Thursday, April 07, 2005
While we’re talking high and low, Sanford Schwartz has a fine essay on the inimitable Manny Farber in the current New York Review of Books (subscription only, alas). Farber is the eccentric critical wonder famous for his early (’40s-’60s) defense of the “B” movie and for the legendary distinction he invented to support it: Termite (swarming pop culture) vs White Elephant (auteurist, pretentious, etc) art.
Farber was a fascinating guy for a number of reasons. For one, he always wanted to be, of all things, a critic. Thought it a noble calling apparently, and wrote furiously for The New Republic , Time, The Nation and others for decades. And like his somewhat likeminded contemporary Pauline Kael (with whom he shared a love not just of the accomplishments of the studio system, but an instinctive distaste for cant and a freewheeling rhetorical style), he was rewarded for his dedication with actual influence over an important generation of artists. (I’m sure I’ll mangle the details here, but I think I remember reading that the reason Scorsese got to direct Taxi Driver is that when he headed out to LA to track down Paul Schrader, Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola were off on a pilgrimage to San Diego to meet with guru Farber.)
I first heard of Farber when I was in grad school in English at the very height of the Theory days, and I remember a friend patiently explaining the significance of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “minor literature” and the rhizome and thinking with relief, oh, that sounds like termite art. (I don’t know if I was right since I figured I didn’t have to read the D & G.) I never knew, though, that Farber was also a painter in his own right. Schwartz makes his paintings sound like his critical writing--charming, idiosyncratic, unplaceable. (Images here.) I’m sorry to have missed the recent touring show.
Without John Holbo it never would’ve occured to me, but Farber’s critical vision (and maybe his paintings too) look like straight, determinedly naive pastoral. The “B” movie and the studio system weren’t just good entertainment for him; they were a little outpost of a better world. In the long run he was no Kael. As Schwartz’s superb essay points out that might be because as a stylist he was too consistent with his own tastes--the suspicion of the monumental and the fascination for the minor, burrowing, aimlessness of the termite. Da Capo has a recently updated collection of his movie writing in press.
No, in the long run he was no Kael. He seemed to have no interest in self-promotion. He published only one collection, and that exceedingly whittled down. He stopped writing criticism when he stopped enjoying it.
Lest non-Farberites get the idea that he was some kind of grandpappy to “Film Threat” and Joe-Bob, I’ll mention his championing of Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Snow, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Marie Straub.
Not many citations of Farber’s Termite art essay mention that it was largely an attack on Tony Richardson and Francois Truffaut. “Pretension” isn’t Farber’s problem with their films. Erasure of any trace of a lived life is. The positive aspect of B-movies was their professional acceptance of (and reliance on) the unfortunate (or happy) accident. As movie production tightened in the 1960s, accidents became rare.
I wouldn’t compare Farber to Kael. Kael was interested in the substance of a film; she valued the films that overwhelmed her, thus allowing her to interpret them as she so often, for so many years, did so intelligently. Farber was far more of a stylist, both in what he valued visually in the films he reviewed and in how he wrote. Witness, for example, his deadpan review of “How to Marry a Millionarre” (1953): “The second Cinemascope production...is a mildy amusing comedy about three girls using an elaborate Sutton Place trap to catch millionairres. The very wide screen in Cinemascope may prove to be a death-trap for Hollywood stars, since it brings out every physical and personality trait.”
Could you imagine a contemporary critic writing so effectively deadpan? As much as I appreciate, say, A.O. Scott’s intelligence, he’d never be so subtle; he’d state how disappointed he is that the second movie ever filmed in Cinemascope was a formulaic comedy. He’d never trust the reader to understand that “very wide screen” condemned the film. Granted, that may be a complement to Scott, who knows how to write intelligently without alienating his audience, and therefore doesn’t attempt such “subtle” (and I scare-quote only because I don’t believe Farber’s readers would’ve considered it all that subtle) condemnations.
That said, I’m neither a film critic nor an art critic, so I’m limiting myself to Farber’s writing, but I will say this: I’m far too young to know Farber’s work, and only know it because writers as different as Greil Marcus, Ben Yagoda, Susan Orlean and John McPhee have all cited him as an influence; so if I consider him first as a prose stylist, you’ll understand why.