Manny Farber
  • Manny Farber

Manny Farber was a friend of mine before we ever met. I recall exactly how I was introduced. I had read Pauline Kael's jeremiad on Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory, “Circles and Squares,” in her first (and at the time, only) collection of film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies, or perhaps I had read it upon its initial appearance in Film Quarterly magazine in 1963. Whichever, it was an attack that aroused nothing so much as sympathy for its victim and curiosity to read for myself the essay that had incited it. I got hold of the pertinent issue of Film Culture, America's Independent Motion Picture Magazine, No. 27, Winter 1962/63, either directly from the magazine's offices or, more likely, from that lifeline to the outside movie world for a suburban Minneapolis high-schooler, the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. The lead article, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” by Andrew Sarris, told me what I had shelled out a dollar-fifty plus postage for, but it got completely upstaged by the article immediately following it, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” by Manny Farber, a piece that left my head feeling like a punching bag after a Cassius Clay workout, and that seemed to embody to the nth degree the kind of art the author was touting: “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.”

One thing leads to another. Kael to Sarris to Farber. I may have recognized the third name from a handful of references in the collection of James Agee's criticism, Agee on Film. I may not. But here, clearly, was a new acquaintance to cultivate. He would confide to me later that when the magazine hit the stands he had an urge to go into hiding, and that Pauline Kael, who had a piece on Shoot the Piano Player immediately following Farber's in the magazine, tracked him down to tell him she could not make out what he was talking about. Yet the terminology of his title has — shall we say? — gnawed, burrowed, wormed its way into the critical vocabulary and has been much appropriated and misappropriated by others. Only a couple of years ago when I was in Madrid I picked up a flier for an art exhibit entitled “Arte Termita contra Elefante Blanco.” But I get ahead of myself.

The next step would have been similar. (One thing leads to another.) I was reading a book-length survey of the contemporary cinema called The Contemporary Cinema — this was one of the means whereby a Minnesota rube could find out about the blanks he had to fill in in his film education — by Penelope Houston, an editor and critic of the British film magazine, Sight and Sound, to which I had a subscription. In the book, there was a chapter incongruously headed “Production Values,” if I remember right, wherein she summarized an earlier article by the same Manny Farber, “Underground Films,” from a 1957 issue of the political journal, Commentary. By then the term had been snapped up by the editor of Film Culture, Jonas Mekas, and applied to the experimental films of Brakhage, Breer, Baillie, and company, something very different from Farber's application of it to the work of unsung Hollywood action directors, lean, lithe, unpretentious, who toiled in the shadows of “the water buffaloes of film art,” Kazan, Zinnemann, Stevens, and company. And he had, to go by the date of publication, been exploring this terrain all by his lonesome, without the aid of an auteurist map, William Wellman, William Keighley, and John Farrow right in there with the anointed Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann. Well, I had to get my hands on that, too, and did so by way of a call slip at the Minneapolis Public Library, dredging up from the vaults a bound year's worth of the periodical, to be read and re-read on the premises.

The next step is less distinct. How I learned that Farber at that time — smack in the middle of the Sixties — was writing a monthly column for Cavalier, a girlie magazine with Playboy-ish intellectual aspirations, I can't say. I confess I already knew the magazine, and had a copy of it from circa 1962, which I wish I still had today, with a peekaboo pictorial of Jane Fonda in it. In any event, it now became a monthly must, and luckily there was a newsagent at Seventh and Hennepin, bless him, who was willing to sell me unlawfully anything I had the coin to pay for. This period in Farber's criticism was, I see in retrospect, unsurpassed in freewheelingness and wordplayfulness, and my head got sharply turned. I had a new star to hitch my wagon to. His influence on my own scribblings, although unnamed, did not go unnoticed by my twelfth-grade English Composition teacher. It was not until after I had made his acquaintance in the flesh that I was compelled to find other writers to mimic. You can't very well look a man in the eye on a daily or weekly basis when you're stealing from him. Besides which, you may easily enough tap another's language, syntax, even to an extent taste and enthusiasms, but you cannot take over his vision. And no other film critic has been so deeply involved with literal, actual, active vision — with looking, with watching, with seeing, experiencing, reacting. But again I get ahead of myself.

