Manny Farber 1917-2008

Remembering the painter, professor, and underground model for scores of American film critics

Painter, carpenter, university professor, and underground model for scores of American film critics—myself included—Manny Farber died early Monday morning in San Diego, where he had lived, taught, and worked since the early ’70s.

Farber, who began reviewing movies for the New Republic during World War II and wrote for all manner of smallish magazines thereafter, was a legendary figure—more connoisseur than critic, less a pedant than a hipster. He had an utterly distinctive voice and a genius for coinage (“underground films,” “termite art,” “carbonated dyspepsia”). He had superb taste and fantastic range.

Marching to the beat of his own drum, Farber was among the first American critics to appreciate Hollywood genre artists Howard Hawks and Don Siegel as well as European modernists R.W. Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman. I’d like to say that I discovered him in the third-rate men’s mags for which he wrote in the mid ’60s—but it was actually a few years later, in the tonier pages of Artforum. In any case, I was totally hooked. Who was this guy? How did he learn to write like that? (On Siegel: “What is a Don Siegel movie? Mainly it's a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness.”)

Farber wasn’t like other critics. He didn’t proselytize and he didn’t create systems. Rather, he articulated his idiosyncratic perception, which is to say: He had a sensibility. Farber was as punchy and hardboiled, at least in his prose, as Sam Fuller (a director he admired) and as masterful a vernacular stylist as S. J. Perelman (who, knowledgeable as he was, nodded to Farber in one of his pieces). As was said of Perelman, before they made Manny they broke the mold.

Although he wrote like a champ, Farber was far from literary and is, I’m told, very difficult to translate. He described lowbrow action flicks as if he were discussing a canvas by Franz Kline and referenced comic strip artists in the context of avant-garde filmmakers like Marguerite Duras. My mantra when I began reviewing for the Voice was WWMD—like, what would Manny do? And, in a sense, it still is.

Originally printed in the Village Voice May 20-26, 1981: J. Hoberman on Manny Farber

Termite Makes Right

The Subterranean Criticism of Manny Farber

Now that The New York Times has put Manny Farber on record as the best still-life painter of his generation, it seems a bit perverse to shift the spotlight to his movie criticism. But the fact is that the 64-year-old Farber is an artist-essayist on the level of Fernand Leger or Robert Smithson. His writing, intermittently published in an odd assortment of journals between 1942 and 1977, combines the historical perspicacity of Andrew Sarris and the verbal punch of Pauline Kael with an eccentric individualism that's all its own.

Farber has the strongest visual bias in American film criticism. Playing both ends against the middlebrow, his pieces are thick with inside references to painting, photography, and comic strips. ("I don't get why other critics don't pay more attention to what's going on in the other arts," he says.) Like the surrealists, he's fond of destroying narrative continuity by taking in a film in random, 15-minute chunks. On meeting Farber, his appearance is as striking as his method. A prominent forehead and jaw connote intelligent pugnacity, while the rest of his features cluster mid-face to give him the stylized appearance of a kindly Chester Gould character. "What he really looks like," critic Richard Thompson once wrote, "is philosopher-king of all the bums in all the grind houses in the world, bringing a Promethean message to us from Plato's cave world of the triple feature."

Part of that message is embodied in a key 1962 essay that originally appeared in Film Culture. (The same astonishing issue also contains Sarris's "Notes on the Auteur Theory," Jack Smith's "The Perfect Cinematic Appositenness of Maria Montez," and Kael's review of Shoot the Piano Player.) Farber's contribution, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," is the snappiest jeremiad I've ever read. Its target is films that are inflated, over-wrought, precious, "tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence" – white elephant stuff, in which the artist tries "to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Against this beast (personified by Antonioni, Truffaut, and the then modish Tony Richardson) Farber raises the red flag of termite art, a mysterious form that flourishes in dark corners where "the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence." Farber's termites include journalists, pulp writers, B-movie directors, and comic-strip artists – intuitive, unself-conscious professionals who have "no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything."

Although I interpreted it to suit myself, Farber's white elephant/termite dichotomy was crucial for me. I got my first regular writing gig in 1972 for a shortlived successor to the East Village Other that was known as the New York Ace and operated out of a fetid basement on West 16th Street. Under the rubric "Terminal Termite," I tried to work out a kind of Farber-inspired cultural criticism capable of ping-ponging back and forth between Brakhage movies and Coca-Cola commercials. After a few of these, the editor asked me to please explicate my "incomprehensible logo" and "buglike theory of art" (a reference, he probably thought, to our working conditions). I composed a tribute to Farber that segued seamlessly into a rabid attack on such current white elephants as 2001, Performance, and El Topo. With that issue, the Ace folded.

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