The 2009 Oscars "In Memoriam" tribute yielded a wonderful alternate-universe moment: In the obit roll call naming Charlton Heston and Cyd Charisse, there — on national television! — was "Manny Farber, critic." Rounding out the apparent hallucination, his likeness appeared alongside a cruddy-fabulous copy of Movies, the 1974 paperback reissue of his collection of cracklingly alive writings, Negative Space. After that, you half-expected Jean-Luc Godard to shuffle out with Jessica Alba and speak-whisper an inscrutable-yet-dirty award segue.
It was a welcome recognition of Farber's exceptional, indefatigable multitalent, and perhaps suited to his mixing of disparate cultures and elements. (Case in point: He once compared Oscar movies to pornos.) This month, the varied films and filmmakers investigated by Farber (1917-2008) get a showcase at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's weekend series, Underground Films & Termite Art: A Tribute to Manny Farber. LACMA's program reflects the painter/carpenter/teacher's sense of immediacy about the moving, graphic, peopled space in front of him. From Preston Sturges and Michael Snow to Werner Herzog and Chuck Jones, Farber dug into the image, texture and feel of each film with real, rare, unrestrained engagement.
For that reason it's tempting to begin with the inventive energies of Raoul Walsh's Me and My Gal (April 16) and Sturges' Christmas in July (April 23). In Walsh's hard-to-find 1932 delight, Farber saw the "lunatically original, festive dance" of a visually layered Lower East Side, populated by cop-on-the-make Spencer Tracy, game greasy spooner Joan Bennett and a reeling Irish wedding party. Sturges' 67-minute tonic about a hapless prizewinner (Dick Powell) came from a "flamboyant, unkillable" orchestrator of not just satire but Depression-manic experience.
Farber, born to dry-goods store owners in an Arizona copper town, originally began his movie chronicles after taking over Otis Ferguson's column at The New Republic — where he dubbed midcareer-gallop Sturges "the most progressively experimental worker in Hollywood (aside from the cartoon-makers) since the early days."
Farber's emergence from the age of Agee, when charted through the New York intellectual and artistic ferment of the '50s and '60s, can sound misleadingly all of a piece now; these days, "termite art," part of Farber's top-down–averse ethos, has calcified into shorthand for advocacy. But Farber's evaluations were often contradictory, or multidirectional, and they baffle summary-fed readers with their strategy of attempts and, God forbid, their hard looks at the image. Godard, represented here by his Charleston-dancing, Louvre-dashing Band of Outsiders (April 16), prompted one of Farber's brilliant, impatient lists of hallmarks — JLG's "talkiness," sense of boredom, "ping-pong" thematics, "mock" aesthetic and moralizing — which gets at the filmmaker's strange, overworked, found-collage beauty and technique.
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"A conversation with the film" has been one gloss on the approach, from critic Kent Jones, a close Farber friend, who programmed a 2008 tribute and will appear at LACMA alongside Farber's collaborator and widow, painter and writer Patricia Patterson; filmmaker and UCSD "twin brain" colleague Jean-Pierre Gorin; and Robert Polito, editor of the recent compleat anthology Farber on Film (to be followed by a mind-blowing-sounding nonfilm volume featuring Farber on deejays). The fascinating Wavelength program (April 17) brings out the conversation between films that Farber also fostered, in class and in print, corralling a Kuchar short, Griffith's ever-astonishing A Corner in Wheat, and the rarely screened In the Street (curbside New York, care of Agee-Levitt-Loeb). In Snow's room zoom, Farber marveled at the putting to work of "so many new actors — light and space, walls, soaring windows, and an amazing number of color-shadow variations," remarking on the "tactile quality of 1969 loft existence" and Snow's Jeffersonian elegance.
After the exhaustive '70s collaborations with Patterson (including a Taxi Driver exegesis and Nashville reality check) and a Guggenheim Fellowship proposal on Munich Films (cf Herzog's grimy-tunic feral parable Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, April 24), writing ceded fully to Farber's crucial paintings, which were now like maps that thought, arrangements of vectors, colors, icons. Farber at the canvas is on display here, alongside train-hobbyist microcosms, in Routine Pleasures (April 17), Gorin's hen's-teeth essay film shot by Chantal Akerman associate Babette Mangolte.
Reading Farber, we get the rare dual feel of insight and industry, which is part of why he can be so inspiring and exciting. At one point, he criticized films that "overfamiliarize the audience with the picture it's watching," which becomes a kind of koan when you think on it. You don't know where diving into these movies with Farberian zeal will take you — and that's a good thing. —Nicolas Rapold
UNDERGROUND FILMS & TERMITE ART: A TRIBUTE TO MANNY FARBER | LACMA Bing Theater | Through Fri., April 30 | lacma.org/film