Termite Saint: "Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings"

A new collection presents film and art criticism alongside paintings by the great American writer and artist.
Carlos Valladares

Above: Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson in their Hudson Street apartment, New York City, 1967.

“Manny Farber writes a visual, sensory account of his thoughts, not necessarily the polished and fully articulated ones, but those which cumulatively add up to the rich life of the mind.”

—Josephine Halvorson

“The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma.”

—Patrick Star (star of SpongeBob SquarePants, termite-art for kids)

“You start anywhere and end up anywhere.”

—Luc Sante

2019 has turned out to be quite the year for film’s conquering hero, the writer and painter Manny Farber (1917–2008). The January-February 2019 issue of Film Comment featured a transcription of a never-published lecture delivered by Farber at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. Helen Molesworth put on an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles called “One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art,” in which his celebrated love of go-for-broke termiting-tapeworming-fungusing served as a “starting point for assembling works by a diverse group of contemporary artists who, like Farber, explore the problems and pleasures of the everyday.” And there was a presentation this June of films on Farber (Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures and Chris Petit’s Negative Space, introduced by Michael Almereyda—all Farber acolytes) at the Metrograph in New York—occasioned by the appearance of a new Gedenkschrift in honor of the late critic-professor-artist.

The pricey but handsome art book Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings (Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2019, $60) comes as the first major addition to the canon of writings by and about Farber since the seminal Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (New York: Library of America, 2009; edited by Robert Polito). There, Polito argued that “[Farber] was not only a great film critic, but also ultimately a great writer comparable to the strongest poets and novelists of his generation.” He goes on: “I  can’t think of any other film critic, and few critics of any stripe, who compel as much for the originality and vitality of their prose as for their observations.”1 Those who build a life out of film and criticism will agree; they will eventually have to face their relational position to Farber’s legacy, the powerful ideas he proposed (flung at the wall, really) about perception and existence.

Polito is one of three co-editors on Paintings and Writings, along with the novelist Jonathan Lethem and the director Michael Almereyda (who made Marjorie Prime and a documentary on the Southern termite photographer William Eggleston). They each contribute pieces on how Farber’s spilling-out method in both writing and painting has shaped their way of seeing the world. Polito and Luc Sante trace out Manny’s early childhood, the backgrounds of his psychiatrist brothers Les and David, and how the town of Douglas, Arizona shaped his views of language and landscape, which were intimately linked for Farber throughout his life. Lethem does an interesting experiment (“doomed to fail”) of recreating the bustle of Farber’s tabletop paintings in words—and, in typical Farberian fashion, his snatches go more places than the whole. In one of Lethem’s more powerful tangents, he explains how the true opposite of Farber’s termitism is not an elephant, white or otherwise, but “the unearned flight of a bird.” Lethem writes that, for Farber, “tabletops are planes proven, lived on with one’s elbows,” whereas the bird-fly-plane is stuck with a false illusion that it can see all from a God’s point-of-view (maybe that’s why Farber was so allergic to Hitchcock), when what the flying thing usually sees is clouds of generalized smoke, not steel observations made from terra firma. (The sculptor Richard Serra makes an uncannily similar point, noting that no one who circumnavigates his 1980 sculpture St. John’s Rotary Arc “can ascribe the multiplicity of views to a Gestalt reading of the Arc,” and that “its form remains ambiguous, indeterminable, unknowable as an entity.” That is to say: The idea that one can square a piece from all sides and come out with a whole is false, misleading, a waste of time; rather, the piece constantly refreshes itself based on the angle from which you choose to size it up. Aerial photographs of Serra’s Arc can only diminish the viewer’s experience because of those photos’ illusory promise that she, the viewer, can understand it all-of-a-whole.2)

One of the great things about Paintings and Writings is obvious in its title—paintings and writings. The book places a welcome emphasis on Farber’s painting and how film, for Farber, bisected with other arts and fields: books, jazz, comics, furniture, TV, college lectures. As he said in his 1977 Film Comment interview (his last major work of published criticism, before devoting himself entirely to painting and teaching), “American criticism doesn’t take cognizance of the crossover of arts, and American painting doesn’t take cognizance of it either. It’s always very provincial. I don’t get why other critics don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the other arts, because I think the Godard-Straub-Herzog-Fassbinder moviemakers do; the styles are so pertinent….It’s as if there were a law in film criticism that you’re not supposed to get involved in the other art forms.”3

Farber never overlooks—and neither did his closest collaborator, the painter Patricia Patterson, who deserves a whole book unto herself. A remarkable seer in her own right, Patterson (who was also Farber’s wife) co-wrote much of the dazzling later criticism (1966–1977) for which Farber is most praised. And though she is wary of crediting her own painting as the guiding spark that pushed Farber away from the abstract expressionist polemics of the 1960s into a representational language and grammar entirely his own, it’s hard not to see a correlation. Farber’s buzzing-lifes of candy bars, cluttered tabletops, and lazy Susans filled with cryptic clues from beloved auteurs’ work (a Fassbinder-via-Sirk TV, kinky Buñuel feet, some Sturges coffee-in-the-bunk) is in two-part harmony with Patterson’s studies of western Irish landscapes and ways-of-life on the Aran island of Inishmore (especially a painting, 1983’s The Kiss, that recalls Ford’s The Quiet Man with its vibrant colors and mysterious romantic tenderness but with none of the pomp or hokey phlegm that always trips Ford up). “Patricia was not only not an abstract painter,” writes Robert Walsh in the book, “she was deeply attached to art of the past, both the immediate and the long past, and she drew candidly from personal experience...As she would be the first to acknowledge, the rhythms and musicality of Manny’s work are all his, resulting in an intricate simultaneity, but it’s also clear that his sense of color, space, and line began to reflect and interact with Patricia’s.”

Farber took the least obvious routes into a work. His way of describing a movie eschews all the easy categories and known boxes you’re tempted to place those movies in. Plot, auteurs, value judgments (is it good/bad? does he like it?), moral lessons, analysis from theoretical lenses: It’s not that Farber doesn’t incorporate all of the above in his criticism, but that they never become the point from which he eye-flogs the film. He’s always sitting in the corner of the room, hazing around his eye’s target with these de-centered tools, evoking the textures of the film (which is fleeting by its projected nature). His paintings move from the same position as the criticism: “His paintings are often intimate narratives,” writes Polito, “yet they accelerate into a profusion of possible story lines and routes, without any definitive entrances, exits, or arcs.” Thus, he was able to make a bold claim for the ages on the difference between painting and criticism: “The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing.”4 Wilde beams.

In terms of the way it’s organized, Paintings and Writings has the splaying-out feel of its subject’s work, which is perhaps the highest compliment it could get. There’s no center, no obvious through-line, nary a thesis or a hermetically sealed argument about The Meaning of Manny. Its selection of Farber’s film criticism is aptly wacky: an early overview of the hero in 1940s American action films, an oddly full-out rave of Helen Levitt, James Agee, and Janice Loeb’s short Spanish Harlem documentary In The Street (1948), and a virtuosic okay late piece that takes a condescending but expectedly sharp-eyed look at the films of Sam Fuller (in 1969—The White Dog and The Big Red One were yet to come). More exciting is the uncollected selection of criticism on the other non-film arts that Farber wrote about, clustered around the 1940s. It’s exciting to read Farber on Pollock, Motherwell, Calder, and Mondrian as their works appeared—though this criticism is far more laudatory (and thus, for Farber, lesser) than, say, his caustic and withering assessments on similar sacred cows in film of the period (Minnelli’s The Clock, Reed and Greene’s The Third Man). My favorite piece in this “On Arts” dossier is Farber’s hard look at what makes daily newspaper comics tick (June 16, 1951). It has all the Farber trademarks: 

1. The sweeping assessments being staked in a genre that other intellectuals of his time would never deign to analyze, i.e. Farber’s claim that “the rococo, squiggling composition of the average comic strip is too intricate, difficult, and unorthodox for cultured eyes grown lazy on the flaccid drawing-with-color technique and the pillow-like form of modern painting.”

2. The howling one-liners that are treated as throwaway secondary descriptors in a sentence: “The comic-stripper—a funereal-faced craftsman who draws with his hat on and usually looks like an ex-saxophone-playing Republican—is...”

3. The casual, un-declamatory combination of high- and mass-art references that dissolves those synthetic divisions: “The comic-strip artists like Al Capp, Chet Gould, and Milt Caniff are the last in the great tradition of linear composers that started with Giotto and continued through Ingres”—a 1951 rehearsal to the unforgettable first line of Negative Space (1971): “Space is the most dramatic stylistic entity—from Giotto to Noland, from Intolerance to Weekend.”

4. The lovingly tinkered- and obsessed-over descriptions: “Every panel is distorted into life because Capp plays enough rage and gloom into each Dogpatch person and thing to bury his conventional moves under a forest of weird lettering and decisively stylized curiosities.”

