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June 01, 2003

Manny Farber

Friedrich --

I know you read Manny Farber's film criticism back in our movie-nut college days, but I forget whether or not you were a fanatical Farber-head. Did his writing speak to you much? Has it stayed with you? (Isn't it funny, by the way, to remember how important a half a dozen film critics seemed not just to film buffs but to the culture more generally in those days? Unimaginable today.) If I remember right, during our years in college Farber was making a hard-to-explain turn. He'd become known in the '50s and '60s for championing little, masculine B-movies -- guy-stuff, often directed by people like Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel. But in the mid-'70s, his interests were turning to hardcore art movies, Straub and Huillet, Akerman, Herzog...

My mind's on Manny Farber today because I noticed that a show of his paintings is going to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location in September. Have you ever paid attention to Farber's paintings? I like them even better than I like his criticism, which I like plenty.

story of the eye.jpg Manny Farber: "Story of the Eye"

But it's fun to think about his criticism too. It's all in that one book, a collection of essays and reviews that's been published several times, each time with a few new pieces added. (It's best known as "Negative Space," though it was once published, if I remember right, as "Manny Farber on Movies." His more recent essays and reviews were co-written with his wife, the painter Patricia Patterson.) I suspect I've stayed in closer touch with the battier reaches of the filmbuff world than you have since college, and it's been interesting to take note of how immensely much Farber's writing means to a certain class of film geek. I love Farber's writing and brain. But for some film geeks, his criticism isn't simply what I take it to be -- the journal of a brilliant crackpot, full of bizarrely wonderful perceptions about the visual and rhythmic qualities of movies. It means a whole lot more than that to them.

Which isn't to say I'm not a fan. Farber can go off on speedy jags that make your head buzz, and make you think you're seeing movies in a whole new way. His writing is, as far as I'm concerned, about the excitement of getting off on your own intellect -- it's an intellectual-on-a-roll high: all mental/visual crackle. He's freewheeling in a west-coast way. People I know who took his classes and attended his lectures remember how intuitive they were. He didn't do anything systematic, let alone pedantic; instead, he made one nutty, provocative connection after another. He was famous among buffs for not studying movies as whole entities, but for making comparisons between bits of them -- drawing a line between a shot in Herzog and some lighting in an American crime movie, for instance. He was famous as well for letting a passage run unsually long -- "duration," if I remember right, was one of his interests. Friends of Farber's told me about his habits as a moviegoer. He'd go to the movies like other people go to art galleries, walking into one for 10 or 20 minutes, then heading over to the next one. He'd go see four or five movies a day in this way.

But to a certain kind of film geek, that isn't all Farber means. For them, "Negative Space" is the Word itself. It's the Book of Books. I could be remembering wrong, but: J. Hoberman, Jeremy (ahem) Gilbert-Rolfe, Jonathan Rosenbaum. For such geeks, Farber's the key to it all, the guy who cracked open the mystery that is the movies and showed them a way to deal with that mystery too. I've thought a bit about what is it about Farber's writing (and what it is about these people) that results in such geek ecstasies. I don't know that I've come up with much, but I'd certainly be curious to hear what you think of it, as well as what your own hunches are, hard though it is to imagine that you've spent a lot of time recently musing about Manny.

Manny Farber: "My Budd"

Anyway, my hunch boils down to this: that the kind of high Farber so often goes off on is the high that ultra-intellectual arts nuts like to go off on themselves. He's great at launching into the arts-intellectual ozone, out where things get really intricate and become all about the brilliance the connections your brain's making. (And out where, to be frank, the hyper-cerebration starts to feed on itself, and where things get more than a little unrealistic and paranoid.) In his work this quality, which in life so often results in social and emotional disasters, is all to the good -- it's the upside of geekery, the rhapsodic fun of losing yourself in your own intellect and thought processes. He does what many arts geeks love doing in their minds, and unlike most of them he actually manages to get it down on the page. (And to thereby give hope: Geeks are often hung up about "creativity," and are desperate for recognition of their own peculiar brand.)

My complaint about Farber's writing -- and it's not a complaint so much as a statement of where I think he's weakest, and we all have strengths and weaknesses, blah blah -- is that, despite his championing (for a time, anyway) of B movies, he has no mass audience sense. He's unrealistic about the basic appeal of movies. He's so keen (and so good) on the purely visual and rhythmic qualities that it can seem like he's onto something cosmically central about the movies as an art form. And he is, I guess. But -- simple historical fact -- the reason the movies are the movies is that they've got stars, they tell stories, they have spectacle. Most of them feature outsized personalities, and are acted-out dramatic narratives that are enhanced, pumped and sold by elements like rhythm and visuals. They're made and enjoyed as illustrated fantasies for the masses. The kinds of qualities Farber focuses on have been, in other words, and despite what film geeks may want to believe, secondary elements in film history. Important ones for buffs, sure. And important in certain minor corners of the filmmaking and filmgoing worlds. (This may help explain Farber's turn to hardcore art films.) But "illustrated, acted-out fantasies for the masses" is a basic fact of life in the mainstream movie world -- and mainstream movies are what the movies are for most people, who could generally care less about the values film buffs often cherish most highly.

Farber speaks to -- and apparently sparks off -- the film geek type. The fragmentedness, the surprises, the rap that builds on itself -- it's all spattered out there, rat-a-tat-tat. And there's a curmudgeonly fervor in his writing, too, a heat that can help make it feel as though we're really getting somewhere here, to something essential. His characteristic tone is staccato and cranky, yet surging. The Wife tells me that Farber's criticism reminds her of Thomas Pynchon's fiction. I can see her point: there's the same paranoia, the same manic energy, the same sense of building towards something mystically great, some fabulous ultimate revelation of something really inconceivably mind-blowing. And getting involved in Farber's mind and his way of thinking is like getting involved in Pynchon's -- something that many perpetual-grad-school-virtuoso types would be happy spending the rest of their lives doing. (Come to think of it, I prefer reading Farber to reading Pynchon. Shorter, for one thing. Plus, I find more than a few pages of Pynchon distressing, and not in a good way -- I feel like I'm on some drug I'd rather not be on. Where with Farber, I feel great, like I've had one Starbuck's too many and what the hell, I might as well stay up late.) Reading these guys can be like studying the Kabbalah or the Torah -- it can go on endlessly and be returned to with ever-renewed gusto because there's always the promise of a metaphysical payoff.

Fun, in any case, to try to make a little sense out of this. As for the paintings? I've seen a couple of shows of Farber's work and loved them; I wish I could make it to the San Diego show. I find that his visual work has some of the same caffeinated, machine-gunning-the-flat-surface quality that his writing does. There's lots of quickness, perceptions, and wit. The paintings are full of illusionistically-painted scraps of paper, notes and lists, stills from films he's thinking about, evocations of movies he loves, personal artifacts, and pieces of food -- breads and luscious vegetables especially. (He lives near a famous Japanese-American-run vegetable farm outside San Diego.) The things represented in his paintings are like the contents of his mind, spilled out onto a table top with perspective and points of view then warped and multiplied. He hates it, I'm told, when his paintings are decribed this way -- but how else to describe them?

Manny Farber: "Ingenious"

But though the paintings' contents seem to come from his mind, the paintings themselves have something else too: a physical presence, and a presence in color and design space. The surging quality that's in his writing seems to dissolve, and in its place is a serenity, a warmth and a calm. His paintings seem to me to be what the criticism promised one could, after all the intellectualizing, finally arrive at. (And it isn't metaphysical truth; it's the physical fact of being.) Farber, who's about 84 or 85 these days, has been painting all along. I wonder, in fact, whether he ever wanted to write criticism, and I wonder too how he feels about being so well known for it. He's always thought of himself as a painter, and for years supported himself as a carpenter in order to be able to paint. The writing, I suspect, was just a better way to support himself than the carpentry was. Eventually he got himself -- thanks in large part to his reputation as a writer -- a position as a teacher at UCSD and was able to leave most of the financial struggles behind.

It seems to me that in his paintings he does something rather rare -- he makes it all the way to art through the intellect. He makes it home, and without having to leave the intellect behind. I take his paintings to represent relief from the torments of the intellect. They don't represent New Age bliss or Zen blankness. In the paintings, you can still feel the intellect knocking on the door, god knows. But the knocking isn't insistent -- it's a sexy throb and tickle instead, a pleasure. It's as though, in his painting, Farber found a place where he can interact with the juices of life directly, where the emotions and sensory apparatus can flow, and where the intellect takes part and enhances but doesn't dominate. The thinking's there, but it's embedded in the physical and emotional world.

It's great to have a lively arts brain, I imagine Farber saying. But an arts brain is even more enjoyable once it takes its place amidst everything else that's great about life and art too.

Farber's book Negative Space (essential reading for film buffs), with an introduction by Robert Walsh, is buyable here. Noel King speaks with Robert Walsh about Farber here. Jonathan Romney of The Guardian visits with Farber here. A notice about Farber's La Jolla show is here (scroll down a bit). The show, which will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, opens on September 14, 2003 and runs through Jan. 4, 2004.



posted by Michael at June 1, 2003


He seems to paint just like you describe his writing. I'm not quite sure if I like it, but "Ingenius" is nice.

Posted by: annette on June 2, 2003 11:59 AM

Nice (albeit slightly abstract) appreciation of M. Farber. How 'bout some quotes from his work to introduce him to our readership?

Would you say that Farber is interested in film insofar as it contributes to his painting, or does he write (at least partially) in order to encourage a "painterly" cinema? The two would seem, on first thought, to constitute different aesthetic issues and interests. Cinematically influenced painting is fairly common: I can think of various painters who have cultivated "noir-esque" atmospherics in their paintings, and many who have appropriated film as well as other types of photographic imagery.

A painterly cinema, on the other hand, is a more interesting concept--albeit a more diffuse one. Would that imply films that work at setting up tensions between 2- and 3-D readings of their imagery? Or to films that try to pack in more to look at it in each given shot, and thus to slow down the eye (and the editing tempo?) Or maybe just films that minimize the verbal element?

Oh, now I'm going to have to go to La Jolla to check Farber's show out. The things I do as a Blowhard!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 2, 2003 1:19 PM

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