about the writer
A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
by A. S. Hamrah
When Manny Farber died last August after a long life of painting, teaching, 35 years of writing film criticism, then 30 years of not writing film criticism, American film reviewers rushed to their blogs to eulogize him. Farber had become a writer no one didn't like, a figure of American culture like Johnny Cash or Philip Guston who all thinking people agreed was excellent, unmatched, etc.
When Pauline Kael died the old arguments about circles and squares were rehashed one last time. There were no arguments to retrieve when Farber died. There was no controversy about Farber's greatness, his film criticism was intact and no one wanted to shoot holes in it. The terms he invented - "underground films" (a slippery term the way he used it but a favorite), "white elephant art vs. termite art," "the gimp" — were trotted out by critics to show they knew them. Knowing them proved Farber was an influence. Whether their work or anyone else's really had any of Farber's spirit was not a question to ask at a sad time.
For film critics interested in the history of cinema, deaths are commonplace, eulogies frequent. Every day another immortal dies, today Antonioni, tomorrow Ingmar Bergman — actually it was both of them the same day. This summer Farber was gone. Tomorrow Cyd Charisse, Richard Widmark, or Charlton Heston would go, and it would be time for another blog post to patch on to the official obituaries linked from newspapers' websites. But on August 19, 2008, everybody could agree: nobody writes like Manny Farber wrote. They didn't mean a specific nobody. They just meant Farber was an original. Whether there's a reason nobody writes like he did was another question they didn't ask.
There is a reason for it. Farber was not a publicist nor a cheerleader. In the interview that ends the expanded edition of Negative Space, the only collection of his work published so far (although we keep hearing another is on the way), Farber worries that some of his later pieces cross a line. "The Herzog article from City irritates us now for its promotional tone," he says, the "us" being him and his writing partner Patricia Patterson, who began collaborating with him in the 1970s. "At this point," Farber insists, he and Patterson would do it differently, they'd concentrate on something else, Herzog's "apparent cruelties to dramatize the space."
Although the Herzog piece in question does contain the worst line ever to appear in a Farber piece (even if it's true) — "There is nothing quite like Fata Morgana! " — by the standards of today that poster-ready blurb is so ambiguous it practically constitutes a dis. And the exclamation point, in Farber's case, humanizes it instead of making it a gush. Here is Farber being awe-struck. He's being normal, reacting to Fata Morgana like anyone else. It is endearing or inspiring that Farber, a critic whose offhand, sometimes bizarre cruelty was not out of sync with Herzog's, would worry about being too nice, too commercial. Maybe he was too nice in that piece. Worrying like that makes him seem tougher, a tough old bird, even though he said that 30 years ago, back when he was only 60 — and about to stop publishing.
Had Farber mellowed too much to keep writing? After that interview, he devoted himself to painting, and teaching what is called Cinema Studies. He was still doing criticism but he wasn't writing it anymore. He talked it, breathed it, painted it. It no longer came to readers in the form of prose; it no longer came to readers at all. Interested parties had to go to San Diego for it, had to climb the mountain to talk to this holy man who had rejected prose and mass communication.
In 1945, other writers, even ones who seemed to like him, weren't so sure about Farber. As part of the Farber eulogizing, some film critics brought up a piece S. J. Perelman published in The New Yorker that year. It's not quite the praise they made it out to be. "Hell in the Gabardines" references anti-Farber sentiment from unknown, presumably literary quarters, which Perelman both undercuts and trumps.
"It has been suggested by some that Mr. Farber's prose style is labyrinthine; they fidget as he picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley. I do not share this view," Perelman explains, separating himself from these anti-Farberites. "With men who know rococo best, it's Farber two to one." S. J. Perelman knew rococo all right, but he wasn't about to let Farber off that easy, with just a backhanded compliment squeezed from the advertising of the day. "Lulled by his Wagnerian rhythms, I snooze in my armchair, confident that the mystique of the talking picture is in capable hands," he concludes, dismissing Farber without even getting up while using the phrase "talking picture" to mock the silent-movie purism that still hung around revival houses in 1945.
