While this season of taking stock finds us tinkering on our lists of the best films of the year - best of the decade, even - along comes a book that throws all our efforts into humbling perspective. Never mind years and decades. Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber presents us with the work of a lifetime, collecting what for too long has gone uncollected, the reviews and essays, stray thoughts and well-targeted rants of "the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced," as none other than Susan Sontag put it.
Over the next couple of weeks, The Auteurs will be celebrating this landmark publication with new appreciations of Manny Farber and his work; the full text of editor Robert Polito's introduction as well as his selections from the book of previously unpublished works by Farber; and a short film by Paul Schrader on one of Farber's paintings.
This entry will index the entire series as well as collect reviews of Farber on Film that have appeared so far - and we can begin with the Library of America's page for it, linking to PDFs of an interview with Polito and excerpts from Farber's 1952 review of Fritz Lang's Clash By Night and the 1975 essay co-written with Patricia Patterson, "Badlands, Mean Streets, and The Wind and the Lion."
At Moving Image Source, Jonathan Rosenbaum argues "that both the nature and evolution of his taste and writing over 30-odd years, before he gave up criticism to concentrate on his painting, still make him the most remarkable figure American film criticism has ever had. Bringing a painter's eye to film criticism and couching even his most serious observations in a snappy, slangy prose, Farber was the first American in his profession to write perceptively about the personal styles of directors and actors without any consumerist agendas or academic demonstrations."
"Working the terrain pioneered by Otis Ferguson (jazz-informed, conversational, wryly commonsensical) and James Agee (word-drunk, sporadically antic, socially conscious as all get out), Farber established a pared-down, acerbic niche that allowed him to develop his style by careful degrees," writes Howard Hampton in the Los Angeles Times. "The absence of gush in his work, the refusal to use movies as intellectual capital or status symbols, the sense of discovering hidden compartments and redressing the imbalances enforced by cultural arbiters - these are all valid reasons for loving his stuff. But what made him the favorite of so many writers was the use of language itself, the compact plasticity, the delight in words, in play, in a kind of serious mischief. His was writing designed to upend your consciousness or at least get it a little drunk on unsuspected possibilities."
Duncan Shepherd was a teaching assistant to Farber in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, and he writes in the San Diego Reader: "As I work my way through it, and if I can control the urge to skip around willy-nilly, part of the narrative of Farber on Film - distinct from whatever might have been unfolding on screen, WWII, the expansionism of Broadway and television, the decline of the Hollywood studio, the evaporation of the 'B,' the French New Wave, the New Germans - is unavoidably the struggle of separation from Ferguson and Agee, the discovery or the invention of the critic's individual voice, the staking-out of his own territory. Nevertheless, even after calculating that his first review saw print just a month after his twenty-fifth birthday, few allowances need to be made. Already in those first weeks he was noticing in Jean Gabin 'a precocious underlip which drips words off in a personal sort of way' and in Humphrey Bogart the appearance of 'holding back a mouthful of blood.' Twenty-five years later he was well and truly flying solo, scouting out terra incognita, doing loop-de-loops like no one else."
"What's great about Farber on Film is that it emphasizes how good criticism takes nothing for granted," writes Josef Braun. "Writing an essay called 'The Subverters' in 1966, when film studies departments and popular critics were busy trying to build a canon, 'to bring some order and shape to film history,' Farber declared such efforts 'doomed to failure because of the subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.' This persistent unruliness of movies is among the things that make it so seductive to some and infuriating to others."
"To borrow his own term, Farber approaches his subjects termite-like, gnawing at the edges of the films, ignoring plot summary and character psychology to focus on movement and composition, informed by his long career as a painter." R Emmet Sweeney wraps an entry for TCM by paraphrasing Kent Jones: "The publication of Farber on Film is not just a landmark for American film criticism, but for American literature as a whole."
When Manny Farber died in August of last year, I began collecting remembrances and tributes at GreenCine Daily. There were so many, stretched out over two weeks, that it took two entries to gather them all: 1 and 2.
Update, 11/17: In January 1952, Farber wrote a piece for the Nation in which he looked back to the "'Best Films' of 1951," and Glenn Kenny "figured it would be fun, and perhaps even illuminating, to have a look at the pictures Farber praises therein. One a week, in order of citation, until we get to the end." So far, he's tracked down, watched and reviewed Charles Marquis Warren's Little Big Horn, Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets!, John Farrow's His Kind of Woman and Joseph Losey's The Prowler.
Update, 11/20: Philip Lopate on "The Making of Manny Farber."
Update, 11/24: "Did Manny Farber Invent Auteurism?" asks Evan Davis. And the discussion is off and running.
Update, 11/25: Manny Farber in 1943 on "The Trouble with Movies."
Update, 11/27: "As goes the cliché, given ample evidence throughout Farber on Film, Manny Farber is probably still one of the only American film critics to move through the 'intentional fallacy' of formal analysis into territory both deeper and more superficial: not to evaluate art as dead illustration but living organism." David Phelps.
Updates, 12/7: "The joy of Wavelength is in seeing so many new actors - light and space, walls, soaring windows, an amazing number of color/shadow variations that live and die in the window panes - made into major aesthetic components of movie experience." Manny Farber in 1969.
#8 in Glenn Kenny's series on Farber's films of '51: Felix Feist's The Man Who Cheated Himself.
Update, 12/9: "Reading Manny Farber gives me an example of radical flexibility; it gives me a sense of rigor without piety and of unalienated critical labor." Zach Campbell: "It gives me impetus to look at the things he looked at, think about them with the sophistication across registers he provides." As for Munich Films, 1967-1977: Ten Years That Shook the Film World, the book Farber never wrote, it "suggests an alternative path in film history."
Updates, 12/14: B Kite's "Petite Mannyfesto."
Glenn Kenny's still watching his way through those 1951 films, but now takes "a slight mental health break by checking out one of the honorable mentions listed at the piece's end." Chuck Jones's A Hound for Trouble.
Tony Dayoub reads Farber's essay "The Gimp" in light of contemporary cinema.
Update, 12/16: Manny Farber with Patricia Patterson in 1975: "The New Breed of Filmmakers: A Multiplication of Myths."
Update, 12/19: This was the "book providing me the most bottomless pleasure this year, sentence by sentence," writes Jonathan Lethem in an entry for the New Yorker's collection, "What We Read This Year." And he quotes Farber on the original Manchurian Candidate: "'Sinatra's romantic scenes with Miss Leigh are a Chinese torture: he, pinned against the Pullman door as though having been buried standing up, and she, nothing moving on her body, drilling holes with her eyes into his screw-on head.' You could read lines like this for pleasure without ever having seen a movie in your life."
Update, 12/21: "Farber liked 'em lean, and I don't blame him." Glenn Kenny on the ninth film in his series on Farber's choices for the best of what 1951 had to offer, Lewis Allen's Appointment With Danger, "followed by a summation of What We Have Learned Here."
Image: Detail from a 1965 drawing of Farber by Fielding Dawson that appeared on the cover of Issue #9 of For Now, devoted entirely to Farber and edited by Donald Phelps and available here.