The Book He Never Wrote

Zach Campbell

In Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, editor Robert Polito has included a book proposal written by Farber in the 1970s.  The book not written would have been called Munich Films, 1967-1977: Ten Years That Shook the Film World.  Can we imagine what a great volume this might have been?  Jonathan Rosenbaum has remarked that the proposal should not have been included—the piece was not intended for publication in the first place, after all.  But I admit that I’m glad it was included nonetheless.  What might we have gotten?

For starters, Farber indicates (implicitly) an alternative historiographic take on German cinema—rather than reiterating the assumption that German film died with the Nazis and only emerged again in 1962, at Oberhausen, Farber mentions offhandedly that the “the German film industry had been almost wiped out as a national entity by the war against the Nazi regime.”  One of film culture’s great elephants in the room (sort of) is post-WWII internationalism, including the contestations of Americanization and the Marshall Plan in the industries and practices of European cinemas.  It’s a bit tempting, but of course merely facile to think of modernist cinema’s relationship to American culture as being one of two things: either a democratic pop playground ransacked by loving (but serious) European artists…or, as an encroaching enemy which modernist film denounces, it being a codedly anti-democratic measure of status more than anything else.  A book by Farber, in the 1970s, would have been a highly welcome investigation into the financial and popular aspects of the Munich film as much as the textual and textural ones.  He takes these works seriously as art without ever letting himself get lazy about art’s material ties to the world around.  Here’s an interesting premise in Farber’s proposal: “That the odyssey of Herzog, Wenders, and Fassbinder has moved away from its first anti-establishment positions…is symptomatic of the massive entrance and infiltration of media values into Seventies art.”

The citation of this “massive entrance” almost contradicts certain other remarks collected in Farber on Film about the gulf between different kinds of cinema in the 1970s.  Farber sometimes overemphasizes the divisions between commercial and vanguard cinemas in the 1960s and 70s (cf. the first paragraph in his Herzog article).

These kinds of tensions within Farber’s own work accumulate into one of his strengths, though.  The value of his example is how he (and of course Patricia Patterson) situate their brand of formalism.  Everyone acknowledges how insightful Farber was when it came to looking at how form operates within a film, and in identifying trends of mise-en-scène and performance across all film.  I think one of the dimensions of his approach that allows such robust thinking here, though, is how fluidly and unpuritanically* he was able to diagnose and move between taste cultures and the industrial and economic practices which delineated, limited, and influenced them.  Farber could contradict himself because the fields he was inhabiting, investigating were themselves so contradictory.  And the fields he explored were not solely those of form and style.

When he makes a connection between Warhol’s work and its transatlantic inheritance in Munich (this is in “Rainer Werner Fassbinder”), Farber isn’t only drawing stylistic comparisons and trying to extrapolate a critical/historical argument from there.  When talking about New German Cinema Farber also repeatedly remarked on the prolific output, the speed of production that characterized these filmmakers (like Warhol); he noted the crucial West German state funding that produced the works.  Not just any films, but these kinds of films—fast, inexpensive, odd, risk-taking, angular, and highly variable.

Imagine Manny Farber wading into today’s debates in cinema—on the new American microbudget digital moment, or on festival films (our contemporary equivalent to 1950s/60s art cinema).**  Consider the (imaginary) stand-off between Pedro Costa, and all that he stands for, versus Pedro Almodóvar, and same.  Can we see Farber getting involved in these same kinds of debates—ones predicated on scene or clique, as though film culture—once “shook” by Munich—were now a whimpering branch of adolescence?  I can’t.

Farber did not seem to conceive of film groupings as coherent aesthetic movements in themselves (“New Wave” as a self-justifying mythos) but instead as emanations of, and negotations with, culture and economics.  They were—are—historically specific and contingent.  Practices come and go, and we comment upon them, understanding that they are impermanent and also that this impermanence in no way devalues them.  And of course, no artistic movement is ever contained within a single medium.  This is something that I think all of us would readily acknowledge; Farber, however, truly  brought this fact to bear upon his work: in the way he described the architectonics of a film’s space, or the way he conceived of authorial style as being (also) something one could perform, like a set of gestures and postures.

The (im)possibility of Munich Films tantalizes me, personally, because it suggests an alternative path in film history.  (Film history conceived in popular, scholarly, and critical terms.)  I’m fed up with certain ossified rhetorical dances around modernism; I’m not, however, fed up with a lot of the films that adorn the modernist mantle—great films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Not Reconciled.  Reading Manny Farber gives me an example of radical flexibility; it gives me a sense of rigor without piety and of unalienated critical labor.  It gives me impetus to look at the things he looked at, think about them with the sophistication across registers he provides.

Still, and forever to consider: space, physiognomy, gesture, fashions, money, sincerity, overachievement, onanism***, painting, the paint itself, the canvas (shape, size), the frame, habit, architecture (actual and metaphorical), realism, work, and of course, Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Huillet, Straub, “Hauff, Sanders, Syberberg, Boehm, Sinkel, Kluge, Reitz, Raben, Schlondorff, Ucicky, and Verhoven.”  Farber constantly provided catalogues of things to keep considering.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.


* While I think Farber was unpuritanical in a sense comparable with Durgnat and Bazin (e.g., see how he characterizes Clement Greenberg in the Fassbinder article), he was indeed still crotchety and cranky as a writer, and to both our enjoyment and his credit.

** Cinema and cinephilia didn’t die; the older versions just bought a bigger timeshare in the film festivals.

*** “Masturbatory” is a term of derision, but with the proper change of perspective couldn’t it apply to termite art?


Manny Farber
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