Monday, August 25, 2008

Manny Farber, In Memoriam



First, a big thanks to David Hudson for attentively and patiently gathering links to a variety of Manny Farber tributes this week.

If I might wax personal for a second, Farber happened to provide a turning point for this blog. A little over two years ago, I did a post on termite art and white elephant art. In the process of writing it and in discussing Farber in the comments with others, primarily Zach, I discovered that my film-blogging interests lay not simply in films but in discourse about films: reading, writing, talking about them. For occasioning this turn in the road for the blog, among many other reasons, I'm grateful to Farber and his essay.

Let me offer, as a small homage, ten reasons why I like Manny Farber.

(1) His great gift for describing the surfaces of films. Donald Phelps, in an essential essay on him called "Critic Going Everywhere," wrote that Farber is often trying to convince readers and spectators that the 'depths' of art lie in its surfaces. And Farber's writing is itself composed of surfaces that are one-of-a-kind, thick, and "all-over" as in an abstract expressionist painting.

(2) The Phelps essay is collected in a terrific book by him, now out of print, called Covering Ground (1969). The title might well stand for Farber's own writing practice. Phelps opens his essay like this:

Manny Farber's criticism is an extension of his painting, of his talk. Extension is the theme of his work. The fretful energy which births his virtues and sometimes faults, is an energy through which work covers ground: the terrain existing only to be covered, not occupied, not (for too long a time) staked out. Thus, the work, painting or movie criticism or art criticism, advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B; and getting away as far as possible from any pivot, any centripetal force.

(3) One of my favorite Jonathan Rosenbaum essays is "They Drive By Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber" (1993). It can be found in his collection Placing Movies, and last week he put it up on his website. I find this piece moving because it tracks, with an acute sense of personal vulnerability, the vicissitudes of Rosenbaum's personal relationship with the volatile Farber. The entire piece is a must-read, but let me excerpt this bit on Farber's prescient mode of viewing:

Discontinuous viewing was his preferred way of watching a movie, a method he shared with Godard; if a movie he really liked such as ORDET was being shown several times in the campus screening room over a given week, he’d turn up each time for a different reel or two—maybe even for the same reels, whatever happened to be on.

(4) I like the deep ambivalence that Farber feels for a certain relentlessly evaluative critical impulse that he describes below. It's ironic that Farber himself was sometimes guilty of exercising this impulse.

It's terrible that a certain language and capacity to make judgments come so easily. It should be hard to write on these films. Whatever the film, we are told endlessly, shot by shot, scene by scene, what's good or bad. It's crazy, totally crazy. I'd like to see that mode of criticism applied to Cezanne or Mozart, saying what does and doesn't work at every step [...] In short, the resistance posed to artistic criticism has vanished; it's turned into a pie that critics quickly slice into pieces.

(5) Farber is rare among critics in attempting to de-emphasize the place of meaning in the criticism of an artwork:

I don't see how or why anyone should be expected to get the meaning of an event in a movie or a painting. That's a place where criticism goes wrong: it keeps trying for a complete solution. I think the point of criticism is to build up the mystery. And the point is to find movies which have a lot of puzzle in them.

(6) Starting in the late '60s, many of Farber's pieces were written in collaboration with Patricia Patterson. It's interesting to contrast the earlier and later Farber essays and speculate about the nature of Patterson's influence. He puts it thus:

Patricia's got a photographic ear; she remembers conversations from a movie. She is a fierce anti-solutions person, against identifying a movie as a single thing, period. She is also an antagonist of value judgments. What does she replace it with? Relating a movie to other sources, getting the plot, the idea behind a movie--getting the abstract idea out of it. She brings that into the writing and takes the assertiveness out.

(7) Bill Krohn, in an another essential piece called "My Budd by Manny Farber," wonderfully characterizes Farber's criticism as being all-inclusive without being systematic:

[I]t's often impossible to tell from the beginning of an essay on a film or a filmmaker where it is going to end up: There is no thesis, no antithesis, no possibility of synthesis, in part because the need to "get it all in" works against the more traditional critical ambition to "say everything" about a work by constructing a microcosmic model that includes by definition, everything that can be said. Farber works against that idea of system by creating a microcosm whose powers of control over the object of its discourse are seriously handicapped by playful gestures which deny its internal coherence.

