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Farber on Film: Introduction, Part 4 (After Negative Space)

Robert Polito

Above: Farber's painting A Dandy's Gesture (1977).

Farber’s 1969 Howard Hawks essay––as hinted earlier––lodges a wry double self‑portrait: as he summons his own birthplace for a joke about small‑town provincialism, his praise of the filmmaker’s mobility and speed conjures his own termite activities as a writer and painter. His film criticism is personal, even autobiographical, though of a deflected sort that edges into allegory and fever‑dream.

In A Dandy's Gesture (1977), one of Farber’s two “auteur” paintings focused on Hawks, he glances at––often through toys and miniatures––images from the director’s films: a plane crashed into a chocolate candy mountain, from Only Angels Have Wings; a tiger, from Bringing Up Baby; an elephant, from Hatari; a boat, from To Have and Have Not; and newspaper layout pages, from His Girl Friday, with gangster Johnny Lovo (from Scarface) in the headline. But following the train careering down the track on the left of the painting to a notebook, we discover Farber slyly inserting himself into the painting. A little reporter's pad quotes his own notes for his film class on Hawks at UC San Diego. What might be the lines connecting a director at work in the Hollywood studio system and a painter at work in a university––here, cramming for a lecture; or, perhaps, not cramming, but painting A Dandy's Gesture instead? Who is the gestural dandy of the title? Howard Hawks? Or Farber himself?

His friend the late Pauline Kael condescended slightly to Farber during a Cineaste interview, remarking, "It's his analysis of the film frame as if it were a painter's canvas that's a real contribution." Farber could direct painterly thoughtfulness to issues such as color in Disney cartoons or slackness of camera in Hollywood features as far back as his first New Republic reviews, and always in his criticism references from film and art crisscross and trespass. Still, the correspondences in Farber's film criticism and his paintings are more radical and strategic. During nearly all the years he actively wrote criticism Farber worked as an abstract artist––as a painter, sculptor, and the creator of gallery installations and monumental oils on collaged paper. But after he moved to San Diego, Farber shifted to representational paintings––a profusion of candy bars, stationery, film titles, film directors, and domestic still lives––and soon discontinued his film writing. Characteristically these new paintings are multi-focused and decentered. Intense detailing arrests the eye amid spiraling chains of association: visual, cultural, or personal. They sometimes imply narratives, but without positing the entrances, exits, and arcs of any particular pre-existent story lines. Despite their subjects, these works can hardly be mistaken for Pop––yet for all their conceptual focus on the medium, or on art history, they aren't abstract either.

Farber's paintings import film dynamics, but paradoxically. The controlling intelligence of an auteur director atomizes into a profusion of stories and routes; much as with an interactive e-book, a viewer can enter a painting only by realigning the givens. But in Farber's film criticism, I want to suggest, is a prediction of the painter he would become. Certain reverenced film directors––Hawks, Wellman, Sturges, Lewton, Don Siegel, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Warhol, Fassbinder––arise from the essays almost as self-portraits of that future painter. The painter Farber will be is forecast in his observations and descriptions of his favorite directors, actors, and film moments, but also (and vividly) in his writing style.

Hawks is only the most courtly of these projections of Farber’s future paintings. From his inaugural review for The New Republic on February 2, 1942, Farber insisted on a multiplicity of expression and form, criticizing a Museum of Modern Art exhibition where each artist “has his one particular response to experience, and no matter what the situation, he has one means of conceiving it on canvas. . . . Which is all in the way of making a plea for more flexibility in painting and less dogma.” Long before he started to collaborate with Patricia Patterson on his film writing, Farber managed to insinuate a sense of multiple perspectives, even multiple voices into his critical prose––his New Republic andNation columns often found him so insistently mixed as to suggest (at least) a pair of contrary authors; subsequent pieces review disparate films, and discuss them all at once. Among Farber’s last solo pieces was his anti-auteurist “The Subverters” for Cavalier, in July 1966, the summer photographer Helen Levitt introduced him to Patricia:

One of the joys in moviegoing is worrying over the fact that what is referred to as Hawks might be Jules Furthman, that behind the Godard film is the looming shape of Raoul Coutard, and that, when people talk about Bogart’s “peculiarly American” brand of scarred, sophisticated cynicism they are really talking about what Ida Lupino, Ward Bond, or even Stepin Fetchit provided in unmistakable scene-stealing moments.

His Preston Sturges essay (City Lights, 1954, co-written with W. S. Poster) etches a variant on Farber’s nostalgia-for-the-future self-portraits. Remarking “the almost aboriginal Americanism” of the character actors in Sturges’s comedies, he celebrates the director for his “multiple focus,” “fragmented action,” “high-muzzle velocity,” “easy handling of multiple cinematic meanings,” and “this modern cinematic perspective of mobility seen by a mobile observer.” Echoing his first New Republic article, he surmises, “It is also probable that [Sturges] found the consistency of serious art, its demand that everything be resolved in terms of a logic of a single mood, repugnant to his temperament and false to life.” Still more closely intuiting his own distant paintings, Farber wrote: “Basically, a Sturges film is executed to give one the delighted sensation of a person moving on a smoothly traveling vehicle going at high speed through fields, towns, homes, even through other vehicles. The vehicle in which the spectator is traveling never stops but seems to be moving in a circle, making its journey again and again in an ascending, narrowing spiral until it diminishes into nothingness.” Farber would eventually quote fragments of his Sturges essay on a note pad he sketched into his “auteur” painting The Lady Eve (1976–77).

Raoul Walsh materializes as another stand-in for the painter––“Walsh’s style is based on traveling over routes”––as do other such “underground” filmmakers as Wellman and Mann, who open up a scene “by road-mapped strategies that play movement against space in a cunning way, building the environment and event before your eyes.” By the early 1970s and his joint productions with Patricia Patterson, Farber’s surrogates are not limited to action directors, nor are the directors only American. On Godard: “His is basically an art of equal emphasis. . . . Dissociation. Or magnification of the molehill against the mountain, or vice versa . . . The words becoming like little trolley-car pictures passing back and forth.” On Herzog: “The awkward framing, unpredictable camera positions . . . the droll, zestful, looming work of a filmmaker still on the prowl, making an exploratory work each time out.” On Fassbinder: “A kind of lurching serpentine. . . .” Buñuel conjures Farber’s future paintings, but acidly, from inside a dark mirror:

Each movie is a long march through small connected events (dragged out distressingly to the last moment: just getting the movie down the wall from a candle to a crucifix takes more time than an old silent comedy), but it is the sinister fact of a Buñuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the film. It’s one snare after another, so that the people get wrapped around themselves in claustrophobic whirlpool patterns.

Above:  Roads and Tracks (1981).

Many of these directors, along with Sam Peckinpah, Wim Wenders, Jean-Marie Straub, Marguerite Duras, and Eric Rohmer, would prompt “auteur” paintings from Farber during the late 1970s and early '80s. The witty, devastating Roads and Tracks (1981) that issues from films of William Wellman shadows inversions and reversals. At the top of the canvas, the staid women falling (or jumping?) from airplanes, for instance, are from Wings; they immediately transform into angels, probably in a punning reference to Hawk's Only Angels Have Wings. In a counter-image to the angels, near the bottom center of the painting, a modern pop-tart woman in a bathing suit pops up from a glass.  The cowboy stomping the man on the tracks at the lower right is from The Ox-Bow Incident, while the tracks themselves arrive courtesy of a favorite Wellman film of Farber's, Other Men's Women, a love triangle among railroad roustabouts, with many scenes set in a kitchen (hence the butter, the corncob, the lettuce, and bottles). The appearance of James Cagney with a grapefruit on his face is a twist on the famous scene in Public Enemy.

Throughout, crisscrossing tracks and roads frame––and force––an impression of stuttering immobility; for all the alleged motion, they don't go anywhere. They're blocked, and destructive. Besides figures from action and war films, the painting is full of cliché, often toy reproductions of '30s small-town, working-class life––a milkman, old advertisements, the houses, cars––and also teasing intimations of a world outside that life: most notably, the art book open to the Indian tantric sex painting at the lower left.

Along and inside the tracks Farber races trains of associations, historical, cultural and private. Roads and Tracks, like all of his “auteur” paintings, refutes the notion of any single authorial consciousness––the multi-perspectives of the winding allusions, their various knowledges, visual textures, and experiences, are at once too public and personal for that.

Above: Domestic Movies (1985).

Farber’s “auteur” series flaunts conspicuous links to his film criticism which other paintings will probe ingeniously and boldly. An explosion of the notion of a still life, Domestic Movies (1985) likely derives its smart title from the suggestion of time and motion through a tilted perspective and the film leaders that take the viewer up and down the painting. Farber got rid of the object in the center, and the perspective is almost vertiginously multiple––the overhead view of the bowls of lemons, for instance, is distorted by the upward push of the various potted flowers.  The flow along the film leaders and up the stalks is checked by other forms of verticality––the donuts, for example, or subtly raised objects, such as the dead bird on what looks like a book, or the plant on a rectangle of blue cardboard on the left. Movement also is checked by the intensive detailing of the lemons and the half-eaten bowl of oatmeal. The film leaders contain titles of films Farber was teaching at the time, such as Yasujiro Ozu's 1962 An Autumn Afternoon, and there are scattered written notes, one a snatch of movie dialogue: "I want this room filled with flowers."

Over and over Farber’s film writing prizes the detail––“the real hero is the small detail,” he observes in “Underground Films,” and termite art radiates “walls of particularization,” “focusing only on a tiny present area,” and “buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it.” Decorous, overwrought white elephant art, “tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence,” accents (as noted above) “the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece.” Yet Farber also will argue for the subservience of all parts to a flowing totality––“Everything in a good movie is of a piece,” he affirms in the introduction toNegative Space. Other essays criticize directors and actors who indulge electric, illuminating “bits” instead of a “panoramic unfolding, ” a “continuously developing, forming personality,” or “an inevitable train of events.” Farber’s paintings, no less than his film criticism, operate along a stress, maybe a contradiction, that sometimes honors a grace note over the whole, and at other times exalts organic form over the niceties of any incandescent moment.

Hacks (1975), from the “American Candy” series, is one of Farber's earliest representational paintings, and my favorite of his oils on paper. Against overlapping gray-silver planes, Farber arrays networks of circles and lines. The circles: a lollipop at the bottom, a candy tin at the top left, the corks. The lines: various candy bars––Tootsie Rolls, Black Crows, and the wondrous Hacks. All these candies would have been familiar to Farber from the movie concession stands of his childhood, much as the ground colors cue the silver screen, and it's tempting to stroke some of the associations. The childhood movie candy vies with icons of adult life––the chocolate cigar at the right, the corks by the Tootsie Rolls. There is the sense of “hack” as in cut or bludgeon––a number of candy items are chopped off by the frame, or already half-eaten. During 1975 Farber also was writing movie reviews for Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine, and he was roughly 18 months away from his last article. Inevitably, given all the film hints, might the notion of the “critical hack” surge as well from the wily web of resonance? Farber hardly can expect a viewer to complete more than a few of the circuits he has coiled into his paintings like springs inside a jack-in-the-box. But as in Beckett’s confounding of “Proustian” and “equation,” it’s the snarl of mechanism and memory that Farber is chasing here, the way the formal dynamics of multi-perspective slide against the instinctive disclosures of a life.

The Farber equation, as I said, is never simple.

Above: Hacks (1975).

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)


Long ReadsManny Farber
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