really wanted to introduce—Night of the Hunter—a few months earlier. We were often able to connect Frank with well-known filmmakers for interviews, and he would often call after the interview to say thanks but also to provide a play-by-play if it went really well. I remember Frank being particularly excited after interviewing Walter Shenson, the producer of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, leading up to a screening of the film in 1996. Frank definitely put his own stamp on all of his interviews.
To be honest, we talked about baseball as much as anything. He loved his Cleveland Indians (they were close to the top of the baseball world when I moved to Columbus) and I loved my Minnesota Twins, and you can only imagine the provocations that were exchanged about that subject.
He was a great guy and a true professional. He took his relationship with his readers very seriously and it showed in his approach to his subjects and the results in the paper. He retired just over ten years ago, but it seems like a lot longer with all of the changes in what is left of the newspaper business. How lucky we were to have a dedicated daily film critic for so long.
When I first moved to Columbus from Boston and started a job at the Drexel Theatre, no one had to tell me that Frank Gabrenya was the most influential critic in town. It was apparent in his mild tardiness to press screenings, which would be held until he arrived and got his coffee.
I had noticed a similar pattern at my previous theater job with the Boston Globe critic who, while a very nice guy, was all business, heading straight in and out of the theater for most screenings. Frank, on the other hand, would sometimes hang out for a few minutes afterward to chat. (You just couldn’t ask him for a rating spoiler; I recall a studio rep once asking him what he thought of a film as he walked out of the theater and Frank saying something like, “I thought it was 100 minutes long.”) And if things ran a few minutes late, you never did mind too much. He was an entertaining curmudgeon with a warm, generous heart. Frank brought just the kind of infectious passion and curiosity you hope for from a critic, along with a respect for his audience of central Ohio readers.
When I moved to writing about film and made a pitch to freelance for the Dispatch, Frank was a supportive colleague if an intimidating one—simply because he was such a pro (I got the sweats the first time I had to come up with a punny one-liner to rival his). When we started writing for different publications, a smoke and a talk with Frank after screenings became part of the routine, where he gave me gifts like insight into his finely honed process, invites to his annual bocce party, and a really hard time for having never seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (a grave mistake that’s since been corrected). His loss has brought back memories of appearing alongside him at events like a Wex series of films celebrating the centenary of Universal Pictures, and as a panelist on film-centric episodes of WOSU-FM’s All Sides. His quick wit and encyclopedic knowledge were always amazing things to behold. You can see some of that at work during his appearance in a documentary about Clintonville's Studio 35 by longtime staffer Tim Baldwin, which is pictured at top of page. All of Frank's segments in the film have been collected here.
In a time of “content,” both streaming and aggregated, it now feels like such a luxury to think back on a time when newspapers could employ a full-time film critic. Growing up in Columbus with a burgeoning love for movies, Frank was the first critic I read regularly and, as a teenager, taught me the movie lover’s joy of having a steady sparring partner to cheer and argue about movies with (even if the arguments were in your own head as you read the paper). I vividly remember the relief of seeing that Frank loved a movie that I loved too and saving the Arts section of the Dispatch for later so that I could read Frank’s review after seeing an anticipated movie like Do the Right Thing or GoodFellas.
Even when I started reading film critics more widely in my twenties (J. Hoberman and Georgia Brown were 90s favorites), I always kept checking in with Frank. I remember writing him a letter of appreciation in 1993 when he wrote a rave review of a movie that meant a lot to me at the time. Thinking back on Frank’s response thirty years later, it’s a beautiful reminder of how his work was guided by a love of movies. Frank’s letter to me told a story about how he got a flat tire on his way to the press screening and was in such a bad mood when the movie started but the film was so transforming and transfixing that it turned things around and made it a good day.
It’s good to remember that driving passion for film and his work because there were plenty of times when it seemed like Frank enjoyed being a curmudgeon than an enthusiast. Deploying puns and wordplay that covered the spectrum from inspired to dad jokes, Frank brought a distinctive voice to his writing. He was begrudging with four star reviews and usually only gave out a few a year. Once, in the early 2000s when I was starting off my career and had gotten to know Frank personally while working at the Drexel, we opened a string of four films in a row that got four stars from Frank and it felt like such an unprecedented moment. The first three were early films by directors that became major figures (Memento, Amores Perros) and a smartly entertaining and well-cast genre film (The Tailor of Panama). The following week, Frank called, with pain in his voice, and said that he was giving Focus, the tiny now-forgotten indie film starring William H. Macy and Laura Dern, four stars and laughingly threatened that we needed to stop opening all these great movies because it’s starting to look like he’s going soft.
Frank was always, stubbornly, his own man and often bucked critical consensus on films. The beautiful Taiwanese film Yi Yi has become a modern humanist masterpiece for film lovers. I remember getting an enraged call from the film’s distributor about Frank’s review, which she claimed was the only negative review that the film got across the country. It even opened with a line that was so dismissive, about how the film would have audience members looking for the exits, that readers were all but encouraged to stop reading and move on to the next article.
But Frank was committed to his work and had the ethos of an old-school newspaperman. There were times when press screenings would brush up against a deadline and he could crank out a well-crafted review that felt labored over in almost no time. And I remember that his reviews of the Oscar ceremony would often be written in real-time because the daily newspaper deadlines would require him to have the article finished because the show was over. I think his favorite writing was when he found an esoteric filmmaker, like Wex fave Guy Maddin, that he could use his platform to champion and he was always a big advocate for broadening your viewing horizons with international cinema.
Our hearts go out to Frank’s wife, Patty, and his children. We’re grateful for all the memories, all the words, and all the great bocce parties (along with the cute Patty and Frank BBQ invitations). Probably the best way to end any tribute to Frank is in his own words and with his own distinctive and unforgettable voice. Here’s an appearance that Frank made on a 1980 movie trivia show hosted by Flippo the Clown on the experimental interactive Columbus cable service QUBE. Watch local cub scouts and brownies cheer on two men named Frank as they answer questions about Myrna Loy and Joan Bennett! Marvel at the casual use of a prop gun as a gag! A true legend of Columbus journalism, Frank is missed!
Top of page: Frank Gabrenya in Tim Baldwin's Now Showing: The Story of Studio 35 | Image courtesy of the filmmaker