For the ex-Paramount screenwriter Perelman, snoozing, film criticism, and moviegoing all went together. Thirteen years after "Hell in the Gabardines," Perelman published a piece in The New Yorker called "Small Is My Cinema, Deep My Doze." Mostly a takedown of arthouse ambiance, the piece takes a swipe at the kind of film critic Farber was not. Toward the end of the piece, Perelman and his wife are strolling by the marquee of a "little cinema." "Look," she exclaims. "They're showing Acrid Fruit with Gérard Philipe, Danièle Delorme, and Danielle Darrieux! Jesse Zunser of Cue gave it five mangosteens!"
Jesse Zunser, by the way, was a real person, not some invention of Perelman's. He was a working film critic in New York for 30 years, like Farber was. At the end of Zunser's career in the mid-1960s, he claimed he'd reviewed 12,000 movies. Farber, the ultimate non-giver of mangosteens, said in the Negative Space interview that he thought it was "obscene and degrading for criticism" that a review should "add up to four stars or a hit movie." How many films had he reviewed in his career? Maybe one-twentieth the amount Zunser had, maybe less. Farber's collected work gives the impression of tackling the same two hundred films again and again, many of them Only Angels Have Wings.
Farber is in a sense not part of film criticism. Film criticism today is even more what Perelman said it was. Farber is apart from that, next to it, somewhere below it, always above it. He comes at it from the hidden position he admired in a filmmaker like Hawks, and he's always looking for a way to work in a dig at the "daily and weekly reviewers" he accused of making the audience dumb. In "Blame the Audience," Farber calls audiences of 1952 "the worst in history" but later exonerates them. He shifts the blame to "snobbism on the part of most of the leading film reviewers," which he says makes filmmakers dumb along with the audience by encouraging them to repeat the successes of the bad "prestige" (Farber puts the word in quotes) pictures critics love.
By the mid-1970s Farber knew what he wanted from audiences. He wanted them to be Farber. "The audience," he said, "should be fantastically dialectical, involved in a continuing discussion of every movie." He wanted the same from filmmakers: "The person making the movie should be held responsible for everything that's said and shown, and so should the audience seeing it." If this seems a long way from the pure pleasure Kael-ite critics accuse him of deriving from "underground" movies by directors like Hawks, Walsh, or Aldrich, it's not. It's just that Farber feels those directors were aware of a certain kind of responsibility. Ours is a cinematic age of auteurism without responsibility. Every film is A Film By and no director is ever held accountable for making bad movies and no audience is ever ridiculed for liking them. Farber's direction for audiences and filmmakers makes more sense than ever, even as it becomes less possible for working film critics and film directors to follow it.
For the American film critics of the past we still read today, writing film criticism was not a lifelong profession. Today it has become a sinecure for certain writers. It traps them and forces us to witness their long, long, long slides into irrelevance. Because he could paint, and because for him painting and writing film criticism were inextricably linked, Farber escaped this fate. He did not write film criticism his whole life nor did he make it his 9-5 job, but it was something woven into both. When he said "I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career, than criticism," the word "career" must have had a different meaning for Farber in 1977 than it does for us today. His definition of "underground" in movies — "it is as though the film has a life of its own that goes on beneath the story action" — applies to his career as well, which is sometimes seems as mysterious as Edgar Ulmer's.
Asked whether his painting and his criticism had things in common, he answered, "The brutal fact is that they're exactly the same thing." He did not accept the idea there was a difference between artists and critics. ("I get a laugh from artists who ridicule critics as parasites or artists manqués - such a horrible joke.") In fact, his prose equals the subjects he wrote about and often surpasses them. While this may be true of some film critics writing today, saying their prose equals the subjects they write about is not a compliment.
Farber states that he is not interested in pronouncing movies good or bad, but he is still always for or against something. If we see his influence in the non-judgmental quality of our film critics today, who celebrate the great diversity of the regime of image-making practices, choices, and options we all live under, what we look for and don't find is anyone being for or against anything they see.
They can't even describe movies anymore because they take them for granted like water or grass, which now that I think of it are in jeopardy through the paradox of overuse and neglect, too. Farber wrote at a time (the 1960s) when everybody was just beginning to study every kind of movie. He lists them: "Czech films, Underground films" (by then he meant the avant-garde, not White Heat), "Hollywood films, skin flicks, TV commercials, scopitone." Undaunted by this proliferation, he worked them all in.
