October 6, 2009

The Library of America has released a wriggling mass of Manny Farber’s prose, and now the world is a (slightly) better place. Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of  Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito) is a maddening, insightful and frankly thrilling collection of his writing on movies (and a little on TV) from 1942 – 1977. It includes the work that made up his previous compilation, Negative Space, plus a massive trove of reviews from the The New Republic, The Nation, and lad mags like Cavalier (he requested that his capsules for Time be left out, feeling that the editors rendered them unrecognizable).

In his valuable introduction, Polito says “his writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center.” To borrow his own term, Farber approaches his subjects termite-like, gnawing at the edges of the films, ignoring plot summary and character psychology to focus on movement and composition, informed by his long career as a painter. He does not treat a film as a monolith, a hunk to be labeled as good or bad and then forgotten. He engages with every aspect of a film, emphasizing its collaborative nature. He breaks down performances, compositions, and dialogue with equal vigor with his jagged, jumpy and allusive prose. It’s often impossible to tell whether he likes a film or not, as he builds up and tears down a production from every angle.

Reading his reviews is like witnessing an archaeological dig, nosing around his celluloid sites for objects of interest, or for banalities worth exposing. And when he digs in to something, his descriptions pop off the page. In a 1943 New Republic piece, he analyzes the Bogart species:

“[he] looks as though he had been knocked around daily and had spent his week-ends drinking himself unconscious in the back rooms of saloons. His favorite grimace is a hateful pulling back of the lips from his clenched teeth, and when his lips are together he seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.”

Or this Artforum piece on Howard Hawks from 1969 (one of my favorites):

His Girl Friday is one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty lapels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, out maneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

This isn’t just pungent writing, although it’s certainly that (it’s impossible to see a Bogart film now without peeking for a trickle of red down his lip), but it also prescribes a way of seeing. This emphasis on a performative detail, his “pulling back of the lips”, reveals a sensibility that is specifically cinematic. He’s concerned about movement that reveals character, facial tics or otherwise, as well as its relationship to the frame it’s traipsing about in. He offers due respect to a well-turned phrase, but he rarely pays much notice to plot, which is often described as a cliched nuisance. He praises Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt because it “is an example of what the movies might do in breaking with the idea that the story is more important than the movie.”

He’s concerned with what is buzzing beneath the strained scenario, the people who imprint their signatures on a film regardless of pedigree. Cary Grant’s grace and Jean Arthur’s Arthurness (“she is both an ordinary girl with ordinary reactions and a scatterbrain who wears birds’ nests on her head and at normal times is out of breath from running or screaming or hitting someone on the chin”) transcend their roles. They are still just people in front of the camera. In this vein, Farber also has a fascinating series of articles on WWII documentaries, and in which he prophetically states, “the difference between the documentary and the story film in the final esthetic evaluation is unimportant”. International auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke have been pursuing this line of thought for the last decade with astonishing results.

Then there are his hugely entertaining reflections on movie-going itself. There is his famous statement in “Underground Films” (1957) that:

The hard-bitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge.

But he was a brave sociologist since 1943, when he complained: “Who builds movie theaters? If you seek the men’s room you vanish practically away from this world, always in a downward direction.” His roving eye was always searching for the errant telling detail, even when it was off the screen and down the stairs.

In a fascinating panel discussion upon the release of the book last week, Polito was joined by Greil Marcus, Kent Jones, and Geoffrey O’ Brien to discuss Farber’s life and work, which informed a lot of this piece. There are a few other stray items from their talk I wanted to bring out. First,  that Farber’s interests were circumscribed by the distribution patterns of the ’40s and ’50s. He discussed mostly Hollywood product because that’s all he could see at the time. Once foreign and experimental film became more readily available in the U.S., Farber expanded his taste likewise, becoming an articulate interpreter of Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. Kent Jones also discussed Farber’s teaching notes, which he was able to look at for a book he’s helping to publish with Farber’s wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson. Farber lectured on cinema at UCSD until the late 80s, after retiring from film criticism to focus on his painting. Jones divulged little as to their contents, only that they were “amazing” and further represented the constant re-evaluations Farber engaged in with the works he was intrigued by.

I’ll close by paraphrasing Kent Jones again: The publication of Farber on Film is not just a landmark for American film criticism, but for American literature as a whole.

For further info on Farber and the book, well, buy the book, but also read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article at the Moving Image Source, and Paul Schrader’s remembrances at the same site. For insight into his painting, the exhibition book About Face is a great introduction.


August 4, 2009


The fabulously popular streaming video site Hulu is useful for keeping abreast of contemporary pop-culture effluvia, sure, but if one peeks into their dusty old movies section, there’s an eclectic collection of auteur rarities, 50′s horror, Poverty Row Westerns, and public domain slapstick comedies to be unearthed. With only 3.77% of the titles listed on TCMDB available on home video, dutiful cinephiles need to devour repertory screenings, lobby intractable studios, and pluck the desirable titles out of what is available, and so Hulu is another prime portal to chip away at our film-historical ignorance. I had used it primarily to catch up with TV series I had fallen behind on (like the ubiquitous 30 Rock), but in researching my piece on Bruce Surtees last week, I discovered that Don Siegel’s The Beguiled was streaming for free on the site. Delving into their archives produced a fascinating hodgepodge of titles, some of which are quite hard to see otherwise. Below the fold is a list of titles ready to view on Hulu that I’m eager get to know, and others with which I’m already in committed relationships (with selected commentary, and each title links to its page on Hulu).

Blackmail, 1929

The 39 Steps, 1935

Secret Agent, 1936

Sabotage, 1937

The Lady Vanishes, 1938

Five Hitchcocks. No explanation necessary.

