Manny Farber: prescient, pungent
On a couple of public occasions, I saw Manny Farber, the artist and critic who died last week at age 91, deflect high-flown praise for his criticism and painting with the simple, emphatic words, “That’s a lot of bunk.” Even at his most challenging, as a critic or artist or both, Farber refused to separate aesthetic experience from life experience -- and always addressed both head-on.
Before he became a passionate analyst for the European avant-garde, he was the most eloquent champion of “the unpolished [American] B movie worked out by a few people with belief and skill in their art, who capture the unworked-over immediacy of life before it has been cooled by ‘Art.’ ”
Farber’s intense, collage-like paintings and his tangy prose (collected in “Negative Space,” expanded and reissued as “Manny Farber on Movies”) boast the quickness, spontaneity and bursting physicality of his favorite B pictures. Reading Farber makes you realize anew all the sensations and bits of recognition that go into watching a real live movie.
“Those tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene that make up the memorable moments in any good film,” he writes. “Such tingling moments liberate the imagination of both actors and audiences; they are simply curiosity flexing itself, spoofing, making connections to a new situation.”
By the time I got to know Manny, in 1971, he had ceased publishing in magazines like the New Republic and the Nation (where he succeeded his friend James Agee). But his reputation was never higher, thanks to the after-life of essays such as his 1962 Film Culture broadside, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.”
He would go on to publish movie pieces in Francis Coppola’s San Francisco-based City as well as Artforum and Film Comment, written with his painter-wife, Patricia Patterson. But in ’71, he and I were part of an unlikely assortment of critics, including Jay Cocks and Paul Schrader (before Cocks and Schrader became screenwriters for Martin Scorsese and others), flown to Dallas by filmmaker-critic L.M. “Kit” Carson to pick movies for the USA Film Festival.
I was really just the token student movie critic, down from Harvard, but perhaps because he knew I loved the work of his pal Agee and could sense that I was in awe of him, Manny treated me as an equal.
He had such gnarly humor and liveliness and character. At a festival fundraiser dinner filled with millionaires, Manny seemed to shrink around his plate and fiddle with his place setting; it’s the first time I saw anyone “play with his spoon” the way they do in old novels.
“Don’t these people just beat you down?” he muttered. Then he would look up at me and ask, “You were born in Roosevelt, New York? That’s an exciting town. I worked as a carpenter there.” No other writer of his stature ever was, simultaneously, so individualistic and so open, and so fascinated with human fallibility.
In 1952 (when I was born), he wrote, “not so long ago, the movies, whatever their simplifications and distortions, still rested on the assumption that their function was to present some intelligible, structured image of reality -- on the simplest level, to tell a story and to entertain, but more generally, to extend the spectator’s meaningful experience, to offer him a window on the real world.”
With a prescience that can only be called titanic, Farber went on to ask, “What are they now? Icebergs of a sort. They take things that don’t belong together, charge them up with hidden meanings, and then unite them in a juxtaposition that is bound to shock the spectator into a lubricated state of mind where he is forced to think seriously about the phony implications of what he is seeing.”
Farber’s sense of cinematic rightness is inseparable from his sense of humor. After listing all the visual qualities of a film by Samuel Fuller -- its skillful work with lines and masses, its correct positioning of woods and fields, and “the decorum of Corot” -- he wrote that one question remained: “How much of it occurred accidentally?”
Farber once summarized Jean-Luc Godard this way: “His legacy includes a school of estranged clown fish, intellectual ineffectuals, a vivid communication of mucking about, a good eye for damp villas in the suburbs, an ability to turn any actress into a doll (part of the decor), some great still shots that have an irascible energy, an endless supply of lists.
“I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing, or be an audience to film-writing which gets to the heart of an idea and hangs in there, or be so edified by the sound and sight of decent, noble words spoken with utter piety.”
He concluded: “In short, no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.” When it comes to critics, I could say the same of Manny Farber.
Michael Sragow is a film critic at the Baltimore Sun.