After reading a review today we are usually still in the dark as to what a movie looks like. This is never a problem with Farber. "The texture of a Panama hat is emphasized to the point where you feel Huston is trying to stamp its price tag on your retina," he writes about John Huston's films in general. He describes the documentary locale of a film called In the Street as "an uptown neighborhood where the adults look like badly repaired Humpty Dumpties who have lived a thousand years in some subway rest room and where the kids have a wild gypsy charm and evidently spend most of their days savagely spoofing the dress and manners of their elders."
Everybody already knows what The Third Man looks like. They think they know what it sounds like, too. Farber does the work of capturing these things together, there are shortcuts but no shorthand in a Farber review: "Reed's nervous, hesitant film is actually held together by the wires of its exhilarating zither, which sounds like a trio and hits one's consciousness like a cloudburst of sewing needles. Raining aggressive notes around the characters, it chastises them for being so inactive and fragmentary and gives the film the unity and movement the story lacks." This is an example of why we have to write about films as they happen, before they become classics that shut us up.
Farber doesn't skimp on these descriptions. Slightly pithier when describing actors — Eleanor Parker is "a tremulous actress with a genius for finely shaded whimpering," Kirk Douglas's "mad-dog style of acting is bound to make any character into a one-sided surface of loud-pedaled ugliness" - Farber's strength as a critic resides in the things he leaves out, the things he refuses to do. His refusals are radical, political, which he explicitly recognized in his for or against remark. These refusals spit in the face of commerce but give readers a lot of credit.
One thing he doesn't do is plot description. You can read a Farber piece on The Graduate and have little-to-no idea what it's about. He waits until the last possible second to bring up a director's name, and when he does sometimes he only uses the last name, like maybe "Tourneur," in a piece on Val Lewton that had not previously mentioned any director at all, is a household name everybody knew in 1951. A piece called "Clutter" covers China Is Near and gets around to mentioning "Bellochio" (sic) six paragraphs in. He can barely bring himself to write "Mike Nichols." In praising Pierre Clémenti's performance in Belle de Jour, praising it very highly, he doesn't mention Clémenti by name at all.
In one of Farber's most hilarious sentences, a real shocker, this late-intro style extends to using the word late itself. "The late work of certain important directors —," he writes, "Cukor's The Chapman Report, Huston's films since The Roots of Heaven, Truffaut's The 400 Blows . . ." The first half of a Farber sentence giveth, the second half taketh away: "Movies have seldom if ever been so subtle, or as depressing in the use of outrageous elements to expedite ambiguous craftsmanship."
Farber always lets in the outside world. Describing what it's like to see "termite" films in inner-city theaters, he lets us know that "the spectator watches two or three films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge." At the same time, no one bears down on the screen like he does. In his piece on Godard, the first film he mentions is Les Carabiniers. He can't get this film out of his head, it prompts the key phrase in all his work, the one that stamps a certain kind of cinema for all time: "long stretches of aggressive, complicated nothingness." He writes an entire piece on Godard without mentioning Pierrot le fou. Did he even see it?
Somehow, Les Carabiniers, maybe Godard's best film, which Farber works hard to make central, gets Farber to realize that The Exterminating Angel is Buñuel's great achievement, his Carabiniers. These observations seem so obvious in retrospect, yet to be able dig them out of movies takes years of prep. To cap it all off, Farber compares Buñuel to Westbrook Pegler — in 1969, in the pages of Artforum, no less. He's less harsh on Godard, but, like Perelman was to him, not exactly straightforward. Godard, he writes "sees the world as a spiky place, the terrible danger of brassiere ads, the fierce menaces of Coca Cola and Richard Widmark, the corruption implicit in praising a Ferrari when in the character's heart-of-hearts it's a Maserati all the way." "Spiky" and "spiking" often seem like his favorite words.
"The sentences are swamps that are filled with a suspicious number of right-sounding insights," Farber wrote about James Agee's film criticism. He admits Agee might be as good as people say, "if his complexity of traits is admitted to the record." This is true of Farber just as much. When he wrote about Agee he was writing about himself. His foibles, as unremarked as the things he leaves out of his work, are the other source of his strength.
