Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber
by Manny Farber
Manny Farber in the Cinema Trenches
A review by J. Hoberman
More than a movie connoisseur than a film critic, Manny Farber was a master of attitude, the original tough-guy aesthete. Reviewing for a variety of venues (possibly the only critic in history whose byline graced both Artforum and Playboy knock off Cavalier), Farber -- who died two years ago at the age of ninety-one -- developed a distinctively percussive style, as dense and slangy as the dialogue in screwball comedy. During World War II, when Farber was at The New Republic, no less a wordsmith than S. J. Perelman declared that "with men who know rococo best, it's Farber two to one." But showy prose wasn't Farber's only distinction. Unlike his peers Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, he didn't proselytize readers or create systems or spawn acolytes; his was a lone-wolf sensibility.
Farber was a natural bohemian who backed into film reviewing, and the Library of America's 800-page anthology of his film writings -- complete save for some anonymous Time reviews -- is an enshrinement about which he might has felt some ambivalence. He worked for years as a carpenter and thought of himself primarily as a painter, though for much of his life he received scarcely more recognition for his art than for his writing. Still, he did have his fans.
The inside flap of Farber's sole, swiftly remaindered collection, Negative Space (1971), carried endorsements from a half-dozen fellow critics, including Kael, Jonas Mekas, and Dwight Macdonald. Richard Locke, who reviewed Negative Space for The New York Times, claimed to be pleasantly surprised to find such consensus, but these "mash notes" didn't convince him of Farber's importance: "Stubborn self-involvement... dooms his criticism.... I doubt he would exist at all as a critic had he been forced to connect with the public the way Kael, Sarris, [John] Simon and all the others have."
Actually, Farber did connect with the public, less as a critic than as a moviegoer. Perversely democratic in his interests, if not necessarily his tastes, he extolled flicks found at "murky, congested theaters" and enjoyed in a "nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience." Not that this environment impinged on his critical faculties: Watching "two or three action films go by [the spectator] leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge." Such writing could evoke the same response. Reading Negative Space, Locke felt accosted by a "mad-dog assertiveness that brooks no voice but his own" and compared the experience to "getting caught in the elevator with a noisy drunk."
Farber was indeed forceful in his opinions, and the movie in his head sometimes trumped the one on the screen: The Blue Dahlia, he wrote in a 1946 The New Republic shpritz, was "a tight movie about Los Angeles chiselers, coppers, cabaret-owners, peepers, husband-deserters, just discharged Navy fliers who do violence to each other with the dispatch and unconcern of a person stamping an envelope" -- thus providing a ninety-minute melodrama with a description far too evocative for a blurb. As the title of Negative Space suggests, Farber's sense of film was essentially tactile. No one had ever been better at describing a particular sensation or finding an apposite material metaphor. Kurosawa's "torpid, stylish" Rashomon was less a movie than "a tiny aquarium in which a few fish and a lot of plants have delicately been tinkered with by someone raised in Western art-cinema theaters."
These pithy characterizations were combined with an adman's genius for coinage: "termite art," carbonated dyspepsia," "Peepshow Naturalism" (or "peeperism"). Farber's quintessential essay, "Underground Films," published in Commentary in 1957, is a paean to his favorite action directors (Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, all of whom did their best work before World War II) and to a few then-obscure younger men (Robert Aldrich, Phil Karlson). Farber's notorious "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," which appeared in Film Culture five years later, elaborated his aesthetic by targeting films he deemed inflated or precious -- as opposed to those endeavors seemingly produced for their own sake, "With no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away at the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement."
The liberty of America notwithstanding, Farber's proudly termitic pieces have the feel of a disposable art form, written without care for prestige or posterity. "The best examples of termite art," he maintained, appear "where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence."
Born to the immigrant proprietors of an Arizonan dry-goods store, Farber was a man of the Thirties, and, as he once told an interviewer, he never recovered from it. After dropping out of Berkeley, he drifted through a few Bay Area art schools, apprenticed as a carpenter, moved briefly to Washington D.C., and reclocated to Greenwich Village in early 1942. Farber began writing on art for The New Republic and then on movies as well.
