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Manny Farber, 1917-2008

An artist prepares: Farber in his studio.

An artist prepares: Farber in his studio.

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.”

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.”

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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