Monday, June 05, 2006

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?


Blogger girish said...

The cover of the Farber collection is a still from Hawks' Scarface (1932).

June 05, 2006 12:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great post by Jim Emerson at Scanners about the Clive James article in today's NYT on the Lopate anthology.

June 05, 2006 12:16 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Without having read the entire article, it sounds to me that he's all about the "slice of life" directors like the neo-realists and Cassavettes. But, you know, even in The Bicycle Thief there's that one shot where the camera rises up past the main characters to go exploring the vast quantities of sheets sold (a move that Spielberg nicked for the mountains of eyeglasses and suitcases, on through to the table of gold teeth, in Schindler's List).

Erm. I think Farber would really hate Besson, the Coen brothers and Tarantino. And much of Scorsese.

What did he think of Welles (elephant), Dreyer (elephant), Malle (termite), Bergman (switch-hitter), and Keaton (termite with elephant setpieces)?

Am I right to think of Welles as an elephant artist just because some of his work was so innovative, regardless of its later acceptance? I think I must have misunderstood something; it seems that Farber's argument doesn't address the evolution of film--innovative techniques becoming standard and lapsing into invisibility. Cross-cutting? Mind-blowing a hundred years ago, de rigeur today.... Did Farber really write an argument that explodes itself?

June 05, 2006 12:45 AM  
Anonymous bradluen said...

Tuwa, in "The Gimp", Manny Farber wrote, almost in passing, the Citizen Kane pan (although according to this he ripped off Otis Ferguson).

I'm a white elephant guy myself (I want Babylon and I want it now) but even I'm concerned at how dominant the pachyderms have become. The termite genre film, as exemplified by Hawks/Fuller, is dead, superseded by zillion dollar Bruckheimer blockbusters. Most of the big name art film directors have white elephant sympathies; after all, the International Art Film Template owes a little to Truffaut and a lot to Antonioni. So thank the Sundance kids, foremost among them Richard Linklater, for providing some opposition.

But if you need a constant fix of termite art, there's always TV.

June 05, 2006 2:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great points, guys! Thank you.

Like Brad, I probably spend the vast majority of my time on White Elephant stuff. Although I have a great big soft spot in my heart for Termites. Like Brad says, even the genre stuff of today is inflated and elephantine, which is a drag.

Termite art lives on in film history (and scads of it). The single best source for it, in addition to DVD, might be Turner Classic Movies on cable.

Tuwa, the Farber essay is brief (only a half-dozen pages) and doesn't systematically develop arguments (that's not Farber's style--it's impressionistic, allusive, burrowing, "termite-like"). So, he doesn't really cover all the (important) issues you raise. What I like about it is that it is a thought-provoker, written over 40 years ago and is still relevant and interesting.

June 05, 2006 7:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

By the way, thought you all might get a kick out of this, the intro to his essay "Underground Films" (1957):

"The saddest thing in current films is watching the long-neglected action directors fade away as the less talented De Sicas and Zinnemanns continue to fascinate the critics. Because they played an anti-art role in Hollywood, the true masters of the male action film -- such soldier-cowboy-gangster directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Keighley, the early, pre-Stagecoach John Ford, Anthony Mann – have turned out a huge amount of unprized, second-gear celluloid. Their neglect becomes more painful to behold now that the action directors are in decline, many of them having abandoned the dry, economic, life-worn movie style that made their observations of the American he-man so rewarding. Americans seem to have a special aptitude for allowing History to bury the toughest, most authentic native talents. The same tide that has swept away Otis Ferguson, Walker Evans, Val Lewton, Clarence Williams and J.R. Williams into near oblivion is now in the process of burying the group that kept an endless flow of interesting roughneck film passing through theaters from the depression onward."

Oh, and I should also mention that Farber was no "philistine". He wrote the best essay I've ever read on Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, and was a big champion of Godard, Michael Snow, Fassbinder, etc. He wrote very eloquently about all of them.

June 05, 2006 7:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, how fortuitous: David Hudson links to a piece on Farber.

June 05, 2006 8:40 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I think that it's important to note that Farber was writing about what he perceived as a specific (not all-encompassing) dynamic in a certain historical moment. Which doesn't mean his ideas have no application today: as Girish said, they're still provocative. But I think he was trying to summarize what turned out to be the death knell years of 'the classical cinema' (and a fluid comparison with the years before it). What bothered Farber--I think--about white elephant art was that it skirted too close to its preconceptions, sometimes in order to deliver an Event (like a glossy Hollywood A-pictcha, or a calculated movie-homage like by Truffaut), or perhaps to sustain a vision without, as MF saw it, real liveliness or chance to it (Antonioni). A white elephant film is kind of like a parade (in fact Farber wrote a related essay in which he knocks my beloved John Ford, "Parade Floats"), whereas a termite film is like four-wheeling through the woods. The former: clear arcs and digestible pace; the latter: unpredictable scribbles & splotches, starts & stutters.

These days I feel it's more difficult to find termite work in the commercial arena. Which is not to say that everything is white elephant--this isn't an either/or problem, I don't think.

Tuwa, I don't know that Farber was a fan at all of the neo-realists (although if you ask me there's a world of difference between the great Rossellini and the maudlin De Sica...), and I think the only Cassavetes he wrote about was Faces (semi-approvingly if I recall?). What characterized his slightly nutty taste was a passion for assertive, offbeat, unpredictable B-films and a lot of avant-garde or austere high art cinema of the 1960s-70s (as Girish said: Snow, Akerman, Fassbinder, Gehr...) He loves Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh and I once had the pleasure of seeing Patricia Patterson and him talk about it at a screening. (Jonathan Rosenbaum flew in from Chicago for it, no less.) Good post, Girish!

June 05, 2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

That Sontag quote almost sounds like the brainwashed compliment the soldiers deliever about Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate.

June 05, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach ~ Thanks for your comments. Very insightful!

Phyrephox ~ That's too funny; great analogy...

June 05, 2006 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

The financial realities of commercial filmmaking have made it difficult to have the kind of split that Farber discussed for the most part. Until there respective film industries collapsed, there were termites in Hong Kong and Italy although few, if any, could be characterized as "unselfconscious" as unlike Fuller and Hawks and their peers, most filmmakers now have gone to some kind of film school. My possible termite candidate: The Chinese Feast by Tsui Hark. In spite of horrible subtitling, this may be one of the great screwball comedies.

June 05, 2006 9:31 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Zach, Girish, I thought I might have been misreading him, and now I'm sure I was.

Zach, it's actually kind of heartening to hear someone knock on De Sica a bit.

June 05, 2006 9:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach probably doesn't know this, but the idea for this post came to me when we went out, post-film, for a few beers in the Village a couple of months back and I asked him if he thought Fuller was a "termite." He thought for second and said, "Yeah, but he's a really big termite." I thought that was funny.

June 05, 2006 9:55 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

G, sorry for the simplicity of this query, but how is negative space defined exactly???

June 05, 2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J. ~ From what little I know, negative space is defined as the space in a photographic image that is empty...a sort of absence of the subject. The absence creates a kind of tension, perhaps asking for the void to be filled. e.g. an off-centered composition might create a negative space on one side.
That's my understanding of it, anyway.

June 05, 2006 12:32 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Thanks for this info, G!

June 05, 2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with you Girish. I laughed and rolled my eyes when reading this quote!
This dichotomy is simply inept... it's like saying Picasso is too masterful to do great art. Like Zach says, this classification shouldn't be "either/or".
Is Farber on the populist bandwagon against auteurism?

