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Farber on Film: Introduction, Part 1 (Other Roads, Other Tracks)

Robert Polito

Other Roads, Other Tracks

Criticism is very important, and difficult. I can’t think of a better thing for a person to do.

—Manny Farber

“One of the most important facts about criticism is obvious,” Manny Farber once advanced in an interview. “It’s based on language and words. The desire is always to pursue: what does the word mean, or the sentence, or the paragraph, and where does it lead? As you follow language out, it becomes more and more webbed, complex. The desire is always to find the end. In any thought you put down, what you’re seeking is truth: what is the most believable fact and where is the end?

“It’s the idea of writing about the film as commensurate with the way the filmmaker’s mind is,” Farber continued. “The work’s qualities should influence the structure of the piece. . . . I don’t think you can be mimetic enough.”

Farber’s insistence on criticism as language—his insistence, too, that his critical language arise from the volatile particulars of the films he writes about—makes him the most adventurous and original stylist of the mid‑century El Dorado of American film criticism that spans Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow, James Agee, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael.  At the start of the 21st century Farber also proves the film writer with the deepest enduring influence among that distinguished generation. Provocative traces of Farber’s style can be registered in contemporary figures as various and persuasive as Greil Marcus, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Paul Schrader, Jonathan Crary, Ronnie Scheib, A. O. Scott, Meredith Brody, Jean‑Pierre Gorin, Kent Jones, and Howard Hampton. As far back as 1963 Susan Sontag, in her essay “Against Interpretation,” called for “acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber's film criticism … are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” Recently, novelist William Gibson speculated that “if America were Japan, Farber would long since have been declared a National Treasure.” As Schrader concluded, “In the beginning was Manny Farber.”

Farber on Film collects for the first time all Farber’s film investigations, his coruscating forays as a featured, often weekly or monthly reviewer for The New Republic, The Nation, Artforum, The New Leader, Cavalier, and City, among other magazines, as well as the landmark pieces of his only book, Negative Space (1971, and reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998). He is legendary for fierce, serpentine essays that shun movie-criticism commonplaces like character psychology, story synopsis, and social lessons. Negative Space accents Farber’s extended performances of the late 1950s and '60s, “The Gimp,” “Hard-Sell Cinema,” “Underground Films,” and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” reprinting only a dozen full or partial film columns from The Nation (where he started reviewing in 1947, and published over 65 film pieces) and just a single film column from The New Republic (where he started reviewing in 1942, and published almost 175 film pieces). The wonder of these early reviews is how impressively his New Republic and Nation columns deliver both as traditional criticism and innovative Farber prose, as he elegantly focuses acting, plot, even entertainment value, the very moves his monumental essays resist. The present volume returns those later essays to the movie occasions that prompted and sustained them, and one of its pleasures is tracking precarious notions like “termite art” or “the gimp” or the “underground” across three decades. Farber on Film also sweeps up his important film pieces afterNegative Space, including crucial looks at Scorsese and Altman.

Farber on Film Introduction: Part 1 (Other Roads, Other Tracks) | Part 2 (Farber and Negative Space) | Part 3 (Farber Before Negative Space) | Part 4 (After Negative Space)


Manny Farber
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