1. Manny Farber, his goal: "to get himself to disappear. To get the object in question to shimmer with its own unique sense of awe."
2. An improving exercise: Watch a favorite film on DVD at 1/8th its normal speed. Under these conditions, the microworlds contained within gesture, spaces, movements of camera and figures begin to open out, and the between takes on a weight equal to the achieved.
3. Because: The amazing thing about movies is that there's so much STUFF in them. Which makes the critical tendency to focus on a handful of aspects (mostly thematic) all the more distressing. And more distressing still the limited number of approaches taken even in regard to thematic material, which itself contains diversity and plenitude.
4. The point is, or ought to be, to create a bounded terrain for the object, to restore/reveal its strangeness, not to still its fluctuations with concepts and abstract, unexamined categories of judgment (see #7).
5. More selfishly, the object is for the writer the occasion to construct an idea formation with its own utility. There is a continual tension between these two goals, largely because the idea formation often wants to pull away from the object, thus misrepresenting it, in order to achieve its own, tidier shapes.
6. Here too Farber is a beacon, calling the writer back to peculiarity and particularity, and also laying a lattice for multiple approaches instead of single lines through (the danger of rhetoric assuming its own momentum, that of judgment, usually based on received ideas (see #7) (what is a "good performance"? what does "beautifully photographed" mean?), producing a steady stream of therefores).
7. Because: Of the plague of OPINION, the regrettable temptation to set oneself up as AUTHORITY.
Q: What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?
MF: It's practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like [the artwork] or not: the problems of writing are after that.
7a. Opinion-centered criticism places judgment at the apex. The materials of the film are sifted in relation to judgment, supporting evidence is bagged, everything else discarded. This procedure flattens the continual flux of response we experience when we watch a film, when we enter into its fields of tension and repose. And among the discarded are all the niggling sticky little moments of uncertain response, when something in the film refuses to fit our frames of reference. Such moments issue a quiet and often unacknowledged cry, somewhere in the basement of consciousness. They produce a minor discomfort. But they may in fact signal the most valuable and unique aspects of the work in question.
7b. Authority is a particular stance the writer assumes first toward his/her own experience, and it is an act of violence against that experience. The desire to act as authority results in a particular disease for many film critics, an urge to find their position of judgment (see #7a) as quickly as possible (what’s my angle? how many stars does it merit? where should I position my thumb?) Once this is done, everything in the film is seen in relation to that judgment. It’s understandable enough (not admirable, but understandable), especially in the case of writers on a tight deadline. What’s really seems strange, at first glance, is the number of regular filmgoers likewise diseased. But on reflection, that makes sense too—the authoritative, opinion-centered mode is in many cases their only model for thinking about film, so it’s natural enough that they would emulate its stance, enact its violence on themselves.
7c. Most film criticism impoverishes its readers, lending them a narrow set of potential responses based on a few stupid and unexamined tropes.
8. For writers and viewers interested less in judgment than exploration, it is sometimes productive to cut into the object "against the grain"—to liberate trapped gesture and incidental beauty and strangeness (see #3) from the stranglehold of narrative function. Sometimes, even the purest instances of narrative transmission (say an insert shot of a bathtub tap, an empty hand, a hat, a stain, a calling card) carry enormous plastic beauty simply in their clean lines. Such concentrated seeds of meaning can exfoliate in many directions. Farber had a collector's eye for incidental beauty and also those obtrusive elements which complicate the overhead, univocal, predator's position, which regards the object in question as a hunk of dead meat.
9. Such "against the (narrative) grain" procedures are not a betrayal of the object, and could only be considered so if one views the object exclusively in narrative terms (as a "story-delivery mechanism"). And then too only if one's notion of story is strictly delimited (or impoverished, see #7).
10. The superficial irony of the Farber quotes (see #1 and #7) lies in the fact that few personalities are as evident as Farber's own, even if the attempt to track that down to a basic, constant sensibility is frequently, thrillingly thwarted. This is, however, a natural outgrowth of his method—the self, or selves, shine(s) forth most cleanly when concentrated on an external target. The shifts of stance in the new collection can be disconcerting (eg, The Best Years of Our Lives, one of many shooting stars in the in the Mannyverse), but that’s one of the best things about it—the way Farber can inhabit a stance without ultimately tying himself to it (how depressingly rare that is).
“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
– Emerson, Self-Reliance
Farber had from the start the courage of his own impressions. Setting himself the paradoxical task of following the most elusive (and sometimes, it must be admitted, factually incorrect) sense memories with rigor led him to a place where extremes of objectivity and subjectivity become almost indistinguishable.
Looking for other precedents to the structures Farber and Patricia Patterson achieved in their mature pieces, one could do worse than turn to Emerson, whose Essays follow a fluid pattern of advance, retreat, and repositioning around a central topic continually redefined. (The notion of “continuation,” advanced in the Richard Thompson interview, deserves to be brought forward, now that elephant/termite has begun to calcify.)
And like Emerson, the message of Farber’s best pieces is to trust yourself, follow your own nascent impressions and impulses, regard perception not as a means to an end (the stance of authority) but as its own independent adventure.
12. On a very basic level, there's a kind of humility, or hard self-knowledge, in the movie paintings of the 1980s, their implicit admission that however earnestly one approaches the object and tries to shape oneself to its terms, one can only do so with the materials one has at hand: treasures and junk collected over a lifetime along with whatever detritus the day washes up. Farber moves outward and inward in the same paradoxical motion, interrogating both the object and his own ability to perceive the object, probing the object through himself and vice versa. In this respect, his work bears comparison with both Proust and Michel Leiris.
13. Or, with reference to the following quotes—
“I can’t see any difference between writing about a porno movie and an Academy Award movie—both are difficult objects.” – Farber
“This was before the word processor, and we did so much cutting and pasting that when we were through we had produced these incredible objects—you should have seen what the final pieces looked like.” – Patterson
—one could say that Farber/Patterson met difficult objects with incredible palimpsests of ideas and impressions. The similarity to the description of Proust’s manuscripts (galleys overflowing with ribbons of pasted interpolation) isn’t coincidental but a byproduct of a parallel search to find some stable form for the interplay of the ephemeral.
14. Farber’s great virtue was impatience, not least with regard to himself, his ideas, those things he could do well. It led him finally to renounce himself, or at least his own singular authorial position, altogether and try to find positions outside even his own ample bounds. Patterson’s contribution is immense and perpetually undervalued. Farber was always good, but the very best and most shocking pieces are the product of that “third voice” that arose from the F/P conjunction.
15. To call Farber a master is to do violence to his dedicated avoidance of mastery and his commitment to nurturing difficulties. That’s the best legacy he left to contemporary film writers, and the one least likely to be claimed.