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Manny Farber combined the power of the pen with free thinking

Of all the phrases crafted by the pugnaciously free-thinking movie critic Manny Farber, none has proved more time-resistant than his distinction between “white elephant art” and “termite art.”

The former, Farber stated in an influential 1962 essay, is self-important, over-controlled, pseudo-profound and more concerned with winning prizes and wowing critics than with engaging audiences. In this camp, Farber placed the movies of such ‘60s European art-house idols as Michelangelo Antonioni, François Truffaut, Tony Richardson and other directors whose method was to “pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.”

The latter type of art (which Farber sometimes described as “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art”) has no grand ambition of creating a “masterpiece.” Instead, it voraciously gnaws its way toward truth and beauty, leaving “nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious unkempt activity.” A handful of action-loving, tough-guy directors (Howard Hawks, John Ford), iconoclastic actors (John Wayne, Jason Robards) and elegant roughneck writers (Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald) were assigned to this category.

By itself, that essay could’ve guaranteed Farber a spot in history alongside Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, James Agee, André Bazin and a few others who midwifed the occupation of film criticism into the 20th century. But Farber, who died at 91 in August 2008 at his home in Leucadia, north of San Diego, deserves to be remembered, and profitably read, for other reasons too.

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That’s the argument advanced by “Underground Films & Termite Art: A Tribute to Manny Farber” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a 2 1/2 -week run of suitably motley film screenings, beginning Friday. There’ll also be a panel discussion Saturday in which Farber’s widow and former collaborator, the painter and writer Patricia Patterson, will take part.

If Farber offers a model for today, when full-time, paid movie critics’ jobs are evaporating and hard-core cinephiles must sift through a glut of blog commentary, it’s that a resolutely independent-minded critic-essayist with a lively prose style can carve out a space to communicate. Farber didn’t write for big-circulation journals, but his insights’ ripple effects reached far and wide.

A man of multiple aptitudes, Farber also was a successful abstract painter and longtime professor at UC San Diego. Originally a carpenter by trade, he kept making furniture even after he began writing film criticism for the New Republic, the Nation and the stag-mag Cavalier.

He quit film writing altogether in 1977 to devote more time to painting and teaching.

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LACMA’s lineup mimics Farber’s taste for striking two (or more) seemingly incongruent entities together, then watching the Promethean sparks fly. The screenings are as varied as Raoul Walsh’s “Me and My Gal,” a Depression-era fusion of romantic comedy and lighthearted gangster flick; Luis Buñuel’s surrealist horror film “The Exterminating Angel”; and Michael Snow’s 1967 seminal avant-garde “structural” film “Wavelength.” The common thread, if there is one, is that these movies deliberately nibble away at their own boundaries and trap-door cliched expectations.

LACMA’s homage follows several posthumous Farber tributes at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and other venues around the country as well as the Library of America’s publication last year of “Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber.” Farber joins an elite group of journalists (Agee, A.J. Liebling) whose writings were deemed worthy of preservation by the venerable publishing house.

In his introduction to the new volume, editor Robert Polito praises Farber’s “divergent, incongruous, maverick, perverse” critical sensibility, his ornery knack for eviscerating sacred cows and pat, preconceived ways of interpreting art. Farber’s prose was, likewise, sui generis: a loose, jazz-inflected yet densely allusive mode of expression in which Farber’s syntax would hum along for paragraphs, like a busy freeway, then suddenly mash-up in provocative collisions of ideas. His essay titles announced his contrarian bent: “Corny Anti-Philistinism,” “Cartooned Hip Acting.”

Resisting the idea that an art form as kinetic and collaborative as film could be pinned down to simple-minded plot synopses or reduced to snap judgments, Farber in his essays would intentionally backtrack over his own opinions, qualifying qualifications, teasing out nuances, framing his own ideas from multiple, even clashing points of view. Polito has described him as “perhaps the only American critic of modernism to write as a modernist.”

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“What he wanted to do was to get people unfrozen,” says Kent Jones, a writer and curator who organized Lincoln Center’s Farber tribute and advised LACMA on its program. “He wanted you to watch, to look, before you started categorizing and taxonimizing. It’s the same thing in [Farber’s own] paintings. Your eye is always in motion. He’s not giving you a visual master plan.”

Bernardo Rondeau, coordinator of LACMA’s film programs, says that Farber, writing in the World War II era and the postwar period, anticipated a growing bifurcation in Hollywood between low-budget but well-crafted genre movies churned out by skilled, versatile journeymen directors such as Hawks and Walsh, and “prestige,” “high-art films” like “Citizen Kane.” The former group, working frequently and with generally smaller casts and fewer sets, were more “able to play and invent and explore” in the termite-like ways that Farber favored. Welles’ masterpiece, Farber lamented, prefigured “a crucial change in films from the old flowing naturalistic story, bringing in an iceberg film of hidden meanings.”

Farber’s peers and acolytes recognized what he was up to. Kael, in an interview, suggested that Farber’s singular contribution to movie criticism was his way of looking at the film frame as if it were a sprawling Brueghel canvas, where the really interesting stuff -- ear-tickling dialogue, quirky, bravura bits of acting -- often lurked at the periphery. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has written that Farber’s wide-roaming tastes in film let him play “both ends off against the middlebrow.”

Farber’s fruitfully wayward mind-set had deep roots. Born in Douglas, Ariz., in 1917 to Russian immigrant parents, he attended UC Berkeley before switching to Stanford. His writerly life began in earnest in 1932 when he moved to Greenwich Village and culminated in the publication of his one, heavily influential book, “Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies,” in 1971, the year after he moved to San Diego to join UC’s visual arts faculty.

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To Farber, the hobgoblins of American cinema were directors whose brains, Farber maintained, “had been sharpened on left-wing letters of the thirties” and who “swerved Hollywood story-telling toward fragmented, symbol-charged drama, closely viewed, erratically acted, and deviously given to sniping at their own society.”

Polito writes that Farber, as a carpenter who valued the ideal of manual labor and had tried in San Francisco to join the Communist Party, was intent on “dethroning” what he regarded as “the vulgarities and hypocrisy of liberal New Deal Hollywood as much as any other inadvertently comic bourgeois correctness.”

Like the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York -- he counted Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock among his friends during his New York years -- Farber refused to be cowed into reverence by an artwork’s supposedly haute pedigree. To a degree, his criticism echoed the American postwar era’s swagger and brash self-reliance, and the sense that the world’s cultural capital had shifted from Paris and London to New York and Hollywood.

Rondeau hopes that LACMA’s series, in addition to drawing existing Farber fans, will entice others unfamiliar with his work to experience what Rondeau did when he first read Farber’s essay on Godard. “Just reading that opening paragraph, I knew I was in for something completely different, completely electrifying.”

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For a complete list of films screening at LACMA’s “Underground Films & Termite Art: A Tribute to Manny Farber” go to www.lacma.org/ programs/FilmSeriesSchedule.aspx.

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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