PRINT April 2002



IN HIS 1957 ESSAY “Hard-Sell Cinema,” Manny Farber talks about “the business-man-artist”: someone who “has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation.” Farber names Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz in jazz, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Elia Kazan in movies. It's one of many pieces in Negative Space where you get the idea Farber was in a bad mood pretty much from the beginning of the '50s to the end.

In particular Farber talks about New Yorker short-story writers. And he goes on and on and on until he gets to a phrase about “ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” When I first read that sentence in 1971 or 1972, I found it absolutely terrifying. I found a lot of Negative Space terrifying.

One of the things that I found scariest were the pieces in which Farber went through the work of a particular person, like Howard Hawks, in three or four pages. Just like that—boom, boom, boom, in and out. Like somebody walking through a room and looking around, going in one door and out the other.

The idea, the arrogance, the sense that there were only a certain number of things that really needed to be said and that I, Manny Farber, know what they are, and here they are, and out the door. That was terrifying. It seemed like half of what he wrote was in a five-minute vein, even if it took seven minutes to read.

“Ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” It's scary for a writer to come across a sentence that so plainly says what it means, in which the prose is so exquisitely balanced, and you take pleasure in the way the words are put together, and you worry that you've written things about which something like that could be said over and over and over again.

Walter Benjamin once said that an author who teaches a writer nothing teaches nobody anything. One thing that I think happens for many writers reading Farber is that they feel themselves on trial. They feel this same scrutiny that's brought to bear on actors, on directors, on painters, on musicians, on comic-strip artists. Maybe they feel lucky that Manny Farber has never read them and therefore doesn't have an opinion on them.


I THINK A LOT OF US here tonight will agree that Manny has produced one of the most original and compelling bodies of work of any American painter in the last thirty years, an art that is at once a relentlessly cerebral product of mind and at the same time the product of a lived involvement with processes and materials which bears the tracks of physical, affective experience. I am brief here, keeping in mind one of my first memories of Manny. It was at his remarkable P.S. 1 show in 1978, where many works of the “candy” and “stationary” series were being shown and some of the first “director” paintings. I was in a group around Manny when a young guy cut in, saying, “I have to introduce myself, I'm one of your biggest fans,” and he went on with a meandering account of how Manny's writing had influenced him. Watching this total stranger, Manny stood there with a look of skeptical appraisal, until the guy concluded with, “Your work has changed my life.” Manny replied convincingly, “I doubt it.” It's not that he has any trouble listening to praise; it was just that this person could have delivered it with a more Hawksian efficiency.


THERE'S BEEN A LOT of talk about Manny's desire to nail things. The first time we ever met was in the hotel where he and Patricia stay when they come to New York. And we sat down to talk. And there was a woman playing a harp in the background. God knows why at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Saturday there was a woman playing a harp in the middle of the hotel, which was deserted.

But we're sitting there having our coffee and talking. And every once in a while Manny would stop in the middle of a sentence and say something like, “Gee that harp, the way that it drags. It's like she's one note behind the melody, and she's really supposed to be there”—and he kept working at it throughout the conversation until he finally nailed what it was about this harp player that was driving him bananas.


FARBER IS NEITHER overly kind nor cruel, just bracingly resolute. His pronouncements always feel solid and grounded, even when they're a bit wacky. You have to be prepared to have sacred cows punctured. For instance, he refers to Cathérine Deneuve in Belle de Jour as Cathérine Deadnerve. And he says of Jeanne Moreau in Jacques Demy's Bay of the Angels, “She piles herself with outsize boas, eyelashes, cigarette lighters, corsets, wigs. This is supposed to prove that she's psychologically doomed.”

But Farber writes in such a way that disagreeing with him feels liberating rather than constricting. He's not so much dictating opinions as shooting out darts. Even though he's a very cerebral critic, he's also unfailingly generous in the way he frees each of us from our own private, personal shame as moviegoers. So many times people will say, “Oh I'm embarrassed to say it, but I really loved The Fast and the Furious”—a drag-race movie. Or The Specialist with Sylvester Stallone. It's that whole idea of guilty pleasure, which assumes that pleasure always has to be justified.

Farber certainly knows the meaning of pleasure without shame. The trick is that he doesn't allow us to be dopey or lazy in that pleasure. Implicit in everything he writes is a challenge: He demands that you think your way through pleasure, that you have to isolate what you enjoy about a work and think about why it gets to you. In that sense he's written beautifully on B-movie directors like Val Lewton and Sam Fuller, people who were largely ignored before he wrote about them, or forgotten character actors like Eric Blore and Eugene Pallette. And he takes Warner Bros. cartoons just seriously enough.


