For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Outside-In

Whenever the modern film-maker feels that his movie has taken too conventional a direction and is neglecting “art,” he need only jerk the Gimp-string, and–behold!–curious and exotic but “psychic” images are flashed before the audience, pepping things up at the crucial moment, making you think such thoughts as “The Hero has a mother complex,” or “He slapped that girl out of ambivalent rage at his father image, which, he says, he carries around in his stomach,” or “He chomps angrily on unlit cigarettes to show he comes from a Puritan environment and has a will of iron."

–“The Gimp,” June 1952

One doesn't mind the crawling acceptance of cures, motives, troubles that have been rubber-stamped by endless usage in fiction and plays as much as the mechanical feints made at the idea of human complexity.

–“Hard-Sell Cinema,” November 1, 1957

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. For Farber, say the literate, film is not a language to communicate powdered, dolled-up ideas in straightjacket compositions (Truffaut, Antonioni); it's something to tear off the make-up, see how a face or space can be explored in wild permutations (Godard), to “open windows and let air into the industry,” as he writes of Park Row's failure with all its supposed bids for meaning and bravura. Documentaries and experimental films that stand at the sideline and simply observe spaces in place with people moving through them are extolled throughout for their particularity. Sententious, picturesque evocations of pastoral innocence (roaming hills, Satie), guilty pasts (furtive glances, instinctual reaches for gun), and swell, sexless homes (Biblical reliefs, knitting moms) are dismissed for their generalizing signifiers–though nobody's got a better grasp on how Griffith and Walsh reinvigorate well-worn tropes with small details than Farber. The now-calcified dialectic of “termite art” against “white elephant art,” as it tends to be recited, pits b-movie against epic, show against tell, reactions against speeches, research against thesis, the amateur against the professional, cheap against rich, the bum against the snob, compression against schmaltz, the personal against the trendy, the organic against the contrived, the inventive against the ossified, the felt against the imitated, the unpretentious against the self-important, the inquiry against the message, what's discovered against what's retold and designed; in short, life against death, or the film that has a life of its own against the film that exists only in audience cues and pretty shots of bodies flattened to plastic dolls. Farber's reputation will probably always rest squarely on his going to bat for the former against reductive art that would classify, explain, or immobilize life: people, places, treated as brand names.

And classifying Farber's own values would nearly be beside the point:

Without the human involvement and probing of Parker's sax-playing–the pain-wracked attack, as well as the playfulness and sudden spurts of wildly facetious slang–Getz turns the baritone sax into a thing that can be easily mastered, like a typewriter.

–“Hard-Sell Cinema,” November 1, 1957

A typical latent theme in a lot of Farber's best work is America, the America of Walsh and Sturges, where priggish, Prohibitionist old ladies out to defend puritanical mores are glorified as dealers in anarchy and chaos who can wreck a bar better than any Irish drunk with only outrage and umbrellas. This America, familiar from Mark Twain and Ruggles of Red Gap as much as experience, is the America perilously without a yoke of tradition where everyone is an equally-leveled free agent and equal opportunity offender: one either affects Tradition and continental airs knowingly, or mocks them blind drunk. Farber mocks, or rather parodies. His own habit, like Walsh's, is to make equally good claims for opposing opinions even as the occasional adjective suggests he's chosen teams and is somehow making a moral claim about which he prefers. This is done, at his best, in a henpecked prose style (“Tryin' to write on Fassbendah heah!”), packed with side-swipe dismissals and worked over endlessly, that labors the value of particularities with inescapably particular adjectives (sometimes nouns like “hayseed,” occasionally made up like “rumpsprung,” often hyphenated like “slab-like,” and usually in blatant opposition to the noun they describe, as in “smarmy compassion”), even as the general sentence structure—“the thing about...” “a typical bit...” “the main gag being...” “Warhol's ace gag...” “Duras' favorite trick...” “Pallette's trademark bonbon...” “the effect is of...” “the feeling of...” “a lot of...” “a kind of...”ˆ—intimates a happy hour drunk, gruff at the smart-ass Oscar-baiting whiz-kids trying to pull one over on him (different days), making sweeping summations about whatever's at hand. Such you-get-the-point effect is confirmed by colloquial conversation-stoppers, short-shrift conjunctions like “So,” Basically,” “Chiefly,” “More or less,” which suggest, despite all evidence, that Farber is finding his way as he goes. What usually follows then is an analogy to and Proustian conjuration of an impossibly specific relic of an apocryphal, can-kicking youth in the 1920s. The Katzenjammer kids, in particular, are evoked six times in Farber on Film, in relation to Sturges, Fassbinder, and the Underground Artist himself.

