White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art — Manny Farber

Before you can begin to discuss Manny Farber’s film criticism, you have to ask yourself one question—why did he hate so many movies? The answer to this is no slam-dunk. It’s a question he must have asked himself with some regularity.

Nobody ever wrote about film the way Manny Farber did; and the way he wrote has influenced as many critics of the culture at large as it has those of film: Greil Marcus, Luc Sante, Dave Hickey, Jonathan Rosenblum, Kent Jones, have all drunk deep from his well. It is even difficult to imagine what kind of song Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris might have warbled if there had been no Manny Farber tuning his literary “A” to lead their chorus.

A new edition of virtually all of his film reviews has just been published by our own Editions des Pleiades, “The Library of America.” With a lengthy but essential introduction for a first-time Farber reader, editor Robert Polito provides a capsule biography of the critic as he leads us into and through the thicket of Farber’s prose. Trying to find the elusive writer himself is like trying to draw a bead on a fast-moving target that keeps changing its color.

Manny Farber was born on February 20, 1917, in Douglas, Arizona. His family home on Eighth Street was a mere five-block sprint from the Mexican border. Douglas was close to the town of Bisbee, site of a major copper mine, with famed Bisbee Blue turquoise, highly sought by Navaho artists, a prized by-product. Farber joked that the town founders placed Douglas downhill from Bisbee at the distance that a loaded copper ore car could roll before stopping. And like many Westerners from towns like this, Farber went to the Big Apple to make a name for himself. And like “Hoppy” Ray from Picher, Oklahoma, another mining town, Manny fell in love with movies as a boy—the same kind of movies as “Hoppy”—the low budget cowboy pictures and serials.

Farber muscled himself into a job as film critic for The New Republic in 1942 after a brief stint there as art critic; he replaced the legendary Otis Ferguson who was killed by a torpedo attack on his tanker. He moved on to Time magazine in 1949 (though he disavows his work there as, in then Time style, he was published without by-line and was heavily edited). He was fired from Time after a few months and then wrote for The Nation from 1949-1954, and The New Leader from 1957–59. He wrote for men’s magazine, Cavalier in 1966, and for Artforum and Film Comment during a crucial period of a changing ethos in American film during the mid and late 60s.

The differing missions of this eclectic group of periodicals reflected Farber’s evolving writing style, as well as a more general aesthetic change in his film criticism. And it is “criticism” that Farber penned, not weekly film reviews. His pieces often discussed several films at once; his pen swung back and forth, firing aesthetic buckshot in multiple directions. A film’s plot, which constitutes most so-called reviews, was usually of minor importance to him. In fact, he often assumed you had already seen the film under discussion. His reviews, like his paintings, have no entry point or center. In painting terms, you could say his writing and his art are both in an “overall” style. This erratic approach occasionally led him into “think pieces” which dealt with a more focused theme. This wider perspective became even wider when he focused on high-end film and art magazines such as Film Comment and Artforum. Not only did the writing become more theoretical, Farber began also to move away from the “B” movie films and directors he had so loved as an upstart critic. His writing shifted from the mid 60s on, toward more independent/auteur filmmakers—even more so after he left New York City, ceased being a writing film critic, and moved with his soon-to-be-wife and long-time writing partner, Patricia Patterson, to begin teaching painting and film in 1970 at the University of California at San Diego. Yes, painting. While his film classes would hold 300 students in rapturous attention at his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, Farber’s real love had become the teaching of painting and the ongoing development of his own vision. His painting classes usually were restricted to fewer than a dozen students.

Painting was a life-long love for Farber and his film criticism is riddled with pellets of painting references and ideas. One of his most important essays, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” from late 1962, begins with a several page discussion of Cezanne, Motherwell, DeKooning, and Warhol before hunkering down to a critical evisceration of Tony Richardson, François Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, with a quick jab into Orson Welles, one of his favorite targets going back to Citizen Kane.

The “termite” films that Farber praised are the bare bones action films of directors like Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Budd Boetticher and even Val Lewton, at a time when they were pretty much ignored by mainstream critics. He also favored Laurel and Hardy and Mack Sennett over Chaplin. The “white elephant” films that he so disdained are not necessarily the bloated costume period melodramas based on weighty “literary” antecedents, but films by now revered directors such as Zinneman, Huston, Hitchcock, and Wilder. In a piece from December 1952, called “Blame the Audience,” he pounces on what he calls “mostly smartly tooled art works of the times,” such as Sunset Boulevard. It becomes clear that American films of middlebrow culture, with aspirations toward humanistic sentiment, reek for him of insincerity, pretension and condescension to the intended audience. This disposition only intensifies as an even more formalized cinema from New Wave Europe breaks on American shores. Even from the time of Citizen Kane, when he abuses both Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland for “arty” lighting and compositions, Farber sees filmmakers who explore and exploit the techniques of filmmaking itself as being especially worthy of contempt—those who “treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prize worthy creativity.” Here is how he dissects François Truffaut, that most-beloved of directors:

An example of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is François Truffaut. Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Julès and Jim, two ratchety perpetual-motion machines devised by a French Rube Goldberg, leave behind the more obvious gadgetries of Requiem for a Heavyweight [another film he hated] and even the cleaner, blade-like journalism of The 400 Blows [to which he gave a semi-pass].

(My own simple parenthesis here is—why does he see self-conscious cinema style as “critic- devouring”? Is he so personally put-upon by Monsieur Truffaut and his exuberant, celluloid-intoxicated ilk? In true Farber-esque contradiction, he all but slobbered over early Godard, the most self-referential director of the New Wave.)

