PRINT September 1971

On Negative Space

FIRST, IF NOT FOREMOST, Manny Farber is a connoisseur—excruciatingly knowing and hilarious—of movie jinks. He is able to calibrate the precise moral and spatial differences between Hawks and Huston, Sturges and Capra. Panofsky once said that if the connoisseur may be a laconic art historian, the historian is a loquacious connoisseur. One will find history of a sort (and unintended), in Farber’s finally collected essays, Negative Space (Praeger, $7.95): the history since the forties of most conceivable hang-ups, suavities, and euphorias of the fetishy, florid American film industry. But it is delivered to us in a shortterm, yet nonstop, impressionistic prose whose subject—celluloid action—is zeroed in upon as if by a penlight. Loquacious about small, telling physical things, Farber is laconic concerning how they add up to a STATEMENT, still less a message. Yet, for all that he is voluptuous about dotty details, he is a hard-headed type who can tune up his incredulity to blare forth with cruel stringency. The connoisseur attributes a work to, or takes it away from, a painter. A similar chore burrows within movie criticism, where the “auteur theory" still sizzles with controversy. Farber is thoroughly clinching when he talks of the personalities of his directors, long before anyone translated the politique des auteurs into English. But he is far more absorbed with the vagaries of acting and timing as signs of a picture’s personality. How little prime information we are given about that picture as a coherent, structured product, or as a vehicle of ideas, compared with the wealth of news regarding the way it looks, paces itself, feels, moves. These aspects of the film comprise its manner, and it is to manner this specialist addresses himself. Farber would be a formalist rather than an iconographer, except that, for him, form is shattered iconography. Each film is a spectacle of manner (and manners), to be prized or damned by inner credence or lack of it. For all that, he is on the most carnal terms with the films, the knack of making them utterly implausible and bizarre wonderments in the remembering mind comes reliably to him. No movie has become so familiar that Farber cannot limn for us its most singular and unnoticed traits, map for it a new, outlandishly accurate topography.

This, then, is a criticism of phenomena, occupied with existent surfaces and charades rather more than with how they came to be that way or how they function as narrative. And once again, this apparent avoidance of the deeper implications of content, this refusal to speculate about theme whenever he can describe style, is the earmark of the connoisseur. Doubtless, Farber himself would hate this label, with all that it suggests of the pedant and the elitist, the recondite, inchworming tally of emergent authorship.

However they might admit fine distinctions in signature, he celebrates the crassness of movies and always steers clear of microscopic lore or scholarly techniques inappropriately burdensome to the spirit of the material. (His pieces were never precisely reviews; yet they are more sketches than essays or studies.) Not for a minute, though, does this ally him with the campy enthusiast or buff whose infantile and trivial takes unconsciously demean the artistry in cinema. It may take a while for the unwary reader to realize that Farber is incapable of sentimentalism. But this means the sentimentalism of liberal intellectuals as well as pop cult fanatics. He tenderly slaps James Agee, “the most intriguing stargazer in the middle-brow era of Hollywood films,” as a writer who “shellacked the reader with culture.” Preferring Agee’s writings in Time to those in The Nation, catching up and putting down every sanctimonious conceit or gimplike trick of socially-psychologically conscious “purpose” films, the author of Negative Space is no would-be dilettante who applauds film when it apes his more “elevated” literary taste.

We are dealing, rather, with a painter, and a painter’s instinctive grab for usable form. But all his pragmatism (and verbal energy) have flowed toward film whose more liquid reaches prompt from him some quite glandular turns of phrase. Such a background and tropism made him an oddball in the esthetically hidebound Commentary, New Leader, and New Republic. Often enough he could have had little sympathy for their values, and less for their genteel style. And even in Artforum he stood out in wildly happy contrast to its prevailing academicism. Farber was engaged in far more pungent and realistic appraisals of American sociology (as reflected in the movies) than most of the writers of these periodicals, but he had, and has, no commitment whatsoever to any social class, ideology, or counterstyle. It is not merely his temperament, but this disaffiliation that separates him from contemporaries like Warshow, Kaufmann, and Agee, as well as admirers such as Mekas, Kael, and Sarris. Beneath his riotous tone there is a core of disinterestedness that does not occur very often in film or any other criticism.

In a field whose anthologies bear such titles as I Lost It At The Movies, Private Screenings, or A Year In The Dark, Farber’s is called, almost forbiddingly, Negative Space. By the latter, he means “the command of experience which an artist can set resonating within a film . . . a sense of terrain created partly by the audience’s imagination and partly by camera-actors-director.” Throughout the book, these variables seem to be gyrating around each other ever more frantically, so that one can never surely locate in the reading, as indeed in the theater, their precise points of origin. At any one moment the observation may be clear; it is just that Farber’s thrust atomizes the moments.

The following illustrate the way he goes about things (I hesitate to call it a method): “From Walsh’s What Price Glory? to Mann’s Men in War, the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on. . . .” “The movie’s verve comes from the abstract use of a jangling zither and from squirting Orson Welles into the plot piecemeal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper.” (The Third Man) “. . . there is nothing new about shooting into incandescent lights and nebulous darks, but there is something new in having every shot snotted up with silvery foam, black smoke, and flaky patterns to convey decay and squalor.” (Streetcar Named Desire) “The high-muzzle velocity of Sturges’s films. . . .” “[Antonioni’s] incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves, lovers into lonely appendages, hanging stiffly from each other, occasionally coming together like clanking sheets of metal. . . .” “Quinn plays the role as though the ground were soft tapioca, his body purchased from an Army-Navy store that specializes in odd sizes.” “Fonda’s entry into a scene is that of a man walking backward, slanting himself away from the public eye.” “A cookie-cutter is used on Benjy, cutting away all ambiguous edges, fixing him in place.” (The Graduate) Farber’s prose is like a litmus of manic dimension that equips him to handle every genre, whether it be the film noir or Michael Snow’s abstract ping-pong.

Yet he shows a distinct preference, as moral as it is sensory, for “a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungusmoss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and . . . leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” There are ways worse than his spatial picturing to invoke a film’s unity, poorer spot-checks of that discipline or happenstance that bring a film to life. For if the termite metaphor can be extended (it already illuminates his idiosyncratic idea of “underground” movies), we can say that the author-viewer frequently reads as if inside, if not always at home with, the work, which lords it over us, as it does on the screen. This kind of interior funneling of Farber’s distinctly opposes the more usual miniaturizing view from above, which accords far less well with our experience.

Because he is uniquely exposed to cinematic texture and “weight,” he likes them light. And he is most apt to detect poetry in film when there is a businesslike grace without pretension. He electrocutes flummery, theatrics, and attitudinizing with a vengeance—unless they be the stereotypes of a norm or mode which the director respects. “Lewton and his scriptwriters collaborated on sincere, adult pulp stories. . . .” “Point Blank is an entertaining degenerate movie.” And of Frankenheimer’s The Train, he writes characteristically: “Lancaster half ruins his performance with innocent sincerity, but at that point where the script stops and Lancaster has his task before him, he sinks into it with a dense absorption. His energy of concentration is like a magnet that draws the atmosphere into the action of his hands.” Farber’s disrespect for reflex-jabbing, too often equated with “high art” in movies, is countered by his regard for the magic of craft. Limited though this may seem, it gives him the most pluralistic openness, appropriate to his fast worm’s-eye view.

For in film, of course, unlike painting, standards multiply with genres whose demands can be fulfilled very specifically. Throughout these pieces there is the nicest equilibrium between his approval of decent professionalism and his search for those various touches that illuminate formulae without transcending them. There is nothing new about honoring the talent and inventiveness that have gone into some otherwise quite unserious entertainment. More unusual is Farber’s affectionate irony, which simultaneously keeps his subjects in their humble place and infuses them with unexpected vividness and worth. Farber’s criticism is particularly attuned to judge the triumph of means over ends in film, for his own technique mirrors that of his subject. But out of this, cued by his grasp of the intentions of manner, he can surgically isolate genuine, and therefore honest, superficiality from phony profundity.

In the end, he inflates nothing; he is merely sympathetic to hyperbole—perhaps the one quality, if well brought off, that excuses many a picture, and exalts not a few. “The nervous tantrums of slapstick in a Sturges movie, the thoughtless attention-getting antics combined with their genuine cleverness give them an improvised, blatant immediacy that is preferable to excess of calculation and is, in the long run, healthier for the artists themselves.” (It isn’t surprising that of all the subjects in this book, Sturges is given the greatest treatment in depth, and sustains the most acute distinctions of analysis.)

How gladdening to see Farber won over to some of the art-house films of the sixties precisely because of hrs own immediacy, his involuntary recognition that calculated excesses can establish a new style. Even if his rhetoric works against the film just as his responses are warming up to it, he is in a healthy position. Godard is far more suspect than Sturges but like him, too, one suddenly sees, and equally mind-boggling: “no other film maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.” Here is a writer whose “prehumanism” of the forties is unsettled by the posthumanism of the sixties, and who yet lives out their connection in his work. Buñuel bridged this strange gap, too, and of his Exterminating Angel, Farber can say, with perceptive irresolution, “very tense, puzzling, sinister, and yet extraordinarily stodgy . . . the most redolent of the Barrier effect that seems to murmur through his films.” In a sense, Buñuel is a test case for this criticism, because the most antique movie conventions and naive flaws coexist simultaneously in his vision with the most unclassifiable power. And this crazy-quilt mix is captured admiringly in Negative Space, not only because the writer is as insouciantly bloodyminded as the director, but because they share a view of worldly life seen through the comic lens of Surrealism.

Farber does not need to concoct or adhere to theories of displacement, myth, or automatism to judge all those early sleeper cheapies from the vantage of Surrealism and to see them with a cold ebullience. It is in defense of their inadvertent tics or instinctive fancy that he grinds down against “Hard-Sell Cinema” (e.g., Sidney Lumet), or “White Elephant Art” (Citizen Kane, which he would have us believe to be a fifties film avant la lettre). (If anything, we can now see in retrospect that fifties movies erred in their too pusillanimous juggling of cause and effect.) The odd thing is that his complaint about Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is that it is ridden with “things that don’t belong together, charging them up with hidden meanings, and then uniting them in an uneasy juxtaposition that is bound to shock the spectator into a lubricated state of mind. . . .” Odd, because Wilder apparently should have presented “some intelligible, structured image of reality—on the simplest level, to tell a story. . . .” As an apologist of depravity, Farber is often tripped up by his appreciation of innocence. And he can sound weirdly conservative when he writes, in 1966, that the “new actor is . . . an estranged figure merely jiggling around inside the role.” One understands what he means, but such a jibe was out of phase with the new treatment of the actor as a deliberately opaque fixture or surface. But Farber, a man who often prefers supporting actors to the stars—Lee, instead of Spencer, Tracy—accommodated him self to that sensibility in which the mannered edges became the forensic center of the picture. Or, where “underground” was naturalized into the overground. “With its mangy, anonymous sets, lower-class heroes who treat themselves as sages, and the primitivism (the lack of cutting, rawness with actors, whole violent episodes shot in one take) . . .”: the subject here could be Warhol (whose “blast of raw stuff” Farber likes), had it not been Sam Fuller. When sophistication becomes primitive again, the critic, teaching us all the way, finds himself on familiar ground, Negative Space.

Max Kozloff