Obviously he's out to prove a point : championning his preferences at the expense of a greater pantheon. Pretending to define good/bad high-art under this agenda is an outrageous mischaracterization. His dichotomy is clearly not about "art" at all... rather a controversy on sophistication/simplicity of the production of art. And the answer isn't as easy and dramatic as he presents it.
He writes well but his intentions are manipulative. This is a misled critical argument. That's a good example of literary rhetorics used to obfuscate a weak argument, often used by critics.

The only "White Elephant" I could think of, that fits the intentionaly pejorative definition, is Godard, who consciously means to be perceived that way, out of a megalomaniac sense of cultural "subverstion".
Mayb Antonioni would be one now, but certainly not at the time of this article...
This aversion for "creativity", "pattern", "style", "vivacity", "knowledge of film history", "wakefulness", "artiness" and "significance" reveals an ostentatious anti-intellectualism and a primitive anti-auteurism.

To oppose the nature of art developped by Kurosawa and Antonioni is misunderstanding cinema creative process. Their difference is in the personal style (or genre if you will) not in the sophistication!

It's honorable to defend industrious genre directors who achieve artistic works, but it seems underhanded to make this argument detrimental to other respectful auteurs who boxe in a different category anyway...
Kael does attack art cinema but at least she justifies it on the ground of "common feelings", not by redefining what is high-art to suit her theory. Farber seems to want to appropriate "Art", or at least the good Art, in order to make his champions both lowbrow and highbrow... kinda Circle Quadrature to me.

Comparatively, when the Cahiers critics sported american neglected termites, they bashed the reactionary studio establishment (which is now considered middle-brow cinema) and not the White Elephants (who are canonical by now).

June 05, 2006 1:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the comments, Harry.
"Is Farber on the populist bandwagon against auteurism?"
I don't think so. He has written several director-centered essays (Fassbinder, Godard, Sturges, Fuller, etc). Like Zach says, he has very unusual and idiosyncratic taste, and it's hard to slot him into any one camp.

June 05, 2006 3:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, here's a cool little example of what one might think of as termite art:
The Buzzcocks "Ever Fallen In Love?", from 1978. [mp3].
Reasons why:
--Minimal production values, but sonically visceral
--Tempo: Fast, unfussy and steady, "four-wheeling through the woods."
--Just verse and chorus (no bridge!)
--Firmly in an idiom (intersection of punk and pop)
--Yet with little imaginative touches (e.g. that most un-punk-like surprising chord change at 0:38 and 1:11--but not dwelt on and milked for effect, instead passed over quickly).
--Lasts just two and a half minutes
--Chorus hits you in the gut: "Ever fallen in love? With someone/You should have fallen in love with?"
Rhetorical question, clearly implying "no"...
--Solo section: no solo at all, instead same notes as the intro, played over and over...(contrast with the "white elephant" of progressive rock that punk displaced).

June 05, 2006 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Lee Marvin an overactor?!? Thems fightin' words!

June 05, 2006 4:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain, there are a ton of fightin' words in Farber. :-)

June 05, 2006 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I wonder what Farber would make of Seijun Suzuki -- a termite riding atop the grandest of elephants.

June 05, 2006 4:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Extrapolating from his love of Godard, I suspect he'd like Suzuki.

June 05, 2006 4:07 PM  
Blogger CINEBEATS said...

Like Filmbrain above me, I'm really curious what Farber would think or did think of a lot of the Japanese new wave directors that as Filmbrain said so well, seem to often be "termites riding atop the grandest of elephants?"

A lot of genre directors I love from Italy, Spain, etc. have a similar "termites riding atop the grandest of elephants" style which I happen to love.

His idea of simplifying films & directors into two categories "termites vs. elephants" just doesn't work for me I guess and sort of turns me off his writing right away. I do like his obvious passion for the movies he loves though.

June 05, 2006 4:38 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Harry, I don't think Farber is "against auteurism," in many ways he was an American practicioner of a certain 'politique.' I think that his writing makes clear that he was not ever against art or Art or authorial voice--I would say he's against a certain monumental clarity of tone and intention, possibly even a fear of messiness or worthlessness or idleness (Farber wouldn't put it in such terms, though). I would say that e.g. Godard and Fassbinder are not white elephants because they are in control of their films and present visions, but because their films & visions have a certain risk to them, a drive to push away from clear and easy social/psychological portraiture and safe narrative/formal conventions (according to Farber as I read him). Farber's not the type of writer who will appeal broadly through soundbites of his work: his appreciation among a broad readership will require reading (and re-reading) his contentious, multi-faceted reviews & articles. Though tenacious as a rhetorician, he is actually a very generous and understanding critic!

(The middlebrow, over-inflated, 'good-for-you' Hollywood cinema was what he was railing against at least as much as Antonioni. Personally I don't think he's "correct" when it comes to reading & classifying Antonioni, but that's tangential to his actual point. And he wasn't attacking Kurosawa: he said Ikiru was an example of termite art!)

Likewise, Cinebeats, I would stress once more that I don't think Farber is even trying to "simplify" things into two categories--he's trying to focus on two categories among many. His work is rigorous but unsystematic, and he'd probably be the first person to insist that films don't actually break down into any number of clear categories you can count on one or two hands. He's being rhetorical, even aggressively so (as Harry suggested), not taxonomical.

June 05, 2006 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Nice post, Girish, and very interesting discussion.

One of the things I love about Farber is that he could describe the imagery of a scene better than just about anybody -- this, along with his immersive, impressionistic style makes him a joy to read. His attacks on Truffaut and, especially, Antonioni drove me mad, but at the same time I still have great admiration for that essay.

Regarding his conception of "white elephant art" -- I don't know if every director who makes a white elephant film is conciously, necessarily striving for something grand and significant. Genuinely artistic directors are like good writers, composers, and other artists; they work in conversation, so to speak, with their predecessors and often try to change or reinvent their medium because they find something wanting, because they feel they have a different way of seeing things, or simply because their method is the only one they know. Plus, as you say, whatever the intent, there is good white elephant art and bad white elephant art.

I can see how Farber would love someone like Godard more than Antonioni; their methods were quite different. But he also seems to make a lot out of each director's aims and ambitions. Interestingly enough, though, I've always believed that their underlying motivation was the same: to create a form of cinema that said something previous forms of cinema did not say, and deliberately calling attention to form, style, content, and purpose. But, of the two, Godard was certainly more haphazard and radical.

June 05, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I won't judge Farber from this alone (its the first thing I read), but this attitude is not thought-provoking to me, enraging more likely, because it's the wrong war. If Farber defended some White Elephants, it makes his theory there even more inconsistant...

Kael defended Satyajit Ray on this panel debate in 1963, but she also dissed Antonioni, Fellini, Resnais and Hitchcock... so White Elephants aren't quite clear cut. Maybe it was just fashionable at the time.

I can bash Godard because i'm not a real critic, my online opinion doesn't matter, this is just a contemplative consideration. A prominent published figure however should think twice before namedropping like that, categorizing, dividing the world between Good and Bad. Because such statement bears consequences, and I believe we can hold Farber responsible in the face of history hindsights. It's the price to pay in taking sides in criticism.

Actually my point was Kurosawa should fall under White Elephant, as much as Antonioni. Ever since his debut film, Kurosawa shows aesthetized self-consciousness. Well, Ikiru is one I haven't seen, so maybe I missed the point.

Hitchcock : termite or elephant?

"against a certain monumental clarity of tone and intention, possibly even a fear of messiness or worthlessness or idleness"

I didn't get his contention of "clarity" and "character arc"... Of all the examples cited, I wonder how termites can compete on this, as scenario and atmosphere is not really their forte.
Likewise, messiness and worthlessness are more typical to B-movies, at least in my mind. There are good reasons to defend termites, but I believe these aspects above are inappropriate values.

June 05, 2006 6:25 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

I have not read Farber at all, but have come across quite a bit of Satyajit the-white-elephant Ray bashing in certain schools of Bengali film literature where it is often fashionable to compare him unfavorably against Ritwik the-termite Ghatak.

Disregarding the usefulness of categories that seem to be as much overlapping as mutually exclusive and the appropriateness of the assignments in this specific case, most of the critique along those lines implies some really unfair accusations.

According to those critics, there was something troubling about the almost universal recognition of Ray's art and somehow (by compromising his artistic integrity in some way) he himself was responsible for the misplaced respect - not the naiveté of the admirers.

A related idea was that, after being regarded as a master, his creative expressions were restricted by the strict parameters within which his art was expected to exist and he never experimented as much as he otherwise would have done.

Given Farber's stature, I am sure he focuses more on the creative output than on imputing motivation which, without an artist's own documented admission, could be dangerous. But the line about fear in that excerpt bothers me.

June 05, 2006 9:35 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I would say he's against a certain monumental clarity of tone and intention, possibly even a fear of messiness or worthlessness or idleness

But who is Farber (or anybody for that matter) to make that determination? It's impossible for him to "know" intent. His resulting classifications of Godard as termite and Antonioni as elephant is really rather meaningless, or in other words, just his way of saying "I like Godard, but I do not like Antonioni."

There are ways of approaching the two directors such that distinctions can be drawn, but a mere wave of the hand of Manny does not an elephant make.

I don't want to sound like I'm bashing Farber -- I truly enjoy reading him, but he doesn't impress me nearly as much as he did twenty years ago.

Dipanjan -- I couldn't agree more with you about his use of fear in the excerpt.

June 05, 2006 10:24 PM  
Anonymous Todd said...

It's odd that you posted about Farber today because I was planning to work him into a tentative (because I haven't seen a lot of the work) discussion of Jacques Rivette, who I think is an exemplary termite. I've posted a little bit about Paris Nous Appartient this evening, and I plan to follow it up with a post about Noroit, in which I compare that really odd film to Suzuki's Princess Racoon (termite)

June 05, 2006 11:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you.
Love this discussion. Great reading.

June 06, 2006 12:30 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

.:~ Off-point ~:.

Squeezing out the Net for Farber's pieces ('by' and 'on'), since Girish's post was my introduction to him, I came across a comparison between him and Lester Bangs (it was here, I believe, that somebody pointed to Franklin Bruno's article in 'The Believer'). And then on, 'one thing leads to another' (heh), I came across this quote by Bangs in 'The Village Voice' (, which made my day and makes me smile still:

"Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately."


June 06, 2006 2:31 AM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Jonathan Rosenbaum on Farber (from Lopate's American Movie Critics: "You can't always be sure whether he's praising or ridiculing the subject before him. Maybe he's doing both."

I can't think of a better description of Farber's criticism, or a higher complement. What I like best is the way he seems to be working his way through a film even as he writes, sorting out what he likes from what he doesn't and deciding what it's all worth.

I've only recently "discovered" Farber, so that's all I'll say for now. Zach is right and I have quite a bit of "reading (and re-reading)" ahead of me still...

Great post, Girish, and an interesting discussion!

June 06, 2006 9:22 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Filmbrain, I think that the form of Farber's contentions has a lot to do with his tradition of no-holds-barred highbrow/tough-talk criticism--in a few big ways he's like a Clement Greenberg of film criticism, and so when you ask, 'Who is he to make such determinations,' well, he's a critic! Of course he's open to criticism himself: what I think should be preserved is not Farber's pedastal but the complexity of his writing. (I'm not claiming you're attacking the latter, by the way.) And I think that for Farber, good criticism isn't necessarily about accomodating a variety of styles and aesthetics but rather about producing a lot of thought & energy through the meeting of a fairly limited personal aesthetic to a handful of cinematic arenas (which is why Farber tended to write about only a handful of 'types' of films--Hollywood A films and B-action films, avant-garde/structuralist cinema, certain 1960s and '70s European art filmmakers). It's definitely not my way, we can consider all the limitations, but for me these limitations do nothing to cut short the productive thought that comes from MF's critical confronations.

Although I'm trying to defend him and his writing in the context of this thread, I don't think he's unassailable or perfect: there are plenty of things to take issue with. But the concept of 'white elephant' versus 'termite' is a good bit of soundbite criticism but also one that necessarily and unfortunately crumbles into a weird and alien orthodoxy the moment it's taken from the substance of his writing. The best defense or criticism of his work has to take its copiousness, its multi-faceted nature, into account. When I'm home and next to my copy of Negative Space I'll try to do precisely this (if the discussion is still on).

June 06, 2006 9:43 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Also, since Girish's place is the cinephile bulletin board, I'd like to direct everyone's attention to a good blog with a few worthy current posts--Kinoslang.

June 06, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, everyone. And thanks, Zach, for your ever-lucid comments. And for posting the link.

"When I'm home and next to my copy of Negative Space I'll try to do precisely this (if the discussion is still on)."

I might take you up on your offer and ask you a couple of Farber-related questions, spurred by my Negative Space-reading.
(It might be good practice for when your students start lobbing you questions in class in a few years.) :-)

June 06, 2006 10:20 AM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Since someone else has brought up Suzuki Seijun, I would like to bring up the question as it whether a filmmaker can evolve from one Farber catagory to another. Although Todd asserts that PRINCESS RACCOON is termite art, I think someone could make a strong argument that Suzuki during his tenure at Nikkatsu Studios was 100% a termite artist, but once he moved on to the TAISHO TRILOGY, PISTOL OPERA, and his latest film, his movies have shifted to the catagory of white elephant. I don't agree with Farber's catagorizations in general, nor do I dismiss Suzuki's later films on this basis, but I think the evolution of the filmmaker and his level of control over his productions could be seen under Farber's rubric as a similar evolution from termite to elephant artist.

June 06, 2006 4:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Zach ~

I had a couple of questions for you, if you felt like sharing your thoughts.

(1) From the white elephant art/termite art essay:

"Antonioni's specialty, the effect of moving as in a chess game, becomes an autocratic kind of direction that robs an actor of his motive powers and most of his spine. A documentarist at heart and one who often suggests both Paul Klee and a cool, deftly neat, “intellectual” Fred Zinnemann in his early Act Of Violence phase, he gets his odd, clarity-is-all effects from his taste for chic mannerist art that results in a screen that is glassy, has a side-sliding motion, the feeling of people plastered against stripes or divided by vertical and horizontals; his incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves, lovers into lonely appendages hanging stiffly from each other, occasionally coming together like clanking sheets of metal but seldom giving the effect of being in communion."

But isn't the alienation resulting from modernity, and humans' incapacity for meaningful relationships, one of Antonioni's points? Which also thus dictates his mise-en-scene? Or does Farber think it too obviously the point? That this message is scrawled too overtly on every frame of Antonioni's films? Thus resulting in a work that strains to be ART....Is that Farber's take on it?

And I wonder what you meant by Farber's not being "correct" about reading and classifying Antonioni?

(2) You said: "I think that his writing makes clear that he was not ever against art or Art..."

I wonder if these lines betrays a certain strong sympathy for the anti-art sentiment:

From "Underground Films" (1957)":

"The saddest thing in current films is watching the long-neglected action directors fade away as the less talented De Sicas and Zinnemanns continue to fascinate the critics. Because they played an anti-art role in Hollywood, the true masters of the male action film -- such soldier-cowboy-gangster directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Keighley, the early, pre-Stagecoach John Ford, Anthony Mann – have turned out a huge amount of unprized, second-gear celluloid."


"In terms of imaginative photography, honest acting, and insight into American life, there is no comparison between an average underground triumph (Phenix City Story) and the trivia that causes of critical salaam across the land. Trouble is that no one asks the critics' alliance to look straight backward at its “choices,” for example, a horse-drawn truckload of liberals schmaltz called The Best Years Of Our Lives. These ridiculously maltreated films sustain their place in the halls of fame simply because they bear the label of ART in every inch of their reelage. Praising these solemn goiters has produced a climate in which the underground picture-maker with his modest entry and soft-shoe approach, can barely survive."

(3) You wrote above: "I would say that e.g. Godard and Fassbinder are not white elephants because they are in control of their films and present visions, but because their films & visions have a certain risk to them, a drive to push away from clear and easy social/psychological portraiture and safe narrative/formal conventions (according to Farber as I read him)."

Wait: did you mean that Godard and Fassbinder are white elephants or they aren't? It reads like the former...

And I'd be curious to hear your take on Suzuki, as well.

I want to thank you, Zach, for taking the time. You're a valuable resource and we want to use you as such. :-)

June 06, 2006 6:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Apologies for the typo or two above: it's the darned speech-recognition software I use...

June 06, 2006 6:04 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

And now I wonder what all of our voices must sound like....

June 06, 2006 6:50 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Girish, I'll try to answer your questions as best as I am able to do from my POV of Farber's aesthetic sense and value judgments!

In "Underground Films" (1957), Farber imparts what I think is an important part of his taste when he writes, "The tragedy of these film-makers [i.e., the true masters of the male action film] lies in their having been consigned to a Sargasso Sea of unmentioned talent by film reviewers whose sole concern is not continuous flow of quality but the momentary novelties of the particular film they are reviewing." So, for one thing, Farber as a critic seems more interested in covering 'the movies' (or 'the cinema') more than specific films. So while he was a great writer when it came to analyzing a particular film or the style of an actor or director, his overall interest, I think, resides in the bunched-up comparison of lots of what's out there, and that's why he wants to make these sharp and strong value judgments--his criticism is (among many other things) a big machine for separating the wheat from the chaff. As I said before, it's not my style, but neither need it be the 'take it or leave it' entryway to Farber's work.

For instance, what he champions in classical Hollywood cinema ('underground' films, unheralded films, 'termite art') is art but resoundingly not "the obvious in art" (p. 15 in Negative Space)--he doesn't like those films that "bear the label of ART in every inch of their reelage." I'm pretty sure it's not the art, or the idea of Art, that bothers him: it's the semiotic presentation of such Artistry (or pretensions of Artistry) as the manifestation of an industry getting fairly self-important by the 1950s. "The sharpest work of the last thirty years [implication is in American art] is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists "(p. 15).

It's easier to see this dichotomy at work with Hollywood alone, and with European art filmmakers like Antonioni I'm less sure of myself. In the second paragraph of "White Elephant Art..." Farber implies that he's disenchanted with "this burnt-out notion of a masterpiece," and furthermore a tendency to "overfamiliarize" (p. 139-140) the audience with a situation, blowing up all meaning (so that it's spread thin, I suppose?). So I guess I'd suggest what he's reacting against is the strain towards art. The 'art' (according to me reading Farber!) should come right after the fact of experience, it should come from the sudden jolt of an actor's manner or the . With Antonioni, one is immediately aware of the weight of his kino-eye, pressing and perhaps even making more connections for a viewer than a viewer can make for herself (though this last is debatable!). So I guess I can't say that Farber's actually 'wrong' about Antonioni since he is the one defining the boundaries of these two categories--but I suppose I would say that the experience of Antonioni, even if artistic, has enough of a ring of unfamiliarity and genuine, unsettling, too-fast elision to it to be (if not termitish) not white elephant art.

This is long-winded so let me end this part here and return with a comment for questions 2 & 3.

June 06, 2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I think I addressed the gist of #2 a bit above, in that I'm pretty convinced that Farber isn't ever against art (as he championed some of the most demanding of it in cinema!). The issue isn't with art, but the rhetoric or posturing of its presentation within the filmic apparatus. A filmmaker can make Art (and surely Fassbinder, Godard, and Snow were doing just this) but I think it comes down to how a filmmaker addresses a viewer through form & tone, through acting styles and dialogue if there are any. He didn't like Antonioni (or liked him enough to be disappointed in his work overall), and if you're a fan of Antonioni that's Farber's loss, but his descriptions of Antonioni (stripped of their value judgments) seem pretty fascinating to me.

As for #3, sorry for being so unclear in my writing--when I reread it after posting I cringed a little! What I was TRYING to say (and this links to my paragraph above) is that while (e.g.) Godard and Fassbinder are artists with discernible visions and intentions, this does not mean they (or anyone) is a white elephant artist--it is that "their films & visions have a certain risk to them, a drive to push away from clear and easy social/psychological portraiture and safe narrative/formal conventions" (to repeat my own phrasing) which makes them termite artists.

As for Seijun Suzuki, I have no idea what Farber would make of him--or of any number of filmmakers outside of his cultural radar. In Japan at this time, a lot of these films combined a certain freewheeling termitishness with pointed social statements not entirely dissimilar from the Official Art that Farber assaulted--much like Sam Fuller's work, actually. (This is also why I argued that 'termite' and 'white elephant' should not be taken as two categories into which just any old film/filmmaker can fit.) If I were drunk and prodded to lay money down on what Farber would label Suzuki, I'd say 'termite.' Personally I'd be inclined to say Suzuki is more termitish, because with him the experience is always accessible, the 'meanings' usually withheld or obscured, the significance (and cultural capital) of all which usually done away with entirely ... which, come to think of it, is a good way of describing a lot of termite art of any kind.

Is this more helpful? (Chances are someone who knows Manny Farber could print this out, show it to him, and he'd wave his hand in disgust and mutter something about the kids these days not knowing anything about art or criticism.)

June 06, 2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach, you're a little marvel of insight. You've clarified many of my half-comprehended ideas and given me new brainfood besides.
Thanks for taking the time--very generous of you.
Seriously: we should do this Q&A thing more often. I'm confident that a lot of people would read and benefit from your knowledge and ideas.
I hope you're cutting and pasting all your comments and web writings as part of the notes for your first book!

June 06, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"And now I wonder what all of our voices must sound like...."
Hey, Tuwa ~ I use speech recognition software because I can't type sizable chunks of text (tendonitis). I dictate it into the software but it makes lots of mistakes. Especially with Farber's dense-and-twisted-word passages.

June 06, 2006 8:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great piece by Hoberman on Antonioni in the Voice.

June 06, 2006 9:14 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

You know, you'd mentioned that before in relation to drawing. Somehow I didn't connect this comment to that one, so I'd thought maybe you were using text-to-speech browsers also.

For my next trick, I will misread See Spot Run.

June 06, 2006 9:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Naw, you didn't misread. I just haven't mentioned it in a while.

June 06, 2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I'll second Peter's kudos to Hark's The Chinese Feast--makes Stephen Chow's God of Cookery look inept in comparison.

Wonderful discussion on Farber, not the least Zach's comments on him. I haven't read much--Underground Films comes to mind--and I don't agree with everything he writes (Shoot the Piano Player afraid "of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film"? Ikiru an example of "buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim" (Watanabe's character sure, but Kurosawa in this and almost all his subsequent films was striving for some kind of white elephant statment)? De Sica in the same sentence as Zinneman?) but I do love his prose. Occurs to me that he's a lot like the bible--dense and open to interpretations, reinterpretations and misinterpretations, to the point that you'll never be finished talking about him. Probably what he intended, too.

June 06, 2006 11:20 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Zach and Girish -- what a fascinating discussion between the two of you; and if it's okay, I'd like to add a little something to the conversation. I think, Zach, that you really illuminate Farber's issues with Antonioni and white elephant art. I don't know Farber as well as you do, but from what I've read by him, I think your analysis is spot on, particularly when you talk about Farber's deep concern with the rhetoric of filmmaking. I think that's where much of his focus really lies.

I'd like to take issue with this particular statement that Girish quoted: "his incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves, lovers into lonely appendages hanging stiffly from each other, occasionally coming together like clanking sheets of metal but seldom giving the effect of being in communion." I think this shows where Farber is wrong about Antonioni. For one, in this statement, Farber is really just describing what Antonioni does (and he's describing it beautifully, by the way) -- but, for me, it doesn't go beyond mere description. When he says that Antonioni's lovers clank like sheets of metal but rarely give the effect of being in communion, I'd say: he's right, and that's the entire point of Antonioni's great work. But there's nothing implicit within the statement itself that "proves" or illustrates why this is a defect. Is Farber saying an Antonioni film lacks pathos? Or is he saying that Antonioni's rhetoric of filmmaking makes pathos more elusive? If it's the latter, then I would say the same thing Sontag said in defending Godard: we'd be criticizing Antonioni for doing something he's not interested in doing.

Ultimately, though, I think it's the first part of the sentence that bothers me the most. Farber says that "his incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves." But I don't think Antonioni has an incapacity with interpersonal relationships; in fact, I think the very "text" of his films display a very rich understanding of interpersonal relationships, which is why, in my view, Antonioni's early 60s work is so powerful -- powerful to the level of being nightmarish. This is important because, in the end, we always have to go back to the film itself, back to what it is; and when I go back to something like La Notte, I realize that I don't know if I've seen a more nuanced portrayal (outside of Godard's Contempt) of the dissolution of a marriage. I'm not quite sure how Farber could view the film's closing sequence and conclude that Antonioni was incapable of understanding interpersonal relationships.

I suppose that Farber might say, "Antonioni does understand relationships; the problem is that he presents them in a way that makes them seem incapacitated or impossible" -- but then that's an issue about Antonioni's world view and not one about his cinematic technique, unless we say that form and content are impossible to separate.

At any rate, those are some of my thoughts. Farber certainly gets me to thinking, and that's one of the true signs of a great critic.

June 06, 2006 11:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel & Peter ~ "Chinese Feast" arrives from Netflix today. (I had never heard of it until Peter mentioned it.) Thanks, guys.

Michael ~ Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you!

"When he says that Antonioni's lovers clank like sheets of metal but rarely give the effect of being in communion, I'd say: he's right, and that's the entire point of Antonioni's great work. "

I might've mentioned some of this in my question/comment to Zach (and this is just *my* reading of Farber) but the reason Farber might take issue with Antonioni is exactly because he feels that the *point* of Antonioni's work speaks so loudly (and obviously) that it squelches other (unpredictable possibilities and/or contradictions) in favor of a monolithic "point" about the incapacity of human relationships. (I don't agree with this, but I can see where he's coming from!). And Antonioni's "form" finds an equivalent to this content, emphasizing, buttressing and underlining it. All to serve the grand objective of making a great and monumental "art statement" about modern life and alienation and the impossibility of relationships. (That might be what Farber is saying.)

But, like Zach, I don't think that's the case. I find Antonioni richer (and less monolithic) and much more surprising and unpredictable and ambiguous than that.

Zach puts it (brilliantly): "One is immediately aware of the weight of [Antonioni's] kino-eye, pressing and perhaps even making more connections for a viewer than a viewer can make for herself (though this last is debatable!)."

Zach ~ You started a cool sentence that got accidentally cut off:
"The 'art' (according to me reading Farber!) should come right after the fact of experience, it should come from the sudden jolt of an actor's manner or the..."

Perhaps you could (1) complete it and (2) amplify the phrase "right after the fact of experience" a little bit? I sense your meaning (it's an awesome phrase--very evocative and precise) but I'd like to hear you elucidate it a little bit if you feel inclined to.

June 07, 2006 8:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, and here's a general comment I've been meaning to make:

The reason I started this post with the long paragraph about my personal response to Farber is because, initially, his (plentiful) value judgments turned me off his writing.

BUT, the key to appreciating Farber (just my two cents here) is to not take those value judgments personally, and instead look past them to the unbelievably fertile field of ideas, energy, passion, humor and poetry in Farber. Otherwise, we're throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

June 07, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I know it was linked to earlier, but let me do it again:
An article in the Believer magazine on Farber.

June 07, 2006 8:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

More Farber reading:

--Great Noel King article on Farber in Framework.

--In the Austin Chronicle.

--Road to Perdition as white elephant art.

--At Silliman's blog, applied to the poetry of Ted Berrigan.

--Mystic River as white elephant art.

Bon appetit.

June 07, 2006 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, thanks for your thoughts. I think your reading of Farber's exception to Antonioni is correct, and I think it's very interesting how we see Antonioni in a completely different way than Farber did. You're absolutely right -- Antonioni is not a monolithic filmmaker, and while not as spontaneous as some "termite" directors, Antonioni could be very surprising and unpredictable, as you say; I find that there's great rhythmic variation in his films, both in an emotional and a narrative sense.

I think the problem is that Farber doesn't seem to always meet the burden of proof (at least for me). I like this statement that you made: "All to serve the grand objective of making a great and monumental 'art statement' about modern life and alienation and the impossibility of relationships." That is Farber's issue, and where I disagree with him is that I don't see this kind of ambition as inherently and necessarily problematic; I don't think that was what Antonioni was really after (though we couldn't really know for sure either way); and I don't feel that Farber fully shows how it's a problem. I think much of the joy of reading Farber comes from the fact that he doesn't not follow the "rules", so to speak, of analysis, but this also contributes to the pain of reading Farber as well. :)

Finally, I love what you say about not taking Farber personally. I haven't read the white elephant/termite essay in a while, but if I recall correctly, I think there's a point where he really goes after Truffaut. At first, I really disliked Farber for it, but then I told myself to take a step back and look at the essay, to use your phrase, as a source of fertile ideas, passion, and humor. I might still take issue with him, but his work is incredibly worthwhile and important.

June 07, 2006 1:07 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

(Apologies for the double negative. When I wrote "that he doesn't not follow the rules", I meant "that he doesn't follow the rules.")

June 07, 2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, Michael!
'Twas fun to read your thoughts; and I concur.

June 07, 2006 7:29 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree that Girish's home is the best cinephile board around! And thanks to Zach for the articulation of a sound defense.
Of course we'd do Farber justice if we all had read his entire bibliography, but it sounds like a cope out (no offense intended) to discredit our spontaneous reaction to this essay because we don't know the man. Unless these partial quotes really betray the general intent of his essay, any first-time reader should be able to understand his point. And I believe his point is clear.

Noel : "Occurs to me that he's a lot like the bible--dense and open to interpretations, reinterpretations and misinterpretations, to the point that you'll never be finished talking about him. Probably what he intended, too."

