Termite Art vs. White Elephant Art
A bit of self-searching: It's taken me a few years to come to appreciate Manny Farber's writing. For a long time, every time I read him, I'd constantly stub my toe on some casual slamming of a movie or filmmaker I held close to my heart, and that would be enough to distract me from the flow of reading and sometimes close the book altogether. I'm not sure why it's become easier for me to read him now, but I suspect it might have something to do with my own pyschological response: It's possible that I feel a bit more secure about the films and directors I value and the reasons why I value them. This is a relief: Rather than feel compelled to kick reflexively into defensive mode, it frees one to concentrate on the ideas engendered by the discourse surrounding a work, even if one may not agree with all the evaluations that are part of that discourse.
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. Here, then, is an attempt to briefly respond to what is probably his best-known essay, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962). It's available both in the (essential) Farber essay collection "Negative Space" and in the (equally essential) recent anthology, "American Movie Critics," edited by Phillip Lopate.
In the essay, Farber attacks "white elephant art"—grand and ambitious High Art which strives for Masterpiece status (“the idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area…”):
Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.
An exemplar of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of the work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is François Truffaut. Shoot The Piano Player and Jules Et Jim, two ratchety perpetual-motion machines devised by a French Rube Goldberg [leave behind] the bladelike journalism of The 400 Blows.
The common quality or defect which unites apparently divergent artists like Antonioni, Truffaut, [Tony] Richardson, is fear, a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film. Coupled with their storage vaults of self-awareness and knowledge of film history, this fear produces an incessant wakefulness.
The absurdity of La Notte and L’Avventura is that its director is an authentically interesting oddball who doesn’t recognize the fact. His talent is for small eccentric microscope studies, like Paul Klee’s, of people and things pinned in their grotesquerie to an oppressive social backdrop. Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.
(That last bit always makes me laugh out loud.) Farber goes on to extol what he calls “termite art”:
Good work usually arises where the creators [here he cites Laurel and Hardy, and Hawks] seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that 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.
[John Wayne in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance] is a termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin)….Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sunset behind them…[in other words, white elephant art]
[Kurosawa’s Ikiru] sums up much of what a termite art aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.
Now, my own beef with Farber centers on white elephant art. I don’t think ambition or a grand vision or an impulse to fastidiously and thoughtfully “design” each frame in an "all-over pattern" is necessarily a bad thing (at all). There can be “good” white elephant art (and in this category I include both of Farber’s whipping boys, Antonioni and Truffaut!) and there can be “bad,” inflated, pompous and pretentious white elephant art. Or so it seems to me.
But truth be told, the zone of my personal interest in this essay is that of termite art. Farber writes in a dense, baroque, impressionistic, associational and not-always-easy-to-parse style, so I can only conjecture all the things he means by the term. To sum up, in my understanding, it appears that termite art: is un-precious; aims for small pleasures; does not strive for great Significance; values small throwaway details; prizes invention and imagination, not towards any grand objectives, but merely delighting in risk-taking for its own sake, thus constantly "eating away at its own borders"; values personal vision and idiosyncrasy; possesses vitality; and is unselfconscious. Right off the top of my head, it strikes me that two American filmmakers I love, Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, might fit the bill well.
So, your thoughts on termite art and white elephant art? And/or your candidates for termite filmmakers, films, performers, or moments?