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Manny Farber 1917-2008

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

Farber isn't grudging in conversation, just understated. He measures his words, spends a lot of time listening, and asks as many questions as I ask him. What was Michael Snow's new film like? What do I think of Herzog? Where did I go to college? The interview turns quickly into a discussion. Among the topics is Fassbinder's decline from an arch-termite to a total white elephant ("The low budget helped a lot – he's over-produced now.") Farber and Patterson were among the first American critics to discover Fassbinder. They caught The Merchant of the Four Seasons at the 1972 Venice Film Festival, writing in Artforum that it was "the single antidote to thoughts of suicide in the Grand Canal." Hollywood, Farber thinks, "is being castrated because it doesn't get any help from the inventions of people like Snow, Rocha, Gehr. Somehow, it's cut off from all pictorial contributions by outsiders." He found Raging Bull "a terrific movie technically, but much too narcissistic and aggressively ambitious." Excalibur? "Horrible. I always thought Boorman had a better eye."

Right now, Farber tends to downplay his writing. He calls it "excruciating" work. (Farber's difficulty with deadlines is legendary. Film Comment is still waiting for his piece on Syberberg's Hitler film.) He'd rather talk about his paintings – the aerial views of Milk Duds boxes and lollipops scattered in stringent, centerless patterns across a desk-blotter surface, or the works of the "Auteur Series," which employ the same overhead perspective and overall compositions as well as a host of miniaturized objects in suggestive, rebus-like formations. ("I like work… termitically.") The elements in Howard Hawks "A Dandy's Gesture" include railroad tracks and a model train, a speedboat, an airplane, an elephant, and what look like bits of a Hershey bar. They're all roughly the same size. Slanting off the canvas at the lower edge is a somewhat larger reporter's tablet filled with scrawled notes on Scarface and His Girl Friday.

The "Auteur Series" includes paintings on Preston Sturges, Anthony Mann, and Marguerite Duras. Farber tells me he's currently working on William Wellman and Luis Bunuel. The canvases take a long time to finish. "I don't go to movies that much any more," he says. "I think about them while I'm painting."

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