PRINT September 1998


Manny Farber

MANNY FARBER IS THE RAYMOND CHANDLER of American film criticism. His adrenaline prose has been pumping since 1942, when he began reviewing for The New Republic. Over the succeeding four decades, he kept his writing lean and mean, florid and furious, absolutely unique. He reviewed for Time, The Nation, The New Leader, Artforum, and a parcel of other publications. In the late ’70s, his successful career as a painter increasingly took center stage, and film gradually lost an important, always surprising apologist.

I first learned of Farber’s criticism about twenty years ago, at the height of my enthusiasm for the films of the B-movie producer Val Lewton, who assembled a kind of atelier for writers, directors, cameramen, and actors to churn out low-budget horror movies of extraordinary beauty and, time permitting, intelligence (including The Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Curse of the Cat People). A friend gave me a copy of the 1971 edition of Farber’s Negative Space, a collection of his reviews which contains a brief obituary consideration of Lewton, written in 1951 for The Nation, and I became an instant convert, as much to the energy of the writing as to the writer’s opinions, which were singularly cantankerous. At the time , I was so thrilled to have encountered someone else’s thinking about Lewton that I didn’t notice just how elegantly parsimonious Farber was in his postmortem critique, which, typically, leads with a vice to identify a virtue. He cut to the core of Lewton’s methodology, observing that the producer “hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker, and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures, and the like, which made the audience hyperconscious of sensitive craftsmanship” and that “his lighter-than-air sense of pace created a terrifically plastic camera style.” Obviously, “hiding the story” in “a lighter than air sense of pace” isn’t really a great asset, but it is precisely what makes Lewton’s films so stunningly different from any other contribution to the American horror genre.

The newly reissued edition of Negative Space (Da Capo) includes plenty of material that was not presented in the earlier edition of the anthology, notably Farber’s collaborative reviews with his wife, Patricia Patterson (written in the ’60s for Artforum), which drag him kicking and, occasionally, screaming into the ’70s. While spousal collaborations can be among the most truly horrible pursuits a couple can indulge each other in, Farber and Patterson actually manage to pull off a not inelegant Pat and Mike impersonation à la George Cukor (not one of Farber’s favorite directors). A major source of critical conflict between them is Marguerite Duras, whose India Song strikes a deep, vibrant gong for him and is a mosquito batting against a wind chime for his wife. What’s lovely about the Farber/Patterson collaborations is their shared enthusiasm for certain directors, particularly Fassbinder (whose use of color and composition they liken to “Mondrian with a sly funk twist”). And it is Fassbinder who allows Farber to visit a European aesthetic on a guilt-free pass after a good twenty years of jingoistic Americanism. Let me give you a Whitmanesque example of the latter from Farber’s 1957 essay “Underground Films”: “The cream on the top of a Framed or Appointment with Danger . . . is the eye-flicking action that shows the American body—arms, elbows, legs, mouths, the tension profile line—being used expediently, with grace and the suggestion of jolting hardness. ” Still, the real meat of the matter is Farber flying solo with his wild prejudices and enthusiasms boldly tattooed on the wing of his little single-prop plane of cinematic advocacy.

When the American Film Institute announced the winners of its troublesome contest to nominate the one hundred best American films last June, I thought of Manny Farber. I raced through the Institute’s awardees and came up with one entry I thought he might approve of. At the very least, I assumed he had to like Charlie Chaplin, but when I consulted Negative Space’s index it led me to find Farber, in an interview with Richard Thompson, trying to ditch Chaplin in an attempt to champion Laurel and Hardy. I knew better than to check him on the Institute’s numero uno film, Citizen Kane. Back in 1952, in an essay entitled “The Gimp,” he tackled A Place in the Sun (no. 92 on the AFI list) and A Streetcar Named Desire (no. 45) and pummeled them until you could hear George Stevens and Elia Kazan screaming “Uncle” across the back lots of Hollywood. However, it was not really Stevens and Kazan that Farber was after. He was tracking much bigger game, the very agent of the chiaroscuro virus they were victims of: Orson Welles. At the core of Farber’s critique was the notion that, although it was initially unsuccessful, “Citizen Kane seems to have festered in Hollywood’s unconscious until after the Wylers and Hustons returned [after the war] from their government film chores; then it broke out in full force.” His analysis (in “The Gimp”) of Welles’ first—and perhaps greatest—film is a wonderfully insightful reading of how Hollywood went about creating the postwar, A-film formula, exemplified by “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz called The Best Years of Our Lives.” Farber is relentless in his downsizing of what he calls “solemn goiters” bearing “the label of ART in every inch of their reelage.” He is, at heart, a B-movie apologist. He’s sensational on products like Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street and Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff, without ever implying that they are more than the brute propulsive unreelings that they appear to be: “a bit of John Foster Dulles, a good bit of Steve Canyon, sometimes so good as to be breathtaking.” Farber also loves character actors, and much of his best writing is devoted to supporting cast members like Gene Evans in Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, who “plays the hot-headed [sic] showing off, the endless chewing on a cigar stump with the blast effect of water issuing from a whale’s spout, bestial and grotesque as a charm spot in a film dedicated to the U.S. Infantry.” Or Elisha Cook in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, who as “a supporting player hit his peak and managed to dry out whatever juicy glamour and heroics were in the film so that it took on a slatelike hardness.”

Farber is very much a sensitized kind of guy’s guy. His writing peaks in the presence of idiosyncratic originals like Hawks and Preston Sturges, whom he assessed in a 1954 essay coauthored by W.S. Poster (entitled “Preston Sturges”), where he seems to be arguing for himself as a critic as much as for the director he is writing about. “The discrepancies in Sturges’s films are due largely to the peculiar discontinuities that afflict his sensibility, although such affliction is also a general phenomenon in a country where whole eras and cultures in different stages of development exist side by side, where history along one route seems to skip over decades only to fly backward over another route and begin again in still a different period.” In a rebuttal of Siegfried Kracauer’s critique of Sturges’ confusion of honesty and candor in The Great McGinty, Farber/Poster write: “Such criticism is about as relevant as it would be to say that Cubists were primarily interested in showing all sides of a bottle at once.” The curiously parental-advisorial end of the Sturges essay can, in many ways, stand in for a self-defense tactic by Farber, for justifying his critical capriciousness. “Sturges may not be the greatest director of the last two decades; in fact, it can be argued that a certain thinness in his work—his lack of fully formed, solid, orthodox moviemaker’s technique—prevents him from being included among the first few. He is, however, the most original movie talent produced in recent years: the most complex and puzzling.”

It’s hard to place Farber in any subdivided pantheon. He clearly adores the work of James Agee with, natch, serious reservations: “Agee was a brick wall against pretense in small movies, but, on Big Scale work, where the Boulevard is madeof National Velvet and the Limelight’s as stunning as the Sierra Madre, Agee’s reviews suggested a busy day at Muscle Beach: flexing words, bulging rumps of talent, pyramidal displays of filming cunning.” I still love Pauline Kael, but not for a second would I put her in the ring with Farber; she simply doesn’t have the chops for his kind of ham-fisted finesse. The biggest problem with his criticism is the fact that he can’t always slow down long enough to frame his passionate ardor for the art form he is alternately embracing and repelling. What is exhilarating about the best of his criticism is that it moves with the speed and linear clarity of the films he loves. It is unlikely that movies will ever again get the kind of tough love that Farber dispenses with such exuberant, bruising gusto.

Richard Flood is the chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He is currently at work on the exhibition “Robert Gober: Sculpture and Drawing,” which opens in February 1999.