August 18, 2008

Manny Farber, 1917 - 2008.

Manny Farber Word is beginning to get out that painter and film critic (and in that order, as he would have it) Manny Farber passed away last night at the age of 91.

Making the rounds for the Daily, hardly a day goes by without running across a quotation from or reference to Farber; today, it happens to be Evan Kindley, opening his piece on Nicholas Ray with a passage from the 1957 essay on "Underground Films."

So where to begin. In 1999, Framework ran a special issue on Farber; Noel King's contribution is online. Duncan Shepherd wrote a fine appreciation of his friend and mentor back in 2006. Edward Crouse spoke with him in 1999, Leah Ollman in 2004. Doug Cummings in 2003 on Negative Space: "Reading it generates a potpourri of cinematic images mediated through the unexpected twists and turns of Farber’s imaginative language." And Glenn Kenny has just posted an appreciation.

Before Girish offered his own thoughts on the landmark essay, "White Elephant Art vs Termite Art," in 2006, he noted, "Susan Sontag once said: 'Manny Farber is the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced... [his] mind and eye change the way you see,' and Dwight Macdonald called him 'an impossibly eccentric movie critic whose salvoes have a disturbing tendency to land on target. I often disagree with him but I always learn from him.' I'm beginning to see just what they were talking about."

"Farber's embrace of wise-cracking, tough-guy language and a scorn for the self-conscious 'pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing masterpiece' (so that the 'assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist's signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding lechery, faking required to combine today; esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art') that almost borders on nihilism should not be mistaken for philistine thuggery," writes Phil Nugent at Screengrab. "Farber himself was a painter, often turning out canvasses inspired by his favorite films by Fassbinder and Sam Peckinpah."

Ray Pride:

From Negative Space: "Good work usually arises when the creators... seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or anything... It goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

Farber's work is so rich with a love of the artist's process - "process-mad," he says - of the yeasty, yawping potential of rhetoric and style that it seems cheap to point out that the values he champions in the work of others shines like a beacon from almost every sentence he's put to page.

At the SpoutBlog, Karina Longworth has found some very valuable linkage. Do go take a look.

SF360 editor Susan Gerhard heard the news from Telluride co-director Tom Luddy; she's running Robert Polito's piece on Farber for the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival catalogue, in which he quotes J Hoberman and Pauline Kael before noting himself:

Farber once described his prose style as "a struggle to remain faithful to the transitory, multisuggestive complication of a movie image and/or negative space." His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center. There are rarely introductory overviews or concluding summaries, and transitions appear interchangeable with non-sequiturs. Puns, jokes, lists, slippery metaphors and webs of allusions supplant arguments. Farber wrenches nouns into verbs (Hawks, he writes, "landscapes action"), and sustains strings of divergent, perhaps irreconcilable adjectives such that praise can seem inseparable from censure, arriving at a kind of backdoor poetry: not lyrical, or routinely poetic, but original and startling.

"Farber wasn't like other critics. He didn't proselytize and he didn't create systems. Rather, he articulated his idiosyncratic perception, which is to say: He had a sensibility.... My mantra when I began reviewing for the Voice was WWMD - like, what would Manny do? And, in a sense, it still is." J Hoberman revisits a 1981 appreciation.

Jonathan Rosenbaum turns to a "very personal essay [that] was written in 1993" on "the greatest by far of all American film critics."

Updates, 8/19: Girish is right: David Phelps's collection of passages is well worth spending some time with.

"Farber established a tone, cleared a patch of cultural landscape, and filled it with more ideas, opinions, and attitude than a thousand reviewers and bloggers — not just in movies but in music, television, book, and art criticism too - will ever muster," blogs Ken Tucker for the Entertainment Weekly.

"[I]f [James] Agee was the first great stylist, Kael the liveliest writer and [Andrew] Sarris - with his promotion of the auteur theory of directorial vision - the most influential, Farber may have been the most thrillingly, cantankerously intellectual," blogs Stephen Whitty for the Star-Ledger.

"He was one of the last of the true nickle-plated originals whose rigor and resilience of character and sensibility was shaped by the Depression, a cussed individualism and intellectual independence that expressed itself in the sharp crack of his perceptions and convictions as they hit the page," writes James Wolcott.

