By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com
Manny Farber, 1917-2008
Manny Farber, painter, brilliant writer, indelible critic and all-round original whom some aped and few grazed, died in his sleep last night at the age of 91. He had retired from writing and teacher and devoted himself to painting and drawing. To cite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, which early Preston Sturges savant Farber would likely not frown upon, “What a life!” Some links below, including a sweet, brief nod from Glenn Kenny. Edward Crouse’s 1999 interview is choice, including this from Farber: “If I were still a critic, I would loathe knowing the person I was writing about. There’s enough of an incestuous relationship between subject and writer. I have a great love of the actual.” And: Farber’s last art show, a May 2008 selection of drawings, as well as a monograph from a 2003 show. Frank Bruno’s fine appreciation in the December 2004 Believer is here.
Farber was one of the indispensable prose writers of our time, a great entertainer in his own write, yet deeper concerns than his own words permeate these pages. “One of the joys of moviegoing,” he once wrote, “is worrying over the fact that what is referred to as Hawks might be [screenwriter] Jules Furthman… and that, when people talk about Bogart’s ‘peculiarly American’ brand of scarred, sophisticated cynicism they are really talking about what Ida Lupino, Ward Bond, or even Stepin Fetchit provided in unmistakable scene-stealing moments.”
These essays are ripe with an appreciation for texture, for the depth or shallowness of cinematic space, for stolen moments, for the wiles of Hollywood’s cheese-headed bores. Writing on films as diverse as those of Preston Sturges, Werner Herzog, Don Siegel and Nicolas Roeg, Farber does not blink. He remains our best: a curmudgeon, but a painstaking one who concedes that his effects are like the layering and smearing and reworking of layers of paint, that he is “unable to write anything at all without extraordinary amounts of rewriting.”
Farber began writing about art and film for the New Republic in 1942, and from the start, was an ardent foe of corn and deep-dish psychologizing, seeking out movies that were content to go about “eating their own boundaries.” The long out-of-print 1971 “Negative Space” drew from his work to that date, and the new edition includes the lengthy, thoughtful, tumultuous collaborations with his wife Patricia Patterson, also an artist and teacher, as well as an interview where the duo set out their precepts for how they decided to write about the world before them. Two of the best: “Burrowing into the movie, which includes extending the piece, collaging a whole article with pace changes, multiple tones, getting different voices into it” and “Giving the audience some uplift.”
Farber gives uplift to movies high and low, and was an early champion of kino-fist auteur Sam Fuller, among other action directors. Describing Fuller’s “no-flab” work, Farber writes, “Though he lacks the stamina and range of Chester Gould or the endlessly creative Fats Waller, Sam Fuller directs and writes an inadvertently charming film that has some of their qualities: lyricism, real iconoclasm, and a comic lack of self-consciousness.” Farber finesses those assertions for a few pages and moves on to the next concatenation of unlikely sparks, whaling away at the wailing sob sisters of Hollywood “white elephant” art, championing the “termite art” of painting or film that is not “yawning productions[s] of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition…”
In the uncollected pieces contained in the anthology “Cinema Nation,” Farber weighs in on fight films, French films, John Huston—can the late bloviator take these blows? “He is Message-Mad, and mixes a savage story with puddin’head righteousness. His characters are humorless and troubled and quite reaonabl[y] so, since Huston, like a Puritan judge, is forever calling on them to prove that they can soak up punishment, carry through harrowing tasks, withstand the ugliest taunts…. The directing underlines a single vice or virtue of each character so that his one-track actions become either boring or funny; it expands and slows figures until they are like oxen driven with a big moralistic whip.” (Note the placement of the single small word: “big.” It’s what makes the sentence tick.) Or try on Farber’s description of how Gloria Swanson is called upon to overact in “Sunset Boulevard”: “This dated technique would sink the movie under minutiae if Wilder’s inveterate meanness didn’t turn every shot into a shocking, mad, controlled chewing of assorted twentieth-century cuds.” Or the chewing-up of Hitchcock as the Masticator of Suspense: “[He] has gone farther on fewer brains than any director since Griffith, while cleverly masking his deficiency, and his underlying petty and pointless sadism, with a honey-smooth patina of ‘sophistication,’ irony, and general glitter.”
