With his painter’s eye — and indeed his painting career began before his writing one and extended more than three decades after his last piece of criticism in 1977 — Farber in his written descriptions would particularize, individualize, personalize his subjects in the way that Monet or Van Gogh, or for that matter Farber himself in his painter’s hat, would particularize a flower. You can make out what kind of flower it is, but over and above that it’s a Monet or a Van Gogh or a Farber. It’s all his. An artist to the core, he could do nothing else but approach criticism as art. (His actual art criticism, outside the compass of the present collection, remains scattered to the winds.) If in the early years he would overuse a short-hand critical standby such as “hackneyed,” he already understood instinctively that a critic can’t himself be hackneyed: he can’t complain of triteness and formula in a trite and formulaic manner — plot synopsis, cast list, sprinkle of evaluative adjectives — as if the setter of standards isn’t himself to be held to any. No American film critic can hold his head higher in keeping up and constantly raising the standard in his own work, eventually developing something quite unprecedented in its fluid and fluctuant present-tenseness.
This last was partly the effect of the closeness and immediacy of his observations and descriptions, and partly the effect of an unabated processing, a refusal to reduce and to settle, an embracing of the multiplicity of the experience, an open-endedness and undecidedness, a complete immersion. Even as his prose admirably exemplifies his own ideals in art, he will on occasion fall prey to the occupational hazard of projecting those ideals, imposing those ideals, onto movies he champions, undeserving though they could be. An occupational hazard, that, for any critic, but even more hazardous the way Farber practiced the occupation. Not only does one not always see it his way; one doesn’t always see what he sees. Which, granted, makes him of uncertain utility as a “guide,” in the common concept of the function of a critic. Yet a major reason he stands as such a hero to other critics is doubtless because he implicitly, and without recourse to the crutch of first person, made the critic into the protagonist, an explorer, a pathfinder, a grappler, a battler, a full participant in the spectacle. A movie in a vacuum is not yet a movie; it needs a viewer to fill the vacuum. Farber moved the critic from an aisle seat ever deeper into the screen. When he can’t guide, he can goad.