PRINT November 2008


Manny Farber

Manny Farber, Del Mar, California, ca. 1998.  Photo: Patricia Patterson.

MANNY FARBER FIRST CAME TO MY ATTENTION by way of a book generically titled Movies, with a generic cover illustration of Bogie, George Raft, and suchlike tinted with cupcake dyes. Heaven knows why I even bothered to open it, but I immediately found myself reading such violently nongeneric sentences as “The movie’s color is that of caterpillar guts, and its 14-karat image is a duplicate of the retouched studio portraits that could be obtained in Journal Square, Jersey City, in 1945.” Or “Rita Tushingham’s sighting over a gun barrel at an amusement park (standard movie place for displaying types who are closer to the plow than the library card) does a broadly familiar comic arrangement of jaw muscle and eyebrow that has the gaiety and almost the size of a dinosaur bone.” Or “It’s a film which loves its body odor.” Yes, what I held was the cheapo 1971 paperback edition of Negative Space, the only book Farber published, if you don’t count its expanded 1998 version, or the anthology that appeared as an issue of the little magazine For Now in 1969, or his museum catalogues. Negative Space, a selection of Farber’s movie reviews and essays from 1950 onward, had a major if long-fuse impact for its insistent focus on the visual plane of the screen, its erasure of distinctions between high and low art, its combativeness, and its tough and vivid prose style. Farber, who died August 18 at the age of ninety-one, was a movie critic and a painter, and it took him far too long to achieve a modicum of respect for his brilliance and originality in both fields.

Farber was born in 1917 in Douglas, Arizona, where his father ran the dry-goods store. He began drawing and cartooning early, attended Berkeley and then the California School of Fine Arts, and then the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco. Then he apprenticed as a carpenter, a trade that would provide him with the bulk of his income for the next thirty years. He moved to New York City in 1942, where he hung with the Partisan Review crowd and, concurrently, with the painters who orbited around Hans Hofmann, who happened to be a neighbor. He first showed in a Peggy Guggenheim group exhibition in 1951 and had a solo at Tibor de Nagy in 1957, but he didn’t really spread his wings as an artist until he broke with the Abstract Expressionists in the early 1960s.

The majority of fans of Farber’s writing, I would venture, became aware of it only after he’d stopped doing it. He began at the New Republic in 1942; did a short stint at Time and took over from James Agee at The Nation, both in 1949; and wrote occasionally for Commentary, Commonweal, the New Leader, Cavalier, and then, from 1967 to 1971, for this magazine. Much of his work in the ’70s was written in collaboration with his wife, Patricia Patterson, also a painter. Their last published piece, a review of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was published in Film Comment in 1977.

From 1970 to 1987 Farber taught in the film department at the University of California at San Diego. During this time his painting took a new direction. Beginning in the ’60s he had made two-sided, odd-shaped abstract paintings on paper, pouring industrial paint through a muslin screen. Then, in San Diego in the early ’70s, he began making representational paintings, and he continued in that vein to the end. They were pretty much exclusively overhead still lifes, initially odd-shaped congeries of candy packages, and then tondi depicting spreads of packages (candy, tobacco) and miniatures (toys, figurines, model railroad scenery)—a whole series was devoted to coded meditations on some of his favorite movies and directors. Eventually his paintings became lushly colored spreads of flowers and fruit, often studded with reproductions of old-master paintings in books and on postcards as well as scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Their surfaces were too painterly to be trompe l’oeil, but too deliberately distributed not to be construed as some sort of text.

There haven’t been many notable writer-painter combos, by which I don’t mean articulate painters (Delacroix, Gerhard Richter) or art-’n’-text conceptual dynamos (Robert Smithson, Tom Phillips). Farber’s combination of media was unique not only in that the writing and the painting were equally important to him, but that there were so many similarities of approach and subject and preoccupation between them, although they were quite separate pursuits. For one thing, the paintings give clear instructions to anyone perplexed as to the way to read the essays: You start anywhere and end up anywhere. For all that the paintings may be in some way textual, they are scarcely linear—but then neither are the essays, which cover paper the way paint does a canvas. Do you tend to look at a painting beginning at the top left corner?

And then consider the title of Farber’s book. His major preoccupation was space, its use and nonuse. A quiz from one of his UCSD film classes was reproduced on the back of the program for a Farber tribute at the New School in New York in 2001. The first question gives the essential flavor:

1. Draw one frame from each of the following scenes:

a. the dancehall scene in Musketeers [of Pig Alley] when Lillian Gish is first introduced to the gangsters.

b. the subway scene in Fantômas with the detective and the woman he is shadowing in an otherwise empty car.

c. the scarecrow scene with Lillian Gish in Romance of Happy Valley.

