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.