I WANT TO BRIEFLY NOTE a dimension of Manny's life that hasn't really been touched on tonight. When I was a colleague of Manny and Patricia's at UC San Diego in the mid-'80s, I became aware of the daily texture of his work life, which oscillated between teaching film and working in his large on-campus studio. It was clear that there was some circuitous but never traceable continuum between the movies he screened for his students and the increasingly large paintings he was making during those years. But what I want to recall is the richness and brilliance of his lectures. The visual-art department at UCSD back then included a whole crew of legendary artist-talker-performer-teachers, and Manny had his own matchless style of performance—a talking that developed ideas along pathways very distinct from his writing. Of course it was all stunningly improvisatory, and the rhythms he built up were of continually entertaining and retreating from the clip he had just screened. Refusing any bottom lines or closure, Manny could keep locating new openings, details, and temporalities that would upset any familiar or settled perception of a work. And there were times when he did his talking gig for other audiences, like his famous lecture at MoMA around 1980 when he screened excerpts from a '40s Our Gang episode, a Renoir film from the '30s, and Honeymoon Killers from 1969. Totally outside any high/low debate, Manny tunneled into these films and showed the human craft, the particular shape of empathy that made them work, that animated them in equally complex ways.

One evening a bunch of us had driven down to a mall outside San Diego to see a movie; it was Moonlighting, an English-language film by Jerzy Skolimowski, the one where Jeremy Irons plays a Polish construction contractor renovating a brownstone in London. So we all went out to dinner after the movie. Jean-Pierre Gorin was there, and heard Manny didn't like the film. They began to pick it apart. For Manny, with his background as a carpenter, Skolimowski's use of the extended rebuilding and renovating of a house was all wrong, completely off on the processes of making and working, and off in its facile statement about the political situation in Poland. Manny's daughter, Amanda, was part of the group, with her then boyfriend. It became kind of a generational thing. The two of them chimed in aggressively, “Why are you guys always so negative? Why are you ripping apart this film? Can't you ever like anything?” and so on. Things continued to get heated and finally Manny raised his voice and said “I care. I care that Skolimowski made a bad film.” He said, “I care that he didn't get it right.”


IN THEIR PIECE on Raoul Walsh, Manny and Patricia were saying that he deserved to be reseen through a modem looking glass but that it was important to understand that Walsh was fundamentally a product of the studio system. You can't turn him into a modem auteurist fantasy figure absolved of all those studio con straints. Manny always places every element of every film very carefully.

By the same token, what Manny's also saying is that if you're looking at a movie, don't just write that this shot relates back to this or that film from the past. Say how it relates to other contemporary objects from literature, from music, from painting. A film speaks from its own time, like all works of art. Manny's criticism is about trying to find a way of looking at the moment the film was generated and then at the moment it's being examined and how they overlap and how they oppose one another. That's an incredibly important idea, and I haven't read many critics who've actually followed it.


WHEN YOU START TO READ one of Manny Farber's pieces, you have no clear sense of where he's going to take you. He jumps right into the surface of a movie, and you're looking around to see where he is going to pop up next, to see what he is going to come up with. He comes up with dazzling arguments and delightful turns of phrase. It's constantly surprising.

I think that sense of surprise is matched by few critics. The other critic who shares that quality is Farber's friend and colleague Pauline Kael, but he is even more freewheeling and wild in the way he connections. That's probably why his work feels so fresh, even today.


WHEN YOU'RE READING Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism and he's talking about, say, a camera movement in a Sam Fuller movie, you're thinking, well, it's not a surprise that this guy would go on to become a director and, in fact, use camera movements exactly like that. What Manny did, by contrast, was to actually describe the movie. So if you're reading his pieces from the '60s, like “Cartooned Hip Acting” or “The Decline of the Actor,” he's describing the changes that were seeping into the way movies were being made and the way things were being visualized—the differences in acting, the way that the actor was used in film in the '30s and '40s as opposed to the '60s, when, as he says of Antonioni, or of the John Huston movie Freud, the actors are reduced to patches of light hacked out of the overall darkness of the frame.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with what Manny has to say. I like some Antonioni movies and I like plenty of white elephant movies. But the point is, the description is the most important thing, as opposed to the value judgment.


FROM FARBER'S WRITING you get the sense that he loves the challenge of being confused by a movie or a director. Often the process of thinking about a movie is right there in the structure of his piece. Here, for example, is what he says about Jean-Luc Godard: “Godard's legacy to film history already includes a school of estranged clown fish, intellectual ineffectuals, a vivid communication of mucking about, a good eye for damp villas in the suburbs, an ability to turn any actress into a doll, part of the decor, some great still shots that have an irascible energy, an endless supply of lists. I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing, or be an audience to film writing which gets to the heart of an obvious idea and hangs in there, or be so edified by the sound and sight of decent, noble words spoken with utter piety. In short, no other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.”

That's about the most honest piece of criticism I've ever read. Any critic who can preserve and heighten the pleasure movies can give us, as well as make us think harder about them, is all too rare. For that reason I treasure Negative Space. I sometimes want to shake it or throw it against the wall, but I always want it close by.


THERE ARE TWO THINGS that stand out for me in Negative Space and have for over thirty years now. One is a passage where Farber is talking about the best films of 1951. The last one he mentions is “a Chuck Jones animated cartoon—the name escapes me,” and he goes on and describes it. He doesn't even bother to ask somebody what it was called, let alone make a phone call or look it up. Just what the hell.

The other is where Farber is complaining about some movie, and he says, “It isn't sustained.” Then there's a parenthetical that says, “But how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?” What was really scary to me about that line, and it's scary today, is that never having seen Musketeers of Pig Alley, I didn't know if this was a joke or if, in fact, it's the only movie in eighty years that's been sustained. I still don't know. So you can dive into this book, and, if you are like me, you will never get out.