Saturday, January 24, 2009

Manny Farber's film criticism

Negative Space is a collection of Manny Farber's legendary film criticism, originally published in magazines like The Nation and Artforum from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. (My paperback copy, given to me by my brother, is simply titled Movies (Hillstone, 1971).) Farber was a champion of what he called "termite art": creative products made by highly skilled craftsmen without pretensions or ulterior motives. He saw termite art as being exemplified by what he called "underground film"--meaning, mainly, the action or crime pictures churned out by the Hollywood studios to fill the B slot on a double bill. Typically made without expensive stars, shot on recycled sets or on location, these films display an inventiveness and a directness inspired by their modest budgets.

Farber contrasted termite art with what he called "white elephant art": bloated, big-budget spectaculars designed to showcase star performances or directorial technique or Important Issues and (not coincidentally) rake in awards and box office receipts. For Farber, watching a white elephant film usually became a battle between boredom and irritation.

However, his aesthetic judgments weren't always consistent. In an aside in an essay about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965), he praises Vertigo (1958) as Hitchcock's best film. I agree with him wholeheartedly, but Vertigo features major stars (James Stewart and Kim Novak) and foregrounds Hitchcock's directorial technique: the track-out zoom-in "vertigo" shot; the swirling, 360-degree pan around the kissing lovers; even an animated sequence. Shouldn't that make it (in Farber's estimation, anyway) a white elephant? Perhaps its box-office failure and the searingly personal nature of its themes blinded Farber to his own typology.

But you don't turn to Farber to find someone who is perfectly in sympathy with your own aesthetic judgments. For one thing, he's too spiky. Not many films get his full approval; praise for a film is almost always accompanied by an enumeration of the failures, bad faith, or misjudgments of its creative team.

And while his general tone--skepticism and disappointment--is usually clear, it can be hard to figure out exactly what he's saying in any given sentence. Farber wrote like a jazz musician plays, making associations (often to painting), using puns and neologisms, mashing incongruous words together into a phrase to try to express something important but elusive (in a description of an actor's performance, for example, what might "gelatinous frigidity" or "gloved fluidity" mean?). His hipster prose can sometimes be frustratingly opaque.

What can't be denied, though, is the sheer energy of his writing and the passion of his engagement with movies. When he writes that Michelangelo Antonioni's "aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance" (in "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art"), or that Preston Sturges' characters' "semicomic suffering arises from the disparity between the wild lusts generated by American society and the severity of its repressions" (in his essay on Sturges) he cuts straight to the heart of his subject.

So read him for that energy and passion, and because he appreciated particular producers (Val Lewton), directors (Howard Hawks) and genres (the crime movie style we now call film noir) long before it was fashionable to do so.

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