Farber's indelibly playful paintings work similarly, famously, in crude action-figure drawings of household objects and genre detritus that, isolated as synecdochal miniatures, parlay the cultural specificity of Farber's bedside lamp and a Hatari elephant into figures of some vague but intensely personal significance (the lamp standing in not as symbol but actual parcel of his domestic life, the elephant not as symbol of Hawks, but a figment of Hawks' imagination that has quite materially become part of Farber's own, along with relics of Farber's youth and daily life; the paintings are whole series of associative madeleines zig-zagging and stopping by to say hi to each other). The emphasis in Farber's art is to treat the objects with anatomical precision, but only as figurines, if ones escaped from the display case. In other words, he treats them like Chuck Jones cartoons, or even Jones cartoon characters, where the contours are drawn so precisely and familiarly as to become preposterously unrealistic: it's somehow the sense of figurative detail, down to what-gristle's-where-in-whose-teeth, that gives them the connotation of being typed abstractions of people and things you know. This ultra-Godardian conceit means that writing, real-life people, and movie personages are never feigned to be themselves, per se, but materially-rendered representations of such, evocations, like points on a fairy tale map through Farber's self-shifting imagination, in which everything relates to everything else. Writing is represented on notepads or candy bar wrappers; people are represented in photographs Farber would keep of them; Hawks' animals are represented, like everything else, as a kid's playtoys.

Farber on Film contains whole diatribes from the 60s against directors (Lumets and Lesters) trying to milk stereotypes of “real life” for token meaning in what Farber calls “peepshow naturalism”; he's resolutely against signifiers, but he's the master of the stand-in. Actually, in both his writing and his painting, his hodgepodge collages of openly quoted fragments, wrung from context and whittled to size to take on a purely phonetic, pearly beauty in the artist's eyes, probably have less to do with Chuck Jones or Godard in film, or bebop in jazz, or abstract impressionism in painting at the time than with a fellow writer. As the evocations pile up and play synaptically into each other—John Wayne in Farber's bedroom, stepped down from the TV, or the sarcastic, entirely correct sketching of Walsh's characters, taking screen time to sincerely contemplate familial love to themselves in backwoods, as “strangely soothed and thoughtful as though [they've] just read James Joyce for the first time”—such meet-and-greet between snippets of singular-but-unidentified time and space might come closest to his near-contemporary Marianne Moore.

“...the bat

holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless

wolf under

a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse

that feels a flea, the base-

ball fan, the statistician--

nor is it valid

to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make

a distinction

however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the

result is not poetry,

nor till the poets among us can be

"literalists of

the imagination"--above

insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"

shall we have

it.”

–Marianne Moore, “Poetry”

Farber's own unofficial manifesto for his brand of writing and aim of inquiry—literalizing the imagination—could come from his self-mocking revision of a piece on Hail the Conquering Hero within a long article on Sturges, co-written with W.S. Poster, that nearly initiates Farber's late, great phase in the mid-50s, and has as much to say about his own writing as it does about Sturges.

One of the most disgusting episodes takes place when Sturges realizes that one possible end to such a fiasco is a lynching, and facetiously has his townspeople go for the boy in a parody of a movie lynch mob; but they aren't going to lynch him, they're going to elect him mayor anyway.

–“To Be and Not To Be,” August 21, 1944

The ending has been attacked by critics who claim that it reveals Sturges compromising his beliefs and dulling the edge of his satire... Such criticism is about as relevant as it would be to say that Cubists were primarily interested in showing all sides of a bottle at once. To begin with, it should be obvious to anyone who has seen two Sturges pictures that he does not give a tinker's dam whether the world does or does not yield to candor. Indeed his pictures at no time evince the slightest interest on his part as to the truth or falsity of his direct representation of society. His neat, contrived plots are unimportant per se and developed chiefly to provide him with the kind of movements and appearances he wants, with crowds of queer, animated individuals, with juxtapositions of unusual actions and faces. These are then organized, as items are in any art which does not boil down to mere sociology, to evoke feelings about society and life which cannot be reduced to doctrine or judged by flea-hopping from the work of art to society in the manner of someone checking a portrait against the features of the original.

–“Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies,” Spring, 1954.

One of the best things about Farber's writing, like Ezra Pound's (the other definitively American critic?), is the lack of pretense that gut feeling, personal experience, cultural education, and genuine insight are so easily dissociable as they are in words: like Pound, Farber works on the assumption that one works through the first, the personal, to get to the last, the virtu, where most critics couch value judgements in ostensibly objective terms, summary, analysis, and cracker-jack-ring decodings to arrive at the star-rating last. Thus accounts for the easy mix-and-match, in both Pound and Farber, of constant evocation and idiom and cheap insults with art world reference points and a fine word connoisseur's language and sentence structure. No surprise that Farber loves Sturges for collapsing high and low, political and personal, but there's more to him (and Pound) than a small-town kid who's wriggled his way into the galleries. There's also more to him than an intellectual's words substantiating a layman's feelings, though there's that too, the belief that everyone's an amateur inside and out of the movie and that the real masters have long moved past perfect mastery into experiment and play.

Where Agee wavers with pinched brow over his own opinion, Farber happily slaps on two equally hyperbolic and enthusiastic adjectives to contending sentiments: always, his act is of self-negation (just an artist of still lives describing what's in front of me, taking its voice as I can) through self-affirmation. These insistent incongruities, everywhere in his work and always sarcastic, operate not only as a defense mechanism that the self-negating value judgements only matter for what they represent, but as Farber's chief source of humor: Blanche DuBois, in a phrase that's as impossible as it is right, is on “the last lap to the mental ward.” This is ultra Farber: he takes his job to turn a picture inside out–so that Tennessee Williams characters are getting into whatever trouble and sexual perversions they can to attain some peace and quiet in the psych ward–and then to do it again word-by-word. The great musical pleasure he affords is in developing a tension between twining strains of beauty and idiocy-silliness, and then resolving his ping-ponging dialectic, only occasionally, in the acknowledgement that the two are the same: “In short, no other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass,” ends his article on Godard, with compliment and insult resolved as the same thing.

In other words, he leaves his readers with the sense that what he says is truth but never whole truth, and right only as it's right to him. Farber values opinion never as an end to itself (as Pound sometimes does as rogue public defender), but as the only principle—not three act structure, not subordinate soundtrack to image, not silhouetted cowboys—he can express and take as guiding light. These low sentiments, rumblings in the stomach, inevitably and transparently serve as his compass to higher insight and back again, as personal allusions lead to and from definitive typing, thoughts to feelings and feelings to thoughts, images to ideas and ideas to images, as one shot lodged in the memory reveals an entire pattern and vantage point evinced by a film. That Farber dismisses Welles and Rio Bravo (“photographed through a piece of seaweed”) is not wrong, but right, as Farber bulls-eyes Welles' machinations (Kane's “spectator had trouble arranging these disparate items into a convincing visual whole, but his brain was mobilized into all sorts of ruminations about avarice, monomania, and other compulsions”), nails how Hawks has changed, and finally notes that Rio Bravo, like his own paintings and writing, consists “entirely of plastic effects produced with choreographed action, the route from stable to bar taken by a fleeing criminal (done mostly with words), the path taken by a rifle as it whips diagonally across a face, and countless other “maps” of humanity–of hands, reclining body in relation to stairway, doors to other doors.”

