Painter of pictures: The Farber equation is never simple.
That sentence is a variation on a Samuel Beckett line I've wanted to adapt for an essay, review, even poem, ever since I read the original in college. As the opening sentence to his first book, Beckett wrote, "The Proustian equation is never simple," and from the outset I was comforted by the promise of persistent, accelerating, perhaps eternal difficulty and puzzle. But as I repeated to myself the sentence over the years, at the blind start of any obstinate piece of writing, I found myself startled by Beckett's conflation of "Proustian" and "equation": his brisk juxtaposition of involuntary memory and the painstaking working through of quantities and variables.
I never found a space for the sentence because the bewilderment that Beckett's six words in my head customarily signaled turned out always to expose only a lack of preparation or confidence, a private anxiety that refused to intersect the subject at hand. But for Manny Farber's work as a writer and painter, the introductory oddities, muddles, crises, contradictions, dead ends, multiple alternatives, and divergent vistas spiral along "chains of rapport and intimate knowledge" (to quote his Artforum essay on director Don Siegel) into still more tangled and intractable mysteries; and, following Beckett on Proust, the Farber equation "creates a sustained, powerful, and lifelike pattern of dissonance" (to quote his City Lights essay on Preston Sturges) that insists on insinuating the steeped-in-time personal and sensual alongside the abstractly intellectual, formal, and conceptual.
For much of his writing life Farber was branded an advocate of action films and B movies--as though it might not be distinction enough merely to have been the first American critic to advance serious appreciations of Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, and Anthony Mann. Yet Farber resisted many noir films of the '40s as inflated and mannerist, and he also was among the first critics to write about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an early champion of Werner Herzog, and an exponent of such experimental directors as Michael Snow, George Kuchar, Andy Warhol, and Chantal Ackerman. As J. Hoberman remarked in the introduction to his collection Vulgar Modernism, Farber played "both ends against the middlebrow."
Still, Farber's notoriety as a film critic largely resides in his B movie-steeped, careering slams of the '50s and '60s--"The Gimp" (1952), "Underground Films" (1957), "Hard-Sell Cinema" (1957), and particularly "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962). The termite/white elephant essay cashiered "masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago." White elephant directors "blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion" or "pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Farber instead tracked the termite artist: "ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it." Termite art (or "termite-fungus-centipede art," as he also tagged it) is an "act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage." Against the white elephant "pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece," termite art mainly inheres in moments: "a few spots of tingling, jarring excitement" in a Cezanne painting "where he nibbles away at what he calls his 'small sensation'"; or John Wayne's "hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall" in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Farber traveled among the late-'30s generation of writers and critics, many aligned with The Partisan Review--Clement Greenberg, James Agee, Saul Bellow, Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Weldon Kees, and Otis Ferguson, among others. For his reviews and essays for the New Republic, The Nation, Time, Commentary, Commonweal, the New Leader, Cavalier, City Magazine, and (starting in 1967) his monthly column for Artforum, Farber tracked obvious and enduring affinities particularly with Ferguson, Agee, and Greenberg. Yet his approach to writing could not be more divergent, incongruous, idiosyncratic, perverse. Where Greenberg aimed at what might be termed an elegant lucidity, and Ferguson and Agee offered distinctive variations on conversational lyricism, Ferguson tilting toward '20s jazz, Agee canting into rhapsody, Farber as a critic is perhaps the only modernist to write as a modernist. He emerged as the boldest and most literary of film and art critics of the '40s and '50s by proceeding along almost stridently ant iliterary tangents. Farber advanced a topographical prose that aspired, termite fashion, through fragmentation, parody, allusion, multiple focus, and clashing diction, to engage the formal spaces of the new films and paintings he admired.