The 750-word weekly film review is a form of journalism. Gathered together, short pieces written over a period of months and years become a chronicle of a individual sensibility and more. The first and most literary example of such a chronicle is Agee on Film, the collection of James Agee's Nation reviews, published originally in 1958 and again, four years ago, by the Library of America. The volume opens in December 1942, with a low-key if self-conscious statement of the critic's principles, and ends in September 1948, with his appreciation of D. W. Griffith; read as a book Agee on Film documents the writer's attempt to puzzle out the ongoing flux of events. Cinematic quality is incidental. Agee deals with significant movies in short paragraphs and lavishes space on inconsequential bores -- he was not writing the history of cinema so much as reporting the history of his times with a style so consistent, he could have rewritten all of his reviews on the eve of their re-publication.
If Agee on Film is literature, it's literature of a particular kind -- filled with political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations: a cultural stream of consciousness. Agee was the first American movie critic who could first be characterized as belletrist. By contrast, Farber presented himself as a sort of lumpen cognoscente. His weekly reviews are subliterary. His style is a work in progress. He is less subtle than Agee and more vivid, as well as more brashly dismissive, with little sense of a lost golden era. For Farber, silent movies were only a childhood memory. He came of age with the talkies, and it wasn't until the 1950s that he imagines a cinematic decline -- which he then blamed on the dulled sensibilities of moviegoing middlebrows.
Agee, a cautious New Dealer, executed an impressive soft-shoe around the epitome of Hollywood wartime propaganda, the scandalous Mission to Moscow; Farber simply trashed it. ("Now I'm ready to vote for the booby prize," is his lead.) Farber was also more experimental in his approach. His previously unanthologized New Republic reviews yield a surprising number of position papers and think pieces. He analyzed the contrasting styles of Hollywood action heroes, devoted a column to newsreels, and, in early 1944, published an ambitious, lengthy essay called "Movies in Wartime," a scattershot summary of his twenty months in the cinema trenches, commentating on everything from Hollywood's shallow portrayals of the Nazi menace to the new prominence of screenwriters and the uptick in movie-theater vandalism (seat slashing, drape trashing, and arson).
Unlike Agee, Farber engaged the medium in a visceral way. In June 1943, he complained about the material conditions of moviegoing -- "the cashier in her glass house, the difficulty of reaching one's seat, the location of the men's room, the poor quality of the candy" -- and warned theater owners that commercial television would be launched after the war. A few months later, he also attacked studio movie less for the banality of their scripts than for the banality of their look: Hollywood cinematography was "characterized by a tone o watery gray, by an abuse of artificial lighting and by the paltriness of its detail."
For Farber, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt was noteworthy no as a masterpiece of suspense but as "an example of what the movies might do in breaking with the idea that the story is more important than the movie." Farber insisted on the primacy of the visual, attributing Casablaca's popularity to a kind of voyeurism -- the condition of "watching vital, invigorating-looking people," rather than "anything they are doing or saying." (He also wrote a piece, parodied by Perelman, suggesting that Hollywood make use of hidden cameras -- exactly what his photographer friend Helen Levitt was doing with the documentary eventually known as In the Street.
Farber's taste was hardly infallible. He panned The Magnificent Ambersons and praised Watch on the Rhine. Like all critics, he had his prejudices. He wrote a memorably churlish piece on a "Freudian-toned, lesbianish, freezing, arty, eclectic, conventional, and safe" program by he pioneering avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren -- a fellow villager who clearly ran with a different, less macho gang. But there is a logic o Farber's position. He was bugged by artistic pretensions -- or rather, he preferred to find his art in less obvious places. Not Agee but Farber was the first to extol the virtues of B-movie producer Val Lewton's atmospheric horror films, and Farber simply alerted Agee to the pungent poir of bottom-of-the-bill pictures such as When Strangers Marry. Attentive as Farber was to the marginal, his first true Farber review, which appeared in September 1943, was an appreciation of Warner Bros. cartoons: "lighter-than-air feats of quick, fractional wit," using "the whole sphere of man's emotion and behavior simply as a butt for humor, no matter what it leads to."
Seemingly burned out on the weekly beat by the end of 1946, Farber left the New Republic some eighteen months before Agee left the Nation. His farewell review articulated a hitherto unexpressed interest in foreign cinema, listing eleven winners at the most recent Cannes Film Festival and expressing regret that Americans would have the opportunity to see so few of them. It's a measure of Farber's ambivalence toward his job that he quit the New Republic when Henry Wallace became editor, then changed his mind but was not permitted to return.
