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In short, he wrote about movies as though they were art or architecture, in sentences packed with the tersely lyrical detail of an Anthony Mann setup. His way of seeing a film was one of active participation — an innate inability to look at any scene or shot without wondering why the actors were positioned the way they were in the frame, why the camera was placed where it was, why the lighting was just so, and whether or not the porch in an old Western movie would really have been built like that. The question of how deliberate these choices were on the part of the filmmakers was all but irrelevant. The elements were there, and, as in any work of art, they demanded to be grappled with. Doing that involved watching a film multiple times, sometimes in its entirety, sometimes in bits and pieces (a practice Farber incorporated into his storied UCSD film classes) — and really watching, with one’s undivided attention, which may sound like anathema to today’s heedless young moviegoers who think nothing of coddling their Blackberrys throughout a film or watching a movie at home while multitasking on their laptops.
For Farber, the writing process was no less rigorous. “Much of it is that I like to get it right,” he told Thompson, which in Farber’s case meant spending weeks, months or even years hammering out an article; days mulling over a single turn of phrase. That’s where we come back to the idea of brutality. Farber was a former football player who, for much of his early career, made his real living by working as a nonunion carpenter on various building sites in and around Manhattan; but it was writing, he acknowledged, that if done properly was the more punishing task. “The word had to fit the image it was about, and it had to hold its place,” he said. “I couldn’t stand any generalizing in language, in journalism.” Advice, I would propose, that many of the self-appointed pseudocritics who choke the blogosphere with their instantaneous ramblings and knee-jerk suppositions would do well to follow.
If I personally related most to Farber the writer, that is in no way intended to diminish his paintings, which are at once a vital body of work unto themselves and clearly a product of the same restless-demanding-uncompromising imagination responsible for the film criticism. Spanning more than 60 years, from the mid-1940s until the present, Farber’s art ran the gamut from monochromatic, Rothko-like abstractions (he was included in the first group show organized by Peggy Guggenheim in 1951) to wooden sculptures built from material salvaged from construction jobs. But Farber’s most enduring and inimitable works are colorful, figurative compositions dating from the mid-1970s on, initially painted on paper and later directly on wood, that take as their subjects such unheroic, everyday objects as concession-stand candy, office supplies and the untidy bric-a-brac of Farber’s Encinitas home-garden-studio: unrelated bits of flora and fauna cheerfully abutting scraps of torn paper (often containing notes scrawled in Farber’s own handwriting), railroad tracks, rusted rebar, an old photograph. They are the accumulation of Farber’s life and his life at the movies.
At once all of a piece and glorious in their self-imposed clutter, these paintings (most recently shown in the 2004 traveling exhibition, “Manny Farber: About Face”) can, like Farber’s writing, seem intimidating or even inscrutable upon first glance. Why, after all, in a painting named after the Robert Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are there broken pieces of a half-eaten Hershey’s bar, a handful of Red Hots, a couple of brass clasps and the corner of a composition notebook laid out against an otherwise spare background of two overlapping rectangles? And why, in another painting from Farber’s “Auteur” series, this one in tribute to Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, are there remnants of Tootsie Roll crossing paths with model train cars and an unopened box of Holiday brand tobacco? But look longer, closer, deeper at Farber’s paintings, and their secrets — some but not all — gradually reveal themselves. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Farber wasn’t easy, as a critic or an artist, and we have become so conditioned to resist difficult things.
In his later years, Farber painted prodigiously and seemed to harbor little regret about his abandoned writing career. He gave the occasional interview, including a particularly good one to Kent Jones in Film Comment. And he was twice commemorated on film — by his friend, teaching colleague and “twin brain” Jean-Pierre Gorin in the extraordinary Routine Pleasures (1986), and by British filmmaker Chris Petit in the affectionate 40-minute documentary cum road movie Negative Space (2001). At the same time, one could find his termitic influence alive and well in a generation of acolytes and former students that includes the filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the novelist Rex Pickett (Sideways) and several of the country’s finest film critics: Carrie Rickey, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Duncan Shepherd and The Village Voice’s own J. Hoberman. Finally, with the 1998 republication of Negative Space, Farber himself enjoyed much overdue reappraisal as a master of his craft, and now that he is no longer with us, he will likely be lauded even more — isn’t that always the way? But therein lies the tricky thing about obituaries and tributes: It would be all too easy to look back upon Manny Farber and say that he burned brighter and more brilliantly than we mere mortals who write and paint and teach could ever hope to. But I suspect that Farber himself aspired to a standard of excellence he fully expected others to meet, and may have felt more than a tinge of disappointment that so few seemed up to the challenge. As I say, Manny Farber was anything but easy.
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