Manny Farber Remembered
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.
Filmmaker and UCSD faculty member Jean-Pierre Gorin, as written to Chris Marker; August 14, 2008.
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.
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.
With the paintings, it wasn’t just that they talked about them. She had an enormous role even with regard to the subject matter, an increasingly strong role. She would suggest that he put particular objects in the paintings, especially things from their garden. He literally would say, “What should I paint next?” Or “What should go here?” She would often tell him when to stop a painting, that it was basically finished and he should let it go, whereas he might want to fiddle a little more. Even those notes in the paintings are often actually Patricia’s words that he appropriated and used as a message to himself.
Robert Walsh is legal affairs editor for Vanity Fair and editor of the expanded edition of Manny Farber’s Negative Space.
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