Beyond The Criticism
by Lucas Mirabella
What do you know about film critics? You’ve read their reviews, heard their opinions on hundreds of subjects and even seen a few of their faces. But what do you really know about film critics beyond their words on the page? Unless a friend or family member belongs to this profession, the answer is probably very little.
Which is why this month we’ve decided to profile Stephen Farber, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, film critic for the Hollywood Reporter and host of Reel Talk, a popular Los Angeles-based film series. On top of being an active member of the film community for over forty years, Farber is also one of the top moderators of panel discussions around town, having conducted hundreds of interviews with many of the industry’s biggest names. He’s also written several acclaimed books on film: “Hollywood Dynasties” and “Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and The Twilight Zone Case” among them, and penned screenplays for some of the most distinguished filmmakers of his generation.
Farber’s passion for cinema began at a young age. His father, a lawyer in Cleveland, was an enthusiastic moviegoer and used to take Stephen and his sister to Saturday matinees. But it wasn’t until his teenage years that he discovered film criticism.
After being exposed to some of the more intellectual critics like Dwight McDonald of Esquire and Stanley Kauffman of The New Republic, Farber realized that not everybody had the gushy opinions he was used to reading in movie magazines and his local paper. “As a kid, I enjoyed most movies so I was in sync with that positive point of view,” Farber recalled. “Then I started reading these much harsher critiques, particularly of Hollywood movies like Ben-Hur, and I was very intrigued because they were well-written by smart people and they seemed to make very convincing cases against these movies. I started thinking, ‘Oh, there’s another way to look at some of these movies.’”
Farber began writing for his high school newspaper, eventually working his way up to editor. Around then, The Cleveland Press held a movie review contest for all the high school critics and columnists in the area. Needless to say, Farber took the prize. “I got an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood in 1960 and stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which was very glamorous at that time,” Farber remembered fondly. “I went on tours of the studios, observed movie sets and met some actors including Elvis Presley, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It was very exciting and I think I got hooked then.”
While pursuing an English degree at Amherst, Farber maintained his passion for cinema by writing about film and theater for the college paper. It was during this period that he had a very memorable encounter with two of the most famous movie stars of the day. After writing a theater review of a New York production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, Farber’s father, impressed by his son’s review, sent Burton a copy. Amazingly, not only did Burton respond, he arranged orchestra seats and backstage passes for Farber. “I went with my sister, a cousin and a friend in New York,” he recalled. “We were joking as we were walking backstage about how funny it would be if Liz Taylor was there. So we walked in and my sister sat down on the couch without even looking and right next to her was Elizabeth Taylor! We met her and chatted a bit with Burton. It was quite exciting.”
Following Amherst, Farber went to graduate school for English at UC-Berkeley. During this time, he had his first essay published in Film Quarterly. Gaining recognition from one of the leading film publications of the day gave Farber the push he needed to pursue film full-time. He transferred to UCLA film school and went on to earn a Masters in Theater Arts.
Farber’s development as a film critic coincided with the emergence of influential critic Pauline Kael, who at the time was just beginning her long tenure at The New Yorker. He reached out to Kael in the late ‘60s, sending some reviews in hopes of a critique, and met her shortly thereafter when she guest lectured at UCLA. By this point, Farber was already on Kael’s radar through his essays in Film Quarterly. As he got to know firsthand, Kael didn’t mince words.
“After the lecture, I was invited to meet with her privately,” Farber recalled. “She said, ‘You’re a very fluent writer, but often you overvalue these films and you’re not critical enough of them.’ She also wrote me a critique saying I was too indulgent. I preferred writing positive things about movies I liked rather than a denunciation of movies I didn’t like. Although Pauline did like a negative essay I wrote about “The Graduate,” a contrarian point of view of a movie that everyone loved at the time. But I disagreed with her on a number of things so she wasn’t that interested in sponsoring me.”
Still, Farber found a balance in his own writing through the example set by well-argued critics like Kael. Regarding her influence, Farber said, “I liked her writing because she would bring a lot of her personal experience into her commentary. It wasn’t just writing about film. She would bring her knowledge and wisdom about life into her reviews. To some extent I was influenced by that, although I didn’t have the confidence to go quite as far as she did in bringing so much personal experience into reviews. I think everybody liked her conversational tone and tried to model their writing on that. But I was not in agreement with her about a lot of movies.”
Modern film criticism, Farber noted, isn’t in the same class as it once was. Part of this can be attributed to the downfall of print publishing and the diminished standards that are part and parcel with online journalism, but Farber thinks the main problem is a monolithic thinking among critics. “There’s definitely a group-think about a lot of filmmakers,” he explained. “For example, I don’t agree with a lot of critics about Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s really loved by a large number of critics and I don’t get him at all. I’ve always tried to be more independent. I just try to have an honest response to what I see and sometimes don’t get the enthusiasm of critics. I also think critics today aren’t nearly as cogent or as likely to make me rethink my opinion. This isn’t always the case, but I find most of their arguments not at all convincing.”
I wondered how Farber felt about the current state of the film industry. He expressed a longing for the days of socially relevant, character driven fare that used to be a staple of every studio’s output, but has since been replaced by franchises, comic books, and effects-driven movies. Independent cinema still thrives on these types of films, but Farber contends that it’s not what it used to be. “There was more excitement when these films were made with big actors like Paul Newman,” Farber explained. “They had good production values and were very professionally made on a certain budget. Now you will see these big actors occasionally doing independent films because they’re frustrated and can’t find interesting movies being made at the studios. But oftentimes these are very tiny movies that just don’t have the excitement they did in earlier years.”
When asked about the films from this past year he felt were underappreciated, Farber voiced disbelief that the only movies nominated for Academy Awards were released in the last three months of the year. “People completely forgot that there were other movies that came out earlier in the year that were very good,” said Farber. “’Fruitvale Station’ was a fantastic movie that won awards at Sundance and got great reviews but was completely overlooked at the end of the year. It should have been acknowledged for the performances. That was a small independent movie but very powerful, dealt with important subject matter and really had an emotional impact.
“’Mud’ was another excellent movie. well written, well acted, had a very unique flavor to it, again got great reviews, but was completely forgotten and overlooked. And then there was ‘42,’ which was a little bit simplistic and overly slick but still a great story about the first black player to play major league baseball. An important subject, well acted, a very well done period film.”
Many people consider film critics as having a dream job. Who wouldn’t want to watch movies for a living? I asked Farber what was his favorite part of being a film critic. “Well it’s not exactly construction work or garbage collection!” he conceded. “It’s a lot more pleasant. I still enjoy seeing movies so it’s fun to do it. But there’s so many movies being released it can get oppressive at times. There are days where I have two or three screenings and you don’t have time for anything else, so that can be a little overwhelming. Luckily, I’m at a fortunate point now where to some degree I can pick and choose the things I see.”
As for the future, Farber looks forward to other forms of writing, including screenplays, a memoir and possibly even a novel. “I’d like to write a book about my experiences and some of the people I’ve met. I have some pretty good stories from over the years and people are always interested in Hollywood insider stories so I think that would be a lot of fun. I’ve also enjoyed working on documentary projects and would like to do more on film history. “
And of course, there’s Reel Talk, Farber’s weekly film series that features preview screenings of highly anticipated films followed by a panel discussion with the talent involved. Farber derives a lot of pleasure from Reel Talk, as it gives him an opportunity to speak in depth with the filmmakers and open a dialogue with the audience, something writers don’t often have the opportunity to do. Between that and his Anniversary Classics series, a similar concept as Reel Talk except with classic films and Hollywood legends as guest speakers, Farber shows no signs of letting up.