He gets titles wrong - Val Lewton's Death Ship? John Ford's Last of the Mohicans? Hawks's G. I. Joe? - he gives away endings; he repeats the same joke or observation twice in the same piece - the tunnel comparison in the Huston piece, the "handmade/homemade" thing in the Herzog piece; he is doggedly dedicated to certain actors he loves or hates - Kirk Douglas, Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, "Pat Neal," like he used to ogle her from across the hall when they were neighbors. His affection for Frankie Darro compels him to compare Mouchette to a bad Frank Capra-Bing Crosby horse racing comedy called Riding High, in which Darro plays a jockey. The most unexpected comparison in film criticism, maybe it's also the greatest. To think of connections like that without looking for them because they come naturally to you is not an ability most film critics have.
More quirks. Whenever he can, Farber compares something to a Winslow Homer painting or a comic strip. His love of comic strips melds seamlessly into his disdain for movie reviewers: "As in the Dr. Rex Morgan comic strip, life is a horrible mess that transpires in the speeches of upright citizens who seem to be glued against a gray backdrop that is always underlit and hard on the eyes. . . . For this reason, many people, including the critics of The New Yorker and Time, think [these] movies are full of 'ideas' — 'disturbing,' 'offbeat,' and even 'three-dimensional.'" He loves the extra adjective: "Every Hitchcock-style director should study this picture if he wants to see really stealthy, queer-looking, odd-acting, foreboding people."
And as for his great distinction between dreaded "white elephant art" and admirable "termite art," has anyone noticed how close his definition of white elephant art is to his definition of a "minimal underground classic"? The three sins of White elephant art are, he writes, "(1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity." MUCs, meanwhile, must meet these conditions: "that the shape of a film be discernible in any single frame; that a single-camera strategy be the basis for the movie's metaphysic and situation within the film; that the repetitions of the camera, which is always obviously present, creates a spirituality; and that the field of examination be more or less static, durational, and unromanticized."
In the introduction to Negative Space, he asks a pertinent question: "Why even invent such categories: white elephant and termite, one tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence and the other burrowing into the nether world of privacy?" Maybe today he'd answer the question differently, because today, how much difference is there between the two? A Farber jeremiad sums up his time and ours: "The mess we're facing in movies and other media promises to be the worst era in the history of art. Not even the ponderously boring periods, similar to the one in which Titian and Tintoretto painted elephantine conceit and hemstitched complication into a huge dress-works affair called Venetian painting, can equal the present inferno of American culture, which is so jammed with successful con men." Farber was ahead of his time and at odds with it, a condition he shrugged off a normal.
It is tempting to quote Farber again and again. Despite his assessment of it, he speaks to us from a great period in film history, roughly the Raoul-Walsh-and-Wavelength era, a time he captured like no one else. He stopped writing about two seconds before Star Wars came out, a real shame but understandable. Only his students know what he thought of films made the last thirty years.
It makes sense that Farber ends his career as a publishing film critic by writing about Chantal Akerman, the most underrated filmmaker alive, who works in no known system. If you walk the New York streets at night after reading Farber (when you'll be able to see why he was attracted-repelled by Taxi Driver) you walk them with new eyes, you see things differently, the light looks different, the night is like the night in Akerman's Night and Day, and everything slides past like it does in News from Home. Finally you feel like you remember what it means to think and see.
In 1967, the year Farber wrote a piece called "Cartooned Hip Acting," Susan Sontag wrote "The Aesthetic of Silence." "So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience," writes Sontag. "By silence he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work. . . . More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can't hear." Farber stopped writing but continued to paint, and it is in his paintings we will find his last works of film criticism. "I think the point of criticism is to build up the mystery. And the point is to find movies which have a lot of puzzle in them, a lot of questions," Farber says in the interview that ends Negative Space. "Whatever is wholly mysterious is at once both psychically relieving and anxiety-provoking," Sontag replies. Her remark lacks the "poignant, voluptuous cynicism" of Hildy Johnson's exit line at the death cell in His Girl Friday, but it will have to do for now.