Anne of the Indies, 1951

This is a pirate swashbuckler starring Louis Jourdan and Jean Peters from director Jacques Tourneur, and rated highly by Chris Fujiwara in his definitive study of the director, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. This is not on DVD, but occasionally pops up on the Fox Movie Channel, where it’s still sitting on my DVR. Fujiwara says that “Anne of the Indies often gives the impression of a perpetual-motion machine: characters appear and disappear in flurries of back-and-forth activity. [snip] Through these hesitations and shifts, the film suggests the avoidance of something inexpressible, acknowledging that the narrative is based on a lack that can be filled only be fantasy.” Intrigued? Yes. Yes you are.

Bachelor Flat, 1961

No less a personage than Andrew Sarris claimed that this CinemaScope comedy is Frank Tashlin’s best film. Better than Artists and Models and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Is that even possible? Apparently, yes, led by Tuesday Weld’s impossibly moon-shaped face and a wily dachsund’s dinosaur bone obsession.

The Beguiled, 1971

I briefly discussed Don Siegel’s libidinous masterpiece last week, but I’m eager to recommend it again. An autumnal American gothic set at a boarding school for girls during the Civil War, it unleashes the violent power of adolescent sexuality, against which Clint Eastwood has little hope.

Bigger Than Life, 1956

James Mason imprisoned in 1950s America, gets hooked on cortisone and becomes a macho gargoyle. A major work from Nicholas Ray.

Breezy, 1973

Underrated Eastwood. With his second feature, Clint detours into light comedy with dark undercurrents. William Holden’s decadent playboy falls for the whims of an 18 year old hippie (Kay Lenz). Holden’s cratered face and Lenz’ airy chatter fill the screen.

Cul-de-Sac, 1966

Roman Polanski’s black comedy follow-up to Repulsion.

Fixed Bayonets, 1951

Early Sam Fuller (right before the great Park Row (1952)), and his second Korean War film, after The Steel Helmet (1951). This one is set in the snowy climes of Heartbreak Ridge, and is highlighted by the pearls of sweat accumulating on the soldier’s faces as they cross an iced minefield. Extreme close-ups for extreme times.

His Girl Friday, 1940

Everything is at an angle, from Rosalind Russel’s wide-brimmed hats to Cary Grant’s smirk that almost tumbles to the floor. The dialogue burns through their defenses, until love is in the air. One of Howard Hawks’ greatest films, and so one of the greatest ever.

The Knack…and how to get it, 1965

Richard Lester perfects the mod film.

The Last Man on Earth, 1964

Vincent Price perfects the Richard Matheson story “I Am Legend”. Sorry Will Smith!

The Stranger, 1946

Mr. Arkadin, 1962

Two samplings of Orson Welles, the first his stab at commercial relevancy, the second a European co-production with echoes of Citizen Kane. Both suffering from studio/producer interference. I prefer the latter’s fake noses and tipsy cinematography to the former’s expressionist flourishes, but I won’t hold it against you if you disagree.

Night of the Living Dead, 1968

The series that won’t die. George Romero will debut his latest zombie-fest, Survival of the Dead, at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. See what all the fuss is about.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970

Before subjecting yourself to Guy Ritchie’s roided up version of the Holmes legend, sample Billy Wilder’s mellow, melancholy take on the natty inspector.

Rings on Her Fingers, 1942

In an attempt to cash in on the success of The Lady Eve, Fox tried their own con-artist romantic comedy, and signed on Henry Fonda to re-create the magic. Rouben Mamoulian was no Preston Sturges at this point in his career, although the results are sure to be diverting.

The Spikes Gang, 1974

Richard Fleischer’s light-hearted bank robbing movie finds fatherly outlaw Lee Marvin taking on three young kids (including Ron Howard) to form the least intimidating gang in the Wild West.

The Taking of Pelham, 1 2 3, 1974

White Lightning, 1973

Or, the curious case of Joseph Sargent. Sargent, a TV lifer, took some time out in the 70s to crank out a couple of genre whitelightningclassics. Then he moseyed on back to the small screen. White Lightning is a rousingly entertaining Southern revenge drama, starring Burt Reynolds at his aw shucks peak. Taking of Pelham is a no-nonsense police procedural recently remade by Tony Scott. His unfussy direction and his talent for working class argot shines in both features, with White Lightning taking the crown because of a stronger emotional pull, especially in an extraordinarily surreal sequence in an unwed mothers home. Also because of Ned Beatty, whose laid-back menace slithers out of every sweat-oozing pore.

Thunder Birds, 1942

A William Wellman pilot melodrama, with Gene Tierney. That’s enough for me.

Time Limit, 1957

The only film Karl Malden directed. Rest in peace.

The Train, 1965

John Frankenheimer’s sturdy actioner starring Burt Lancaster. He has to transport some fine art under the noses of Nazi scum. Frankenheimer knows how to handle pace and Lancaster’s torso.

Vigilante Force, 1976

Another Southern good-ole-boy action film, this one a cheap knockoff of Phil Karlson’s Walking Tall (1973), directed by George Armitage, who later went on to film Grosse Point Blank 20 odd years later. Instead of Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall though, the lead vigilante is Jan Michael Vincent. Not a good trade-off, although Kris Kristofferson is around to add some shirtless, mellow menace, a young Bernadette Peters belts out a few numbers on the periphery, and there is some jaw-dropping stunt falls in the final (ridiculous) shootout. It also musters a handful of memorable lines. The town in CA just opened an oil field, and two government employees talk shop: “Thank God for the energy crisis! Thank Allah!” And another on the influx of wildcatter oilmen: “If I wanted to live with degenerates I’d move to L.A.” Truer words have never been spoken.