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.