(8) The expanded (1998) edition of Negative Space concludes with a list by Farber and Patterson of their seven critical precepts. One of them is: "Willingness to put in a great deal of time and discomfort: long drives to see films again and again; nonstop writing sessions." Farber says:

I'm unable to write at all without extraordinary amounts of rewriting. The "Underground Movies" piece took several years to write. An article on bit players was stolen from the car--a funny thing to steal on Second Avenue and Second Street, but it was stored in the lid of an Underwood at about the fifth year of its evolution. I'm not a work-ethic nut, but the surface-tone-composition in everything I do--painting, carpentering, writing, teaching--comes from working and reworking the material.

(9) The carefulness of his observation--not just of a movie's details but more importantly of the world at large--can be a great inspiration to us to open our eyes a little wider and pay a little more attention to the world around us.

It's a silly thing to say, but it's very important to me that people know exactly the way our house looked, and where it was situated; that there was the Lyric Theatre across the street from us, and at what angle, and how dark it was inside, and what kind of candy they sold, that it was next to a pool hall--that's an icon of my memory, that street.

(10) There are a handful of Farber essays, like "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" or "Underground Films," that get cited over and over again (and of course, they're great). But one of the relatively lesser-known pieces I like a lot is "Cartooned Hip Acting" (1967). Here's an excerpt from it in an older post; it's on John Boorman's Point Blank.

Notes: In the '60s, Donald Phelps put together a Farber collection for his magazine For Now. It's available here. The Bill Krohn essay first appeared as an afterword in Charles Tatum Jr.'s Ride Lonesome (Belgium: Editions Yellow Now, 1988). All of Manny Farber's own words above are from his interview with Richard Thompson and Patricia Patterson that appears in Negative Space, save his remarks on the evaluative impulse which are from Jean-Pierre Gorin et al.'s essay in Framework's special Manny Farber issue (1999). However, I took this latter quotation not from the Framework issue but from Adrian Martin's Movie Mutations letter exchange with James Naremore. I've searched far and wide but have not been able to lay my hands on this Framework special issue--any tips or help will be hugely appreciated!

And now it's over to you all: Your thoughts and sentiments on anything and everything to do with Manny Farber? Please feel welcome to share.

pic: Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, the subject of Farber and Patterson's famous "Kitchen Without Kitsch" essay. Recently I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece on his favorite non-region-1 box sets at DVD Beaver, and ordered his #2 pick, the Akerman 5-disc set from the Belgian Cinéart label. It's a beaut.

30 Comments:

Anonymous Adrian said...

Great work, Girish! On the availability of certain texts: Bill Krohn's "My Budd", my piece from FRAMEWORK, and a rare essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Farber's 'movie paintings', as well as Donald Phelps' classic piece you mention, are all in the next ROUGE, up ASAP. Manny was at one point keen to write an introduction/appreciation for the Phelps dossier in a previous ROUGE, but alas ill health took the upper hand.

August 25, 2008 6:14 AM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 25, 2008 8:27 AM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Girish, I'm glad you mentioned "Cartooned Hip Acting" which is indeed one of Farber's finest. I think he was the best chronicler of changes on film aesthetics on the post war till the mid-seventies. If I ever teach a class on 60's cinema, I would ask my students to read some texts from Negative Space to better give them some perspective outside of the usual golden era celebration (That said there's a much larger shot of I teaching that class than Negative Space even being translated into portuguese). One could completly disagree with his judgements but his attempts of dealing with what was on the screen always did add some perspective. Even the White Elephant Art essay is much more intersting when seeing not about an either/or polemic and more as a commentary one some aesthetics estrategies that some early sixties favorites were persuing.

Adrian, It's great to learn that the next Rouge has some Farber centered material.

August 25, 2008 8:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, Filipe -- That's great news about the next issue of ROUGE.

August 25, 2008 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Great news about the forthcoming ROUGE (which I wish appeared monthly!). And thanks especially for the link to the "For Now" material. I am one of those who found I didn't often agree with Farber, but came to recognize that any disagreements with him demanded that I be sharper, more perceptive, less linear, etc. In short, he made all his readers better critics.

August 25, 2008 12:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"...demanded that I be sharper, more perceptive, less linear, etc."

Corey, how true. Yes, I value this about him too, although I resisted acknowledging this when I first read him.

August 25, 2008 10:14 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

This is truly an exquisite appreciation, Girish. Thank you so much for taking the time. I'm not as familiar with Farber as I should be and you've certainly provided the handle by which to familiarize myself. I was working up an entry on Farber on Lewton; but, doubt I'll have it done by the time I head out to Toronto.