Once Farber took Agee's old spot at the Nation in 1949, he found Hollywood movies ever more overwrought, in every way: "With the exception of a few underrated players... actors today give the impression of social workers improving movie characters with a liberal-minded, educated attitude and an elegant, flamboyant acting technique." A defense of the recently deceased Lewton provided the occasion to complain that "in acclaiming people like [Jose] Ferrer, [Joseph] Mankiewicz, and [Judy] Holliday," all of whom won Oscars in 1951, "the industry has indicated is esteem for bombshells who disorganize the proceedings on the screen with their flamboyant eccentricities and relegate the camera to the role of passive bit player." Increasingly curmudgeonly, Farber butted heads with the novelist and pop-culture maven Wallace Markfield, briefly the film critic for The New Leader, over Markfield had devoted a review to describing the patrons of Times Square grind houses, praising their natural instinct for quality B movies. "Look at the screen instead of trying to find a freak show in the audience," Farber snarled.
In his way, Farber experienced he decline of cinephilia thirty or forty years before present-day critics did. He began writing longer pieces, publishing an essay in Commentary that detailed the belated, unfortunate boost the "exciting, if hammy" Citizen Kane gave Hollywood pretensions; a 1652 year-end roundup in Commonweal complained that while "bad films have piled up faster than they can be reviewed," the good ones "succeed only as pale reminders of a rougher era that pretty well ended in he 1930's." Farber blamed not only the audience, "the worst in history" -- those "long-haired and intellectual brethren" as oblivious to the talents of contemporary action directors Samuel Fuller and Budd Boetticher as they had been to the virtues of Lewton and Sturges. The knowledgeable filmgoer was the real endangered species. Of course, many of Farber's favorite directors would soon be lionized by the young turks of Cahiers du cinema, but I doubt that, as a professional tough guy, he took much comfort in having anticipated effete French taste.
From 1954 on, Farber published sporadically. He wrote essays for Commentary and small literary magazines and spent 1959 at The New Leader reviewing television (an opportunity to parse, with more cleverness than pleasure, TV drama, acting, music, talk shows, sitcoms, and variety shows), before latching onto Cavalier in 1965 and finishing the decade as a monthly columnist at Artforum.
Farber's best-known, most frequently anthologized essays, which date from this period, are manifestos in praise of the culturally disreputable. "Underground Films," which was originally published with the pugnacious subhead "A Bit of Male Truth" and took Farber three years to write (and at one point was intended for Vogue!), anticipated the French auteurists in its descriptions of directorial personalities. More pointedly, the piece valorized a movie's style and mise en scene over its plot. Farber praised those directors who thrived on hackneyed, childish material, comparing them to basketball players who did their best shooting fro the worst angle on the court. And, unlike the auteurists, Farber held his favorites to their own highest standards. "Where Hawks' best films are surrealistic caravans that never pass the same street corner twice, Rio Bravo is mostly ambushed un a jail where a sheriff, a drunk and a cripple are holding a prisoner against a gang of miserably unconvincing hoods."
Published more or less simultaneously with "Underground Films," in the short-lived art journal Perspectives, "Hard-Sell Cinema" excoriated the anti-Underground of those middlebrow artistic strivers deemed "offbeat" by Time and The New Yorker: Elia Kazan, Paddy Chayefsky, Method actors, the people who made Sweet Smell of Success. "The middle class has found serious art," Farber scoffed, and thereby had opened the door for all manner of careerists: "little locustlike creatures who have the dedication of Sammy Glick, the brains of Happy Hooligan, and the jouful, unconquerable competitive talents of Katzenjammer Kids."
"Underground Films" and "Hard-Sell Cinema" were synthesized in "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," a jeremiad directed at those artists who sought "to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Against these pachyderms (originally Welles but subsequently personified by Anonioni, Truffaut, and the once modish Tony Richardson) Farber raised the red flag of Termite Art. Farber's termites include not only B-movie directors but also journalists, pulp writers, and comic-strip artists -- intuitive, unself-conscious professionals with "no ambitions towards gilt culture... involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything." In this, Farber acknowledged the painter's traits informing his criticism: the sense of space as a malleable substance, the capacity for collaging raw perceptual data.
