Farber on Film
Reading collections of film criticism is always a dissociative experience. By the time the essays have been wrangled into a book, their time-stamps have expired, and the reviews have lost the “now playing in a theater near you!” relevance that inspires most people to first start reading film reviews in the first place. Once anthologized, the essays, like the films themselves, become aesthetic and intellectual markers – documents that may (or may not) have withstood the tests of time and taste. Perhaps because of transience of film and its status as a popular art, film criticism seems especially bound to the tyranny of time, although good critics are recognizable by their ability to make you forget it.
For critics such as Manny Farber, this dissociative quality works in their favor. In Farber’s writing, the foreignness of his subject material (have you heard of 1943’s Stage Door Canteen?) is negotiated by a prose style so bizarre that language tends to rise as the true subject of essays. Farber’s writing – which always hits the ground running – is flush with jokes and allusions, and marked by a conversational quality that makes him an especially astute and sharp-tongued companion.. In lieu of academic criticism – the realm of what he calls “ the professional pipe smokers” – Farber imagines himself as the critic in the bunker, armed with a verbal shotgun and a readiness to take down any film that he deems insufficiently smart or innovative.
On Max Orphuls’ Lola Montes: “Any Orphuls movie is supposed to be fluid magic, but after the first five minutes of circus, it is like hauling an old corpse around and around in sawdust.”
On Scorsese: “Scorsese’s movies are about youth’s dream squelched-by-adult-verities, the charismatic fullness of a jungle cat punk, a feisty ten-year-old, a vulgar and good-natured veteran waitress, and a visceral apprehension about an eager-messy world, a reaction he transmits through a saucing, glamour technique.”
On Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend: “It’s a film which loves its body odor.”
Although he always considered himself a painter first, Farber’s career as a critic reads as a roadmap to writerly post-war culture. He wrote columns for The New Republic, The Nation, and Artforum, and despite only publishing one book – 1971’s Negative Space – contributed to almost every film journal of note from the ‘40s up until his death in 2008. While he was never formally trained in film, Farber got his first job as The New Republic’s film critic in 1942 in a way that would make most upstart journalists take pause – he wrote the magazine a letter informing them that he could do the job better than anybody else. He first column ran that February.
Over his thirty-five year career as a critic, Farber’s style evolved from short, punchy, reviews for TNR to sprawling, manifesto-like pieces that eyed larger philosophical and aesthetic trends in film. Never one to give in to outside opinion, Farber’s writing in the 50s and 60s – the heyday of Hollywood and French avant-garde film, respectively – maintained a critical distance from the powers at large while treating the films with the affection of a viewer, rather than an intellectual. In his 1965 essay “Nearer My Agee to Thee,” Farber accuses the “new critics” – Susan Sontag and Andy Sarris – of depersonalizing film, and inheriting James Agee’s “tensionless language with its flagrant escalations.” (Incidentally, Sontag didn’t share the feeling, and once described Farber as “the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced.”)
Farber’s writing situates itself in contrast to this kind of algebraic intellectualism, and champions the little guys of film – the B-movies, horror films, and spaghetti westerns – that he contends are better equipped to break through the pretensions of High Art and strike at the core of an idea. In one of his most famous essays, 1962’s “White Elephant vs. Termite Art,” Farber attacks high, or white elephant art, as “dehydrated” – comparable to the “boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece.” Against these white elephants – which include Truffaut, Antonioni and Welles – Farber celebrates termite art, which has no “object in mind other than eating away at the immediate boundaries of art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Grounding his criticism in a kind of highbrow populism, Farber recognizes the blood in the medium, and reserves his highest praise for films that evoke a visceral, as well as intellectual, response.
In this vein, the dissociative quality in Farber’s writing isn’t just due to the quirkiness of his prose style, but his allegiance to the quickly forgotten. In a profession characterized by topicality and quick turnover, Farber’s interests always lay in the periphery, and to an extent, this gave him room to philosophize rather than focus on a film’s most obvious details. While it now seems incomprehensible to read about B-movies in the pages of a major magazine, Farber’s ability to analyze without academicizing allowed him to bring lowbrow films into highbrow pages. Ultimately, then, perhaps the best way to describe Farber is to lift a phrase from his own “White Elephant.” Unlike the formulaic writing that pervades most criticism, Farber’s writing, like good film, “goes forward eating its own boundaries… leav[ing] nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber was published on October 1st by Library of America.