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.

No comments: