Farber on Film The dizzying creativity of the content aside, the first surprise offered by the Library of America’s Farber on Film omnibus is the length. More than 800 pages — including a miniscule appendix and a thorough index the likes of which should have been included in Phillip Lopate’s American Film Criticism anthology from 2006 — and they’re LoA pages, too: Thinner than trade paperbacks but not quite as diaphanously fragile as some Norton editions (or budget Bibles, for that matter, though I know which one I’d rather swear upon as proof of my integrity), and pocked with crisp, dainty serif fonts. This all-inclusive tome is brimming with tortuous trails of chronologically arranged text, and it’s the stark inverse of Farber’s first published collection (the orderly Negative Space), a rare first edition of which sits, dwarfed and obsolete, beside its new and improved counterpart on my desk. In fact, the only evidence Farber on Film displays of having devoured its predecessor is on the cover: The dust jacket photo, featuring a senescent iteration of the critic marking up slides with his infamous annotations, is duplicated on the hard binding below in an ironically X-ray-esque negative image.
The evoking of electro-magnetic radiation that passes, ghostlike, through an object, collecting information without leaving a trace of its path, is hardly flippant or coincidental. The penetrative force of Farber’s best works — most of them compendium essays on genres and directors — not only mimics the shape, and most importantly, the “feel,” of its subject but also usefully inverts that structure for the reader’s benefit. As a painter, Farber doted obsessively on the use of space and movement in film, and examined the tricky, semi-permeably compartmentalized relationship between form and content with more analytical prowess than perhaps any other American film critic. It’s all been said before, naturally; not only by the superlative exordium of Farber on Film authored by editor Robert Polito, but by countless writers (including Susan Sontag, who immortalized Farber by laundry listing him in the same breath as Erich Auerbach), and even by yours truly in a eulogy fittingly published here in Bright Lights exactly one year ago.
Often ignored in the equation, however, is Farber the man, and there’s a fair enough reason — his personality, and even his biography, seem nearly as nebulous as his theses. There are record of dates, universities attended, individuals confronted and collaborated with. There are stories, naturally, most of them contradictory: That he did or did not vote for George W. Bush, that he was or was not a misogynist. And there are playful anecdotes from Farber protégé Duncan Shepherd regarding the proctoring of brutally recondite midterms at UC San Diego (some questions from which are intimated in Farber on Film). Still, his high seat in the Valhalla of film criticism continues to stand apart from those of his more journalistic contemporaries; especially Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Renata Adler, whose political squabbles one can only fantasize Farber reacting to with rolling eyes and grimaced lips. It’s also unclear what Farber’s influence might have been on the moviegoing public at the time his reviews were being published, despite the fact that he was staffed at high profile rags such as Time — can you imagine? — and The Nation (his tenure at which even Peter Biskind once admitted to forgetting). Farber eschewed Kael-ish calls to action stringently — often, in fact, his wordplay seems designed to throw us off the scent of whatever point he might be making — and as a result he remains, rather perversely, a critic’s critic.
Hail the Conquering Hero Tracking Farber’s steady growth throughout his four-decade writing career is both encouraging and illuminating, partially due to the realization that may dawn on younger critics when they discover that this master didn’t simply bust out of the gate with iconic treatises like “Underground Films.” It’s not that his trademark genius wasn’t apparent from the get-go — in fact, one of his earliest write-ups for The New Republic was “Short and Happy,” a brilliantly tactile, and unprecedentedly serious, discussion of Warner Brothers cartoons printed in 1942 — but the debt to James Agee’s no-nonsense gut-driven text is far more apparent in the early pieces, and we find the coruscating language Farber would later cultivate in an awkward, prenatal stage. Nowhere is this more sharply obvious than in Farber’s original review of Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, which begins:
I find that the deficiencies in Preston Sturges’ work . . . are present in this new movie to a degree that makes it seem as rotten and confused inside as it seems pleasant and successful outside. (186)
As should be clear from the quote, Farber doesn’t quite abhor the picture, but he’s far less willing (or able) to smooth out the disparity between his messily dueling reactions as he would be ten years later, writing on the same film within a directorial study of Sturges entitled “Success in the Movies”. But unlike Andrew Sarris, whose opinions of filmmakers could transform wildly over the years and result in fascinatingly candid critical revisions and apologies, Farber’s opinions don’t seem to have significantly shifted along the trajectory of his sharpening skills. What did mature, however, is an iron trust in what the eye absorbs, paired with a peculiar skepticism towards emotional responses. For example, Farber balks pugnaciously at the climax to Hail the Conquering Hero in his 1944 write-up:
At the point where he has a chance to clinch emotionally the theme of his film — when the hero unmasks himself to the townspeople as a phony, by showing the humiliation and lunacy of everyone concerned, Sturges evades the whole issue revoltingly and runs off to a happy ending. (187)
Farber and Patricia Patterson What’s particularly notable here is that Farber objects to the film on uncharacteristically socio-ethical grounds — perhaps under the influence of wartime morality, where even the most theory-oriented tended to dabble in the preservation of necessary communal ideals — in a series of jabbing, nearly humanitarian flourishes wholly absent from his later work (aside from some of his collaborations with Patricia Patterson). By the time 1954 rolls around and Farber completes his Sturges piece with Willy Poster (whose contributions here could indeed account for the postural distinctions), the fuzzy humanism is gone, and the scowls at Sturges’ frizzy, pseudo-populism are buried beneath mounds of splendiferous ocular data:
The supposedly sentimental ending of Hail the Conquering Hero, for example, starts off as a tongue-in-cheek affair as much designed to bamboozle the critics as anything else. It goes out of hand and develops into a series of oddly placed shots of the six Marines, shots which are indeed so free of any kind of attitude as to create an effect of pained ambiguous humanity, frozen in a moment of time, so grimly at one with life that they seem to be utterly beyond any one human emotion, let alone sentiment. The entire picture is, indeed, remarkable . . .” (463)
Farber realigned himself, in the decade gap between these two essays, from the common critical approach of burrowing beneath the surface of a film to devouring the surface itself in his writing (which, if we momentarily cast aside the pomposity of our own rhetorical inventions, is in actuality all that exists of art). The above shot-by-shot glossing reveals an edgy, post-Kuleshov school of thought, not only concerned with how the juxtaposition of images creates meaning but how an individual frame can encompass an aesthetic universe on its own that influences those in its proximity. He also may have internalized the saturnalian coyness that he grumblingly spotted in Preston Sturges back in the 1944 review:
Sturges’ prevailing interest is in not giving himself away, anywhere. There have been few movies, even from Hollywood, which so confusingly and insistently say one thing and immediately its opposite, so as not to be caught seeming to stand solidly for anything.” (187)
Open City But those classic Farber contradictions can be found in the critic’s 1940s writing, if one doggedly hunts them down. The opinionated push and pull at least partially solidified by ’46, where Farber writes of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City: “[T]here isn’t a speck of newness in its plot — no one opens his mouth or takes a step without reminding you of dozens of other movies . . . and moments have the effect of a draft in the theatre” (279). He then turns around and declares elsewhere that “Despite a hackneyed script, the Italian film Open City seems to me the best movie released in 1946.” These two publications together produce what might be the quintessential Farberian effect: We grapple with the slippery, pointy edges of his thoughts, and at the moment we feel we’ve gripped a sturdy outcropping of comprehension, the stone in our fist crumbles like sand. And so we plummet to ground zero and prepare to climb again from a separate angle that appears less hazardous.
In Farber’s must-read later work — collected in the freelance-laden section “1957-1977” — the climbing becomes even more precarious, and even more exhilarating, though Farber on Film also reveals the limitations of a misshapenly structured critical approach as surely as it accentuates the advantages. Farber’s pieces on Godard, Hawks, Fuller, and Siegel are rooted in their director-topic’s stylistic psyche, even as they reject formidable elements of those directors’ ethea: Smartingly, on Siegel: “[He] has been deified by auteurists, though he’s basically a determinedly lower-case, crafty entertainer who utilizes his own violence to build unsettling movies with cheap music scores . . .” (675). Farber identifies fiercely with late ’50s, early ’60s cinema — maybe due to the rampant reinforcement of masculine tropes burbling up from the collective Cold War consciousness — particularly the tawdriness and the superficiality, and the political agendas skulking in virtually every frame. Writing about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he claims that
In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor . . . having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford. (535)
It’s a shame Manny never essayed a study of Douglas Sirk.
In the ’70s, Farber’s style changed, perhaps because he too had grown tired of roughhousing. The metamorphosis wasn’t dramatic, nor can it be determined by what films or filmmakers he tended to favor in that era (how often can we figure out what Manny likes anyway?), and we mustn’t forget to consider that his wife Patricia Patterson was co-authoring all publications after ’72. But whatever the reason, the final pieces read less organic and more structurally stable, with even some points enumerated for convenience. As an interview with Manny and Patty in the appendix explains, these reviews were the fruit of much conversing and punctilious rewriting; theirs was a partnership flooded with unconsolidated disagreements and loose ends. But these disparate arguments, abruptly transitioning sometimes in the middle of a single paragraph, also seem like curiously caged and sedated entities, rather than itinerant characters that could return at any moment without warning. For example:
[Nicholas Roeg’s] forbidding, grandiloquent work rests rather precariously on a sweet and sour sword’s edge: on the one hand, a predilection for dealing only with the beautiful people . . . side by side with a talent for expressing the primordial depths erupting in the modern world. His film is that of a savoring, thoughtful, idealizing sensualist who can gunk up a movie with sex-tease nonsense and florid sunsets that drive you up a wall.” (738)
And the above excerpt — so nearly butterflied, even in its asymmetry — doesn’t even include the hairpin turn of the “sour” aspects of Roeg’s modus operandi.
Zabriskie Point It may additionally seem bold for a reviewer to perform a one-paragraph leapfrog over what might have been Farber’s most fecund period — the ’60s, when the immortal salvos against White Elephant art and cartooned hip acting congealed from the gnarly froth of Farber’s counterculture perspectives — but you know the labyrinthine commentary of those pieces by heart at this point. What makes Farber on Film required reading is not only the value of having these ubiquitous essays, and dozens of equally trenchant ones, on the shelf waiting impatiently to challenge us yet again, but the convenience of having each one contextualized, standing in a snaky, chronological line with its brothers, all of them adding up to something more piquant and bewildering than even the most representative individuals would suggest on their own. Farber’s life as a critic, when viewed as a whole, was much like the experience of reading through one of his essays (the rhythms of which are in turn borrowed from cinematic stimulation itself). He began with bold assertions, gained speed after a brief running start, and then toyed with our assumptions, performing forcefully and falling back in cleverly timed increments both refreshing and perplexing, only to grow silent at the very moment we felt the need for continuation roughly pressing into us, like the barrel of a loaded pistol in the slick small of our backs, at the very moment we startlingly concluded that we’d never read anything that bears a passing resemblance to this ever again.