“Farber’s writing is the pure antithesis of academic ornately sophisticated with a vernacular punch, stuffed with contradictory statements and astounding paradoxes.”
The deluge of appreciation1 following the passing of Manny Farber on August 18, 2008 has left precious few of the man’s personal and professional stones unturned. The reaction can hardly be called shocking; despite having no new publications in the discipline during the last 30 or so years, he has been rightly hailed by luminary and lowly blogger alike. Both Susan Sontag and Phillip Lopate have deemed him the best of American film critics, and even others with astute detractions find themselves praising his genius. A few years ago I attended a lecture Lopate gave during his American Film Criticism book tour, as did many other local cineastes; every time Farber’s name was announced a collective sigh seemed to pulse from those in the know, as though they were fondly recalling an old flame. At that time I had heard of the man but was not quite numbered among the converts. So it is somewhat fitting that I now find myself rushing towards a swiftly closing casket, a day-late-dollar-short eulogizer addressing a thin crowd of adherents.2
Does criticism need to have a cleanly argument, so long as the line-specific assertions are incisive? Does it even need to make sense, for that matter, so long as it remains perceptive, and above all entertaining? Farber’s writing is the pure antithesis of academic — ornately sophisticated with a vernacular punch, stuffed with contradictory statements and astounding paradoxes. As Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent piece on Farber3 observes, he often appears to be praising and damning at the same time, depending on how one decides to read an ambiguous line or curious phrase. For example, a discussion of the climax to Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero: “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 . . .”4
His ideas are less expressed (we could spend days unraveling “pained ambiguous humanity”) and more limned — poetic diagrams drawn and glossed on the visual chalkboard of the mind. The daring attempt here is to push past what is commonly considered movie reviewing — vacuous declarations of like or dislike — by floating the often-dominant layer of the critic’s voice that assesses “good” vs. “bad.” It’s an admirably modernist gamble: there’s the distinct possibility of exasperating the audience, but also the hope of unshackling the writer from a polarizing, and eventually inconsequential, opinion. What we’re left with is more a critical experience than a critical assertion — prose that actually simulates the schizophrenic love/hate cycle of watching and emotionally processing a movie. In other words, criticism as an art and not a science, as it should be.
An established painter, Farber’s approach to frame-by-frame deconstruction reveals a powerfully empathic and concentrated eye (Pauline Kael claimed this was Farber’s real contribution to film studies). Note how he breaks down the Sturges scene not into glances (anthropomorphic film-crit) or angles (the critic as camera) but entire shots, the aggregate juxtaposition of which bares for us some human truth. And the larger point here — that Sturges must sacrifice technical order (“It goes out of hand”) to follow his muse — is easily applied to Farber’s desultory rhetorical strategies. Nearly every damn appreciation of him I’ve read has noted this ideological reflexivity: in order to properly discuss “termite art,” Farber became a termite. It is very rare to find a critic who is the prime exemplar and champion of his own favored fictional style.
