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Remembering Manny Farber (1917-2008): An online exclusive

An online exclusive


Friday, September 05, 2008

By Justin Stewart

The great film critic and painter Manny Farber died at the end of August, and in an instant appeared the tributes, largely served up in hotlinked bundles online. After political junkies, movie discussers are one of the most online bunches out there, so it wasn’t surprising that the death of a popular favorite “in the field” lit up blogs for a few days. I put “in the field” in quotes because movie criticism has been so democratized and muddied by the Internet (if you grant it the attention) since the days when Farber filed copy for The New Republic and The Nation, along with many other magazines over the years. While obviously being a small part of the “problem” myself, I think Richard Schickel was right about at least one thing when he arrogantly (which doesn’t mean wrongly) smacked down blogging critical “wannabes” — the sheer quantity of us is smothering, and kind of a downer.

Many of the postmortem web links are to articles by established critics, some with illuminating personal anecdotage (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece). J. Hoberman’s reprinted 1981 piece references an issue of Film Culture, revelatory for him, that contained seminal essays by Farber, Sarris, Kael and Jack Smith. It’s useless to wish those days of criticism back — concurrent changes in movies, media, language and technology have made the idea absurd. I just got a tinge of depression thinking about someone cracking open that Film Culture in 1962, and the difference now, visiting the IMDb’s Dark Knight page and finding 375 links to reviews. There’s hardly time for close reading and respectful awe when you have your own site and own review to dribble out, as apparently everyone does.

Concerns about the state of criticism vanish when you’re actually reading Farber, because his prose style hypnotizes. He knew the valuable fiction writers’ trick of surgically inserting words that are the exact opposite of the obvious choice. From that word, he might move a few clicks back towards the “correct” meaning, finding the most illuminating one. In “Underground Films,” he wrote that, “the sharpest work of the last thirty years is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists…” Notice the mixture. He’d read like a buffoon if he attempted to dazzle with every adjective, so he alternates the typical with the unexpected. “Uncompromising” implies hard, drilling action; the telling “roundabout” instantly complicates and sensitizes it. “Self-destroying” makes it human, and he was always turning movies into people and critters, most famously in his piece about “termite art.”

Getting more at Farber’s film philosophy, usually complimentary-ish words function as putdowns. John Huston is “splendiferous.” Richard Lester’s films have an “assertive, hard-pushed Nowness.” In “The Decline of the Actor,” he blames said decline on the movies with “beautiful construction,” whose “elements have all been assembled, controlled, related, like so many notes in a symphony.” (It’s safe to say that whenever he uses a word to describe something that would be a plus for a symphony or landscape painting, it’s a knock against the kind of movie Farber prefers.) You have to know Farber to know that he’s not praising Truffaut when he writes that he fills his work “with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity” (the capitalizations are a hint).

Foster Hirsch has said that with Farber “there are no ordinary sentences. … There is hardly one, in fact, which does not subvert conventional notions of syntax, rhythm and diction.” It’s the main thing that makes him perhaps the most dip-in-anywhere movie critic. There’s no risk of disappointment, even if you haven’t seen the films under discussion. From his classic Hawks rundowns to his takes on Aguirre and Wavelength, he’s sturdily readable and surprising. And funny as hell — “the wooden, sat-upon Richard Widmark,” Kazan’s “gaseous oozing,” “Lee Marvin’s Planter’s Peanut head,” the extended repetition of his prankish-sounding theory-word for flashy dashes of artifice, The Gimp.

Farber did love the action of his “hard-grain cheapster” favorites Hawks, Aldrich, Wellman, Siegel, etc. But it’s been oft noted how much praise he allotted works like Ikiru, Canadian Underground film, and, later with wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson, experimental cinema. Still, he was wont to wield the word “art” with more disdain than even Pauline Kael when discussing movies. Both were genuine aesthetes with knowledge of art across many media, and far from opponents of intellectualism. They were simply extra-aware of the joy-killing effect of an earnest attempt at “art” or a homiletic try to “enrich” with cinema, either with a smothering oversoul of pretension or with nefarious “pellets of message,” as Farber called them.

Farber’s essays are almost brattily smart, alluring and written in a style thankfully impossible to copy. For good or bad, I gain more appreciation for the kind of cinematic coddlers and able showoffs he usually disdains. But Farber on fire can rile a reader up for or against a movie, or just thrillingly conflict one, like almost no other. Never a “final word” kind of critic, he vitalized the discourse with unique insight and bomb-throwing verbal panache.




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