I'm not sure misunderstanding should be the major trait of a critic. Maybe he should write fiction... ;)

If Rosenbaum says he cannot tell when Farber is positive or negative, either he's too esoteric for mortal humans, or he's a hollow rhetorician playing on confusion to sound more intelligent. And I'd put him in the White Elephant bag for that matter. ;)

To keep the debate going I'd like to ask a few more questions:

Zach : "his criticism is a big machine for separating the wheat from the chaff"
To seperate Laurel & Hardy from Antonioni?

Zach : "Farber as a critic seems more interested in covering 'the movies' (or 'the cinema') more than specific films."
Don't you think it's rather pretentious a posture if he only claims a "handful of cinematic arenas" as his playground?

Zach : "his descriptions of Antonioni (stripped of their value judgments) seem pretty fascinating to me."

I agree with Girish and Michael, Farber seems to ignore the characteristics of Modernism. His description of Antonioni's mise-en-scène is the typical anti-Art film bickering, a superficial misrepresentation that doesn't dig deep enough to understand WHY the surface appears rigid.

I have hard time taking seriously someone saying John Wayne's hipster gaze has more art than Monica Vitti's icy restraint. We clearly don't value the same achievements in acting performances...

Attacking mannerism (self-important filmmakers repeating themselves, desperate for prizes, showing off artistry) is the job of a critic indeed, but can get slipery if used as a throwaway judgement to dismiss what he doesn't understand/like (Modernism, understatement, contemplation, aesthetic cinematography).

Zach (about Fassbinder and Godard) : "their films & visions have a certain risk to them, a drive to push away from clear and easy social/psychological portraiture and safe narrative/formal conventions which makes them termite artists"

Do you suggest that Antonioni's films disprove this definition? Are you saying Godard's cinema is free of show off, artistry, ambition, all over patterns, self-awareness, prizeworthy creativity in every single frame?

Zach : "It's easier to see this dichotomy at work with Hollywood alone"
Who were the White Elephants in Hollywood back then?

June 07, 2006 7:56 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Don't you think it's rather pretentious a posture if he only claims a "handful of cinematic arenas" as his playground?

Well, no, I didn't. I could consider it modest, or a realistic appraisal of his circle of knowledge, or dismissive and arrogant, but I was leaning towards one of the first two. But, then, I'm just a first-time reader who did not understand his point.

June 07, 2006 8:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi Harry--Actually, I don't think it's a cop-out at all.

Think of the soundbites I've provided you as clips, the essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art as a film, and the book Negative Space as Farber's oeuvre.

I don't think it would be a good idea for someone to make their mind up about Farber's worth simply from these clips--you need to at least the see the whole film, if not part of the oeuvre, in order to make an informed judgment. (Of course, you may still not like him after that, but at least it would be a judgment made after investing care and effort.) This is especially true given the complexity of his work.

I'm not speaking for Zach (he doesn't need me to do that!) but I do not believe he was trying to discredit anyone's response at all. He was sharing some insights acquired from considerable study of Farber's work. (And I'm glad he did, because I for one found them very valuable!).

Oh, by the way, I should mention: My intention in doing this post was not to "convince" anyone of anything. Instead, it was to (just maybe, just perhaps) incite a little spark of curiosity about Farber so that you might want to check out and read his writings for yourself.

June 07, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Harry Tuttle: "I'm not sure misunderstanding should be the major trait of a critic. Maybe he should write fiction... ;)"

Not for any or every critic, but Farber tends to demand a little leeway.

"I'd put him in the White Elephant bag for that matter. ;)"

Which is an interesting position too--a White Elephant critic championing termite art (and to this day I'm still not sure we understand what Farber definitively means by termite or elephant art, or if he even has a consistent, coherent definition). Is he a White Elephant? I'll leave it to Zach to argue for or against that assertion.

girish--Chow is a good comedian but I can't quite say he's a great comic Chinese filmmaker. Leave that to Hark, and the Liu Chia Liang who did the Drunken Master movies.

June 07, 2006 10:15 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Awesome awesome discussion that's packed with so much that I expect to come back to it over and over. Fascinated by the link Brad pointed to, as Otis Ferguson is, if not quite as dense with new ways of seeing as Farber (I love Noel's likening of his writing to the Bible), pretty amazing and one of my favorite critics to read.

Interesting to see discussion of the spheres Farber limited himself to in his writing, and speculation about what he might have thought of Asian films and filmmakers he never wrote about. When he was awarded by the SF Film Festival in 2003 the film he picked to screen after his on-stage interview was Hou's Goodbye South, Goodbye. He didn't say why he chose it though.

June 08, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Since it's Manny Farber Week here at the blog, I don't feel bad about dropping another bunch of fun links in your lap. Here goes:

--GreenCine post from 2004.

--Movie Critics page at

--I happened to catch a Farber documentary by Chris Petit at the Toronto film fest in 1999. Here's a write-up.

--Edward Crouse interview.

--By my pal Doug Cummings.

--Farber's article Carbonated Dyspepsia in its entirety.

--On Farber's painting.

--On the same in Artforum.

--Found along the way: conversation betweeen Rosenbaum, Durgnat and Ehrenstein.


June 08, 2006 7:13 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Girish, you're way too kind. Harry, as usual you know how to keep my feet held to the fire! Let me try to answer these --

1) Yes, Farber is trying to separate the likes of Antonioni from the likes of Laurel & Hardy. I don't know that he's saying, exactly, that L&H are "better" or "greater" than Antonioni--what I think he's saying is that L&H manifest a tendency (in their unassuming lowbrow way) that Farber values in art, whereas this tendency in Antonioni is overwhelmed by, I guess, 'artistic strain' or maybe 'self-importance.' I don't know for sure.

2) I don't think Farber is pretentious at all about sticking to certain areas. If anything he's quite literally the opposite: he's upfront. He'd be pretentious if he proclaimed to like all modes of cinema ("as long as the films are good") but really only liked a few, or if he enjoyed all modes but only ever praised a few.

3) About modernism and mannerism I don't know what to say, exactly. As I've expressed, I don't think Farber does a great job of reading Antonioni in this case, so I can't easily defend his dismissal beyond saying that he's calling them as he sees them, and he's trying to promote certain art qualities while demoting others.

4) I would say that Farber would say that Antonioni's cinema doesn't do what, e.g., Godard's does. This doesn't mean "every frame" of Godard's cinema is bursting with possibility--the process of "pedastalization" is something that I think is endemic to a white elephant mentality more than a termite one. Farber's art heroes aren't people whose every frame, whose every movement, are golden, or even meant to be worthy--that's part of his point.

5) As for the white elephant artists and films of Old Hollywood, probably anything with a palpable sense of literary pedigree or overt psychologism, and probably most Oscar-winning films. I'm guessing that Farber would have no trouble labelling the majority of work of George Stevens, Fred Zinneman, Cecil B. DeMille, Otto Preminger, William Wyler, maybe even a lot of post-WWII John Ford (recall that les Cahiers didn't like Ford at first either) as white elephant art. Throughout Negative Space you get a sense of whom he finds overwrought, bloated, flat-footed, strained. I don't have the book on me, again, at this time.

June 08, 2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry ~ Just to share a personal observation:

I grew up with Laurel & Hardy movies (they were, in my childhood in India, at least as popular as Chaplin movies), and I really value and admire many things about these movies: their vitality & earthiness, their eagerness to be (occasionally) madly inventive without being self-regarding or "precious" about their ingenuity (in terms of self-conscious composition, cutting, etc), and their lack of need to be constantly, uproariously funny all the time (in other words, their casual embracing of "wastefulness").

