The Farber Mystery

Canonizing the work of American film criticism's most remarkable figure
by Jonathan Rosenbaum  posted September 22, 2009
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Following James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (2005), and American Movie Critics (2006), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber is the Library of America's third and so far most ambitious effort to canonize American film criticism—a daunting task that's been lined at every stage with booby traps, at least if one considers the degree to which film criticism might be regarded as one of the most ephemeral of literary genres. And this is certainly the volume that adds the most to what has previously been available; by rough estimate, it easily triples the amount of film criticism by Manny Farber that we have between book covers.

As Karl Marx once pointed out, quantity changes quality, but this doesn't entail any lessening of Farber's importance. I would even argue that both the nature and evolution of his taste and writing over 30-odd years, before he gave up criticism to concentrate on his painting, still make him the most remarkable figure American film criticism has ever had.

Bringing a painter's eye to film criticism and couching even his most serious observations in a snappy, slangy prose, Farber was the first American in his profession to write perceptively about the personal styles of directors and actors without any consumerist agendas or academic demonstrations. You couldn't quote him in ads because it wasn't always clear or even necessarily relevant whether he liked the movie or not.

Sometimes he showed the discernment of an aficionado: one remembers "a Cagney performance under the hands of a [William] Keighley...as a sinewy, life-marred exactness that is as quietly laid down as the smaller jobs played by the Barton MacLanes and Frankie Darros." Other times he went after poetic approximations: "Howard Hawks is a bravado specialist who always makes pictures about a Group. Fast dialogue, quirky costumes, the way a telephone is answered, every thing is held together by his weird Mother Hen instinct.

The editorial processes at work in all three Library of America volumes of film criticism have raised as many questions as they've answered. The same applies to Britton on Film, published this year and subtitled The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton—even though, as Brad Stevens pointed out in Sight and Sound last April, it's far from complete. (From this standpoint, the enlarged 2001 edition of Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience looks irreproachable—though Warshow's entire published oeuvre apparently still runs to only 300 pages, making things a lot simpler.) The title of the Agee volume seems to imply that all of his film writing but only a selection of his other journalism is included, which is far from the case. Agee published well over 200 unsigned film review columns and film-related profiles in Time between 1942 and 1948, and editor Michael Sragow added only 20 of these to the 38 included in the previously collected Agee on Film (1958). On the other hand, Farber, who died in 2008, requested that all 15 of his own Time movie columns in 1949-50 be excluded from his collected criticism because they were so often rewritten by editors that he didn't want to claim authorship—an exclusion that Agee apparently had neither the opportunity nor the expressed desire to make regarding his own prose in Time.

My objection to Sragow's work has less to do with any inclusion than with its omission of Agee's greatest single essay, unrelated to film and unpublished during his lifetime—"America, Look at Your Shame!" (1943), which can be found in the January-February 2003 issue of The Oxford-American and the collection James Agee Rediscovered. And Philip Lopate's selections and exclusions in American Movie Critics often regrettably seem to have more to do with social pecking orders than with literary or aesthetic criteria, at least regarding living figures. (When it comes to the pioneers, I may simply have a blind spot about his major discovery, Otis Ferguson, whose collected works have never affected my perceptions of either film or jazz, his two specialties, much less literature.)

The main issues raised by the canonized Farber are exclusions: his art criticism (40-odd pieces)—which does get discussed, along with Farber's painting, in editor Robert Polito's introduction—and a major interview conducted with Farber and Patricia Patterson (his partner and writing collaborator since the mid-1960s) by Richard Thompson in 1977. The latter comprises the last 43 pages of the superb 1998 expanded edition of Negative Space, Farber's only previous book. In both cases the losses are conceptual as well as textual, and despite the generosity of what remains, they are huge.

Segregating the art criticism from the film criticism and the TV criticism (all of which apparently is included) distorts the meaning of Farber's work in much the same way that isolating Jorge Luis Borges's fiction and nonfiction in separate canonizing volumes has done. You can't and shouldn't distinguish between the separate cultural branches of Farber's criticism because they all have things to say to one another. One can fully understand the niche-market rationale at the same time that one deplores the consequences. Similarly, I both understand and deplore the absence of the 1977 interview—a major and climactic critical statement that Farber and Patterson revised and worried over at length—as well as the inclusion of a Guggenheim grant proposal (clearly not intended for publication, unlike the interview) as the book's final Farber text, implausibly dated the same year. In fact, I moved permanently from London to San Diego in early 1977, to replace Farber as a teacher while he was on leave for his Guggenheim—which is why I can attest to his and Patricia's attitude toward that interview, conducted around the same time. Moreover, Manny had already hired me in 1976, whereas his proposal mentions me as one of the critics he expected to be "working with" in London.

On the other hand, I'll concede that sometimes "precise" memories are mistaken. The first time we met in San Diego, Farber admitted he'd misremembered having met me eight years before, in New York. For that matter, in my 1993 essay about him, I recorded my apparent discovery that when he came to my house in Del Mar to watch Preston Sturges's Christmas in July—which I was preparing to show in a class, and which he subsequently screened and lectured on many times himself—he'd never actually seen it before, though having co-written what clearly remains the definitive Sturges essay, he was too embarrassed to tell me this. Or so a mutual friend informed me. But "Preston Sturges: Satirist" in the December 21, 1942, issue of The New Republic makes it clear that Manny had seen Christmas in July back then. Ergo, it would probably be more accurate to say that 30-odd years later, in my living room, he rediscovered it.

In fairness to Polito, he does reprint a four-page fragment from the missing 1977 Farber interview in his notes (which is where the Guggenheim proposal should have gone), and he can't be accused of de-radicalizing Farber's work in his ambitious introduction, thoughtfully titled "Other Roads, Other Tracks." (The only error of his I spotted is misattributing an image described by Farber of boys sniffing a bicycle seat to Jules and Jim rather than Truffaut's earlier Les mistons.) Indeed, one of the best bits in the interview fragment is Farber's reply to the question, "Are there things in common in painting and criticism as you practice them?": "The brutal fact is that they're exactly the same thing." One could easily argue that the performative side of his film criticism, highlighted in both the interview and in his volatile teaching, is every bit as important as its relation to art criticism. As a contemporary of the action painters, born only five years after Pollock, Farber knew as much about brutal painterly facts as he knew about enactments, onscreen and off, and for anyone who attended his brilliant 1979 lecture at the Museum of Modern Art comparing '30s and '70s iconography (with Toni and The Honeymoon Killers among the key exhibits), it was difficult even to coherently separate the two. Yet this collection skimps them both, apparently for niche-market reasons.

Nevertheless, the wealth of what's offered is astonishing, both as historical chronicle and as a multilayered clarification. Like many of the clarifications about art/criticism coming from Farber, these gifts are frequently deepenings of mysteries—clarifications, in short, about what we don't know (or in some cases didn't know). There are even swamps and detours that one can get lost in, such as two separate pieces entitled "Nearer My Agee to Thee," written seven years apart. (The first, included in Negative Space, is a measured assessment of his late friend's film criticism; the second is more a grumble about the rising stock of both Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris in 1965.) Given Farber's demurrals about Chaplin when I knew him, it's startling to read his raves for the 1942 re-release of The Gold Rush (his third movie column) and for Limelight a decade later. He's also more positive about The Best Years of Our Lives, Hitchcock, and Native Land, and more critical of Renoir, To Have and Have Not, and Sullivan's Travels than I would have imagined.

Reviewing Brahm's Hangover Square, Lang's Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window, and Siodmak's The Suspect in one 1945 column, he settles on the last and least known of these today as his favorite. In 1944, he can write that the "two things" Gene Kelly "does least well—singing and dancing—are what he is given most consistently to do," yet reviewing Anchors Aweigh the next year, he calls him "the most exciting dancer to appear in Hollywood movies." For a critic who devoted his final piece in 1977 to Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, it's a nonlinear career of nonlinear writing and painting that encompasses a continuously unfolding education, and following its various curves, leaps, and dips is exhilarating.

Most striking of all, as Polito rightly stresses, is how few of Farber's boosts or pans are unmitigated. After paragraphs of relentless abuse meted out to The Magnificent Ambersons ("It stutters and stumbles as Welles submerges Tarkington's story in a mess of radio and stage technique")—peppered with the hyperbolic sarcasm that would remain in his prose, making him often sound as up-to-date as a cranky blogger—he adds that Orson Welles "wants realism and there's no one in Hollywood to touch him in its use." Even after dismissively scoffing at My Darling Clementine—his misgivings about John Ford appear to have settled in early—he pays sincere respects to five of its cast members.

These mixed or splintered evaluations are congruent with an overall resistance to methodical, empirical argument, so that pathways, as in his paintings, seem to overlap or encircle one another, backtrack or veer off the initial course, rather than pursue any logical succession. (As Polito puts it, "His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center.") Sometimes the best way to read Farber is to adopt some of the same contradictory, nonacademic principles—seeing him as both right and wrong (in the same review, paragraph, or even sentence), as pre-auteurist (in his early recognition of the directorial styles of Fuller, Hawks, Karlson, and Mann, well ahead of French critics or Sarris) and non-auteurist (as when he avoids mentioning Nicholas Ray, Jean Renoir, and Otto Preminger while reviewing On Dangerous Ground, This Land Is Mine, The Lusty Men, and Angel Face—attributing the first of these to no one, the second to Dudley Nichols, and the latter two to Howard Hughes).

Some of the cultural limitations of Farber's positions might be said to belong to their periods as much as to Farber himself: the machocentric harping on male performers and poses that seems to make him not only blanch at Maya Deren's films in 1946 but also call them "lesbianish" and their compositions and lighting "pansyish"; or, in that Guggenheim proposal about "Munich Films," the innocent confusion of labeling Jean-Marie Straub a "Frenchman" and making no distinction at all between Germans and Austrians (so that Murnau, Sternberg, Wilder, and Lang all get hastily shoveled into the same clause). Yet it's no less striking how his considered and principled invectives against segregated racial stereotypes in Tales of Manhattan (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Song of the South (1946), and even The Purple Heart (1944) all seem ahead of their times, at least within the white press. If, compared to Warshow, he seems unperturbed by the political insanity of My Son John (1952), he's far more attentive to the brilliance of Robert Walker's acting in it. Similarly, in contradistinction to the jejune swagger of some of his ‘60s wisecracks (whereby Jean-Pierre Léaud becomes Jean Pee Loud) are the deep appreciations of Akerman, Duras, Godard, Rivette, Snow, and Straub-Huillet when virtually all his colleagues were studiously ignoring them.

We should also remember that Farber wrote mostly during periods when production information of the kind that would inform our later readings of Ambersons and My Son John was unavailable and beyond the critical radar. And part of the bountiful history lesson afforded by this mammoth collection can be gleaned even from the uncorrected errors—such as Farber alluding to Fuller's Fixed Bayonets, almost a year after he boasted "I wouldn't mind seeing it seven times," as Broken Bayonets, at a time when neither his editors nor much of his readership were likely to notice the difference.  

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KEYWORDS

Manny Farber  |  film criticism  |  Hollywood  |  James Agee  |  painting  |  book review  |  Robert Polito  |  auteurism

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THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Rosenbaum served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2007. His most recent book is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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Author's Website: JonathanRosenbaum.com