By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
I was 16 in 1976 when I attended Manny Farber’s lecture on Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, at a community college in Costa Mesa. The lecture was incomplete, a shambles, because Manny had turned up late, film cans in hand, and it was past one in the morning when the movie concluded and the weary audience was asked to disperse. I intercepted Manny outside, told him I’d just read his book, and asked about his friend James Agee. “He was handsome as hell,” Manny said. Realizing this was perhaps inadequate, he added, “He was heroic.” And then he offhandedly invited me to visit him in San Diego if I wanted to talk more.
I was, I seem to recall, a sullen, willful kid, and it amazes me now that Manny and his wife, Patricia, not only put up with my initial visit but invited me back on a regular basis. I’d hang out with Manny in his studio, or shadow him as he did errands. In my memory, an essential part of my adolescence was spent walking around parking lots while both of us tried to remember where Manny had parked the car. These were privileged episodes, I knew even then, but the trick was to move through them as deadpan comic routines while talking about something else — usually Piero della Francesca, as I remember it, or Matisse, or Agee, whose ghost never seemed all that far.
Manny was just sliding out from his identity as a critic — writing was “killing” and “brutal,” he insisted repeatedly — and painting, though not exactly effortless, seemed to claim his deepest attention and yield more pleasure. Manny and Patricia were pretty much the first functional artists I’d ever met, and they remain remarkable models for anyone trying to navigate a shared life making things for which there’s no easy or immediate market. (A valuable essay or even book would highlight the vocabulary they jointly developed as writers, teachers and painters, and might spin a fairly riveting tale, tracking contradictory notions of failure and success.)
Manny’s writing, clearly, was performative — jumpy, jagged, often angry and sly — but his conversation was more tentative, punctuated by wary pauses, sheepish smiles. He was primed to appreciate movies and paintings as both dense physical organisms and shifty intellectual arguments, and it seemed that anyone who spent time in his company came to discuss paintings and movies in terms of “territory” or “terrain,” mimicking Manny’s jabbing hand gestures, as if pushing pins into an imaginary map, a landscape you wanted to search through and, if necessary, get lost in.
Michael Almereyda is the director of the films Nadja (1994), Hamlet (1996)and New Orleans, Mon Amour (2008), and the editor of Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and About Mayakovsky.
Manny Farber is dying. For months the painting knives have been abandoned. Now, the pastels in turn. He remained in the same spot, working for hours in this garden, Giverny on the Pacific. What came out of it on these drawing pads with their CinemaScope format resembled a Western by Anthony Mann. It accumulated on the wall of his studio, rows upon rows, five high and 40 feet long. The drama of a square foot of earth dreamed from every possible angle. He now sleeps in his studio, too weak to climb the stairs that lead to this bedroom. He pays each effort with hours of sleep. He watches Obama for hours with the avidity of someone who bids his farewell to the world, and only wants to see the hope it offers. “Manny Farber, American” with as much forcefulness as one says “John Ford, American.” He asked me not to age. I told him I wasn’t the obedient kind.
I wonder where you found that strength that allowed you to edit that tape, the night Juju [Juliet Berto] left us, of music she loved. I would have to trek through Charlie Parker, to drop in on Atys by Lully, to catch Lenny Tristano or to make a detour through Hildegard von Bingen and Ornette Coleman, or to choose from Berlin: Songs of Love & War, Peace & Exile by Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda — the last CD he pushed across the table toward me. I do not have the strength. I wait immobile for the heart to break and the tears to flow.
When I was 15, there was a movie theater near where I grew up called Toad Hall. They held rock concerts on the grounds, everybody from the Who to Bob Marley. The theater was a pretty uncomfortable place where they would show The Conformist and Aguirre: The Wrath of God on the one hand, but also older movies like The 39 Steps and The Birth of a Nation. They sold a few books there and one of them was Manny’s, Negative Space — in its paperback edition it was called Movies, with very nostalgic cover art of Bogart and George Raft. I bought the book, and reading that language when I was 15 years old was a pretty startling experience. It took years of absorbing it before I got past the surface excitement, as Manny would call it, and saw where it was leading me.
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