Who alive is writing sentences like this today, and who would not want to? From “Negative Space”: “Good work usually arises when the creators… seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or anything… 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.”
Farber’s work is so rich with a love of the artist’s process—“process-mad,” he says—of the yeasty, yawping potential of rhetoric and style that it seems cheap to point out that the values he champions in the work of others shines like a beacon from almost every sentence he’s put to page. Farber was active as a painter, fifty-plus years into his career, his gray-shocked head glowering out from above a black sweater amid the perfumed pages of Vanity Fair from his studio only a couple of years ago, with an encomium by acolyte James Wolcott, whose prose is often a cackling caricature of what magic Farber wreaks with unlikely verbiage.
From 1975 to 1977, Farber published with his wife Patricia Patterson a handful of longer pieces that contain some of the most acute of contemporary criticism, particularly on the early work of Fassbinder, on “Jeanne Dielman,” Chantal Akerman’s attempt to bridge the discourse of commercial and structural filmmaking, and most accessibly, “The Power and the Gory,” their conflicted, unyielding take on “Taxi Driver.” For all their admiration, they still cut to the eye of the stylistic hurricane: “Lots of things in ‘Taxi Driver’ are diversions keeping the audience’s mind from the fact that it’s not getting the Promised Land: the inner workings of a repressed, ignorant fantasist, the mind of a baby whore, the experience of being a taxi driver twelve hours a day in the incredible New York street noise and jostle.”
Shortly after “Negative Space” was published in hardcover, Farber took a job teaching at the University of California at San Diego, scooping up acolytes like the director Michael Almereyda, who told me, “Manny was my first flesh-and-blood guide to movie culture, to culture as a present tense activity.” As you read these essays, head-noted with dates like “1951” or “1968,” they seem less timeless than forever timely: the force of Farber’s (and Patterson’s) mind and wind suggests they could be written tomorrow and be the freshest contrast of black on white to be found anywhere. In a joint interview with Patterson that closes the volume, Farber says, “I can’t imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can’t imagine anything more valuable to do, and I’ve always felt that way.” Yes—and if one could say it as witherlingly, as wisely and wittily as Manny Farber.
On the occasion of a 2006 art show in La Jolla and “Roads and Tracks,” an upcoming collection of uncollected criticism, Duncan Shepherd at San Diego Reader offers personal reminiscence about critic and painter Manny Farber. “The eventual meeting would occur in the last half of my senior year at Columbia University, a school chosen solely for the number of proximate movie theaters in New York City, my primary yardstick for Quality of Life. By this time Farber—I was still on last-name terms with him—had moved his column to Artforum, readily available in the college library, and in some ways his most hospitable venue ever, where his observations on movies could share space with views of Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol… I got wind of a writing workshop run by Farber at the School of Visual Arts, ninety-some blocks southward in Manhattan… I would follow along on that trail come Spring… And then there he was, sitting six feet away from me, his prominent brow and forehead suggesting superhuman braininess, starting off fearlessly reading aloud from a recent piece he had penned on Luis Buñuel: “His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints….” “Manny… was a red-blooded American sports fan as happy to talk, in after-class adjournments to the coffee shop, about the Knicks as about the new Hitchcock or new Bresson. Too, he was preparing a show of his recent paintings in SoHo or thereabouts, a side to him I had known nothing about. Film buffs as a breed have a dangerous tendency to put on blinders to anything outside a movie screen, and the broadening of my horizons to the world of art studios, galleries, openings, and the bohemian digs he shared with his fellow painter and future wife, Patricia Patterson, was a healthy thing. Most fortunate of all, he was then putting together his own collection of film criticism, and I was flabbergasted and flattered to be called upon to help sift through the file box of clippings that dated back to the Forties, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Leader…” But what Shepherd appreciates about the Man is that “It was always about looking and seeing.”
On a recently unearthed collaboration between Farber and James Agee. A review of a 2007 group show with Farber’s work in the New York Times. Noel King’s career overview is rich. King also interviews Robert Walsh, who provided the preface to “Negative Space,” in which we learn that his admirers included not only Chris Petit, who made a documentary of the same name containing Farber, but also novelists William Gibson and Harry Mathews. [Senses of Cinema describes the Petit-Farber documentary here.] And: a parting bit of wisdom.