The book also gives a much-needed primer into Farber’s professorship at the University of California, San Diego, where he taught between 1970 and 1987. The teaching is perhaps the least remarked-of and most elusive of the fields in which Farber worked; certainly due to its fleeting, performance-art aspects and hard-to-pin-down influential dimensions, it’s in the shadow of the painting and the criticism, and it’s not as solid as the carpentry. Paintings and Writings offers up illustrative examples of the kinds of questions Farber would pose to undergraduates—which, to put it mildly, are doozies:

“Identify the movie in which reading newspapers is a sign of masculinity, and woman is defined in the presence of washmachines.” (Answer: Godard—who is not a movie.)
“During one meal ([Roberto Rossellini’s] Voyage to Italy), the Joyces go to a larger window to see what all the noise is about in the courtyard: Explain the meaning and stylistics of this three or four shot sequence, using frame drawings and written material.”
“Which actor pokes holes in the air, while his ass juts at a 45 degree angle to the rear and he says things like, ‘Yeah, Big Ed’?” (If anyone knows the answer: for the love of God, DM me, I need to know: cvalladares0896@gmail.com.) 

His class handouts, in which he lushly describes each week’s director, are hitherto unknown extensions of his criticism. They are dense distillations of the concepts explored in his more ambulatory, more relatively relaxed criticism (yes—as crazy as it is to think that Farber’s Cagneyesque, all-over prose could ever be “relaxed”). Reading the class handouts, you get a sense of the challenges Farber faced when teaching: how do you evoke and explain Buñuel’s world to Southern California undergrads? Answer: you divvy Buñuel up into sections—stories, camera, editing, acting, etc.—and, in the process of description, come up with fleeting-solid impressions of the director that go beyond the quick-n-easy, ossified, cliché descriptors of him as an “subversive,” “darkly funny” “Spanish” “Surrealist” who “satirized the bourgeoisie.” For “Camera,” Farber writes: “In the post-Mexican films, the aisle effect is dislodged by side-dollying, half-hearted zooms, level changes, the figure being conceived in a fantasy-world roundness.” Under “Pace”: “Rumination...He thinks his movies: they are not grounded in the setting: pace often seems desultory, drugged.” And, under “repeated subjects”: “Bells [sic] of all types, leg shots, shoes, insects, erotic-succulent food scenes, road-street traveling set-ups, fall guys, the servant-master power fight, columns and archways, pratfalls with bottles-flowers-trays, church matter, dwarfs, bums, animals.” (Farber’s favorite pastime is listing weird items in order to make you see a work or a person more clearly.) Even more than the published criticism, these handouts have the feel of being thought up as they’re being written, thrown onto the page in a rush by a shoot-from-the-hip polymath who can’t be bothered to corral his thoughts into a neat, tidy plot. And it’s all in the service of getting us to see the director, film, artwork more closely—and, by extension, to live a life that brims with these sharpened senses.

A Macy's parade of minds has been gathered to pay tribute to Farber: Durga Chew-Bose, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Greil Marcus, Olivier Assayas, Gina Telaroli, Alice Waters, and the great termite director Kelly Reichardt, who, like me, tries to reconcile her love of Nashville (1975) with Farber’s neither-up-nor-down view of Altman as “a Svengali of surface funk.” Together, they all come up with a portrait of the artist as the premium seer, organizer, Rivettian guru of the medium we love and devote our lives to. Farber sees beyond the basics of plot, logic, coherence. This “termite saint” (Almereyda) digs deep into a thing, is anti-conclusions, starts in one place and ends somewhere weird and alive.

1. Robert Polito, interviewed by Rich Kelley, “Robert Polito: The one-of-a-kind ‘film investigations’ of Manny Farber,” 25 Feb 2016, first conducted October 2009, Library of America, URL: https://www.loa.org/news-and-views/1126-robert-polito-the-one-of-a-kind-film-investigations-of-manny-farber

2. Yve-Alain Bois, “A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara,” translated by John Shepley, October, vol. 29 (Summer 1984), p. 34. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/778306 

3. “Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson Interviewed by Richard Thomspon,” Film Comment, vol. 13, n. 3 (May-June 1977), p. 36-45, 54-60. URL: http://tlweb.latrobe.edu.au/humanities/screeningthepast/23/manny-farber-patricia-patterson.html 

4. Ibid.

Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings will be released Fall 2019 by Hat & Beard Press.

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