The point is: They weren't afraid to be any of these things. Thus Farber's crucial use of the word "fear" that Filmbrain and Dipanjan alluded to. (The implication being that High Art might often be afraid to embrace many of these qualities for fear of looking & appearing "low").

I think having affection for so-called Low Art helps when it comes to appreciating Farber.

June 08, 2006 10:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sorry, off-topic, but I had to share this:
My Internet connection has been like f***ing molasses the last few weeks.
I just secured my wireless network at home after spending a half-hour with tech support on the phone yesterday and I can't believe how lightning-fast it is now.
When I was staying at the B&B in NYC over spring break, I piggybacked on other people's wi-fi because my B&B didn't have any, and now I know how it feels to be on the other side. (I shell out an exorbitant sixty bucks a month for broadband.)

June 08, 2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy Horbal conducts a film critic-related scientific experiment.

June 08, 2006 3:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

La sirène voit un film à Paris.

June 08, 2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Like I said before, I'm not judging Farber, but the author who wrote this essay. I won't dispute Zach's authority on Farber at all, I take everything he says for granted. The broader insight Zach gives us helps to contextualize The Elephant/Termite theory. So I didn't mean to make it sound like I kept your feet to the fire Zach, it was Farber's. You're Farber's priviledged advocate here but I know you don't have to be responsible for everything he said. It's not your reasoning I'm challenging, but Farber's consistancy in this specific case studied here.
I didn't mean to stalk on you either with the quotes all attributed to you in my last post, it was for easy reference in this long discussion, so I don't have to repeat where it comes form. Anybody is welcomed to reply.

The limited domain of expertise Farber assigns himself is alright, specialist have better judgements. I was only arguing the legitimacy to draw global conclusions on what should be "cinema art" in general (such as in this Elephant/Termite theory) when he focuses on a slim aspect of it anyway.

I'm disturbed by his conception of "art" in cinema. If I follow his argument, I feel reactionary to prefer White Elephants. He supposes a break in Cinema History, when lavish aesthetics and psychology are outdated. Like at the turn of Modern Art that rejected academic figuratism. Although the aspects he seeks to promote in lowbrow movies isn't revolutionary in art at all... His theory doesn't really define a new area for cinema art (like Abstraction, or Contemporean Art did). He's just tired of intellectual filmmakers who put too much in their films. A choice I respect though.

If Cecil B. DeMille is the White Elephant and Cassavetes is the Termite, then I can see his point

I can't figure any kind of unity among his contenders for each category. Even his definition doesn't help. Why would one want to discriminate filmmakers based on their work method as a general rule? Mess, freestyle, spontaneity opposed to rigor, preparation, complexity? At the very least this requirement could be understandable if the the subject of a given film was better treated one way or the other.

This puts into question the tendency of critics to shape up film theory to suit their taste, instead of being there to see the emergence of new movements coming from the artists themselves...

Laurel & Hardy are fine, but they just come off a bit short in the middle of a controversy on Cinema Art. We couldn't use them to justify the riddance of Elephants...

I'll try to check all the links on Farber and the read the essay in Negative Space. So if there is another essay more representative of his theory tell me which one I should read along.

Actually, it's not contradictory in itself if Farber is a literary White Elephant, as cinema and criticism are different media that might requires different ways. It's just ironic I guess.

June 08, 2006 10:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Laurel & Hardy are fine, but they just come off a bit short in the middle of a controversy on Cinema Art."

This is the classic white-elephant mentality in viewing Art (see Zach's #4 above).
That's fine. :-)

Hey Harry, I notice you've been seeing the Cannes films, like the new Lisandro Alonso and the Bucharest film. I hope you will be able to help us select films when we make our Toronto choices in a couple of months. I'm still kicking myself for having missed Battle in Heaven after you plugged it so strongly last year. (I just got it on DVD, haven't watched it yet.) I liked your picks last year; they were solidly reliable.

June 09, 2006 7:02 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I didn't want to sound elitist (Although I wouldn't mind if that's the White Elephant side), but Farber seems to say Art is no longer in beauty, technique, mastery, depth, psychology. However it's chance, clumsiness, improvisation, roughness, unsignificance, rudeness that define Good Art... but Ed Wood (termite icon?) doesn't come close to Jackson Pollock (termite of Painting art?) in anti-sophistication.
Call me rigid-minded, I don't understand this full reversal of artistic values.

Thanks for the good words Girish.
I'd like to review Battle in Heaven (still playing in theatre here, I need a revisit before). I'm looking forward to your opinion.
I'll have a few more Cannes films to watch until july, and maybe time to write on them too.

Speaking of Paris, check out the amazing collection of auteurs gathers at this repertoire theatre! They always show great films and lots, but the diversity is unbelievable this week. The screen is small though.

June 09, 2006 11:39 AM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

Great discussion. Thanks all. I reserved Negative Space at our local public library. I will be curious about Farber's thoughts on Buñuel.

June 09, 2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, I don't know if you've seen this before, but it came up in a Metafilter thread and so I went to watch it again and remembered how much I like it: Werner Herzog eats his shoe.

June 09, 2006 7:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I can now see why you have no need for a DVD player--It must be a painful task for you to make decisions about all the films you don't have time to see.

Thanks, Dipanjan and Tuwa.
Tuwa, I've been wanting to see this for years...Thanks for the tip!

June 09, 2006 7:31 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Harry: "Actually, it's not contradictory in itself if Farber is a literary White Elephant, as cinema and criticism are different media that might requires different ways. It's just ironic I guess."

I don't disagree with you; I find the possibility interesting.

Actually, I'd love to hear what resident Farber expert Zach has to say about that idea.

June 10, 2006 1:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You know, it's almost kinda unfair in life when you're gifted enough to be able to do two things really well: play music AND write.
A couple of great posts at concert pianist Jeremy Denk's blog:
--A funny anecdote.
--On playing Mozart.

June 10, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Haven't linked to Overheard Lines in a while.

June 10, 2006 8:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Noel Vera on Cars.

--Steve Carlson on Syberberg's Hitler.

June 11, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Finally looked up Negative Space at the library (french version though) to skim through it and read the full essay. And figured something important, Farber is an "actor's movie" lover. That explains a lot and settles the clash with auteurism. The "termite artist" he talks about is in fact the "performer".

He complains about long takes without actors in La Notte (the helicopter views), or the running scenes in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner that doesn't leave much possibility to "act" to the actor.
Also I noted he accused La Notte of overt aesthetized compositions that killed emotions conveyed by Vitti (?) while he praises Godard for his De Stijl-inspired abstract compositions of Stars & Stripes clothed actors cut out against a flat white background (!).
His critique of Jules & Jim comes down to "why is the woman evil?", "why the camera jumps?", "why the gun?", "why she drives off the pier?"...

Actually I was surprised by his (quite erudite, yet slanted) introduction on painting history, although it only serves to justify his film theory.
Funny to see Robert Walsh (who wrote the introduction of his book) mentionned Pollock (I didn't know he was his friend) like I did above. :)

He seems to be good at pointing to plausibility issues, plotholes, clichés, gimmicks, sentimentalism, discontinuities, social/spatial analysis. He makes interesting observations but never quite explain how he formed his judgement and why it should be perceived negatively...
His concept of "movie as a collective work" is interesting but the idea of an actor or cinematographer "stealing a scene" isn't enough to discard auteurism altogether...
The full essay look more coherent, but still I can't help but think his exclusive focus on body language and physicality is a superficial compromission, because his judgement intentionally ignores mise-en-scène, screenwriting, camerawork, psychology, style, editing, pace, meaning... I mean how much can you ignore and still produce a comprehensive critique?

