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 met Manny and Patricia in about 1999. He was accepting an award in January of 2000 from the New York Film Critics Circle for the Da Capo reissue of Negative Space. [Film Comment editor] Richard Jameson asked me if I wanted to interview him, and I said, “It’s kind of like asking me to interview Tolstoy or something.” But when we met, he and Patricia and I hit it off right away. We started talking on the phone pretty regularly, I went out there to see them as often as I could, and we would get together whenever he came to New York. In 2001, we used one of his paintings for that year’s New York Film Festival poster. He didn’t want to stand up in public or anything like that, but he and Patricia did go to the closing night of the festival, which was Godard’s In Praise of Love. We all went out afterwards, and Manny, who loved a lot of Godard’s earlier work, just couldn’t take it — god, did he dislike that movie.
I took the lesson from reading his writing that it’s not a matter of how much you like Anthony Mann or Howard Hawks or Michael Snow or Godard or whoever. It’s a matter of understanding that thinking is always in motion, that judgments are always in motion. He said in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview in 1982 that anything you write is going to be tied up in the moment, that everything is always changing. He never, ever stopped thinking about the world, about films, about filmmakers, about the way a film seemed to him now as opposed to back then, the way a painter seemed to him now as opposed to 20 years ago. He was always engaged with what was around him — figuring out how the landscape worked, how the builders settled on that particular place and decided to build those particular houses in that particular way, how the rhythm of a painting worked. Absolutely everything. He was engaged by the world right up to the very end.
Kent Jones is editor at large for Film Comment and the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism.
I started reading articles of his in the late ’60s, and of course when Negative Space came out I devoured it. Then, in 1979, I went to his MoMA lecture, which included material about Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang comedies, Frank Borzage and The Honeymoon Killers. The most striking thing about it was that he clearly had notes — a lot of notes — but he would read a couple of sentences and then he would basically start thinking out loud. He did a lot of talking about how a historical moment is encoded in a film — how, particularly if it’s a good film, it fully represents the moment in which it was made; that you can extrapolate a sense of the whole period from one film. I think he even said that you could extrapolate it from one scene or a particular frame if it was good enough. The other quite extraordinary thing was that he would make some brief remarks explaining what he was about to show, why he thought it was important and what to look for; he would call your attention to particular images, particular choreography within the frame, that kind of thing. Then, after it was over, he invariably said, “Ignore what I just said. Looking at it again now, I see that I should have talked about this.” He had this extraordinary, immediate responsiveness. It didn’t matter to him what he had previously said about something. You had a sense of him responding to a film from quite different points of view.
He was interested in describing what an individual frame was and then the movements within the frame. The negative space was always extremely important to him — what was implied to be outside of the frame, what entered the frame that you weren’t aware of, what was on the screen and then what replaced the image you’d just seen. And he was always interested in political things. In The Honeymoon Killers, there’s a scene where Shirley Stoler is eating Whitman chocolates, and Manny said that Whitman chocolates indicated a particular socioeconomic strata, that you knew exactly where she was if she was eating those. I think it’s also important that he was always bouncing between high and low and middlebrow culture; he made no distinction between any of that. One minute, he’d be talking about Jackson Pollock or Piero della Francesca, and the next he’d be talking about The Honeymooners or talk radio.
The first pieces he and Patricia wrote together were done towards the end of 1966 and the beginning of ’67. She helped him to stretch out more. There’s a greater sense in their work of a dialogue, and a lot less judgmentalism — not that they’re speaking to each other in the pieces, but each sentence seems to be in dialogue with the next one. Almost everything that is said is somehow modified quickly. Manny might state something quite declaratively, and if you read only that line you would misunderstand what actually comes from reading the piece. There’s a new kind of density once they start working together. Manny’s own point of view about a movie was tested by Patricia’s, and he basically had to justify his viewpoint to her, and vice-versa. It reads quite smoothly — there’s no sense of combat in the pieces — but I think almost every passage has this kind of tension.
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