Manny Farber, 1917-2008 

Critic's passing leaves a Space

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

I never met Manny Farber, but about a decade ago, when I was just starting out as a freelance film reviewer for Variety and had fallen under the spell of Farber’s indispensable essay collection, Negative Space (then newly reprinted in an expanded edition), I wrote him a gushy fan letter in which, like many a disciple seeking the counsel of his master, I solicited any words of wisdom he might have to offer about my own nascent career. A few weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived in the mail containing a recycled page from a licensing agreement between Farber and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (which, in 1978, had presented the first major retrospective of Farber’s paintings). On the reverse side, scribbled in a tense caligraphic hand, were the following lines: “Mr. Foundas, as far as I know movie criticism is a brutal job and more so at Variety. I can’t help you out but I appreciated your asking.” Signed, Manny.

This was more than 20 years after Farber co-authored (with his wife and collaborator, Patricia Patterson) his last piece of published film criticism — “Kitchen Without Kitsch,” a review of Chantal Akerman’s landmark avant-garde film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, for the November-December, 1977, issue of Film Comment — and a decade after he retired from the faculty of UC San Diego to devote himself entirely to his artwork. It was also several years before film critics would emerge as one of the most endangered species in the massive layoffs, buyouts and pushes toward syndication that rolled through newsrooms at the dawn of the 21st century. But the brutality Farber was talking about, in his characteristically gruff but spot-on manner, had little to do with the vagaries of job security and everything to do with the grueling, wearying, workaday realities of professional writing — provided that you take the job as seriously as Farber took his.

As early as 1971 and the first printing of Negative Space, Farber, who had been writing criticism on and off since the 1940s for The New Republic, The Nation, Artforum and many smaller journals, groused about “newspaper editors, who believe readers die like flies at the sight of esthetic terminology.” Farber, you see, believed fundamentally in film as art — by which he didn’t mean the self-important costume dramas, message pictures and foreign exotica that, even then, were showered with extravagant praise by unsophisticated critics and outfits like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In contrast to these “white elephant” spectacles (as he lastingly dubbed them), Farber advocated more modest, elemental “termite art” — throwaway B movies, Westerns and, later on, important works of European and experimental cinema that he found sui generis, teeming with life, and more invested in individual moments than grandiose objectives. Of the 1948 noir The Big Sleep, the second collaboration between two of his favorite termite artists, director Howard Hawks and actor Humphrey Bogart, he wrote, “One of the fine moments in 1940s film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign.”

click to enlarge An artist prepares: Farber in his studio.
  • An artist prepares: Farber in his studio.

Long before letter grades, star ratings and up- or downturned thumbs became the currency of most newspaper- and magazine-sponsored criticism, Farber had developed a healthy disgust for the role of quantitative analysis in movie reviewing. “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: The problems of writing are after that,” he told Richard Thompson in a career-spanning, strikingly self-aware 1977 interview. “I don’t think [evaluation] has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” Doubtless, the Academy, the American Film Institute and other canon-building entities — to say nothing of those readers who read film reviews expecting to be told what movies they should see — would beg to differ. But if not evaluation, what did Farber see as the objective of his critical writing? This bit from the introduction to Negative Space offers some important clues:

“Suggesting where a film went wrong and how it could have had the logic of an old-style novel or theater piece seems a pedantic occupation compared to the activity in modern film, which suggests a thousand Dick Cantino accordionists in frenetic action, heaving and hawling, contracting and expanding. Because the space in film has been wildly and ingenuously singularized ... it doesn’t seem right that the areas for criticism should be given over so completely to measuring.”

And there we have it: space, the final frontier for most moviegoers (and critics), but for Farber the place where his writing (and painting) begins. Farber called space “the most dramatic stylistic entity” in film, by which he meant not just the literal way in which a movie uses the canvas of the screen, but also the psychological space traversed by the actors and “the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” This third kind of cinematic space, which Farber further defined as “the uniting style plus the basic look of a film,” was also deemed to be the most important, because it directly or indirectly influenced every other variable in the film, from camera movement to performance style to bits of production design. Thus the Oscar-winning movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? becomes, in Farber’s assessment, “middle-aged academe flagellating in a big, hollow, theatrical space.” Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is “a sprawling, unbent composition with somewhat dwarfed characters, each going his own way.” At their best, the movies of Howard Hawks “have the swallowed up intricacy of a good soft-shoe dance.” And what, Farber asked rhetorically in a 1969 Artforum essay, is a Don Siegel movie? “Mainly, it’s a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness.”

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