Basically, as for everyone, Farber's opinions form the scaffolding for his thought/prose, justify them, and are justified by them. There is constantly the implicit understanding that the only way to learn anything is to ask how one feels or doesn't feel, and why; there's also the premise that at best, one can guess the answers by reworking what it was like, for eyes, body, and mind, to actually watch the thing play out. Of course, this honest idea is not a popular one in either modern reviewing nor academia, and probably never has been. Farber doesn't care a bit what the director-as-puppeteer was thinking or planning before or after as long as he knows “where he's at” (as he says in the introduction to Negative Space), and he'll never be the right critic for Kubrick; editing, except between sound and image, is rarely under discussion, as “the only real means for a movie to express itself” as Resnais (or was it Kubrick?) put it. Editing is almost inevitably engineered, where composition is personal intuition: this is, anyway, what one gleans reading Farber, the painter's sense of how elements in a frame interact. The next question is whether they have life—or, barring that, a sense of life, “whether the life comes through characterization or a vital use of the medium.”

Farber has his own taste, and the fact that he 's advocated it better than anyone else has unfortunately led to his sparknotes reputation as a lobbyist for Wellmans over Antonionis. But Farber knows the difference between saying something doesn't work and saying he doesn't like it because it works too well:

Antonioni gets his odd, clarity-is-all effects from his taste for chic mannerists art that results in a screen that is glassy, has a side-sliding motion, the feeling of people plastered against stripes or divided by verticals and horizontals; his incapacity with interpersonal relationships turns crowds into stiff waves, lovers into lonely appendages, hanging stiffly from each other, occasionally coming together like clanking sheets of metal but seldom giving the effect of being in communion.

At his best, he turns this mental creeping into an effect of modern misery, loneliness, cavernous guilt-ridden yearning.

–"White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art"

“White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” has been popularized for its sponsoring the crude over the slick, but perhaps the real reason it's read is for its detailing of evidence as above. Farber has issues with posture and posturing in Antonioni—the one's the other—and has the bigger problem that the shallow images so easily intercept a shallow script (where Sturges counterpoints such elements). But it's Farber's own searching for a point that's always the point, the coiled-but-stringy, bottled-but-canny prose. It's not even what's evoked as the act of evocation itself that counts. James-like, Farber's crystalline analogies for Antonioni's compositions take on an existence of their own, as for this reader lovers' dismembered body parts are somehow collaged against a glass-sliding door at La notte's party climax. It's not too surprising to find more or less positive notices for Red Desert and Zabriskie Point in Farber on Film from a few years later. This sort of writing gives life to films where Farber, always clear-eyed, could, so he said, barely see it himself.

I don’t see what The Phantom Tollbooth has to do with this article.
Hey Amelia, thanks for pointing out that that map at the start is from (and for) The Phantom Tollbooth. The illustrator’s Jules Feiffer, who went on to write Little Murders, Carnal Knowledge, Popeye, Resnais’ hated/underrated I Want to Go Home, and evidently a speech in Kill Bill Tarantino lifted from a book of his. The connection (for me anyway) is the idea of Farber as literalist–or cartographer–of the imagination, in prose and paintings. Though sea of knowledge and foothills of confusion tend to overlap more often. There’s also an oblique tie that Chuck Jones, a Farber favorite/kindred spirit, went on to adapt The Phantom Tollbooth for film. Watching a bunch of Luc Moullet shorts last night–Jean-Luc selon Luc esp, a film imdb doesn’t even list–I started thinking “literalist of the imagination” is just as good a description of Moullet. Like Farber’s paintings/prose, there’s a lateral emphasis on zig-zagging motifs and thought, on entire strings of evidence for a case that ends up being secondary, but an emphasis nevertheless on evidence given as evidence, not just as documentary footage but as documents and proofs. There’s also an insistence on small details and a deliberate sense of hand-crafted amateurishness–from two of the most knowledgeable people around. Jean-Luc selon Luc, which starts with the insight that Godard’s handwriting has grown larger over the years, a good way of filling blank pages faster, and ends with the note that if Godard’s filming a superstar like Alain Delon he’ll make a tree the subject of his frame and Delon incidental to it, restages a number of Godard sequences and motifs in Moullet’s kitchen as household paraphernalia (as in Farber’s paintings) stand in to evoke the works of a favorite artist. I got something like that sense (cat playing with yarn, the whole world in my bedroom) reading The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features