His perspective is confined to a niche of cinema aspects. So it becomes obvious why he pans films that do not rely on acting performances... He assumes that cinema developping without actors is bad art, and that's where we disagree. He doesn't analyze Cinema as a whole visual language, but as a mundane/realist performances. consequently termite art is an underachieved art, a subset of Cinema.

June 11, 2006 2:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the perceptive comments, Harry.
Glad you had a chance to read it first-hand. You are a committed cinephile!

Just a couple of points, IMO:

--Yes, Farber is very sensitive to actors and performances and bodies, but I don't think that's all he's about. As you may know, he gave up film criticism altogether in the late 70s to become a full-time painter. He is very aware of cinema as a visual art. Some of his best-known work is about nearly "actor-less" (at least in the conventional sense) avant-garde cinema like Michael Snow or Ernie Gehr. (Related: You should read his essay on Akerman's Jeanne Dielman--I think you'd like it.)

--Farber is a bit different from your usual film critic because he approaches film criticism as an artist himself. He is sort of an artist-critic. Thus, he confounds our reflexive demand for "burden of proof."
e.g. Look at the dozens of assertions and epigrams and generalizations Godard tosses off in his films--we don't ask him for a proof for every single one, do we? We don't quite apply the same demands of "burden of proof" to a work of art as we do to a work of criticism, and yet if you think about it, the two activities are not mutually exclusive.
Art can also be criticism (or vice versa for that matter). Godard's Histoire(s) De Cinema could be considered as much a work of film criticism as a work of art.

--"He makes interesting observations but never quite explain how he formed his judgement and why it should be perceived negatively..."

In fact, as Andy pointed out earlier, quoting Rosenbaum, one is often not sure if he is praising or ridiculing something (or doing both). Some of his comments may sound negative at first glance but in fact aren't if you re-read them carefully. (Actually, Farber, more than any film critic I've ever read, demands re-reading.)

June 11, 2006 3:07 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

David Ehrenstein goes so far as to say you need to appreciate Farber's paintings to appreciate his critical writing on film. Take that how you will; I don't know if it's an absurd claim, or an overly demanding one--I've never seen any of his paintings.

Thanks to the link to my thoughts on Cars, girish.

June 12, 2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, you're most welcome, Noel.

A couple of links:

--Filmbrain on Jesus Christ movies.

--Michael on Cate Blanchett and "Little Fish."

--David on "The Road To Guantanamo."

Back with a post this afternoon.

June 12, 2006 7:57 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Burt Bacharach has his first blog at .

June 12, 2006 8:22 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Man, do these words sound weird coming out of Burt Bacharach's mouth:
"I put this over a Dr. Dre drum loop," or
"Nobody has ever sung fucked like Elvis Costello."

June 12, 2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

What can I say? It's Reason No. 79 that Burt rules! Although, I must say, I thought that album was pretty much a dud, lyrically. He's no Hal David. Hey, Girish, did you hear that Sweet's GIRLFRIEND has been reissued with extra tracks, etc?

June 12, 2006 10:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

TLRHB ~ Haven't heard that Bacharach record, but here's Robert Christgau ripping into it (scroll down). Hilarious.

Thanks for the tip on GIRLFRIEND. Had no idea!

June 12, 2006 11:45 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Farber's firsthand artist experience should make him more sensitive to the pictural value of a frame and also make him aware that Cinema defines its own piturality therefore cannot transpose his conception of Painting Arts to movies. He seems to expect filmmakers to share his worldview and produce movies that would respond to his painter concerns. David Lynch is originaly an abstract painter and his cinema doesn't reject picturality.

I admit I'm curious to read how his critical approach confronts with Avant Garde. It sounds antinomic.
As I didn't see Jeanne Dielman yet I couldn't figure whether he was pertinent, although the few I've read sounded ambiguous, bickering about details.

I don't like to keep critics and filmmakers at the same level assuming they somehow do the same job. And I'd disagree with your vice-versa...
Godard is a film artist, so he's entitled to impose and project his vision onto the world. The artist is the ongoing genesis itself. The critic looks from outside and with hindsights. The burden of proof isn't on the artist. Farber isn't a film artist.

His considerations on haircuts and set space are interesting, but it sounds so terribly pragmatic, empirical. Thus he seems to systematicaly ignore/overlook the offscreen/non-diegetic content and the implied subtext and theory implied by the sophistication of style.
This might explain why he failed Modernism. Ironically, and in reference to your post on Bresson, Modernism would be a perfect example to illustrate the idea of a "negative space", the bulk of content coming from what isn't observable on screen, what is left out, substracted, frustrated, withheld... In french we say "portrait en creux" (description of the hollow void after carving) to speak of the absence to evoke the counterpart presence.

All this just IMHO of course. In no way do I pose myself above Farber. It's healthy to question our accessibility to great critics theories. ;)

Thanks everyone for another great discussion!

June 14, 2006 3:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Harry.

"In french we say "portrait en creux" (description of the hollow void after carving) to speak of the absence to evoke the counterpart presence."

This is a beautiful phrase; I didn't know it. I'll have to write this one down.

June 14, 2006 7:28 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Couldn't resist--wrote a helluva extensive comment on Filmbrain's Christ movies post. Those interested or wishing to be amused might want to check it out...

June 15, 2006 4:06 AM  
Blogger Maxim de Winter said...

Apologies if any of what I write about here was covered above, I needed to skip to the end after reading the comment that read "'his criticism is a big machine for separating the wheat from the chaff'
To seperate Laurel & Hardy from Antonioni?"

Yes! From my reading of Farber, one of his most important insights is his need to feel that the director awards autonomy at any given moment to the actors in the scene. Watch any Laurel and Hardy two-reeler and you'll see the supporting characters, sometimes unnamed or uncredited, using their small moment of screentime to be something completely three-dimensional, that sometimes feels as if it comes from another universe, completely removed from the one the film takes place in.

Whereas Antonioni, and I'll refer here to The Passenger as I've seen it very recently, for all his aesthetic strengths, forces his characters into a mannerism that is unbecoming. Just imagine a Howard Hawks heroine, Jeanne Crain for instance, running into the Nicholson character. She might well go on the run with him - but she'd do it on her own terms, always questioning the situation and trying to understand it in her own terms, rather than being the decorative baggage that Maria Schneider becomes. Her listlessness, far from exemplifying 'anomie' or whatever, is the boredom of an actor who is forced to act "this way because I said so" rather than one who's allowed a certain autonomy to react to the narrative events in a way they find believable.

I'm not trying to co-opt Farber as a Method fan, far from it - just to say that he could see reality on screen, and phoniness, and could tell the difference and was saddened when a good director went to the bad.

July 04, 2006 9:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice points, Maxim.

July 04, 2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger Maxim de Winter said...

Er, except for where I said Jeanne Crain, please read Joanne Dru - it was very late here when I wrote this!

July 05, 2006 7:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I was wondering about that one! Thought I'd missed some basic fact that everyone else knew. :-)

July 05, 2006 8:25 AM  
Anonymous Slayer said...

I'm now reading Farber's complete film writings and getting my way around his writing and critic style. I've never heard this termite art concept before but I've found it quite interesting. For instance, it seems almost obvious to me that movements like dogme95 are consciously associated with this idea of termite art. What do you think of this idea?

January 08, 2010 9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the idea maybe there are some creatures between and termite and elephant that can't be summed up so easily. I think given out human scale we see these two creatures as vastly different. But to a microbe they are both tremendous. I like defining things as much as the next guy but giving two options limits things so much. It is , however, a great way to start a conversation about movie making styles.

October 14, 2010 11:31 AM  

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