Farber on Film

The Complete Film

Writings of Manny Farber

edited by Robert Polito

Library of America, 1,000 pp., $40

Of the great mid-century film critics, Manny Farber (1917-2008) remains one of the most challenging and best loved. An all-purpose critic as comfortable writing about paintings and jazz music as film and television, Farber’s dense criticism and staccato bursts of oddly juxtaposed adjectives imbued his words with a sort of lyricism. When people argue that criticism is an art form, they are referring to the writings of men like Manny Farber.

It helped, too, that he was an actual artist, a painter whose work is celebrated in museums with the same reverence cinephiles regard his criticism. Indeed, one of his reasons for giving up writing about film in 1977, at the relatively youthful age of 60, was that he “no longer wanted to be viewed as the film critic who also paints.” Farber treated the written form like he treated canvases, and like the ’20s jazz masters treated music: juxtaposing disparate words in a way both cluttered and syncopated. There’s a distinctive rhythm to his writing. Consider his 1971 take on Touch of Evil:

Basically it’s a movie about terrorizing, an evil-smelling good movie in which the wildly Baroque terror and menace is another world from Hawks-Walsh: an aggressive-dynamic-robust-excessive-silly universe with Welles’s career-long theme (the corruption of the not-so-innocent Everyman through wealth and power) and his inevitable efforts with space—to make it prismatic and a quagmire at the same time.

Before cracking open this mammoth new compendium of Farber’s film writings—all of Farber’s film writings—it’s important to devise a course of attack, a stratagem to digest the beast. Like most such massive collections—David Thomson’s thousand-page behemoths Have You Seen .  .  . ? and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film are soulmates of Farber on Film—traversing the pages from front to back in the order they are presented is a fool’s errand. Farber on Film is best absorbed piecemeal: Savor first the longer essays that lay out his vision of filmmaking and criticism before nibbling on the shorter pieces that examined whatever was spooling through movie house projectors between 1942 and 1977.

Indeed, it’s almost essential to start with the legendary critic’s most renowned essays—“The Gimp,” “Hard-Sell Cinema,” “Underground Films,” and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”—before doubling back to the beginning, armed with a fuller understanding of Farber’s perspective. As editor Robert Polito notes in his informative introduction, doing so gives one a much better sense of Farber’s evolution as a critic and writer. For example, the following passage gets to the heart of what Farber appreciated about “termite” art, as opposed to the elephantine prestige pictures studios were increasingly churning out:

It sums up much of what a termite art aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.

Farber wrote that in 1962. One of the joys of this collection is tracing his thoughts back through the decades and picking up on the theoretical continuities in his writing. Keep that passage in mind when reading this one, from a 1943 essay on Shadow of a Doubt:

The trouble with the movies is that they so seldom get below the surface of a story and its characters, that their whole is rarely as good as the parts, and the characters of their players—Gary Cooper or Margaret Sullivan, for instance—are usually more powerful than the characters they play.

The fascination with getting under the surface is what drives Farber. He’s not interested in the “big picture” pictures that devolve into ham-fisted diatribes about whatever cause is popular at the moment. In “The Gimp” (1952), he criticized the use of artistic trickery to draw attention to the oh-so-clever director and his oh-so-noble intentions:

Over the past couple of years, one movie after another has been filled with low-key photography, shallow perspectives, screwy pantomime, ominously timed action, hollow-sounding voices. All this pseudo-undershot stuff, swiped from any and every “highbrow” work of films, painting, literature, has gone into ultraserious movies that express enough discontent with capitalist society to please any progressive.

Farber’s occasional lapses into reactionary vitriol are all the more delicious since he was a man of the left, having applied for membership in the Communist Party in his twenties and serving as film critic for publications like the New Republic and the Nation. Refusing to get swept up by a film’s message is a lost trait he shared with other giants of the period: Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael would occasionally betray a similar contempt for moralizing at the movies—a far cry from modern critics who heap praise on James Cameron’s Avatar explicitly because of its overt left/liberal/religio/environmental silliness.

In an age when criticism has come to be seen as an expendable luxury—it’s pleasant to recall the age of Manny Farber, when a challenging writer was encouraged to treat popular culture with the seriousness it deserves.

Sonny Bunch writes on culture and politics at the blog Conventional Folly.

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