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Film critic and artist was iconoclastic and influential

Times Staff Writer

Manny Farber, an iconoclastic stylist who achieved prominence in two careers -- as a painter of abstract canvases and still-lifes and as a film critic admired for his canny, muscular writing and advocacy of such directors as Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks and R.W. Fassbinder -- has died. He was 91.

An emeritus professor of art at UC San Diego, where he taught from 1970 to 1987, Farber died of bone cancer Monday at his home in the north San Diego County community of Leucadia, a family spokeswoman said.

Although he shifted his energies full time into painting 30 years ago, Farber remained a hero to a younger generation of film connoisseurs and critics, who cite the enduring effect of his writings, particularly the 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.”

A jeremiad on glitzy, pretentious Hollywood productions (he once famously called “Casablanca” “Casablank”), the essay proclaimed Farber’s preference for actors and directors whose art “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.”

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Thus he praised John Wayne and Jason Robards as termite actors and, in other cultural arenas, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald as termite writers.

Admirers of Farber observed that his own career arcs reflected the “termite behavior” he extolled.

He was a carpenter who turned scraps of wood into sculptures, a critic with a highly visual sensibility who regarded movies as spatial inventions, and an artist who stopped writing about films and instead conveyed his ideas about them in paintings.

“The painting and the criticism were all part of the same continuum,” said Peter Rainer, movie critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “He saw things so powerfully and so individually.”

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As Farber once explained: “What I’m doing in painting is pretty much creating movies. I’m lining up objects and lining up paths through the painting, pretty close to the way a movie director makes a movie.”

His work, through all its phases, reflected a bristling intellect, that of someone who was “less a pedant than a hipster,” critic J. Hoberman wrote in an appreciation this week in the Village Voice. “He had superb taste and fantastic range.”

He was born Emanuel Farber on Feb. 20, 1917, in Douglas, Ariz., a copper-mining town near the Mexico border where his Russian Jewish immigrant parents ran a dry goods store. He moved with his family to Vallejo, Calif., in 1932.

He briefly attended UC Berkeley before transferring to Stanford University, where he began to study art. After a year, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

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Hoberman called him a “congenital maverick,” a disposition that appeared in full reign by his college years.

Shirking the Works Project Administration, the Depression-era program that employed many starving artists, Farber decided to become a carpenter and spent the next few decades earning a living as a construction worker in Washington, D.C., and later in New York.

But he continued to create art and in 1942 began writing about it for the New Republic. He wrote one of the first favorable reviews of Jackson Pollock.

When the New Republic’s legendary film critic, Otis Ferguson, died in action in World War II, Farber shifted to the movie beat.

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It was an exciting time to make the switch, as writers such as Ferguson and James Agee were changing film criticism in the 1940s.

When Agee left the Nation to write scripts in Hollywood in 1949, Farber took his place.

In time, Farber’s film criticism would be published in other journals, including Artforum, Time, Commentary and Film Comment.

His work was mentioned in the same breath with that of Agee and Ferguson and, later, with two other influential critics, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.

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In 1971, 45 of his essays were compiled in a collection titled “Negative Space.”

Reissued in 1998 by Da Capo Press, it contains work that was produced in collaboration with his third wife, artist Patricia Patterson, who also contributed significantly to his paintings.

In addition to Patterson, he is survived by a daughter from a previous marriage, Amanda Farber of San Diego, and a grandson.

Farber was credited with coining the phrase “underground films.” It was the subject of a 1957 essay that went starkly against the grain of mainstream film criticism by discerning the artistry of such action film directors as Hawks and William Wellman.

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His greatest contribution as a film critic was the way he wrote, using language that Rainer described as racy, pungent, vernacular and personal. He said Richard Widmark had “the look of a ham that has been smoked, cured and then coated with honey-colored shellac,” and he compared Gregory Peck to “an ironing board.”

Describing Wayne’s performance in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he wrote: “Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically casted actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardness, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against a wall. . . .”

In 1977, Farber turned full time to painting because he “no longer wanted to be viewed as the film critic who also paints.”

He regularly exhibited in New York and was the subject of two well- received retrospectives of his paintings organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 1978 and 2003.

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He was best known for the still-lifes he produced from the 1970s until his death, some of which referred to his previous life as a critic.

He admitted that, despite the thrashings he once delivered, he often found it painful to read reviews of his artwork.

“Criticism,” he told an interviewer for Art in America a few years ago, “is very important, and difficult. I can’t think of a better thing for a person to do.”

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elaine.woo@latimes.com


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