There is no one quite as anti-intellectual in America as a certain kind of intellectual. It is as if he sees certain tropes of taste and intelligence as being his own private provenance. Or maybe, it’s because he comes from a place like Douglas, Arizona and never feels like a press-fit in the art-ghettos of New York City. Once secure with a sinecure in the art capital of the world, is it necessary to flay what fellow-critic Dwight MacDonald called “Mid-cult” just because you now move in more rarefied circles? Lest you get the wrong idea here—even though I find many of Farber’s aesthetic circuits loaded with dialectic disconnects, it is partly this very mix that makes him so compulsively readable—that and the fact that he wrote with a vigor, rhythm and an informed perspective that no one else in film can touch. And his broad-based, richly informed allusiveness was like catnip to the next generation of film critics such as Kael and Sarris. Kael embraced Farber’s termite burrowing into the film image, the shot itself as ground zero exegesis; Sarris cast his net wider, creating circles of a “Pantheon” that starred many of the termite directors that Farber already had been praising for two decades.

Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber is the most compulsively readable and well-written book of film criticism you are likely to ever encounter. Yet, I can’t help but say simply, that much of what he says is pure invective; cheap shots at anyone who dares to inflate the cinematic balloon with “meaning.” Farber champions the small “a”,” not the big ‘A.” Here is a link to a book you can open at almost any page and find exciting, albeit contrarian, writing:

Amazon.com Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber link

An earlier collection, “Negative Space” is also available; it contains much of a lengthy interview that Farber and Patterson gave to Richard Thompson in 1977:

Amazon.com Negative Space: Manny Farber On The Movies link

Even as he seeks to kneecap many prestigious directors, Farber was one of the first to call attention and give belated credit to animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. His own cultural lodestones in all the arts were broad and popular based; it infused his writing style. He was as likely to quote Yogi Berra as Euripides. Coming from a small Western town and having to define his own cultural biases, he felt freer than most who were born into and educated within a fixed cultural constellation. It permeated his demotic and irreverent writing style. Robert Polito addresses this in his introduction. His opening sentence quotes Farber:

One of the most obvious facts about criticism is obvious… . It’s based on language and words. The desire is always to pursue: what does the word mean, or the sentence, or the paragraph, and where does it lead? As you follow language out, it becomes more and more webbed, complex.

This complexity is one of image, metaphor and allusion; it is always couched in accessible language. Farber never caved into the professional obfuscators of the “cinematic critical studies” fog that surrounded him. It does seem that such a hardscrabble writer would have no truck with the semiologists. But just as his writing style shifted as it appeared in more professional art and film magazines, his own self-awareness as a critic evolved in tandem. He has said that he used to write and talk about four or five films at once and in his teaching, he would bounce back and forth between several films. After some years teaching at UCSD, he laments that he can now get lost with his students inside a single film for hours. The 1977 interview he did with Richard Thompson is the closest I have found to a critical “Confession,” an open revelation of his critical “stance.” He talks about sports, painting, and his own back-story. According to Thompson, Farber and his wife, Patricia Patterson, reviewed, edited, and re-wrote over months, what had started as a simple audio interview. It is a lengthy piece, but it is so readable; Farber gives insight about how his focus as a teacher, well after he had stopped writing, shifted toward more demanding and insular directors such as Straub and Snow, Akerman and Duras, while still hovering around art house darlings like Herzog and Fassbinder. He no longer had any imperative to reach a general, if educated, audience. He may have been content largely talking to himself, the prerogative of anyone of his considerable intellect. Here is the interview:

Screening the Past article link

There is a deliberate dialectic in his later writings, more essay-like than review pieces. When he talks about scenes and shots you can feel him tugging at the edges of the frame to see if it will open up and spill out more information, or if it will snap back with the taut conviction of the true “auteur.”

My own read is that as he discovered himself more and more in his paintings, he compulsively sought out the detailed “termite burrowings” hidden deeper inside complex films. The carefully considered qualities of detail that he strove for in painting also inhabit his approach to film analysis.

Like fellow painter Philip Guston, Farber began ever so briefly as a figurative artist, then embraced abstraction and sometimes hung out with the Cedar Tavern A-E boys in the 50s, but returned to figurative painting in the late 60s. Farber found a way to cohere his love of film and of painting in work he called the “auteur series.” He used collage (montage) elements that evoked the thematic landscape of his favorite directors. Other highly “constructed” canvasses came out of his work in carpentry and included unlikely elements such as re-bar secured to the wooden “canvas.” Atypically, he worked on his paintings, as they lay flat on a table.

Here is a video describing one of his paintings, “Untitled: New Blue.” You can scan the intimate detail and close construction of his painting’s landscape. This work is in the collection of Paul Schrader; the BBC commissioned the film, which is directed by Schrader. While he has the deepest regard for Farber and his work, Schrader was influenced more by Kael in his own critical writings:

Untitled: New Blue link

It is way beyond the scope of what I can do here to discuss Farber’s painting, but a glimpse into it as well as a strong sense of the man himself is in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article from 1993, which he updated as an “obit” tribute after the critic/painter’s death at his home in Leucadia, California, on August 17, 2008. He was 91.

Rosenbaum had an on and off close relationship with Farber, almost as father/son, after Rosenbaum came to UCSD in March, 1997, at Farber’s invitation to serve as a teaching replacement. This insightful essay is full of details of Farber’s idiosyncratic personality, as well as an appraisal as to why, despite his often-maverick writing style, he is America’s greatest film critic.

www.jonathanrosenbaum.com link

Rosenblum concludes his essay with a story about a trip he made with Farber to Los Angeles when Farber was scheduled to give a lecture about painting at an art school. Farber discovered his socks didn’t match; he also had developed a bad case of stage fright in the parking lot before the event, and the much younger Rosenblum had to talk him down.

Of such seeming minor moments do the most imposing and irascible among us reveal the masks we create, when all we really want is to be understood.



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