Manny Farber 1917-2008

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

Actually, I had stumbled across Farber a few years earlier, in the pages of Dan Talbot's Film: An Anthology, which included Farber's 1957 essay "Underground Films." A hard-boiled paean to a then-unsung cadre of action directors (Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Mann, Karlson), "Underground Films" took Farber three years to write and was originally intended for Vogue. This exciting, if morose, manifesto not only anticipated the discoveries of the French auteurists, it audaciously valorized the style and mise-en-scene of a movie over its plot. Farber's "hardgrained cheapsters" thrived on precisely that material that was most hackneyed and childish. Typically, he compared them to basketball layers who did their best shooting from the worst angle on the court.

"Underground Films" contains all of Farber's attributes – the pop-culture connoisseurship, the canonization of a peripheral form, the authoritative painter's jargon worked into a nervy, wise-cracking, baroque prose style. (All that's missing is his trademark reference to Cezanne's "niggling, tingling" brushwork.) Like Raymond Chandler, Ben Hecht, or S. J. Perelman – who once wrote "With men who know rococo best, it's Farber two to one" – Farber could twist the American vernacular into something like a salt pretzel. "The films of the Hawks-Wellman group are underground for more reasons than the fact that the director hides out in subsurface reaches of his work," wrote Farber appreciatively. "The hardbitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, soundtracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged by a giant sponge." It was startling to discover that Farber was knocking out copy like this every month for the back page of Artforum.

Rereading Farber's essays before the interview, what struck me was how reflexive they are, how much they describe his own modus operandi. When he writes that "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," he could be predicting his own development, the successive occupation of disparate realms (the B movie, the structural film, European modernism) without settling into any of them. When he cites the "important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art" as "an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage," he's acknowledging the painter's traits that inform his criticism – the sense of space as a malleable substance, the capacity for collaging raw perceptual data, the knack for looking at movies from the inside out.

A congenital maverick, Farber was born in an Arizona copper town one mile from the Mexican border. His parents owned a dry-goods store. As a student he was interested in both painting and journalism, but became a carpenter as an alternative to working for the WPA. Arriving in New York in the late '30s, he intersected two key intellectual scenes: the Partisan Review crowd and the future Abstract Expressionists. In 1942 he succeeded Otis Ferguson as the movie critic for The New Republic, writing for it, and its cousin The Nation, off and on for the next 11 years. (At times, Farber's beat included art criticism as well: Matisse's "line is as much a thing of genius as Cary Grant's dark, nonchalant glitter. With one swift, sure, unbroken flip of the wrist he can do more for the female navel, abdomen, breast, and nipple than anyone since Mr. Maidenform.") Despite his remarkably prescient appreciations of Tex Avery, Val Lewton, Sam Fuller, and The Thing from Another World, Farber was consistently overshadowed by his  more famous crony, James Agee.

Like a veteran relief pitcher, Farber was "traded" to the New Leader. Then, after dropping out of regular criticism to write his position papers – "Underground Films," the acid "Hard Sell Cinema," "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" – he signed on as the movie reviewer for a second-string strokebook, Cavalier. (According to Greg Ford, who helped Farber assemble his one anthology, Negative Space, Farber never bothered to save these pieces, which then had to be excavated from Times Square backdate magazine stores.) When Farber abruptly decamped for Artforum in late 1966, the shift in perspective was more complex than just a move from the psychic environs of 42nd to those of 57th street.

Arguably, Farber did his best writing in his three years at Artforum: a canny mixture of career appreciations (Hawks, Fuller, Seigel), straight reviews, and pithy reports on various New York film festivals. Moreover, he pushed his termite aesthetic into new territory, revealing an enthusiasm not only for Jean-Luc Godard but for the structural films of Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Ken Jacobs. His affinity for the latter group may well be a factor of Farber's painterly eye, but he credits his wife and collaborator, the painter Patricia Patterson, with leading the expedition into the avant-garde. Farber's last stint as a regular critic was in 1975 after he and Patterson got teaching positions at the University of California at San Diego, where they still live. For seven issues, the Farbers worked for Francis Ford Coppola's City magazine, filing exhortatory reviews of the European modernists (Fassbinder, Herzog, Duras, the Straubs, Rivette, Akerman) that he was then teaching. "Duras should direct a Continental Op story," he says. "Two grudging, monosyllabic writers."

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