Indicate in words alongside each frame how close the actors are to the screen surface, the depth of space between figures and background, the flow of action if there is any.

I’m not saying that film was exactly analogous to painting for Farber, who was certainly concerned with and fascinated by acting, for example, but he was especially tuned in to those aspects the two media had in common. Consider, for example, his distillation (in his 1968 essay “One-to-One”) of the mise-en-scène of a number of films of the ’60s:

Perhaps this composition should be detailed, because it appears in film after film: Red Desert, Le Départ, Knife in the Water. Antonioni must have invented it: the human figure as an island silhouetted against a sharp drop of unsympathetic scenery. There are two or three delineated elements, none of which act as support for the other. Antonioni uses a wall or building as a menace; in Persona, the background is a disinterested one; in The Graduate, the subordinate detail is manipulated into placards of American vulgarity.

For Farber such design qualities naturally were primary indicators of a movie’s meaning and its moral sense. But the phrase “design qualities” is too cold and remote, in view of the overpowering physical presence that movies had for Farber. No one can equal him in conveying how a movie assaults the seated consumer from its impregnable position on-screen. High Noon (1952) is all about “cross-eyed artistic views of a clock, silhouettes against a vaulting sky, legend-toned walking, a big song.” Raoul Walsh’s Roaring Twenties (1939) “journeys with niggling intricacy and deceptive footwork in a lot of grayed rice pudding.” Regarding Point Blank (1967): “In a sickening way, the human body is used as material to wrinkle the surface of the screen.” Note that Farber likes two out of three of these pictures.

Manny Farber, Domestic Movies, 1985, oil on board, 96 x 96".

In the egghead press of the ’50s and ’60s, such writing must have sounded like an avalanche of belches and trombones. His movie-critic colleagues in that milieu, people like Dwight Macdonald and Farber’s friend Robert Warshow, were so busy wrestling with deep meaning, they seemed not to notice that film was a visual medium. And Farber had little in common with the typical thumb-wielding movie reviewer, then or now: If anybody ever managed to construct a blurb from one of his pieces, they must have done so by picking out individual words with tweezers. He is most often compared to James Agee and Pauline Kael, two critics who were his friends but with whom he seldom saw eye to eye. Agee was a fine writer, devoted to the pictures, who maybe wanted to see in them things that weren’t actually there. Farber admired him, but an irritation with the older critic’s sentimentality and lack of rigor runs through his appreciation “Nearer My Agee to Thee” (1958): “Agee wrote reasonable exaggerations, beautifully articulated, about dull plodding treacle that stretched from Jean Simmons to Ingrid Bergman.” Farber never wrote about Kael, but there is little doubt about how a critic who could champion Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) as enthusiastically as he did Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) felt about one who came perilously close to protectionism if not demagoguery, relentlessly pushing Brian De Palmas of various sizes as a protective charm against anything foreign or difficult.

In the early ’50s Farber was the first critic of note to make a sustained case for the kind of sinewy B movies that played bottoms of bills in grindhouses and were triumphantly discovered by the French several years later. He did not make a career of it, however. He vigorously resisted auteurism of both the hobbyist and the sacerdotal varieties, and kept away from canons and nostalgia and chitchat and received ideas. In the ’60s he was following Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; in the ’70s Michael Snow, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jacques Rivette, Marguerite Duras, Nagisa Oshima, Chantal Akerman. At the same time, though, he was writing important pieces on Raoul Walsh, Samuel Fuller, and Howard Hawks. He judged movies on their own terms instead of according to a predetermined aesthetic, and he was always open to challenges, surprises, and radical jujitsu moves of every sort.

His single most enduring work, the closest he came to a manifesto, was his essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” first published in the underground bugle Film Culture in 1962. White elephant art, he famously argued, strives to create masterpieces; termite art (like Laurel and Hardy, or Hawks and Faulkner adapting the first half of The Big Sleep), on the other hand, seems

to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but [is] involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

White elephant art goes in for ravishing technique, viselike consistency, sustained meaningfulness; every detail is pregnant, and enslaved to an overarching scheme that passes for vision. Termite art, on the other hand, proceeds methodically, immersed in the task immediately at hand, oblivious to culture or achievement. In film it absorbs shaggy-dog plots, one-trick actors, poverty-row budgets, and gets the most out of them by dint of sheer concentration and a certain level of craftsmanship. Termite art exemplifies “the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.” The movies Farber cared about adhere to this standard; both his writing and his painting seethe with it.

Luc Sante's most recent book is Kill All Your Darlings (Yeti Press, 2007).