All Together Now

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.

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Financial update on A Serious Man: I notice it had an almost identical opening weekend gross as The Hudsucker Proxy, and it's currently about $900,000 shy of beating Proxy's total Domestic Gross. To put things is some sort of perspective, Duncan Shepherd's favorite modern American documentary, Stevie, made a domestic total of less than A Serious Man's first weekend (barely over a Hundred Thousand).

More "perspective": Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is topping A Hundred and Eight Million. Well over the combined domestic grosses of Mystic River, Stevie, and A Serious Man -so far. These are the only three movies of the 'Naughts that Mr. Shepherd awarded the 5-Star rateing to.

On the artistical side of A Serious Man, I forgot to mention the other week that Roger Deakins appeared to be useing the same kind of lens that Dion Beebe used for In the Cut, a primative device called -I believe- a 'swing/shift' lens, where you can change the focal plane so one part of the frame is in focus while the area surrounding blurs. I think Shepherd found it too arty in the Jane Campion film, or at least he thought the bruised-fruity color schema was. I wonder if he thought it worked better with the darker earthy hues of A Serious Man. I hope a Re-Review is on it's way. I miss those as much as I miss Tuturro from the Coen's films.

My only personal note on Manny Farber can be seeing him at La Jolla's MoCA event when he intro'd Goodbye South, Goodbye, where I didn't speak with him, and at the Flowerhill mall's Pannikin Cafe, in Del Mar, where getting his response to Mystic River (then playing at the Flowerhill Cinemas) was as hard as I've heard it was, to have him speak of movies seems to be an uphill battle after the late Seventies. Sadly, his teaching days were before my time. I know some who attended his classes (most didn't like Manny's predilection to watch a movie in non-sequential order!). But we did chat a little about Stan Brakage, another film teacher who worked as much on the creative side as the critical. Naturally, a prime value to Manny's work in criticism is that a film critics job can be -needs to be- as creative as a filmmaker's. The only times I ever heard Shepherd badmouth other film reviewers, were in his asides about Gene Siskel, Jeffory Lyons, and Pauline Kael. I think reviewers need to be criticised more often for their failure to illuminate movies differently than the publicity machines do. A feller like Manny Farber cannot be goodmouthed enough.

A_J_B (#1), I'm trying to figure out what that has to do with anything...truly important!...not that money isn't important...but...

I only just noticed your comment there on the page about Manny Farber. Why was I was updating the BO receipts for 'A Serious Man', why did I consider that important? In so much as how it revealed the lack of intrest in such movies today, the lack of interest (although, they oughta be careful, those Coen's, that the Hollywood mucky-mucks don't take too big an interest!). And how pitiful the distribution is for Name star directors like this ('Burn after Reading' was big BO, and 'No Country...' won the freakin' Oscar[TM] only two years ago), compared to something as timeless and unforgettable as, say, that 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' film...all that isn't really so important as the reality that 'A Serious Man' is always worth bringing up, no matter the context!

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