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Manny Farber: A film critic not in awe of Hollywood
Farber on Film
The Complete Film Writings
of Manny Farber
Edited by Robert Polito
Library of America: 824 pp., $40
At this year's Academy Awards, the most incongruous moment came during the "In Memoriam" roll call. Among the distinguished deceased was "Manny Farber, Film Critic." Outside of Martin Scorsese and a few other relative old-timers, I wonder how many members of the academy recognized the name, let alone remembered Farber's 1957 assessment of the complicity between the typical good-housekeeping movie reviewer and Hollywood's distribution of those 13 1/2 -inch statuettes: "His choice of best salami is a picture backed by studio build-up, agreement amongst his colleagues . . . and a list of ingredients that anyone's unsophisticated aunt in Oakland can spot as comprising a distinguished film."
On an evening when an over-eager but well-trained "Slumdog" snatched Best Salami from a nutritious skim-"Milk" parade float, acknowledging a flinty heretic like Farber amounted to a cryptic joke on the entire beauty pageant.
For those who appreciated the irony, Farber's Oscar cameo was weirdly bittersweet. When he died in 2008 at 91 -- 20 years after he retired from criticism -- his contrarian brashness still resonated. In its ricocheting momentum, tug-of-war verbal rhythms and slangy, shifting tonalities, Farber's prose often replicated the ravenous electricity of movies themselves.
It echoed the rotogravure cross-talk in "His Girl Friday" and the breathless ensemble arguments of at least six Preston Sturges films (with off-the-wall ideas and imprecations flying as thick and fast as the wisecracks). He championed sneaky-little over big-important, the troublesome over the transcendental, efficient poetic artisans over arrogant narcissist hand wringers. Like Groucho, whatever the grain or the flow, Farber was against it.
Until now, his reputation has rested on a single collection, "Negative Space," first published in 1971 and reissued in an expanded edition in 1998. The Library of America's plush, hefty (irony here too) "Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber" supersedes it, or rather subsumes it whole, while adding roughly 400 pages of previously lost treasures, historical artifacts and top-notch apprentice work from the 1940s and early 1950s, when Farber was a weekly reviewer for the New Republic and later the Nation.
Working the terrain pioneered by Otis Ferguson (jazz-informed, conversational, wryly commonsensical) and James Agee (word-drunk, sporadically antic, socially conscious as all get out), Farber established a pared-down, acerbic niche that allowed him to develop his style by careful degrees. Writing as a conventional reviewer -- or disguised as one -- his work during the Second World War gives a marvelous sense of life on the home front even as he gradually finds ways of slicing through the prevailing modes of propaganda, movie and otherwise.
Farber's irreverent fusion of skepticism and affection is already in place as he lists the hokey, gladly secondhand machinery that comprises "Casablanca," gently suggests Elizabeth Taylor's fanatical horse-stirred passion for "galloping in bed" in "National Velvet" has a distinct autoerotic flavor; or damns the self-styled "entertainment film" and "art film" alike as out of touch with the real possibilities of movies. Arranged chronologically, the pieces in "Farber on Film" show him taking an obstinate path away from the straightforward in the direction of an exuberant grappling with contradiction. Whether he's writing about the boisterous Sturges group portraits of American optimism and futility, producer Val Lewton's touchingly uneven "Cat People" movies, latter-day slattern Taylor sloughing through "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" like a caged wildebeest or the "spiritualized braille art" of Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl," his work is usually about balancing, if not reconciling, dual impulses toward formalized abstraction and unfiltered reality.
The experience of reading Farber can be disorienting because:
1) The notion of what movie to see and what to avoid is secondary to opening up new ways of looking at the familiar and the overlooked.
2) He steadfastly refuses hero worship: "To put Hitchcock either up or down isn't the point; the point is sticking to the material as it is, rather than drooling over behind-the-camera feats of engineering."
3) He has scant interest in narrative, either of plot-driven or symbolic/sociopolitical kinds, and is more taken with spatial dynamics than happy endings or movie martyrdoms.
4) He has a nonchalant way of rolling out a convoluted 20th century landscape in which Godard meets Dick Tracy, Anthony Mann carries more weight than John Ford, and the scummy cesspools of Don Siegel beckon like an old Esther Williams water ballet. Indeed, Farber had a special knack for creating a mental space where everything exists in the same eternal present tense, the 1932 "Scarface" and the 1970 acid gangster trip "Performance," Boris Karloff and Mick Jagger sounding like long-lost brothers-in-arms waving to each other across the Warner Bros. lot.
In boiling down a movie or director or even an era to a few strokes of "personality-revealing motion, the geography of gesture, the building and milking of a signature trait for all it's worth," Farber had the temerity of a Dadaist private eye. John Ashbery, in the more colloquial bits of poems such as "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" -- with its "infantries of the happy-go-nutty" -- sounds curiously similar. But a more approachable touchstone might be the way Chick Hearn called a Lakers game, the serene velocity of that "word's-eye view" of "Magic yo-yoing up and down," "putting Bird in the popcorn machine," firing a shot "King Kong on a ladder couldn't block."
Only, unlike Hearn, Farber never bothered keeping score. Indeed, "Farber on Film" has a terrific demolition job on "scorekeeper critics" Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag that assails their respective brands of lofty generalization and intellectual fashion-mongering. Neither got inside the films they built up into colossal monuments to their own hubris. Farber's predilections may have been willful and his dislikes a tad unreasonable (he made it sound as if Jeanne Moreau was Dr. Moreau's mutant daughter), but he always threw himself at movies with everything he had. There was no taking cover behind academicism, pinched smugness, politico-aesthetic correctness or demographic pandering: He laid out the struggles inside a film with an awareness that never came off as merely jaded or cynical.
The absence of gush in his work, the refusal to use movies as intellectual capital or status symbols, the sense of discovering hidden compartments and redressing the imbalances enforced by cultural arbiters -- these are all valid reasons for loving his stuff. But what made him the favorite of so many writers was the use of language itself, the compact plasticity, the delight in words, in play, in a kind of serious mischief. His was writing designed to upend your consciousness or at least get it a little drunk on unsuspected possibilities.
In the 1970s, Farber began collaborating with his wife, Patricia Patterson, and their pieces together reflect a certain inevitable mellowing, though they're still quite feisty. But it's easy to see why he would have been nuts about Rainer Werner Fassbinder no matter what, a director who made art films with an irresistible B-movie feel, a one-man studio churning out wildly mortifying gangster sagas and soap operas and cracked social melodramas like some bisexual love child of Robert Aldrich and Ida Lupino. Farber could easily have been writing about Fassbinder's magnificently bleary "Love Is Colder Than Death" when he said of Hollywood's archetypal hoodlums: "The whole population of 'Scarface,' cavemen in quilted smoking jackets, are like the first animals struggling out of the slime and murk toward fresh air."
That, in effect, is the motto of "Farber on Film," though a decent second choice might be Nick Lowe's lovely ode to discomfiture, "I made an American squirm / And it felt so right."
Hampton is the author of "Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses."