Jack Garner is Rochester's Hollywood connection

05:00 AM, Sep 08, 2013

From My Seat on the Aisle: Movies and Memories is available for $19.99 later this week at ritpress.rit.edu/publications/books/


Written By Jim Memmott

WHERE TO GET THE BOOKFrom My Seat on the Aisle: Movies and Memories is available for $19.99 later this week at ritpress.rit.edu/publications/books. Book-signings are in the planning stages. One will be in conjunction with a screening of How to Marry a Millionaire on Nov. 13 at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House, 900 East Ave. Jack Garner will introduce the film as well.

JACK GARNER ON ...

Psycho. That was the film that turned horror into art — and scared the bejeezus out of me like no film before or since.
Star Wars. For 28 years, the Star Wars movies have been like family. They’ve encircled the Garners like a squadron of Empire tie fighters surrounding the Millennium Falcon.
Rear Window. We may not care to admit it, but we’ve always been a nation of peeping Toms.
Sophia Loren. I can’t explain my affection for Loren. Actually, I don’t imagine I have to. After all, she’s long been a world-class beauty.
Ray Charles. Growing up white in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950s and early ’60s, I had almost no contact with African-Americans and no inroads into the so-called black experience. And then I heard Ray Charles.
Frank Sinatra (when he was in Rochester in 1993). Instead of the swagger, there was a bit of a stagger. … But after the pianist played the bluesy opening notes of “One for My Baby,” all was forgiven. Sinatra once again became the lonely man in a corner bar in Anywhere, U.S.A., mourning his loss over a glass of bourbon.
Buffalo 41, Houston 38. So, I’ll admit it, the game turned this movie critic into a raving loon, eagerly dispensing a solid 10 on the event. … If somebody tried to turn Sunday’s event into a screenplay and put it on the screen, I wouldn’t believe it for a minute.

So many movies, so little time.

In his nearly 30 years of writing about film, Jack Garner would finish one review and quickly move on to the next. The pace was car-chase quick, exhilarating and exhausting all at once.

Then, in 2007, he retired as the chief film critic for the Democrat and Chronicle and the Gannett newspaper chain.

As he came up for air, one of Garner’s goals was to put together a book that would collect some of his interviews, some of his reflections and some of his reviews.

Garner, who is 68, has met that goal, authoring From My Seat on the Aisle: Movies and Memories. It will be published this month by the RIT Press.

I see this book as a major piece of Rochester history,” says Tom Proietti, a longtime observer of the cultural scene here and a resident scholar at St. John Fisher College. “Jack Garner has been the person who has taken our movie pulse for nearly four decades. He has been our guide. Our escort. And even our usher. He has added another piece to the mosaic of who we are as a community.”

Given his height — he was 6-feet-9, but says he’s lost a couple of inches to back trouble — Garner may also be the most visible writer in Rochester. (His height is one reason why he goes for the aisle seat. “I’m all about the leg room,” he says.)

Just as he can be spotted in a crowd, so can Garner be heard. For several years he was a frequent guest of radio’s Brother Wease, his cheerful, booming voice holding the listener’s attention.

As Proietti notes, all of Garner’s work could fill a small library, so in one sense this single volume can only hint at the writer’s productivity, a productivity that I knew for many years as his colleague and (for a time) boss at the Democrat and Chronicle.

There are just 24 reviews in the collection (one of these a wonderful look at a non-movie, the Buffalo Bills comeback victory over Houston in January 1993).

Nonetheless, the reviews are representative of a critic who writes about mainstream, independent and foreign movies with equal enthusiasm and expertise.

What I love most about Jack is how he translates his passion about the cinema and the arts in such lucid ways,” Michael Kane, the president and publisher of the Democrat and Chronicle, says in writer Scott Pitoniak’s preface to From My Seat on the Aisle.

The tone of Garner’s reviews is generally appreciative. “I was always prouder generally of positive reviews that turned people on to a movie more than I enjoyed knocking a movie,” he says.

