If I had to read it cover to cover before reviewing it, there’s no telling when I would have leave to speak of Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. Issued on the first of this month by the Library of America at a list price of $40.00, the book runs to 824 pages including index, textual notes, and biographical chronology, but not including the thoroughgoing twenty-four-page Roman-numeralled introduction by the editor, Robert Polito.
Honestly I don’t know where the book’s reviewers have found the time. They must not be under compulsion to see Zombieland, Whip It, Couples Retreat, Law Abiding Citizen, Where the Wild Things Are, etc., must not be baseball or football fans, must not have taken a three-week vacation just prior to the publication date. And in view of the smallness and slenderness of the typeface, the high-contrast printing on the whitest paper known to man, the density of each page, and the piecemeal nature of the text, to say nothing of the dazzlements of the critical insights and turbulent prose, the book does not lend itself to lengthy reading sessions. Small doses are advised. All in all, I might do better to content myself with a simple announcement of publication in place of a review. A little over a year after the critic’s death at age ninety-one, the book is here. As self-recommending a title as there ever was, it is a treasure.
Over the years, it should be said, I had read most of it, almost all of it, before. During my senior year at Columbia, and after taking part in an extracurricular writing workshop taught by Farber at the School of Visual Arts, when I was serving as a small voice in the selection process for his only previous collection of criticism, the thornily titled Negative Space (Praeger, 1971), I can recollect vividly a file-box of clippings of his early work, 1942-47, at The New Republic — property, I believe, of his friend Donald Phelps, who had earlier published a sampler of Farber’s criticism in an issue of For Now, the littlest of Little Magazines. Though Farber was dismissive of the contents of that box, I yearned to dig into it. It lay tormentingly out of reach.
Only one of those pieces made the cut for Negative Space (they take up over 300 pages in the new collection), but a couple of years later when I was a teaching assistant to Farber in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, I would spend long hours in the library stacks searching out his reviews in bound volumes of The New Republic as well as later years of The Nation and The New Leader, filling in the background to the criticism I had been reading hot off the presses at Cavalier, a girlie magazine, and at Artforum in the second half of the Sixties. (The future would hold a fruitful final period of collaborations with his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson, for Francis Coppola’s City magazine and Film Comment in the mid-Seventies.) It’s so much more convenient to have all this material pulled together into a single package.
Even if Farber in his last years would express some private regret about the quantity of his work that was gone with the wind (until Polito gathered it from the four corners), the absence of New Republic pieces from Negative Space — a kind of best-of anthology, anchored by the epochal “Underground Films” and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” — is not hard to comprehend. In their tone and rhythm and vocabulary, as well as in their more conventional form and viewpoint, can be detected the influence in particular of Otis Ferguson, his immediate predecessor at the magazine, and also James Agee, his counterpart at The Nation throughout those years. And one obvious use of the complete new collection is as a companion to existing collections of Ferguson and Agee, invaluable reference works when watching (or better, after watching) old movies on TCM.
It is highly salutary to read what was written about such movies before any ossification of critical orthodoxy. The close-up and in-context view of, let’s say, Casablanca from Farber and from Agee will offer a truer perspective than its placement on a pedestal in spot number two on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest American Movies. Observes Farber: “Bogart’s humanitarian killer, who was disillusioned apparently at his mother’s breast, has to say some silly things and to play God too often to be as believably tough as he was in his last eight pictures.” The titles of the articles alone can be priceless: “Blaboteur” for Saboteur, “Tinkle” for For Whom the Bell Tolls, “Hamburger Hell” for The Postman Always Rings Twice.
As I work my way through it, and if I can control the urge to skip around willy-nilly, part of the narrative of Farber on Film — distinct from whatever might have been unfolding on screen, WWII, the expansionism of Broadway and television, the decline of the Hollywood studio, the evaporation of the “B,” the French New Wave, the New Germans — is unavoidably the struggle of separation from Ferguson and Agee, the discovery or the invention of the critic’s individual voice, the staking-out of his own territory. Nevertheless, even after calculating that his first review saw print just a month after his twenty-fifth birthday, few allowances need to be made. Already in those first weeks he was noticing in Jean Gabin “a precocious underlip which drips words off in a personal sort of way” and in Humphrey Bogart the appearance of “holding back a mouthful of blood.” Twenty-five years later he was well and truly flying solo, scouting out terra incognita, doing loop-de-loops like no one else.
“All physical matter,” he wrote of Point Blank, to take a random example, “seems to be coated: buildings are encased in grids and glass, rooms are lined with marble and drapes, girls are sculpted by body stockings, metallic or velour-like materials. A subtle pornography seems to be the point, but it is obtained by the camera slithering like an eel over statuesque women from ankle across thigh around hips to shoulder and down again. Repeatedly the camera moves back to beds, but not for the purposes of exposing flesh or physical contact. What are shown are vast expanses of wrinkled satin, deep dark shadows, glistening silvery highlights. The bodies are dead, under sedation, drugged, or being moved in slow-motion stylistic embraces. Thus, there’s a kind of decadent tremor within the image as though an unseen lecherous hand were palming, sliding over not quite human humans.” And so on and so on.
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.