Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Closer and closer readings: Farber on Film

An essential volume on any film-lover's shelf, the new Farber on Film: the Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (Library of America, $40 US/$50 CAN) was edited by Robert Polito, who authored a terrific Jim Thompson biography some years back called Savage Art. Farber died last year at the age of 91. He hadn’t written about film since the 70s, when he dedicated himself full-time to painting. Yet his perspective retains a colossal vitality. He wasn’t bent on prescience. On the contrary, he was rigorous about seeing movies as they played to their moment in time. (It’s why he was wrong about the protagonist’s motivation in Taxi Driver—Travis Bickle’s gnomic personal obsessions have aged better than Farber’s suggestion that he should have been driven by pure need for celebrity.) But Farber immersed himself in films with an observational prowess that the rest of us are still trying to catch up to.

Taxi Driver

As promised in the subtitle, this doorstop delivers the whole course of Farber’s critical career, nearly 800 pages worth. The book has an exhaustive index and lends itself to random browsing, but there’s something cathartic in reading from cover-to-cover, in watching Farber develop his sensibility through the 40s in regular columns for
The New Republic or The Nation before seeing that sensibility come to full fruition in the expansive essays that populated his revered late collection Negative Space. As Polito notes in his superb introduction, “Farber is perhaps the only American critic of modernism to write as a modernist.” From the first sentence Farber is cantankerous and muscular and eager to push the language. From the first he’s broad in vision, weaving the state of wartime US politics and culture, the state of film industry and film art, into his arresting, provocative prose. From the first he thwarts the urge toward quick-fix criticism so that you can’t even tell if he likes something, and who cares when he’s drawing us always closer to really seeing and hearing what the movies are doing, what they can do, what they don’t do, what they should.

Double Indemnity

The title
Negative Space is apt: Farber can be pretty damned negative at times—at first blush you might wonder if he actually likes movies—while his roaming senses, trained by painting and photography, not to mention sports, always peruse the whole of the filmic space, digging into corners, probing the cavities, sometimes at the expense of certain elements we often cling to as being essential, like theme. While getting high on his championing of underdog works like Moontide or The Set-Up or anything produced by Val Lewton, my head spun and my jaw dropped when Farber, at times given to contrarianism, laid into Double Indemnity, The Magnificent Ambersons, Laura, My Darling Clementine, The Third Man, Sunset Blvd with such merciless, surgical precision. But Farber's readings feel more alive, more actively wrestling with these films and what they represent—where they fall in the culture—than the vast bulk of comfortably reverential, historically assured writing they’ve generated from hundreds of other writers—myself included. True, Farber’s take on Rashomon feels excessively sharpened by preconceived suspicions about Kurosawa’s flashy technique while basically ignoring the dark tide of uncertainty that undercuts its every scene, just as his dismissal of Billy Wilder’s cynical adoration of tough-talking lowlifes seems the product of Farber’s general repugnance toward Wilder’s employment of gloss. But unlike every other critic who’s ever used that laziest of pejoratives, “arty,” Farber invested the first half of his career in defining precisely what sort of threat studio era “artiness” posed.

High Sierra

While working through Farber’s ongoing reports from the American cinema of the 40s and 50s there were times I wondered if his division of films into the economical/unassuming/action-driven and the pretentious/Oscar-baiting/self-consciously flashy wasn’t too reductive, not to mention highly oriented toward, and more forgiving of, what can’t help but feel like an almost exclusively masculine sensibility. Yet the narrative inherent in
Farber on Film, the long and dogged establishing of a perspective, builds in increments, shaping itself through reflection, reassessment, comparison and cultural change, until we arrive at the first definitive statement of Farber’s thesis-in-progress, the 1962 essay ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.’ “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that 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.” White Elephant Art, by contrast, is plagued by “a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film.” Farber zeroes in on something that can manifest as many things for different viewers: spontaneity, abandon, risk, freshness, process-over-product, attentiveness to the full measure of what film can access, openness to accident. It also favours acting that seizes our fascination by being nothing more than, as he writes in ‘The Decline of the Actor,’ “simply curiosity flexing itself,” that prizes the fleeting exhilaration of something as ephemeral as Bogart glancing up at a street sign when he didn’t have to; the way Ida Lupino "works closely and guardedly to the camera, retracting into herself, steals scenes from Bogart at his most touching"; by the presence of Liv Ullman, "one of those rare passive Elegants in acting who can leave the screen to another actor and still score." The Elephant vs. Termite perspective found Farber embracing B-movies, where filmmakers were better able to wriggle free of the front office and quietly produce subversive wonders in the margins of often seemingly negligible material. It found Farber embracing sly supporting performances that could almost function as critiques of the pompous leads surrounding them. From ‘Pish-Tush’: “Movies that have become classics… are never more savage and uninhibited than in those moments when a whirring energy is created in the back of the static mannered acting of some great star.” But while Farber’s dichotomy remained in place, what compelled Farber changed radically as the 1960s changed assumptions about what might constitute artiness, termites and elephants. His gradual admiration and rich appreciations for Godard pays off all the more for the insights of his early skepticism. Defenses of Anthony Mann or Howard Hawks became defenses of artists as potentially "arty" as Chantal Ackerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog. He's actually quite friendly to Easy Rider, and to Terrence Malick. And far from cultivating a strictly male perspective, Farber gradually began to co-author essays with his wife Patricia Patterson. Among some of the best late essays are exhaustive assessments of Herzog, Luis Buñuel and Nicolas Roeg.

Farber, with typewriter and white-out

What’s great about
Farber on Film is that it emphasizes how good criticism takes nothing for granted. Writing an essay called ‘The Subverters’ in 1966, when film studies departments and popular critics were busy trying to build a canon, “to bring some order and shape to film history,” Farber declared such efforts “doomed to failure because of the subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.” This persistent unruliness of movies is among the things that make it so seductive to some and infuriating to others. The medium is all about motion, and it refuses to sit still and politely concede to definitive, settled judgments. So Farber moved along with it. His opinions were strong and ruthless—and always open to adjustment. He’s one of the only critics whose reviews the reviewed filmmakers—that all filmmakers—can actually learn from, to say nothing of audiences. I know I’m a better, more fulfilled, more stimulated film watcher for reading him. I only hope it can make me a better film critic, too.

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