Among the stars

Limiting the number of reviews in the book allows Garner to include more of his longer pieces. There are profiles of actors and directors, essays on subjects related to the movies and obituaries of movie greats.

All of these stories remind the reader of the surprising access Garner had as a national film critic who happened to live in Rochester.

He became Gannett’s national film critic in 1987, after 10 years as the Democrat and Chronicle’s film critic. Because Gannett had 80 or so papers throughout the country, Garner suddenly had much more clout than he had before.

That meant a day on the set watching Woody Allen direct a film. It meant interviewing Tom Hanks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas about the movie Apollo 13. (Garner, who describes both experiences in the book, considers Hanks one of the most genuinely nice people he has interviewed.)

But while his job involved lots of travel, there were times when Garner could just walk from his home in Rochester to the George Eastman House to interview visiting film dignitaries.

I can’t get over the fact that I got to interview Lillian Gish, arguably the first movie star,” Garner writes of his Eastman House-connected interviewees. “I did Audrey Hepburn’s last interview. I did Spike Lee at the Eastman House, where we both sat around watching the Knicks in a playoff.”

Louise Brooks, the silent film star, was close by, as well.

Her film career over, but her interest in film history still strong, Brooks moved to Rochester in 1956 so she could be near the Eastman House archive.

Garner first met Brooks in 1979 when he was writing an obituary of John Wayne. (Brooks and Wayne had acted together in Overland Stage Raiders.)

Eventually, Garner and his wife, Bonnie, became friends with the famously reclusive Brooks. They would visit her apartment on North Goodman Street in the city, bringing her food, helping out, listening.

She loved to talk about sex,” Garner writes. “… She speculated endlessly about the sex appeal and/or sexual preferences of any number of folks.”

Rochester also gave Garner access to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a Fairport native. The book includes his story on Capote, the 2005 movie for which Hoffman received the Academy Award.

His story

Throughout his career, Garner has also written about music. And while the main focus of his book is on the movies, he does include two pieces he wrote about Ray Charles, a hero since Garner was a teenager growing up in South Williamsport, Pa.

The connection to Charles was strengthened in 1967 when Garner was a senior at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, Cattaraugus County.

During a snowstorm, he and another student picked up the musician at the airport in Bradford, Pa., so he could perform at Bonaventure. In appreciation, Charles dedicated a song to Garner during the concert.

After graduation from St. Bonaventure in 1967, Garner worked for a year at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, before going to Syracuse University for graduate work. (He met Bonnie there.) After Syracuse, Garner was hired in 1970 by the now defunct Rochester Times-Union, the afternoon paper also owned by Gannett.

It was a pre-Internet, pre-laptop, pre-wireless age, so reporters on deadline would sometimes call in their stories. At the other end of the phone line, Garner took and sometimes rewrote their dictation, most notably during the 1971 riot at Attica prison.

In addition to handling the rewrite work, Garner also covered transportation and rock and roll. (Yes, reporters have to be versatile.)

Eventually, Garner moved to the Democrat and Chronicle, where he held editing positions before becoming a film reviewer.

Though he is now retired, Garner continues to write a column (see Page 5C), often on movies and music.

The newspaper wouldn’t be the same without his byline,” Karen Magnuson, vice president for news and editor of the Democrat and Chronicle, told Pitoniak.

But in retirement Garner has more time for travel, and there’s more time for children and grandchildren.

Jack and Bonnie, a retired school administrator, have a son, Matt, who is married and a film editor who lives in suburban New York City. The Garners’ daughter, Erica Tremble, an electrical engineer, lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children. Their other daughter, Mary Christian, lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children.

While at the Democrat and Chronicle, Garner sometimes wrote columns on family life, and he contemplates including them in another collection of his work.

We as humans always need stories,” he says. “Stories are how we learn about stuff, whether they’re in the movies or on the Internet, in a newspaper or in a book. Stories are what it’s about.”