That's great news that Rouge will be paying tribute, Adrian.

August 26, 2008 1:51 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Great comment, Corey, about Farber making readers better critics.

Two specific things I want to mention that I love in Farber's writing:

1. There's a piece (I don't have the reference in front of me) where he ends with a list titled something like: "Things I couldn't manage to work in to the rest of the article". How great! We tend to think that the best endings (whether to essays or films or anything) are those that richly sum up, bring everything together, 'put an amen to it'. Farber's gesture exposes another economy (very of our Net age!): there is always a 'leftover', an excess, another thought to add ... how terrific that he made that a feature of the piece and its structure. It's like the strange endings of some modernist films: abrupt, disconcerting, surprising, 'opening a window' ...

2. I was late to properly reading Farber, and when I finally did, I discovered (from the great interview by Rick Thompson that Girish quotes) that he uses a technique that I had also found for myself: working back over a piece in order to extend sentences and fit more material in: inserts, asides, extra start-points or end-points. It takes a bit of work, but it's a technique I like, and still use, it builds up a style. I sometimes try to 'collapse a paragraph' in a piece by taking it apart into bits, and then inserting those bits into the previous or following paragraph. As Rivette might have said: montage before the writing, montage after the writing, montage during the writing! Farber and Patterson were great montagists of their own prose.

August 26, 2008 5:31 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the great appreciation, and for the link to the "For Now" collection. I've only started reading Farber myself, and that's a great resource to accompany Negative Space.

Does anyone know, though, why the "For Now" collection is missing page 49 (actually numbered as 47 in the text)? It cuts off right in the middle of a piece on Hitchcock.

August 26, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

For the francophiles, Serge Toubiana on Manny Farber, with a letter from José-Pierre Gorin.

August 27, 2008 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Harry, is José-Pierre Gorin the love child of Jean-Pierre Gorin and José-Luis Guerin ? (Something Richard Brody missed!)

August 27, 2008 4:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ha ha, I was wondering that myself. :-)

Hello, everyone.

Adrian, those two points you make are very thought-provoking!!

A packed week in progress here: both the kick-off to the new academic year and time to sit down and make up the Toronto film festival schedule. I've invited 4 friends to join me at the festival this year, and I'm ordering tickets for all of them on my pass. So, lots of coordination in progress for the next day or two.

August 27, 2008 4:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Holy crap: Borzage/Murnau box set in December! Lucky Star (1929), Sunrise - Special Edition (1927), Liliom (1930), They Had to See Paris (1929), Seventh Heaven (1927), Bad Girl (1931), Song 'O My Heart (1930), Lazy Bones (1925), Street Angel (1928), City Girl (1930).
(via Filmbo's Chick Magnet.)

August 27, 2008 4:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Also, in November, a 5-disc Budd Boetticher box: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station.

August 27, 2008 8:03 PM  
Blogger ZC said...

Awesome news about Borzage & Boetticher sets. (A question: where is Man's Castle!? A comment: Buchanan Rides Alone may be one of the most fun movies of the '50s.)

August 27, 2008 10:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach, I heard about Man's Castle being on the schedule for a TCM telecast and then being cancelled. I'm not sure if they ever rescheduled it. And I've never seen Buchanan Rides Alone.

August 27, 2008 10:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Last week Jonathan Rosenbaum concluded the afterword to his Manny Farber post at his site with this line: "Even though Manny voted twice for George W. Bush (which I’m told he later regretted), I already miss him."

He added this today:

"I’ve just discovered that the comment concluding my Afterword to my article about Manny Farber on this site was grievously mistaken and misinformed. I’ve just added this letter from Patricia—written in response to a John Powers broadcast about Manny on NPR’s Fresh Air."

Patricia Patterson's letter to John Powers follows.

August 27, 2008 10:32 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Oui je me suis trompé à cause de la sortie prochaine de Dans la ville de Sylvia ici. J'avais même marqué Jose Luis Guerin au début, et j'ai mal corrigé apparemment.

August 28, 2008 5:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, we're only kidding you as friends.

Links:

-- Chris Fujiwara at Moving Image Source: "Deciphering audience responses to Douglas Sirk, in the U.S. and Japan".
-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.

