Wednesday, August 20, 2008

MANNY FARBER , 1917-2008


By Ted Burke

A friend of mine commented a couple of weeks ago that in a time when what we consume in popular culture is so prefabricated, formulated and test-marketed until all potential joy is legislated from its predictable husk, we tend to praise any movie, band, play, novel as "brilliant" that displays anything resembling a heart or half a wit about itself. Other superlatives come into play as well, like "great", "genius", "masterpiece" and all the rest, and the over rating of perfectly ordinary albeit respectable entertainment goes on. It's a sad and sorry cycle, especially in the case of the movies where the critic's assessments are most readily consumed by movie goers and used to pick the flick to while away the dark with. It's a sad time for anyone who wanted to write about movies because those that influenced--Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, James Agee--could think cogently about films in their essays. The shame of it all is that readers seem not to value critics who not only break with the reshuffled deck of platitudes and cliches that pass as criticism, but who offered as well a coherent, tirelessly focused take on the art of movies. The late Manny Farber was no mere contrarian loudly blowing his nose into a dirty rag, he was a writer who spoke instead about what it was in a movie maker's art that interested him.

Extracts from reviews in our current time are not pithy quotes from thoughtful and idiosyncratic points of view, of writers who actually did some heavy lifting when sussing through their responses to a movie. The cited remarks are "blurbs", concoctions of gutless verbs, lazy adjectives, and quizzical qualifiers that are more sound effects than meaningful statements. Pow, Zap, Pow!!! The passing of Manny Farber this week underscores the mediocrity of the scribblings that pass as film criticism these days. With newspapers dismissing their staff film reviewers in wholesale fashion, one pauses to consider if what Farber did exceedingly well and originally, think about movies, is headed for the dustbin of antiquated skill sets.

Painter and iconic film critic Manny Farber has passed away , and here I acknowledge a stylistic debt for my habits of critical mind. In both his film lectures at the University of California, San Diego and in his ground breaking collection of essays Negative Space, Farber, who nearly always appeared as if he'd been waken prematurely from a long hibernation, insisted that movies were an art form of their own, not an ancillary product of other mediums. He broke with the mainstream habits of subjecting Hollywood films to literary criteria and instead developed a method of appreciating movies and movie makers as practioners of
of a recent and dynamic art that told stories visually. It was a painter's eye he brought to the classic black and white and technicolor masterpieces the old factory system produced like proverbial clockwork, and the good professor was influential in getting a generation of film critics to come to observe the framing of a film and making note of how editing between scenes advanced a particular narrative psychology. One admired as well his writing style, half of which seemed like a cross between blunt-but-friendly bar talk and aggressively packed care packages of ideas about how moving images, cut into particular sequences, lit in a certain manner and framed in arresting perspectives and odd, telling angles could convey a complexly weaved narrative line, stylized, compelling, confounding audience expectation. He better than anyone else I've read or have listened to seemed as well equipped to appreciate the stylistics of a Howard Hughes or a John Ford and describe the effects they could achieve in creating fictions that were sensual, sexy, dynamic. Perhaps because he was a painter, he seemed intrigued by the small details, the arrangement of objects in a frame, the juxtapositions between classes and interests coming into conflict. He noted the small things that made movies work and pleasurable.

I took his classes back in the Seventies and early Eighties, and it was rather a treat to see this grumpy bear of an artist overcome his apparent discomfort at speaking in front of huge class rooms, rub his hand over his face, and point out the more salient, less conspicuous details of a director's visual art. More of a treat was when he would have other film professors and critics--Jean Pierre Gorin, Jonathan Rosenbaum-- suddenly have an exchange about the less obvious issues of film art. The topics weren't of particular interest to the general audience, but to a student obsessed with intellectual mavericks whose critical apparatus transcended the ordinary BS and
qualified as measures of genius, Manny Farber's film courses are among those moments one treasures and is thankful for having witnessed for a period.

Manny Farber, thank you.