Farber’s perpetual gnawing on the borders of both his theses and his social persona has continued to bamboozle even his fans and friends. I had initially crafted the center of this piece around the delicious irony of so many liberal “art house” critics fawning over Manny, a political conservative who was alleged to have “voted for Bush twice.” Farber’s wife, however, set the partisan record straight with an astonishing letter to NPR: “Manny was not a ‘Conservative,’ a ‘Libertarian,’ a ‘Republican,’ an anything. In his early twenties he tried to join the Communist Party but they didn’t want him. During WWII he tried to enlist in the army but they rejected him . . . Manny was not a Republican because he never knew any. He didn’t quarrel with them because he was never around them.”5
There is surely a hint of defensiveness in here — how can any piece of writing that means to defend a departed loved one escape this? — but the tenderness is unmistakable. A pariah left, right, and center, what recourse does one have but the soothing embrace of mother criticism — where all ideas, theories, opinions, biases, and asides become sacrosanct? I used to imagine Farber’s elusiveness as theatrics, or intrinsic to the complex points he was making, but could his amorphous identity on the page have been the product of a rickety sense of social identity? Reading back over the quotes I chose to illustrate Manny’s “Nixonian anti-elitism,” I see more general skepticism and disdain for any hint of tyranny — much like the anti-totalitarian tone of George Orwell. For example, Buñuel becomes a feudal lord: “Buñuel, who always seems in a dark closet of privacy, like a nobleman sitting back and watching his vassals climb all over each other, hardly directs these conceived-in-sentimentality actors who don’t punch so much as crawl and fester.”6
While Frank Capra is taken to task less for his populism than for his reductive, postcard-propaganda approach: “[Capra] is always for the little man . . . . Actually the only subtle thing about this conventionalist is that, despite his folksy, emotion-packed fables, he is strictly a mechanic, stubbornly unaware of the ambiguities that override his shallow images.”7
Note the pejorative use of the word “conventionalist,” which in this context nearly has a political ring, like “conservative”: this is an apolitical argument framed around razor-sharp accusations of socio-political humbuggery. Farber’s outsider status may have helped him to recognize right away what it took the rest of us a few more decades to — that, as David Thomson would later echo in his revisionist critique of Charlie Chaplin, those that claim to be for the “little man” are really only condescending to him, and perpetuating his minuteness.
No, a “right-wing” reading of Farber’s work is not likely to get us anywhere; such are the multitudes that he contains. The very title of my tribute — criticism as a man’s job — is designed to scrape away at the bewildering contrasts and overflowing ironies of Farber’s prose and personality. For example, while much of Farber’s work burrows into the cinema of the man’s man, many of his best late-period pieces are collaborations with his wife, Patricia Patterson.8 We even find Farber giving an enthusiastic though somewhat petulant hand to a quintessential post-agitpropist like Godard, about whom he says, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.” Godard was a butterfly, flitting nervously from scene to scene, from ideology to ideology; a subterranean termite like Farber need only match the pace in the earth. And Farber’s piece on Preston Sturges is an eager lover letter from a kindred spirit. It’s not hard to see why — Sturges’ sly purée of parody, kitsch, and piercing character study is truly after Manny’s own heart.
And is it a coincidence, then, that the densest and most anthologized of Farber’s works concern themselves with “outsider” — or underground — topics? I find myself, re-reading Negative Space, in awe of the analytical (as well as syntactical) power he holds over these films. Other critics had praised “B” movies before (Otis Ferguson in particular), but the primary method of discussing them pre-Farber was as guilty pleasures that could be intellectualized into something more than insipid, shallow reels of celluloid. Farber did for Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (above) and They Drive by Night what perhaps a mainstream writer couldn’t: like a coarse-soil-enriching earthworm, he gobbled up stereotype and two-dimensional psychology, digested it with his trenchant, patriarchal art-view, and defecated shockingly perceptive poetry. One canto from “Underground Films”: “A mean butterball flicks a gunman’s ear with a cigarette lighter. A night-frozen cowboy shudders over a swig of whiskey. A gorilla gang leader makes a cannonaded exit from a barber chair . . . . In each case the director is taking a great chance with clichés and forcing them into a hard natural shape.”9
Is this last line not, perhaps, a far better distillation of Farber’s talent than his fungal metaphors? And this shuttling of isolated scenarios stripped of their filmographic context — almost like leading the reader through a hallucinogenic slide show — also predicts the “criticism-as-fiction” movement that would transform the role of film writers from Roman thumbs up/thumbs down Emperors into shamanic priests holding the keys to a mystic cinematic mythology (i.e., David Thomson). While there is no recognizable narrative — yet — here, this style is clearly oozing up from the primordial pond of Farber and sprouting legs: “Rooms are boxed, crossed, opened up as they are in few other films. The spectator gets to know these rooms as well as his own hand. Years after seeing the film, he remembers the way a dulled waitress sat on the edge of a hotel bed, the weird elongated adobe in which ranch hands congregate before a Chisholm Trail drive.”10
Though he remains at a careful third-person distance, there is no mistake of who this spectator is. Emanuel Farber, proto-Gonzo.
