I was going to begin by saying that it would be hard to find two consecutive sentences in the film writings of Manny Farber that do not immediately signal his unmistakable presence. But on trying the experiment, I have to amend that: it’s impossible to find even one sentence that could have been written by anyone else. One way to evoke him would be simply to string together a succession of such phrases, like comparing Orson Welles in The Third Man to “a nearly satiated baby at the breast” or describing the protagonist of Rossellini’s Open City as “so strained, shrunken and starved he reminds you of a wet string” or writing of the home front drama The Eve of St. Mark: “the father and mother and the sweetheart...go around with a pleased-as-Punch look, as though they were eating each other and finding they were all made of delicious candy.” For free invention in this form there has not been his like. His writing has often been compared to jazz but a certain strain of poetry might be an even more appropriate analogy for its most free-form moments. In a just-published review of Farber on Film, Howard Hampton likens the tone of his writing very aptly to John Ashbery’s supremely clamorous poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.”
Reading the early pieces collected for the first time in Farber on Film—the reviews from the 40s and early 50s that first appeared in The New Republic and The Nation—you get a fresh and noisy sense not just of the movies of the period but of the period itself. This is criticism as dialogue: dialogue with the movie he’s watching, and with the world in which he’s watching it. He writes not only about the movies but about the movie theaters, and the movie audiences. In 1944, for instance, he observes that “the character of the movie audience has changed radically during the war years...It has become a little more like the audience at a ball park...Moviegoers nowadays are running conversations with one another, criticizing the film while watching it, taking the whole thing far less seriously than formerly.” Many issues engage Farber in these early reviews. He devotes a great deal of attention to war documentaries, and often finds much to admire in British filmmaking as an alternative to the Hollywood model. He reverts often to the negative effects of censorship, declaring in 1944: “The movies cannot well remain exactly where they are now; the balance that has been maintained among the forces of big money, censorship and artists is becoming an imbalance.” Contemporary realities continually spill over into discussions of whatever product is passing in front of his gaze, whether Bambi or Juke Girl or Star Spangled Rhythm.
He never talks about a movie as if it were a discrete object in a separate aesthetic sphere: whatever is made overlaps with and is embedded in the real. In his own way he is one of those new moviegoers talking back at the screen. For Farber film is rarely an alternate dream world to be contemplated in submissive rapture but rather a process of engagement with the world that can be called to account by anyone looking at it. For the oneiric, the fantastic, the operatic, he has only limited use. He rejects the never-never-lands of Disney in favor of the “blunt” and “cold-blooded” humor of the Warner Brothers cartoons. In the films of Val Lewton—including such magnificently oneiric and fantastic works as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie—he admires precisely what subsists when the fantastic elements are discounted. As for production design, the satiny textures and exquisitely calibrated camera movements of Hollywood’s most luxuriantly glamorous period impress him not at all. He is looking for what manages on rare occasions to slip through them. Watching Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt he’s struck not by plot but by “the sudden switches in emotion in midstride of an activity: the abrupt change in the pace of a walk or the tone of a voice, the sudden hurrying of people into position.”
In his reviews of the 1940s and early 1950s a continuous subterranean argument develops, mostly in opposition to the perfected artifice of Hollywood’s A productions. “The fault at the heart of the movie, and of almost every other modern Hollywood movie,” he writes of Lewis Milestone’s The North Star in 1943, “is in a usurpation by the artist of the spectators’ brains and sensibility, in order to make the action of the film perfectly clear and understandable to them.” He finds more to admire in low-budget movies whose virtues may sometimes, he implies, have been arrived at by default, or at least by knowing not to overreach: “The B’s have generally a more convincing actuality than the expensive films, probably for the fact that they have less money to spend building sets and lighting them so they shine and sparkle, and designing costumes that almost walk by themselves.” Such films at their best preserve “Hollywood’s lost art—present-tense realism through low-budgeted, off-the-cuff, on-location technique.”
Hollywood, he writes, “has forgotten most of what it ever knew about the world.” Reviewing Jean Renoir’s The Southerner he writes approvingly that “the director does something as unusual as to use his camera as if it were the eyes of the family as they move into the house and around in it.” (Typically, he also remarks: “Director Renoir’s idea of a beautiful shot is a prettier, more obviously composed one than I care for, and too often the reason for walking an actor under a large tree, posing his head against clear sky, sending him into the forest to hunt possum, or almost drowning him in a flood, seems to be simply to film some scenery that the director likes.”)
The use of a hidden camera for the street scenes in The Lost Weekend in 1945 sends him into a protracted reverie in which he imagines filming scenes of ordinary life, in department stores and taverns, by means of a hidden camera. “If you wanted a picture of race prejudice,” he goes on, “you could send a Negro actor into a Southern bus with only one action to perform—he would sit down in a section where only white people were allowed to sit.” Here as elsewhere he writes not only about the films that are but the films could be, and he finds traces of them in odd moments and details of otherwise forgettable pictures. Out of a whole movie he will often save a single energetic fragment.
In a 1944 review he managed to weave in something like a theory of cinema, in an effort to define the notion of “theatricality” in film: “If the events are arranged to progress as if there were no camera present, if the camera merely watches and records what those events look like, the movie is to my mind the true nature of a movie: that is, it is non-theatrical and by way of being an anomaly in these days...If the events...are arranged before [the camera] as though it were the eyes of the audience and the events developed in order that they may be seen by the camera in the role of an audience, the process is essentially a theatrical one.” This of course leaves open the momentous question of by what means “events are arranged to progress as if there were no camera present.” Throughout his career Farber was harshly critical of anything he considered manipulative, anything that got in the way of direct perception. At one time or another directors as various and esteemed as Ford, Welles, and Kurosawa were dismissed for “pompous movie making” (that would be My Darling Clementine), “theatrical use of the camera” (that would be The Magnificent Ambersons), or “slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes attitude” (that would be Rashomon).
But we don’t go to Manny Farber for movie ratings. There are enough of those available on all sides. By the intensity of his attention he offers something much rarer, a reminder of why movies are important in the first place. That reminder comes not so much through direct statement as through a thousand separate instances juxtaposed in surprising ways, in a manner at once candid and oblique, as if his intent was to underscore rather than conceal internal contradictions. You don’t have to agree with his judgments to be moved by his statement in 1942: “There is no step I can think of in the process of making a movie where a signature is not cut into the film.” There is no page of his writing in which Manny Farber’s signature is not cut.