Zach Campbell: "It's easy to 'dissolve boundaries' between the 'false dichotomies' of 'high and low.' But Farber understood that truly dissolving boundaries doesn't mean consuming anything and everything with abandon (anyone can do that with ease, and The System prefers you to do it that way) but rather approaching art with a set of practices, time-tested, to make sense of certain configurations of the cultural terrain."

"Film critic-turned-director Paul Schrader wrote for the LA Weekly Press starting in 1969. Although he was a self-avowed Paulette (he was literally mentored by Kael, who helped him get admission to the UCLA film school), Schrader was a longtime friend of Farber. In 1995, Schrader made a lovely short film, Untitled: New Blue, commissioned by the BBC, about a 1993 painting by Farber that Schrader owns and displays in his New York office." David Schwartz talks with Schrader for Moving Image Source.

Jim Emerson quotes a passage from "White Elephant Art vs Termite Art" and commments, "Farber framed his essay as a 'this vs that' equation in order to prod and provoke. Art doesn't really fall so neatly into one category or the other. (In that respect you could say his argument is of the White Elephant variety.) But he challenges the prevailing rules and rouses you from the habits of tradition, doesn't he?"

As Brian notes in the comments, Artforum has brought out Richard Flood's 1998 appreciation:

I first learned of Farber's criticism about twenty years ago, at the height of my enthusiasm for the films of the B-movie producer Val Lewton, who assembled a kind of atelier for writers, directors, cameramen, an actors to churn out low-budget horror movies of extraordinary beauty and, time permitting, intelligence (including The Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie and The Curse of the Cat People). A friend gave me a copy of the 1971 edition of Farber's Negative Space, a collection of his reviews which contains a brief obituary consideration of Lewton, written in 1951 for The Nation, and I became an instant convert, as much to the energy of the writing as to the writer's opinions, which were singularly cantankerous.

"In Summer, 2005, the filmmaker Barbara Schock wrote a spirited piece for Filmmaker about studying film with critic and artist Manny Farber, who died on Tuesday," writes Scott Macaulay. "Mirroring Farber's rapid-fire thinking, Schock makes you feel like you're in his classroom as she writes about the man, his syllabus, and his teaching style." Schock: "Considered by many to have reinvented film criticism with his brilliant, electric prose, Manny had a similarly inventive - and tremendously entertaining - manner of speaking. In vivid, staccato sentences (sounding like a cerebral Edward G Robinson), he took a run at films. He was terse but rhapsodic; non-academic but deeply analytic. Drawing on a vast range of references to other art forms and with his keen grasp of the times, Manny always got at the guts of a film."

"I feel it's a good a time as any to remember Christopher Petit's 1999 essay film/meditation on Farber, itself titled Negative Space," writes Doug Cummings. "My hesitations about Petit's film... probably say more about what I wish it provided rather than what it does - in general, I did find it stimulating.... Through the film's juxtapositions and his own Marker-like, musing narration, Petit is also adept at emphasizing Farber's 'ambidextrous' background - carpenter, critic, painter, teacher - a wide ranging experience with creative construction that helped produce his brilliant sensitivity to the way films are assembled, the idiosyncratic way each of their varied pieces work (or don't work) together. For this reason, Farber remains a favorite critic for cinephiles; his writing digs beneath the widely regarded surfaces of plot, character, and theme to ruminate on details of form or unexpected moments of fleeting cinematic pleasure."

Updates, 8/20: "Farber's prose has a ruthlessness and precision that bespeaks hours bare-fist punching at the Royal portable and then slashing slivers with scissors and basting with paste an ever-more accomplished cut-up," writes Ray Pride in Newcity Chicago. "There may be leaves of Farber's uncollected work fluttering out there somewhere, but Negative Space remains rock-solid."

"Mr Farber, a quirky prose stylist with a barbed lance, responded to film viscerally," writes William Grimes in the New York Times: "'He was up there in the Clement Greenberg category as a critic, but operating on a wavelength so unusual that he was hard to peg, which is how he wanted it,' said Kent Jones, the associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. 'He understood film in a very immediate way - he could see the plasticity of it, the beauty of film in motion, in a way no one else could.'"