The eventual meeting would occur in the last half of my senior year at Columbia University, a school chosen solely for the number of proximate movie theaters in New York City, my primary yardstick for Quality of Life. By this time Farber — I was still on last-name terms with him — had moved his column to Artforum, readily available in the college library, and in some ways his most hospitable venue ever, where his observations on movies could share space with views of Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol instead of views of naked women. Through a dorm-mate on the fifth floor of John Jay Hall, a card-carrying auteurist and not precisely someone I would call a friend, I got wind of a writing workshop run by Farber at the School of Visual Arts, ninety-some blocks southward in Manhattan. The dorm-mate had blazed this trail in the Fall semester, reporting back erroneously that Farber was “really old, maybe eighty,” and I would follow along on that trail come Spring. (One thing leads to another.) And then there he was, sitting six feet away from me, his prominent brow and forehead suggesting superhuman braininess, starting off fearlessly reading aloud from a recent piece he had penned on Luis Buñuel: “His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints....”

I was fortunate in my timing. This was early 1970, when the injured Willis Reed would hobble onto the basketball court at the start of Game Seven in the NBA Finals, and Manny — I was now on first-name terms — was a red-blooded American sports fan as happy to talk, in after-class adjournments to the coffee shop, about the Knicks as about the new Hitchcock or new Bresson. Too, he was preparing a show of his recent paintings in SoHo or thereabouts, a side to him I had known nothing about. Film buffs as a breed have a dangerous tendency to put on blinders to anything outside a movie screen, and the broadening of my horizons to the world of art studios, galleries, openings, and the bohemian digs he shared with his fellow painter and future wife, Patricia Patterson, was a healthy thing. Most fortunate of all, he was then putting together his own collection of film criticism, and I was flabbergasted and flattered to be called upon to help sift through the file box of clippings that dated back to the Forties, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Leader. (I'm sure my main function was to plump unreasonably for the stuff from Cavalier.) Fortunately, also, Columbia was in the throes of its annual Spring shutdown due to student revolt, a new tradition, and I was freed to spend my time as I pleased, else I might not have graduated. I'd have opted to sift with Manny rather than study for finals.

A year later, after he had decamped to UCSD to start up a program of film studies in the Visual Arts Department, he was back in New York for the launch of his book, Negative Space, at a reception in the New Yorker Bookstore over the New Yorker Theater, where he recruited me as a teaching assistant. I had since landed a reviewing job at a movie trade paper edited by the father of one of my fellow students in Manny's writing workshop (one thing leads to another), but seeing that I had more money going out than coming in, and was sleeping on a jerry-built shelf three feet from the ceiling in a tiny cell intended as the maid's quarters in a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, I jumped at the chance. And the course of my life was set. Minneapolis to New York to San Diego. One thing leads to another.

Manny's film classes — I can speak first-hand of only three years of them, though they would continue for another thirteen until his retirement in 1987 to devote himself full-time to painting — were the stuff of legend, and it seems feeble and formulaic to call him a brilliant, an illuminating, a stimulating, an inspiring teacher. It wasn't necessarily what he had to say (he was prone to shrug off his most searching analysis as “gobbledegook”) so much as it was the whole way he went about things, famously showing films in pieces, switching back and forth from one film to another, ranging from Griffith to Godard, Bugs Bunny to Yasujiro Ozu, talking over them with or without sound, running them backwards through the projector, mixing in slides of paintings, sketching out compositions on the blackboard, the better to assist students in seeing what was in front of their faces, to wean them from Plot, Story, What Happens Next, and to disabuse them of the absurd notion that a film is all of a piece, all on a level, quantifiable, rankable, fileable. He could seldom be bothered with movie trivia, inside information, behind-the-scenes piffle, technical shoptalk, was often offhand about the basic facts of names and dates, was unconcerned with Classics, Masterpieces, Seminal Works, Historical Landmarks. It was always about looking and seeing.

