19 August 2008

Manny Farber (1917-2008)

There's an interview piece toward the back of Manny Farber's book Negative Space in which the great film critic opines on the essential uselessness of opinions. Evaluation, he says, is "practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that." It's a trenchant position, but one that I've tried to take to heart in my own writing over the years. And surely the essential truth in these words has never been more relevant than now, with the omnipresence of opionionated bloviators of all stripes on all subjects clogging up our headspace.

Farber, who died Monday at the age of 91, never really considered himself a film critic—he was adamant that painting was his primary vocation—but nevertheless wound up being one of the most influential writers about film in the history of the medium. This wasn't primarily a function of his inimitable prose style, his keen attention to visual detial, or his discerning taste in cinema, but of a certain attitude, one best encapsulated in his famous concept of "termite art." Termite art, as defined by Farber, "feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into the conditions of the next achievement." This insistence on organically developing one's own aesthetic was both the subject and substance of Farber's criticism, both its content and its form. Farber will be remembered, and rightly so, as an early champion of American action directors—the essential Negative Space contains a pair of key 1969 pieces on Sam Fuller and Don Siegel—but his own termite-like approach was just as effective when zeroing in on the nuances of the more celebrated European art films, whether he liked a given film or not.

Never as widely read as writers like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, Farber remains a somewhat rarefied taste. There's a quote attributed to Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground, something about how no one bought their first album but that everyone who did formed a band of their own. That sort of describes Farber's legendary status as the ultimate critic's critic.

I would try to characterize Farber's writing style, but I know when I'm beat. Instead I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits, the final paragraph of a 1968 essay on Jean-Luc Godard, an art film director who Farber did like (I think). This is also found in Negative Space, which you really must buy today if you don't own it already:

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.

09 August 2008

The Righteous Path

One of the innumerable pernicious side effects of the red state/blue state wars of the Bush years has been that it’s once again become okay to bash the South. TV news personalities have smugly railed against the continuing presence of Confederate flags in the region, Democratic political strategists have written books suggesting the party should completely ignore the South, and, in an ironic mirroring of Republican race-baiting, the general idea has taken hold among a lot of otherwise liberal-minded types that this country would be just fine if not for those people holding us back.

I don’t mean to say that none of this is rooted in reality, but of course it’s not the whole reality. Enter Patterson Hood and his band, the Drive-By Truckers, who’ve spent the past decade or so exploring what Hood has termed “the duality of the Southern thing.” Born and raised in the northwest Alabama town of Florence, the son of famed session bassist David Hood began writing songs in grade school. He formed the Truckers in 1996 with Mike Cooley, a friend from his college days a decade earlier. After a couple middling albums, the band scored a major indie rock hit with the double-disc Southern Rock Opera (2001), a loose concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. This kicked off a run of fine records including Decoration Day (2003), the gangsta rock opus The Dirty South (2004), and (passing quietly over the 2006 dud A Blessing and a Curse) this year’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the band’s widest-ranging album to date and possibly its best. Of all American rock bands, only Spoon has put together four albums as good this decade.

What’s remarkable about Hood’s songwriting is not that his music and lyrics present a multifaceted, morally complex view of the South; this is precisely what one would expect from an artist of his caliber and background. What’s remarkable is that he does so without a trace of rancor or defensiveness. The closest thing to a mission statement in the Truckers’ catalog is a Southern Rock Opera track called “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” The icons in question are former governor George Wallace, legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt (who as Hood dutifully notes “wasn’t from Alabama, he was from Florida”), but Bryant and Van Zandt largely take a backseat in a song that develops into an insightful and nuanced meditation on the legacy of Wallace. Forsaking his usual melodic rasp, Hood skillfully intertwines history with his own biography. Noting that “race was only an issue on TV in my house,” he remembers the shock he felt upon leaving the South for the first time and realizing that Wallace (portrayed in the song not as a hardcore racist but as a cynical politician who exploited prejudice for votes) and the venom he spewed were considered typical of the region and its people by most non-Southerners.

The sophistication of Hood and his bandmates about the Southern thing allows the Truckers not only to preserve the best of the region’s history and attitude but to shine a light on its seamier side as well. With the exception of two songs about the war in Iraq—the PTSD-glossing “The Man I Shot” and “The Home Front,” a heartbreaker inspired by Hood’s encounter with the family of a Truckers fan killed in Iraq mere days before he was scheduled to return home—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark features little overtly political material. And with the exception of a pair of outright country songs from Cooley, including a minor stroke of genius about a small-town guy named “Bob,” there’s little here that strays outside the bounds of Southern rock, as defined on the band’s previous albums. As usual, it’s the acuity and empathy of the band’s songwriters—including Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker, but especially Hood—that carries the day.

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark encompasses the usual assortment of good citizens and shady characters—as well as some who may be a little of both—all portrayed with some sympathy. Whether an alcoholic dad or an itinerant musician, a war widow or a drug dealer, the characters here are all ordinary people stranded in an indecipherable world. We all make our choices in life and Hood’s not here to pass judgment—he’s the type of songwriter who, even while decrying a friend’s descent into crystal meth addiction, feels the need to throw in “I ain’t exactly a no-drug guy.” Hood’s far more interested in the way his characters view themselves. “I don’t know God but I fear his wrath/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path,” says one of his southern Everymen in “The Righteous Path," and it’s a sentiment one can imagine coming from nearly any of the album’s characters, including the addicts and criminals. In this version of the American South, everyone’s just trying to get by, and if some are doing so a little differently than others, then well, there’s “no time for self-pity or that other crap.”

It’s a worldview about as far from the programmatic idiocy of partisan politics as one can imagine. Neither of the Iraq songs makes any mention of the politics surrounding the war. Hood surely has his opinions and so do you and I, but it’s all been said over and over again by now and he’s smart enough to know that no one needs another lecture, least of all from a guitar player.