Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Uplifting Criticism

A reel film reviewer

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  The question I hate is: What are your favorite movies? It's easier to answer: Who do you read?

There are a handful of critics scattered around the country I like, and almost all of those who are still writing have been influenced by Manny Farber, whose acute, crackling essays are once again between soft-covers in all their hard-headed, syncopated glory.

From the Village Voice's J. Hoberman to Variety's Todd McCarthy and the New York Daily News' Dave Kehr, you can often discern faint echoes of Farber's indelibly smart and supremely stylish lilt.

Farber is one of the indispensable prose writers of our time, a great entertainer in his own write, yet deeper concerns than his own words permeate these pages. "One of the joys of moviegoing," he once wrote, "is worrying over the fact that what is referred to as Hawks might be [screenwriter] Jules Furthman... and that, when people talk about Bogart's 'peculiarly American' brand of scarred, sophisticated cynicism they are really talking about what Ida Lupino, Ward Bond, or even Stepin Fetchit provided in unmistakable scene-stealing moments."

These essays are ripe with an appreciation for texture, for the depth or shallowness of cinematic space, for stolen moments, for the wiles of Hollywood's cheese-headed bores. Writing on films as diverse as those of Preston Sturges, Werner Herzog, Don Siegel and Nicolas Roeg, Farber does not blink. He's our best: a curmudgeon, but a painstaking one who concedes that his effects are like the layering and smearing and reworking of layers of paint, that he is "unable to write anything at all without extraordinary amounts of rewriting."

Farber began writing about art and film for the New Republic in 1942, and from the start, was an ardent foe of corn and deep-dish psychologizing, seeking out movies that were content to go about "eating their own boundaries." The long out-of-print 1971 "Negative Space" drew from his work to that date, and the new edition includes the lengthy, thoughtful, tumultuous collaborations with his wife Patricia Patterson, also an artist and teacher, as well as an interview where the duo set out their precepts for how they decided to write about the world before them. Two of the best: "Burrowing into the movie, which includes extending the piece, collaging a whole article with pace changes, multiple tones, getting different voices into it" and "Giving the audience some uplift."

Farber gives uplift to movies high and low, and was an early champion of kino-fist auteur Sam Fuller, among other action directors. Describing Fuller's "no-flab" work, Farber writes, "Though he lacks the stamina and range of Chester Gould or the endlessly creative Fats Waller, Sam Fuller directs and writes an inadvertently charming film that has some of their qualities: lyricism, real iconoclasm, and a comic lack of self-consciousness." Farber finesses those assertions for a few pages and moves on to the next concatenation of unlikely sparks, whaling away at the wailing sob sisters of Hollywood "white elephant" art, championing the "termite art" of painting or film that is not "yawning productions[s] of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition..."

Who alive is writing sentences like this today, and who would not want to? "Good work usually arises when the creators... seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or anything... It goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

Farber's work is so rich with a love of the artist's process - "process-mad," he says - of the yeasty, yawping potential of rhetoric and style that it seems cheap to point out that the values he champions in the work of others shines like a beacon from almost every sentence he's put to page. Farber is still active as a painter, fifty-five years into his career, his gray-shocked head recently glowering out from above a black sweater amid the perfumed pages of Vanity Fair from his studio, with an encomium by the tin-eared acolyte James Wolcott, who is perhaps the anti-Manny, his prosaic plumage a cackling caricature of what magic Farber wreaks with unlikely verbiage.

From 1975 to 1977, Farber published with his wife Patterson a handful of longer pieces that contain some of the most acute contemporary criticism, particularly on the early work of Fassbinder, on "Jeanne Dielman," Chantal Akerman's attempt to bridge the discourse of commercial and structural filmmaking, and most accessibly, "The Power and the Gory," their conflicted, unyielding take on "Taxi Driver." For all their admiration, they still cut to the eye of the stylistic hurricane: "Lots of things in 'Taxi Driver' are diversions keeping the audience's mind from the fact that it's not getting the Promised Land: the inner workings of a repressed, ignorant fantasist, the mind of a baby whore, the experience of being a taxi driver twelve hours a day in the incredible New York street noise and jostle." Shortly after "Negative Space" was published, Farber began teaching at the University of California at San Diego, scooping up acolytes like the director Michael Almereyda, who told me, "Manny was my first flesh-and-blood guide to movie culture, to culture as a present tense activity." As you read these essays, head-noted with dates like "1951" or "1968," they seem less timeless than forever timely: the force of Farber's (and Patterson's) mind and wind suggests they could be written tomorrow and be the freshest contrast of black on white to be found anywhere.

by Ray Pride

Negative Space:
Manny Farber on the Movies
Expanded Edition
DaCapo, $15.95 paper


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