Farber's friend, the late Pauline Kael, condescended slightly to him during a Cineaste interview, remarking that "it's his analysis of the film frame as if it were a painter's canvas that's a real contribution." Farber could direct painterly thoughtfulness to issues such as color in Disney cartoons or slackness of camera in Hollywood features as far back as his first New Republic reviews, and in his criticism references from film and art always crisscross and trespass. Still, the correspondences in Farber's film criticism and his paintings are more radical and strategic. For nearly all the years he actively wrote criticism Farber worked as an abstract artist--as a painter, sculptor, and the creator of gallery installations and monumental oils on collaged paper. But shortly after he published his final film essay, "Beyond the New Wave: Kitchen Without Kitsch" (Film Comment, 1977) and moved from New York to San Diego with his wife, artist Patricia Patterson, to teach film and painting at the University of Calif ornia, he shifted to representational work--a profusion of candy bars, pieces of stationary, film titles, film directors, and domestic still lifes. Characteristically these paintings are multifocus and decentered. Intense detailing arrests the eye amid escalating strings of association: visual, cultural, and personal. They sometimes imply narratives, yet without positing the entrances, exits, and arcs of any particular preexistent story line. Despite their subjects, they can hardly be mistaken for Pop--but for all their conceptual focus on the medium, or on art history, they aren't abstract either.
Farber's paintings import film dynamics, but paradoxically. The controlling intelligence of an auteur director atomizes into a profusion of stories and routes; much as with an interactive e-book, a viewer can enter a painting only by realigning the givens. But Farber's film criticism, I want to suggest, is a prediction of the painter he would become. Certain reverenced directors--Hawks, Wellman, Sturges, Val Lewton, Don Siegel, Godard, Bresson, Warhol, Fassbinder--arise from the essays almost as self-portraits of that future painter. The painter that Farber will be is forecast in his observations and descriptions of his favorite directors, actors, and film moments, but also (and most vividly) in his writing style.
Farber once described his prose style as "a struggle to remain faithful to the transitory, multisuggestive complication of a movie image and/or negative space." No other critic has written so inventively or flexibly from inside the moment of a movie. His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center. One of his characteristic moves is a bold qualification of a qualification, in a sequence of radiant repositionings. There are rarely introductory overviews or concluding summaries, and transitions appear interchangeable with non sequiturs. Puns, jokes, lists, slippery metaphors, and snares of allusions supplant arguments. Farber wrenches nouns into verbs (Hawks, he writes, "landscapes action"), and sustains strings of divergent, perhaps irreconcilable adjectives such that praise can seem inseparable from censure--Touch of Evil, he writes, is "basically the best movie of Welles's cruddy middle peak period." Farber arrives at a kind of backdoor poetry: not lyrical, or routinely poetic, but startling and original. This is Farber on How I Won the War: "At its best, it has a crawling-along-the-earth cantankerousness and cruddiness, as though the war against fascism were being glimpsed by a cartooned earthworm from an outhouse on a fake hillbilly spread somewhere in the Carolinas."
Many of these aspects can be seen in Farber's magnificent Hawks piece, originally published in Artforum in 1969. The essay manages neither a welcoming preface nor a resolving conclusion--the start and finish are all canny abruptness. The first four long paragraphs compose a docket, or roster--one Hawks film for each paragraph. Farber situates Hawks inside a vast allusive complex--Piero's religious paintings, Cubist composition, Brueghel, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Tolkien, Eadweard Muybridge, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank; almost a kind of collage of allusive appropriation. Many phrases anticipate Farber's later paintings: "secret preoccupation with linking"; "builds detail on detail into a forbidding whirlwind"; "each bumping the other in an endless interplay"; "many plots are interwoven"; "the idea of topping, outmaneuvering"; "intricately locked humor"; "the ingenuity of its pragmatic engineering"; "the geography of gesture." And, rare for Farber's prose, there is an explicit autobiographical referenc e--to the border town of his birthplace. The seaport in Only Angels Have Wings might be good, he writes, for a Douglas, Arizona, high-school production.
In A Dandy's Gesture, 1977, one of two paintings focused on Hawks, Farber--using toys and miniatures--glances at images from the films: an airplane crashing into a chocolate candy mountain, from Only Angels Have Wings; a tiger, from Bringing Up Baby; an elephant, from Hatari!; a boat, from To Have and Have Not; and newspaper layout pages, from His Girl Friday, with gangster Johnny Lovo (from Scarface) in the headline. But by following the train scooting down the track on the left of the painting to a notebook, we discover Farber slyly inserting himself into the painting. A little reporter's pad quotes his own notes for his film class on Hawks at UC San Diego. What might be the lines connecting a director at work in the Hollywood studio system and a painter at work in a university--here, cramming for a lecture; or, perhaps, not cramming, but painting A Dandy's Gesture instead? Who is the gestural dandy of the title? Howard Hawks? Or Farber himself?
Hacks, 1975, from the "American Candy" series, is among Farber's earliest representational paintings and perhaps my favorite of his works on paper. Against overlapping gray-silver planes, Farber elegantly arrays networks of circles and lines. The circles: a lollipop at the bottom, a candy tin at the top left, corks. The lines: various candies--Tootsie Rolls, Black Crows, and the wondrous Hacks. All these confections would have been familiar to Farber from the movie concession stands of his childhood, much as the ground colors intimate the silver screen, and it's tempting to stroke some of the associations. The childhood moviehouse candy vies with intimations of adult life--the chocolate cigar at the right; the corks by the Tootsie Rolls. There is the sense of hack as in cut or bludgeon--a number of candy items are chopped off by the frame, or already half-eaten. During 1975 Farber also was writing movie reviews for Francis Ford Coppola's City Magazine, and was roughly eighteen months away from his last articl e. Inevitably, given all the film hints in Hacks, might a notion of the "critical hack" surge as well from the wily web of resonance? Farber hardly can expect a viewer to complete more than a few of the circuits he has coiled into his paintings like springs inside a jack-in-the-box. But much as in Beckett's earlier confounding of "Proustian" and "equation," it's the tangle of mechanism and memory that Farber is chasing here, the way the formal dynamics of multiperspective slide against the instinctive disclosures of a life. The Farber equation, as I said, is never simple.
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IN HIS 1957 ESSAY "Hard-Sell Cinema," Manny Farber talks about "the businessman-artist": someone who "has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation." Farber names Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz in jazz, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Elia Kazan in movies. It's one of many pieces in Negative Space where you get the idea Farber was in a bad mood pretty much from the beginning of the '50s to the end.
In particular Farber talks about New Yorker short-story writers. And he goes on and on and on until he gets to a phrase about "ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity." When I first read that sentence in 1971 or 1972, I found it absolutely terrifying. I found a lot of Negative Space terrifying.
One of the things that I found scariest were the pieces in which Farber went through the work of a particular person, like Howard Hawks, in three or four pages. Just like that--boom, boom, boom, in and out. Like somebody walking through a room and looking around, going in one door and out the other.
The idea, the arrogance, the sense that there were only a certain number of things that really needed to be said and that I, Manny Farber, know what they are, and here they are, and out the door. That was terrifying. It seemed like half of what he wrote was in a five-minute vein, even if it took seven minutes to read.
"Ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity." It's scary for a writer to come across a sentence that so plainly says what it means, in which the prose is so exquisitely balanced, and you take pleasure in the way the words are put together, and you worry that you've written things about which something like that could be said over and over and over again.
Walter Benjamin once said that an author who teaches a writer nothing teaches nobody anything. One thing that I think happens for many writers reading Farber is that they feel themselves on trial. They feel this same scrutiny that's brought to bear on actors, on directors, on painters, on musicians, on comic-strip artists. Maybe they feel lucky that Manny Farber has never read them and therefore doesn't have an opinion on them.
I THINK A LOT OF US here tonight will agree that Manny has produced one of the most original and compelling bodies of work of any American painter in the last thirty years, an art that is at once a relentlessly cerebral product of mind and at the same time the product of a lived involvement with processes and materials which bears the tracks of physical, affective experience. I am brief here, keeping in mind one of my first memories of Manny. It was at his remarkable P.S. 1 show in 1978, where many works of the "candy" and "stationary" series were being shown and some of the first "director" paintings. I was in a group around Manny when a young guy cut in, saying, "I have to introduce myself, I'm one of your biggest fans," and he went on with a meandering account of how Manny's writing had influenced him. Watching this total stranger, Manny stood there with a look of skeptical appraisal, until the guy concluded with, "Your work has changed my life." Manny replied convincingly, "I doubt it." It's not that he h as any trouble listening to praise; it was just that this person could have delivered it with a more Hawksian efficiency.
THERE'S BEEN A LOT of talk about Manny's desire to nail things. The first time we ever met was in the hotel where he and Patricia stay when they come to New York. And we sat down to talk. And there was a woman playing a harp in the background. God knows why at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Saturday there was a woman playing a harp in the middle of the hotel, which was deserted.
But we're sitting there having our coffee and talking. And every once in a while Manny would stop in the middle of a sentence and say something like, "Gee that harp, the way that it drags. It's like she's one note behind the melody, and she's really supposed to be there"--and he kept working at it throughout the conversation until he finally nailed what it was about this harp player that was driving him bananas.
FARBER IS NEITHER overly kind nor cruel, just bracingly resolute. His pronouncements always feel solid and grounded, even when they're a bit wacky. You have to be prepared to have sacred cows punctured. For instance, he refers to Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour as Catherine Deadnerve. And he says of Jeanne Moreau in Jacques Demy's Bay of the Angels, "She piles herself with outsize boas, eyelashes, cigarette lighters, corsets, wigs. This is supposed to prove that she's psychologically doomed."
But Farber writes in such a way that disagreeing with him feels liberating rather than constricting. He's not so much dictating opinions as shooting out darts. Even though he's a very cerebral critic, he's also unfailingly generous in the way he frees each of us from our own private, personal shame as moviegoers. So many times people will say, "Oh I'm embarrassed to say it, but I really loved The Fast and the Furious"--a drag-race movie. Or The Specialist with Sylvester Stallone. It's that whole idea of guilty pleasure, which assumes that pleasure always has to be justified.
Farber certainly knows the meaning of pleasure without shame. The trick is that he doesn't allow us to be dopey or lazy in that pleasure. Implicit in everything he writes is a challenge: He demands that you think your way through pleasure, that you have to isolate what you enjoy about a work and think about why it gets to you. In that sense he's written beautifully on B-movie directors like Val Lewton and Sam Fuller, people who were largely ignored before he wrote about them, or forgotten character actors like Eric Blore and Eugene Pallette. And he takes Warner Bros. cartoons just seriously enough.
I WANT TO BRIEFLY NOTE a dimension of Manny's life that hasn't really been touched on tonight. When I was a colleague of Manny and Patricia's at UC San Diego in the mid-'80s, I became aware of the daily texture of his work life, which oscillated between teaching film and working in his large on-campus studio. It was clear that there was some circuitous but never traceable continuum between the movies he screened for his students and the increasingly large paintings he was making during those years. But what I want to recall is the richness and brilliance of his lectures. The visual-art department at UCSD back then included a whole crew of legendary artist-talker-performer-teachers, and Manny had his own matchless style of performance--a talking that developed ideas along pathways very distinct from his writing. Of course it was all stunningly improvisatory, and the rhythms he built up were of continually entering and retreating from the clip he had just screened. Refusing any bottom lines or closure, Manny co uld keep locating new openings, details, and temporalities that would upset any familiar or settled perception of a work. And there were times when he did his talking gig for other audiences, like his famous lecture at MOMA around 1980 when he screened excerpts from a '40s Our Gang episode, a Renoir film from the '30s, and Honeymoon Killers from 1969. Totally outside any high/low debate, Manny tunneled into these films and showed the human craft, the particular shape of empathy that made them work, that animated them in equally complex ways.
One evening a bunch of us had driven down to a mall outside San Diego to see a movie; it was Moonlighting, an English-language film by Jerzy Skolimowski, the one where Jeremy Irons plays a Polish construction contractor renovating a brownstone in London. So we all went out to dinner after the movie. Jean-Pierre Gorin was there, and he and Manny didn't like the film. They began to pick it apart. For Manny, with his background as a carpenter, Skolimowski's use of the extended rebuilding and renovating of a house was all wrong, completely off on the processes of making and working, and off in its facile statement about the political situation in Poland. Manny's daughter, Amanda, was part of the group, with her then boyfriend. It became kind of a generational thing. The two of them chimed in aggressively, "Why are you guys always so negative? Why are you ripping apart this film? Can't you ever like anything?" and so on. Things continued to get heated and finally Manny raised his voice and said "I care. I care that Skolimowski made a bad film." He said, "I care that he didn't get it right. "
IN THEIR PIECE on Raoul Walsh, Manny and Patricia were saying that he deserved to be reseen through a modern looking glass but that it was important to understand that Walsh was fundamentally a product of the studio system. You can't turn him into a modern auteurist fantasy figure absolved of all those studio constraints. Manny always places every element of every film very carefully.