"He was, is, one of the supreme critics of the young film medium as well as a painter of wide, mysterious canvases, dispersed yet full of dense, messy detail: impossible, like Manny, to pull together," writes David Edelstein. "In the mid-90s, I would see him when he visited Pauline Kael, his friend of many decades. Their aesthetics diverged, but they adored each other anyway. They treasured each other's pugnacity, and they'd both found their voices in headier, more bohemian times - Pauline in San Francisco, Manny in Greenwich Village." Also, a 1994 profile, "A Painter, but Still a Critic."

The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris quotes passages on Preston Sturges and Werner Herzog.

Update, 8/21: Max Goldberg: "Paul Arthur and Manny Farber: we've lost two of our best."

Updates, 8/22: "For Farber, what makes movies great is the same thing that made jazz America's enduring contribution to 20th Century music - the swing, the personal virtuosity, the knockabout ease that is a democratic culture's answer to aristocratic savoir faire." John Powers on NPR.

Via James Wolcott, Carrie Rickey:

When he arrived in 1971 at the University of California, San Diego to teach a course called "A Hard Look at the Movies" he stunned students (I among the freshmen) with his idiosyncratic lectures, an in-the-moment form of performance art surreal and penetrating as a Warner Brothers cartoon. To make us look, really look, at the medium, he ran films backwards, forwards, with and without sound. Often as he deconstructed an individual frame, the projector lamp would burn and melt the celluloid. We were dry sponges soaking up the ocean of films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Preston Sturges, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Raoul Walsh.

Update, 8/23: "Like Lester Bangs, Farber was sui generis in a way that has since been brought into vivid relief by his imitators," writes Phil Nugent:

Both men produced writing with too strong an electric current not to inspire imitators, but the music writers who tried to emulate Bangs's free-form writing and contrarian tastes usually settled for making an ugly mess, with none of the simple humanity and complicated moral seriousness that did so much to set Bangs apart from the pack. Fewer critics have attempted anything like Farber's writing style - maybe because they were quicker to find out than Bangs's imitators that it took a lot of hard work - but many tried to appropriate his tough-guy-in-the-peanut-gallery taste for hard-wired action flicks and Chuck Jones cartoons without betraying any sense that they understood the painter's eye and genuine set of aesthetic priorities that his taste grew out of.

Continued here.

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Posted by dwhudson at August 18, 2008 10:33 AM


My reaction on hearing of his death.

Posted by: Steven Kaplan at August 18, 2008 1:18 PM

I'm ashamed to say that I'd thought he was already dead. Unfortunately, the triumph of what he called 'cartooned hip acting' is complete (in the movies, if not on TV - I wonder if he watched The Wire?)

Posted by: Paul at August 18, 2008 1:18 PM

I saw Manny once at the Telluride Film Festival in 1990. He was there for a short Val Lewton documentary. I remember he was at an outdoor noon seminar they had on film reviewing. The others on the seminar included Richard Corliss and Paul Schrader. There was a big debate that had gone on in the pages of Film Comment over Critics Vs. Reviewers written by Corliss, Andrew Sarris and Roger Ebert. Naturally, Farber was more of a critic since he didn't do the day-to-day type reviewing. That is his writing was more in depth, insightful and critical. I don't remember much of he seminar but it was great to see this guy who had written such strong views talk about film. I recall he really liked Jean Luc Godard as a critic as much as he liked him as a filmmaker.
I recommend reading his book Negative Space. It is essential for any film critic out there.

Posted by: Matt at August 18, 2008 2:22 PM

Sad news. Farber's criticism is a delight to read, and I've often thought of him as one of the key, essential critics of the cinema.

Posted by: Michael at August 18, 2008 3:23 PM


Posted by: miljenko at August 18, 2008 8:15 PM

David Phelps at Videoarcadia has a post in which he collects some favorite passages of Farber's writing.

Posted by: Girish at August 19, 2008 5:10 AM

Many thanks, Girish - and to everyone else posting news and comments here.

I'm a little surprised we haven't seen more from the major papers yet; but when we do, I'll be making note of it here, of course.

