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Manny Farber: A film critic not in awe of Hollywood

A compilation of his reviews reveals a writer who relished going against the grain.

October 04, 2009|Howard Hampton | Hampton is the author of "Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses."

At this year's Academy Awards, the most incongruous moment came during the "In Memoriam" roll call. Among the distinguished deceased was "Manny Farber, Film Critic." Outside of Martin Scorsese and a few other relative old-timers, I wonder how many members of the academy recognized the name, let alone remembered Farber's 1957 assessment of the complicity between the typical good-housekeeping movie reviewer and Hollywood's distribution of those 13 1/2 -inch statuettes: "His choice of best salami is a picture backed by studio build-up, agreement amongst his colleagues . . . and a list of ingredients that anyone's unsophisticated aunt in Oakland can spot as comprising a distinguished film."

On an evening when an over-eager but well-trained "Slumdog" snatched Best Salami from a nutritious skim-"Milk" parade float, acknowledging a flinty heretic like Farber amounted to a cryptic joke on the entire beauty pageant.

For those who appreciated the irony, Farber's Oscar cameo was weirdly bittersweet. When he died in 2008 at 91 -- 20 years after he retired from criticism -- his contrarian brashness still resonated. In its ricocheting momentum, tug-of-war verbal rhythms and slangy, shifting tonalities, Farber's prose often replicated the ravenous electricity of movies themselves.

It echoed the rotogravure cross-talk in "His Girl Friday" and the breathless ensemble arguments of at least six Preston Sturges films (with off-the-wall ideas and imprecations flying as thick and fast as the wisecracks). He championed sneaky-little over big-important, the troublesome over the transcendental, efficient poetic artisans over arrogant narcissist hand wringers. Like Groucho, whatever the grain or the flow, Farber was against it.

Until now, his reputation has rested on a single collection, "Negative Space," first published in 1971 and reissued in an expanded edition in 1998. The Library of America's plush, hefty (irony here too) "Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber" supersedes it, or rather subsumes it whole, while adding roughly 400 pages of previously lost treasures, historical artifacts and top-notch apprentice work from the 1940s and early 1950s, when Farber was a weekly reviewer for the New Republic and later the Nation.

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. Writing as a conventional reviewer -- or disguised as one -- his work during the Second World War gives a marvelous sense of life on the home front even as he gradually finds ways of slicing through the prevailing modes of propaganda, movie and otherwise.

Farber's irreverent fusion of skepticism and affection is already in place as he lists the hokey, gladly secondhand machinery that comprises "Casablanca," gently suggests Elizabeth Taylor's fanatical horse-stirred passion for "galloping in bed" in "National Velvet" has a distinct autoerotic flavor; or damns the self-styled "entertainment film" and "art film" alike as out of touch with the real possibilities of movies. Arranged chronologically, the pieces in "Farber on Film" show him taking an obstinate path away from the straightforward in the direction of an exuberant grappling with contradiction. Whether he's writing about the boisterous Sturges group portraits of American optimism and futility, producer Val Lewton's touchingly uneven "Cat People" movies, latter-day slattern Taylor sloughing through "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" like a caged wildebeest or the "spiritualized braille art" of Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl," his work is usually about balancing, if not reconciling, dual impulses toward formalized abstraction and unfiltered reality.

The experience of reading Farber can be disorienting because:

1) The notion of what movie to see and what to avoid is secondary to opening up new ways of looking at the familiar and the overlooked.

2) He steadfastly refuses hero worship: "To put Hitchcock either up or down isn't the point; the point is sticking to the material as it is, rather than drooling over behind-the-camera feats of engineering."

3) He has scant interest in narrative, either of plot-driven or symbolic/sociopolitical kinds, and is more taken with spatial dynamics than happy endings or movie martyrdoms.

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