By the same token, what Manny's also saying is that if you're looking at a movie, don't just write that this shot relates back to this or that film from the past. Say how it relates to other contemporary objects from literature, from music, from painting. A film speaks from its own time, like all works of art. Manny's criticism is about trying to find a way of looking at the moment the film was generated and then at the moment it's being examined and how they overlap and how they oppose one another. That's an incredibly important idea, and I haven't read many critics who've actually followed it.
WHEN YOU START TO READ one of Manny Farber's pieces, you have no clear sense of where he's going to take you. He jumps right into the surface of a movie, and you're looking around to see where he is going to pop up next, to see what he is going to come up with. He comes up with dazzling arguments and delightful turns of phrase. It's constantly surprising.
I think that sense of surprise is matched by few critics. The other critic who shares that quality is Farber's friend and colleague Pauline Kael, but he is even more freewheeling and wild in the way he makes connections. That's probably why his work feels so fresh, even today.
WHEN YOU'RE READING Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism and he's talking about, say, a camera movement in a Sam Fuller movie, you're thinking, well, it's not a surprise that this guy would go on to become a director and, in fact, use camera movements exactly like that. What Manny did, by contrast, was to actually describe the movie. So if you're reading his pieces from the '60s, like "Cartooned Hip Acting" or "The Decline of the Actor," he's describing the changes that were seeping into the way movies were being made and the way things were being visualized--the differences in acting, the way that the actor was used in film in the '30s and '40s as opposed to the '60s, when, as he says of Antonioni, or of the John Huston movie Freud, the actors are reduced to patches of light hacked out of the overall darkness of the frame.
It doesn't matter whether you agree with what Manny has to say. I like some Antonioni movies and I like plenty of white elephant movies. But the point is, the description is the most important thing, as opposed to the value judgment.
FROM FARBER'S WRITING you get the sense that he loves the challenge of being confused by a movie or a director. Often the process of thinking about a movie is right there in the structure of his piece. Here, for example, is what he says about Jean-Luc Godard: "Godard's legacy to film history already includes a school of estranged clown fish, intellectual ineffectuals, a vivid communication of mucking about, a good eye for damp villas in the suburbs, an ability to turn any actress into a doll, part of the decor, some great still shots that have an irascible energy, an endless supply of lists. I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing, or be an audience to film writing which gets to the heart of an obvious idea and hangs in there, or be so edified by the sound and sight of decent, noble words spoken with utter piety. In short, no other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass."
That's about the most honest piece of criticism I've ever read. Any critic who can preserve and heighten the pleasure movies can give us, as well as make us think harder about them, is all too rare. For that reason I treasure Negative Space. I sometimes want to shake it or throw it against the wall, but I always want it close by.
THERE ARE TWO THINGS that stand out for me in Negative Space and have for over thirty years now. One is a passage where Farber is talking about the best films of 1951. The last one he mentions is "a Chuck Jones animated cartoon--the name escapes me," and he goes on and describes it. He doesn't even bother to ask somebody what it was called, let alone make a phone call or look it up. Just what the hell.
The other is where Farber is complaining about some movie, and he says, "It isn't sustained." Then there's a parenthetical that says, "But how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?" What was really scary to me about that line, and it's scary today, is that never having seen Musketeers of Pig Alley, I didn't know if this was a joke or if, in fact, it's the only movie in eighty years that's been sustained. I still don't know. So you can dive into this book, and, if you are like me, you will never get out.
Robert Polito is director of the Graduate Writing Program at the New School University, New York. (See Contributors.)
ROBERT POLITO is director of the graduate writing program at the New School University in New York and the author of A Reader's Guide to James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (University of Michigan Press, 1994) and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (Alfred A. Knopf/ Vintage, 1996), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Polito served as editor for the Library of America's two editions on midcentury noir fiction, and he is currently compiling a volume of the film and art criticism of Manny Farber. In December, Farber's writing and painting was the subject of the second in the "Artists Writing on Art" discussion series cosponsored by Artforum and the New School; in this issue Polito, the evening's moderator, provides an overview of the critic-painter and his career. Polito's essay appears alongside contributions from panelists Jonathan Crary, Kent Jones, Greil Marcus, and Stephanie Zacharek. PHOTO: MARION ETTLINGER
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|Title Annotation:||Manny Farber|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2002|
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