August 28, 2008 9:32 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

That Fujiwara piece on Sirk is very interesting, but also a little annoying. He seems to discount the possibility that someone could find certain moments in Sirk funny while also appreciating the deeper impact of the visuals. I've never seen these films with an audience, and I imagine I'd also be annoyed at a real campy, hysterical reaction, but watching the films at home by myself, there are certainly moments that make me laugh, and I fail to see what's intrinsically wrong with laughter in this context. Fujiwara's four categories seem to be making an awful lot of unwarranted assumptions about why audiences react as they do. If the scene with the oil derrick or the bouncing horse are meant to pass by in silence, then what's the point? Those are powerful images, iconic images, exactly because they literalize and visualize the deeper undercurrents in the story; I doubt Sirk intended audiences to simply sit still for such potent imagery. It seems to me that a lot of the laughter at Sirk's more lurid imagery does not dismiss its impact, but acknowledges and reacts to it in interesting ways.

August 28, 2008 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan R. said...

I can remember attending a Jean-Pierre Gorin class for a huge audience at UCSD in the late 70s devoted to "All That Heaven Allows" and "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul". During the screening of the former, J-P made periodic wisecracks on his hand-mike--a bit in the manner of "Mystery Science Theater 3000", albeit on a somewhat higher level. But he didn't do the same thing for the Fassbinder film. I always thought he should have offered his wisecracks either on both films or on neither. Scoffing at things because they're "older" struck me then and strikes me now as highly dubious.

August 28, 2008 3:05 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Encore pour ceux qui lisent le français: Edouard Waintrop sur son blog de Libé : Cinoque

August 28, 2008 3:30 PM  
Blogger Dmitry said...

Speaking of Mystery Science Theater, here is another piece by Chris Fujiwara from 11 years ago (!) on the subject of "audience participation rituals":
http://www.hermenaut.com/a152.shtml
Needless to say, I tremendously enjoyed both of his articles and especially appreciated the care he took to elaborate taxonomy of inapproriate laughs. And Ed, watching the films at home is not the same. Uninterrupted background of "ironic" laughter is very distracting and disruptive. (Case in point: screening of Ray's Bigger than Life at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley 2 years ago).
If the scene with the oil derrick or the bouncing horse are meant to pass by in silence, then what's the point? The point is that audible reaction is not always necessary.

August 28, 2008 4:11 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I've been to a few Sirk showings that have been badly marred by idiotic mockery. It's probably not exactly that laughter is out of place - I think Sirk was quite aware of what he was doing, and the business with oil derricks and such seems to meant to draw at least an ironical snicker.... But sometimes - I remember one show of Imitation of Life where I had a group of people behind me yukking it up from start to finish - and hooting along - "oh my god! it's a fish!" sort of thing. It's annoying because I think there are laugh lines - and "laugh images" (if that makes any sense) - and when crowds hoot at everything, they miss them. And miss the moments that aren't laughable - miss the underlying principal of exaggeration and intensification - or just laugh at anything that pushes emotions or imagery beyond normal levels. It bugs the hell out of me when people make fun of the camp and ruin the opportunity to savor the full range of emotions a full out melodrama like those offers.

August 28, 2008 9:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!

Adrian said earlier: "Farber and Patterson were great montagists of their own prose."

Here's a brief exchange about their collaborative method from that 1977 interview with Richard Thompson.

RT: So it doesn't come down to this verb or that noun?

MF: No, I like to get an opinion, and Patricia's obsessionally against opinions. There's always another side to every fucking movie or painting; there's always an assuaging side.

RT: Often you two resolve that through multipurpose sentences. You run the idea through the first half of the sentence and then reverse it through the second half, but you don't end up cancelling out the meaning: you end up getting both meanings.

August 29, 2008 6:24 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

I also put this link up at Dave Kehr's website: if anyone's interested, here's a pretty good review of Farber's paintings: http://www.artcritical.com/gelber/EGFarber.htm

August 29, 2008 7:53 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

For those interested in the collection of Manny Farber's writings in For Now #9 that Girish pointed to earlier, I've gotten them to update their site with the previously missing page 49. The collection is now complete.

August 29, 2008 8:22 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Off-topic; but, you know that term "detached by anticipation"? Preparing for Toronto, I'm wandering around glassy-eyed and stumble-footed, like one of Romero's shopping mall zombies.

August 29, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there, fellas.

Here's a thread at A_Film_By on Manny Farber upon his passing.

August 30, 2008 3:13 PM  
Anonymous charade said...

Interesting
read on Farber-Ferguson affair

September 02, 2008 1:33 AM  

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