He would endlessly preview the week's movies on the wall of his studio on campus or his rented house in Del Mar, lugging an anvil-weight 16mm projector to and fro, together with three or four valise-sized boxes of celluloid, and yet throughout these endless hours he felt no necessity to watch every reel of every movie. If you wanted simply to know How It Ends, he might not have the answer. One week he had previewed Kurosawa's wide-screen High and Low without benefit of an anamorphic lens, so that the image was squeezed like an accordion, and all of his prepared comments on narrow spaces and vertical lines, perfectly true to what he was seeing, had to be modified on the fly when the film was shown in class, stretched out horizontally with the proper lens. He was constitutionally unable to make things easy on himself. It never would have occurred to him to follow the conventional pattern (see Robert Osborne on TCM) of introductory remarks, uninterrupted movie from beginning to end, concluding remarks, and call it a day. It was unthinkable ever to repeat the same movie and the same lecture at a later date. People were forever taken aback to find out that something he had written fifteen or twenty years earlier no longer represented his views on the matter. Everything had to be re-examined afresh, looked at from a different angle, turned on its head. Nothing was nailed down, fixed, finalized. Like the metaphorical termite of that 1962 essay, he was always moving forward, less inclined in 1972 to talk about Preston Sturges or Val Lewton than about Werner Herzog or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While he was very much the sort of teacher to attract followers, hungering for his wisdom and wit, thirsting for his approval, he was not the sort to have actual disciples. He had all the requisite charisma, just not the dogma. He was, succinctly put, too individual, too inimitable. No one could keep up with him.

My privileges have been many. I was privileged, right off the bat in California, to be a sounding board as his essay on Raoul Walsh, “He Used to Be a Big Shot,” took shape before my eyes on the typewriter and sometimes with scissors and adhesive, a fascinating process that nonetheless did not cure me of my own neurotic secrecy about the act of writing. All of his film criticism from that point on, until the last published piece in 1977, was co-signed by his wife Patricia, who brought a matching eye for visual detail and added a Memorex memory for dialogue. (It is sobering to realize that the length of time from his first film reviews in The New Republic to that last one in Film Comment is very close to the same length of time I've been writing in these pages, starting from my second year at UCSD.) I was privileged, too, to be at Manny's and Patricia's wedding, and to have them at mine, very small affairs. Privileged to watch the Super Bowl with him when his 49ers squeaked out their first championship. Privileged to have access to his thoughts on movies in the decades since he stopped publishing them. From afar, it might be tempting to read his silence on the post-Star Wars cinema as one of those eloquent silences, a silence that speaks volumes, yet anyone who knows him will know that his engagement in movies has hardly flagged.

To pull back to the widest angle on the subject: Not everyone who goes into his chosen field gets to have as a teacher and a friend the figure who, in the fledgling's eyes, stands above all others in the field. The downside of that is the impossibility of measuring up and the difficulty, for different reasons than that cited earlier, of looking him in the eye on a daily or weekly basis, or, as time slips by, more like a yearly basis. Manny himself has always been kind, considerate, generous, and gentle, to go along with wry, droll, sardonic, contrary, combative, defensive, touchy, testy, cranky, cantankerous, difficult, dissatisfied, complicated, or whatever descriptive adjective anyone might have attached to him. He didn't need to scold me. For that, I needed only his example.

This is the season once again, coming around as seasons will, whether he likes it or not, to pay homage to Manny Farber. A show of his latest paintings and drawings is on exhibit through June 3 at the Quint Gallery in La Jolla. In conjunction with that, a marathon tribute to him, “Manny Farber and All That Jazz,” was staged May 13 at UCSD by his long-time faculty colleague, Jean-Pierre Gorin. A new book of his previously uncollected criticism, tentatively titled Roads and Tracks, is in the offing. And the man himself is going on ninety. He once told me he knew exactly when he would die. I don't remember exactly. Seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-something. When he said it, it was a number that seemed a laughably long way off. It now seems a number a long way in the other direction. Only not so laughably.

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