Occasionally Farber’s attempts at one-film reviews — such as of How I Won the War and Belle de Jour — suffer from (or exult in) an elusive unwillingness to tidy up tortuous assessments under a unifying, identifiable point. But such detractions sound like the critics who reach to claim that Art Tatum (another outsider who made unprecedented strides in his art form) had “too much technique.” Farber’s complete output may be far briefer than that of a writer like Vincent Canby, but his best essays — I would nominate “Underground Films,” “The Gimp,” and “Short and Happy” (a delightful homage to Warner Brothers cartoons) toward that Pantheon — have altered both the role of the critic and the role of the audience member in ways that are incalculable. Some of this may not have even directly been the result of his influence, but he smartly epitomized and pioneered a number of trends he must have felt burbling up from the gullet of the collective cinematic experience. It’s hard not to read Farber’s tough-guy intellectualism into critical apologetics of inescapably chauvinistic films like True Romance — just as we feel Pauline Kael’s influence in every peep of the visceral trash-art concept that has overtaken master’s degree projects on John Woo et al.
Interestingly, those two film critics — Pauline Kael and Manny Farber — may have been the only two from the last generation (or, by now, second to last) to leave behind obvious heirs. Kael’s clear successor, in style if not always opinion, is Stephanie Zacharek, and Manny Farber’s is his long-time student and friend Duncan Shepherd (I sometimes fantasize Phillip Lopate as Andrew Sarris’ descendent, but that lineage has become far too messy). It is also worth noting that Zacharek and Shepherd, like their forefathers (and foremothers), are the most fun to read when they’re decimating a film; they aggressively dismantle the woe of the common movie product, frame by frame, character by character. Even a four- (out of five-) star review of Shepherd’s contains the following jab: “the simple pursuit narrative . . . unfolds as lean, linear, streamlined, and yet slow, steady, and long, never very deep. And on the Coens’ part, never very inventive. They have followed McCarthy’s blueprint scrupulously, even slavishly, and have bountifully harvested his lip-smacking dialogue; and the major unconventionalities in this mostly conventional thriller are all his.”11
It is the elephant in the room (of any color you choose): is film in decline? Reading the work of a high priest like Farber, one wonders if the film critics of today are little more than funeral directors. The very name of Farber’s gift to American cinema disciples is not only a harrowing titular prophecy of the displacement he would leave behind in film-crit, but of the quality of the film industry’s output in years to come: Negative Space.
- For further Manny memories, visit Greencine’s excellent Farber obit roundup. [↩]
- Then again, arriving to the party late has its advantages. Many of the immediately published tributes had to be amended with post-scripts due to inaccuracies, addressed elsewhere herein. [↩]
- “They Drive By Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber,” available here. [↩]
- From “Preston Sturges, Success in Movies,” (1950) by Farber and W. S. Poster, reprinted in Negative Space. [↩]
- Also accessible at the end of the Rosenbaum piece. [↩]
- From “Luis Buñuel,” also in Negative Space. [↩]
- From “Frank Capra,” again in Negative Space. [↩]
- Rosenbaum’s essay notes the emergence of a distinct “phallic” fear during this era, such as in the Faber/Patterson review of Taxi Driver — which they saw as a modern fairy tale obsessed with the “magic of guns.” Compare this with the obviously phallic and nearly homoerotic insinuations of the quote I take from “Underground Films” — the cigarette lighter, the “frozen” night, the “shuddering” cowboy, the “cannonaded exit,” the clichés that the director forms into a “hard, natural shape.” Has criticism ever been so tumescent? [↩]
- From “Underground Films,” as noted, reprinted in Negative Space but also in countless film criticism collections, including Phillip Lopate’s American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now, David Denby’s Awake in the Dark, and Gilbert Adair’s potpourri anthology Movies — to name but a few. [↩]
- Also from “Underground Films.” Note the reference to the Chisholm Trail, a common cattle driving reference in westerns. Interestingly, in 1950 a theatre opened in Kansas — the Chisholm Trail Drive-in — potentially giving this sentence an oblique double-entendre. [↩]
- From a particularly astute (and particularly) back-handed review of No Country for Old Men, accessible here. [↩]