The notion of an art that advances by "eating its own boundaries," leaving "nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity," could just as easily describe Farber's own successive occupation of disparate cinematic realms. Once he reached Artforum in 1967, he mixed canny career appreciations of Fuller and Don Siegel with straight reviews of the latest Godard and Bunuel films, while also pushing into new territory to defend the uncompromising work of New York's rigorously minimalist film avant-garde. (Michael Snow's Wavelength, a slow continuous zoom, was "a pure, tough forty-five minutes that may become the Birth of a Nation in Underground Films.") Farber's last stint as a regular critic came in 1975, after he and his wife (and then co-writer) Patricia Patterson relocated to California. For six issues, the Farbers worked for Francis Ford Coppola's City magazine, filing exhortatory reviews of the European modernists -- Fassbinder, Herzog, Duras, the Straubs, Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman -- whose work he was teaching at the University of California in San Diego.
There, Farber invented a form of performance art. As described in Robert Politio's introduction to the Library of America anthology, Farber's classes were notable for "showing films in pieces, switching back and forth from one film to another, ranging from Griffith to Godard, Bugs Bunny to Yasujiro Ozu, talking over them with or without sound, running them backward through the projector, mixing in slides of paintings, sketching our compositions on the blackboard" -- which is to say, treating movies as the objects they are.
Pauline Kael, whom Farber had known since their days in Berkeley, once patronizingly praised him for writing about movies as though they were paintings. In fact, what Farber did was write about movies with a painter's eye. His reviews were thick with painter's jargon, as well as with knowing references to comic strips and photography. But the most significant quality of Farber's criticism was that he acknowledged -- felt free to acknowledge -- the complicated feelings one might have toward a particular film.
Movie critics are paid consumer consultants and professional makers of opinion. They are expected to point on deadline, with a blinding absence of ambiguity and an implicit declaration that they have the reader's best interest in mind. Most critics have internalized their role, and newspapers typically require hat movies be rated with stars or even letter grades. (Online aggregator sites assign such ratings when none exist.) Variety, which used to report a movie's New York and Los Angeles notices, disdainfully classified mixed reviews as "inconclusive." Roger Ebert, the most influential critic in America, played a mock Roman emperor on his TV show, turning his thumb up or down. It's a Manichaean world, as Farber realized: he began his first column for Cavalier by announcing that, "unbeknownst to most moviegoers, the saddest story in films concerns the emergence of brutal scorekeeper critics."
Farber was true to both his own mixed feelings and the complexity of the movie experience. His reviews are filled with apparent oxymorons: "Meet Me in St. Louis seemed to me a good movie as well as a cloying, callow one"... Is that a B- or a B+? Did he like it? Will I like it? Farber also distinguished his own taste from hat of the reader, characterizing Hitchcock's Spellbound as "a soupy, synthetic movie that will probably hold your attention." Without compromising his standards, he recognized the pleasures afforded by bad movies: "The Postman Always Rings Twice is almost too terrible to walk out of."
At the same time, Farber had no problem articulating why he liked what he liked. Fuller's Cold War thriller Pickup on South Street was not just a "marvel of lower-class nuttiness" but a movie that demonstrated the filmmaker's "ability to keep a scene going without cuts or camera tricks."
A conventional scene of spies questioning an unwitting accomplice becomes the meanest hotel scene, reminiscent of Diane Arbus's camera eye, her obsession with picking up the down side of American life. The hub of the scene is its directness, the lack of fastidiousness with setting, people, dialogue. The stolid furniture is Moscow, 1940, the three men are square sauerbraten types, and [the accomplice Jean] Peters is a keyed-up, frenzied dame working through a debris of untalented dialogue.
I've seen Pickup on South Street many times, but it's impossible for me to watch that scene without thinking of Farber's description -- the kick he gets out of Jean Peters's excited affect; his appreciation got the way her frenzy plays off the silence and calculated stasis of her fellow actors; his channeling of the scene's downright freakishness through Diane Arbus; his sense of the dialogue piling up like a material object.
A movie, for Farber, wasn't a window unto another world; it was more like a chunk of this one. There's an epistemological undercurrent to his enterprise. Farber's singularity as a critic was not predicated on his telling us what to think about movies. On the contrary. He showed us how to think about movies -- and how pleasurable that lesson could be.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic of The Village Voice. His book An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War will be published next year.
Why subscribe to Harper's Magazine?
Because each issue of Harper's Magazine ever published - from June 1850 through today - is now online and comes free with your regular print subscription.
Search and browse through essays and fiction by Mark Twain, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace, National Correspondent Lewis H. Lapham and many more.
SUBSCRIBE NOW for as little as $16.97 per year!