The Making of Manny Farber

Phillip Lopate

When it comes to major American film critics I am a polytheist; each has his or her sublimities, there is no need to assign rank.  That said, the one who fills me most with awe is Manny Farber.  There is something so stimulating, so eternally fresh about his dense, back-tracking writing style, which piles doubt upon doubt and never allows you to rest for long in the conviction that you know what’s coming next.  It puts me in mind of Montaigne’s late, free-fall essays, of Jackson Pollock’s (and of course Manny’s own) all-over paintings, of a sheer vertical rock face whose purchase is always precarious and dangerous. But so compelling!  Where did that “cubist” prose style come from—or that mind that saw things in so many dimension at once?  Knowing the pieces in his sole collection, Negative Space, constituted only a small part of his film reviewing, I often wondered about the pieces he didn’t put in, and why he chose to leave them out.  How could anything Manny Farber wrote, I thought, be less than fascinating?

Now, thanks to Robert Polito, who has tracked down and edited the complete film writings by Farber, newly published by the Library of America, we have the opportunity to read these missing pieces.  And you know what?  I can see why Farber omitted them.  Especially the early ones, from 1942 to 1947: they’re not bad; in fact they’re superior film criticism for that period, but they’re not yet Farberesque.  Reading them is a bit like looking at the photographs Diane Arbus took before she patented that enigmatically perverse style of hers—quite adequate, even good, but not yet what we think of as Arbus.

When Farber began writing film criticism in 1942, he was, it seems to me, very much under the influence of the great Otis Ferguson, who died on active duty when his ship was bombed in 1943.  Farber was quite open in later years about his admiration for Ferguson.  He followed the house-style of Ferguson and The New Republic in sometimes stitching together short reviews of three movies a week in a single column; and he followed Ferguson’s populist (as opposed to aesthete-longhair) approach to movies, which included the employment of jazzed-up prose and slang words like “hokum.”  Ferguson was also never less than clear and straightforward; and so was Farber, at the beginning.  Now, clarity would seem to be an asset for any reviewer—except Farber, perhaps, because we don’t necessarily go to Farber for clarity, we go to him for stimulating confusion and his ability to keep us off-balance.  But it would seem that he needed to develop his aesthetic first by working out ideas in a transparently lucid style, before he could trust a more clotted, textured one.

Another influence on him in these early stages was his friend James Agee, who preceded him at The Nation.  Farber was ambivalent about his friend’s criticsm, as we see in that famous essay, “Nearer My Agee to Thee.”  But what surprises me about Farber’s earliest pieces, 1942-1947, is how often he falls into an Agee-esque moralism and political preaching, deploring the shortcomings of Hollywood.  His writing style may have more Fergusonesque at this point, but in his readiness to scold Hollywood, and in his hunger for the real, for ordinary people onscreen, he was actually close to Agee than to Ferguson.

In these early reviews, Farber kept hammering away at certain principles which, to me anyway, seem simplistic—especially compared to his later positions.  One was that the Hays Office censorship was mostly responsible for the immaturity of American films. Another was that films must not be “theatrical” or “literary,” they must “show, not tell,” they must avoid talk and voice-over narration and make their points mainly through “the camera eye.”  All this was a pretty standard aesthetic line of film buffs from the 1920s onward.  Farber would build on this sensitivity to the visual, and would come to excel at descriptions of nonverbal behaviors and lines of force onscreen, while moving away from the rigid position that films must achieve their destiny cinematically and strive to keep a distance from other media.  But in the beginning he was a pitch-man for “pure cinema.”

It is a treat to see the judgments he made about films of the world war and postwar period, how often he got things right (that is to say, gibed with our current opinion) and how often, not.  I don’t fault him in the least for his lack of enthusiasm over movies we now hold in high esteem, such as The Magnificent Ambersons, Casablanca, Laura, Picnic on the Grass or Open City: he was responding with maverick honesty to these new releases in their time, without our perspective of period nostalgia and auteurist reverence.  Still, it does seem odd that he and Agee should have seen the Forties as such a sterile desert, movie-wise.

Later on, he would learn how to capture the unevenness of a movie as something engrossing, fascinating, rather than sourly disappointing.  That is, he would develop a viewpoint that was multi-dimensionally moral, no longer shrilly moralistic.  And from about 1948 on, he would devise that baroque prose style to insinuate and embed the maximum complexity tolerable in a sentence.  How did that radical change come about?  I don’t know; but I suspect it had something to do with his revelation that the language of film criticism, the arena of the page itself, could be worked on as a medium in much the same ways he was exploring space in his paintings.  As Robert Polito puts it in his brilliant introduction, “Farber advanced a topographical prose that aspired termite fashion through fragmentation, parody, allusions, multiple focus, and clashing dictions to engage the formal spaces of the new films and paintings he admired.”  But it didn’t happen immediately; and the unveiling of that slow process by which he acquired mastery is an inspiration to us journeymen-critics, and one of the many gifts of this truly invaluable volume.


Manny Farber
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