Posted by: David Hudson at August 19, 2008 8:07 AM

Although I knew he was also a painter, the Manny Farber I first encountered in back issues of Film Culture and in collected writings like Negative Space (1971) was a brilliant, spirited, clear-eyed, iconoclastic, no-nonsense film critic. Essays like "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962) were lean, mean, superbly on target and amazingly prescient, celebrating B-films and maverick, marginal auteurs long before they became de rigueur among cineastes. He was an early champion of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Val Lewton and Don Siegel, and penned some of the first American appreciations of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Marguerite Duras, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman and other 70s European avantgardists.

His commitment to genre and grit, to economies of scale and purpose, to the joys of pulp and a contrarian, underground aesthetic, were legendary. His prose was pugilistic, hardboiled and decidedly interdisciplinary, setting an example for future cultural critics. He employed references from all over the spectrum, drawing from abstract expressionist painting, comics, photography, performance art, and from a wide ranging connoisseurship of tasty vernacular forms. He was less literary than visual, less concerned with polite plot elements than viscerally engaged in the mise en scene. His best writing seems to come from within the film, not as a critic judging from on high but rather as a fellow artist, intuitively solving problems and thinking on his feet along with the director.

Farber eloquently and mercilessly excoriated the bloated, mindless excesses of "good taste", the hypocrisy and creative pretensions perpetuated by the Hollywood studio system. He was a staunch foe of lazy, acquiescent thinking, of the prosaic and the middlebrow. He did not suffer fools gladly. In support of his "small, mobile, intelligent" strategy, he reveled in language that was dense, rhythmic, pungent and precise as a jewel cutter.

Farber contributed reviews and essays to The New Republic, Time, The Nation, Film Comment, and Artforum, as well as to second tier stroke mags like Cavalier. Starting in the mid 70s, he was professor at the University of California San Diego, and regularly exhibited his work. A retrospective show of paintings, entitled About Face, opened at PS 1 in September 2004 after previously being presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.

Farber began as an abstract painter but settled on figuration in his mature work, to become a master of the idiosyncratic still life. The painting below, Howard Hawks "A Dandy's Gesture" (1978), is part of the "Auteur Series" (there are also pieces named for Anthony Mann and Luis Bunuel). It employs a scattershot arrangement of objects and notepad drawings (elephant, airplane, speedboat, railroad tracks, cattle, houses, chocolate candies), presented out of scale and seemingly viewed from above, as if they are miniatures on a worktable or maquettes from a set designer, a collection of decontextualized signifiers recalling some of the director's most famous efforts: To Have and Have Not, Twentieth Century, Hatari!, Red River.

Like Robert Frank and Larry Rivers, Farber was the quintessential Jewish hipster, effortlessly inventive and subversive, an inveterately wisecracking wordsmith, a kibbitzer, an elder statesman of the counterculture. Susan Sontag once said, “Manny Farber is the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced … [his] mind and eye change the way you see.”

Posted by: Steven Kaplan at August 19, 2008 8:56 AM

Dear David,

To mark Farber's passing we've reprinted Richard Flood's 1998 appreciation of Negative Space:

Posted by: Brian Sholis at August 19, 2008 12:49 PM

...The Greencine tribute to Farber is both smart and lovely; and I especially appreciate the citations of Framework and David Edelstein at New York magazine (and Edelstein's notation of Manny Farber's long, long friendship with Pauline Kael, suggesting that two great and different critics can be affectionate and respectful with each other).

Posted by: Garrett at August 21, 2008 8:26 AM

I, along with many students at ucsd during the
early 80's, was fortunate to have Manny as a
painting and film history instructor. I will
always remember his sense of humor, which could
equally be devastating and pithy. He could talk
about current sports (esp. basketball and football)
in a casual way that you would view the game differently.
It was always stunning to witness how he could
alter your view of any subject by his insight.
Many students loved him and were charmed by his
personality. The energy in his classes was redolent,
and this is present in his painting and film theory.
It was all about getting it right.
with love to you Manny always your memory in my

Posted by: steve brooks at August 22, 2008 10:11 PM

I was a student of Manny's in the late 70s and he was pure inspiration, to the point of my deciding to minor in Film Criticism. Reading about his death last week brings back a lot of memories, all of them good. RIP Manny, thanks for the insight and critical thinking.

Posted by: David at August 26, 2008 7:01 PM