By Jonathan Romney
Revered critic who analysed films as ‘moving collages’
Few film critics become revered cult figures in their own right, but the writer and painter Manny Farber was arguably the prime exception. Susan Sontag called Farber “the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic [the US] ever produced.” From the 1940s on, Farber originated a new strain in American film criticism.
His was a critical eye that examined films in detail, appreciating their rhythms, their use of visual space, the particular styles and presences of actors: an approach far removed from the literary, narrative-based approach that still dominates newspaper film reviewing. Adopting a pugnacious, talkative tone that has repeatedly been characterised as “hard-boiled”, Farber often concentrated on seemingly marginal aspects of a film – aspects that nevertheless crystallised a vital impression of what that film actually felt like to watch.
“A lot of the movies I went for,” he once explained, “were very much like the way we see and remember films – as fragments, gestures. We don’t retain whole shapes, but a sight gag from one, the cliffhanger from another, someone’s trousers from a third.” Farber would watch a film repeatedly, resulting in richly idiosyncratic analyses: a prime example being the 1976 response to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, “The Power and the Gory” (published in Film Comment), which Farber wrote in collaboration with his third wife, the painter and writer Patricia Patterson. One of his foremost critical aims, he once put it, was “burrowing into the movie.”
Farber favoured the work of cinema’s individuals and marginals rather than the conventional pantheon of “great” cinema, which he regarded as cumbersome and academic. His 1957 essay “Underground Films” was not, in fact, about the artistic underground but a defence of then forgotten or underrated “soldier-cowboy-gangster directors” such as Howard Hawks and William Wellman – the sort of film-maker who “uses private runways to the truth, while more famous directors take a slow, embalming surface route.”
An enduring manifesto was “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art” (1962), with Farber espousing the latter school over the masterpiece aspirations of the former. Farber argued for a provisional, hard- won form of film-making in which the creators “seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavour that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”
As he proposed, in a now famous definition, “a peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it always goes forward eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” Farber was extremely receptive to innovations in film language, espousing film-makers such as Godard in the 1960s and Nicolas Roeg and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s, as well as out-and-out experimentalists such as Michael Snow and Chantal Akerman.
The son of Russian Jewish parents, Farber was born in 1917 in Douglas, Arizona, where his father ran a dry-goods store. His studies in the 1930s included spells at the University of California, Berkeley; at Stanford University; and courses in painting in San Francisco, at the California School of Fine Arts and the Rudolf Schaeffer School of Design.
After briefly working as a carpenter, he moved to New York in 1942, where he became art critic, then film critic for The New Republic. He then succeeded James Agee as film critic at The Nation. Over the next three decades, he wrote on film for publications including Time, Film Comment, Artforum and the men’s magazine Cavalier. A collection of his criticism, Negative Space, was published in 1971 and reissued in expanded form in 1998.
In 1970, Farber began teaching film at the University of California at San Diego, retiring in 1987. Rather than screen films all the way through, he preferred to show individual reels, or single scenes, urging his students to “look hard at the frame”. As one former student put it, “he analysed a film as though it were a moving collage of many elements.”
Farber’s parallel career as painter took off in the era of Abstract Expressionism, and he held his first solo exhibition in 1957. His style developed in the 1970s, his canvases favouring intense colours and deploying quasi-still-life arrangements of diverse objects and images. Their subjects and titles allude both to cinema (to directors including Jean Renoir, Eric Rohmer and Robert Altman) and to the history of painting (Corot, Caravaggio et al). His exhibitions included a show at the Guggenheim, New York, in 1982, and a 1985 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
One of his paintings was the subject of a short film, Untitled: New Blue, made in 1995 by the director Paul Schrader. In 1999, Farber was the subject of a BBC2 television profile by the British film-maker Chris Petit.
Farber was a great verbal original who, said the critic J. Hoberman, “could twist the American vernacular into something like a salt pretzel.” He brought a new passion – rather than mere respectability – to the job of writing about film, and declared, “I can’t imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can’t imagine anything more valuable to do.”
Emmanuel Farber, painter and writer: born Douglas, Arizona 20 February 1917; three times married (one daughter); died Leucadia, California 18 August 2008.
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