Manny Farber: Termite of Genius

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Laura Embry / San Diego Union-Tribune / Zuma

Artist Manny Farber

Manhattan, 1978; the opening of a gallery show of Manny Farber's paintings. The art historian Jonathan Crary was there: "I was in a group around Manny when a young guy cut in, saying, 'I have to introduce myself, I'm one of your biggest fans,' and he went on with a meandering account of how Manny's writing had influenced him. Watching this total stranger, Manny stood there with a look of skeptical appraisal, until the guy concluded with, 'Your work has changed my life.' Manny replied convincingly, 'I doubt it.'"

I had a similar moment with Manny at the 1990 Telluride Film Festival, where he received a life achievement award that I was asked to present to him. I'd gotten to know him in the '70s when, as editor of Film Comment magazine, I'd run some of the last pieces he'd write in a 35-year spell of movie criticism, before he devoted full time to his art work and teaching at the University of California, San Diego. So I was aware that this Arizona native could be as courtly as a ranchhand in church; also that he wasn't reluctant to flash his acerbic side. We were chatting on a Telluride lawn, and, after I'd taken some conversational flight at what he considered too great an altitude or length, he stared dreamily into the middle distance and wondered aloud, "Do you think that if I broke your jaw they'd have to wire it shut?"

As a painter and a movie critic, Manny, who died at 91 last week, was the enemy of the ornate, the long-winded, the self-important. His collages asserted the artistic value of small things in boxes; his writing championed the cramped brilliance of little men in tight spots — in the B movies he loved and, through his writing, helped raise from forgotten to fashionable, from gargoyles to saints. At the same time he sniped at critics' darlings like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. (Citizen Kane was "exciting but hammy.") Above all, he urged the moviegoer's attention away from plot and social message and toward the vital energy occurring, as W.H. Auden wrote of Brueghel's Icarus, "Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

Manny sold these advanced ideas through a seductive, daunting prose style that left the alert reader exhausted and grateful. Much of it is collected in the you-must-order-it-now collection, Negative Space, first published in 1971 and reissued in expanded form in 1998. It's essential for anyone who has ever been to a movie or read a word of English. You'll learn how films should be seen, and how the language can be twisted, refined, expanded, improved, undercut, remade. (The frustrating news is that Negative Space represents only a small fraction of the Farber canon. The exhilarating news is that Robert Polito, one of the best of many writers on Manny, is preparing a multivolume set of the complete criticism, to be published by Harvard University Press.)

In a famous 1957 essay, "Underground Films," Manny argued that "the true masters of the male action film — such soldier-cowboy-gangster directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Keighley, the early, pre-Stagecoach John Ford, Anthony Mann" — deserved a higher place in the cinema canon than the big-theme directors who won Oscars and the praise of mainstream reviewers. He praised Hawks especially "because he shows a maximum speed, inner life, and view, with the least amount of flat foot." Manny's celebration of action directors took a while to kick in — it had to be doubled or seconded by Cahiers du Cinema critics in France, and Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael here — but to the next generation of critics his apostasy became dogma.

In another seminal essay, the 1962 "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," he focused his laser gaze on the new arthouse high priests, Francois Truffaut and Michelangelo Antonioni, finding them — and, by extension, their American admirers — guilty of a new version of Manny's original sin: "filling every pore of a work with darting Style and creative Vivacity." (Oh, the castrating sarcasm of the upper-case S and V.) He defined the first part of his dialectic as "Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago..." What he wanted was obsession within anonymity: termite art, operating under the floorboards of official culture, doing it in the dark, "where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it."

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