By RICHARD B. WOODWARD
August 26, 2008; Page D7
The American critic and painter Manny Farber, who died last week at
the age of 91, was a maddening original. Never anything less than his
own man, he wasn't smooth and didn't try to be. The slangy aggression
of his paragraphs and the shifting perspectives of his canvases were
attempts to keep alive the fast, sidewalk style of heated argument in
which they were conceived.
His widely influential essays on movies, collected in the 1971 book,
"Negative Space," begin without idling. By the end of the first
sentence the reader is going 90 miles per hour on a white-knuckle
ride, searching in vain for a map through his arcane references and
zig-zagging trains of thought.
"There has no doubt been an upheaval in film during the 1960s, but
almost nothing has been said about the Department Store styling or
Modiste's Sensibility which seems to be causing the upheaval." So
begins "Day of the Lesteroid," a 1966 essay that careers from snarky
observations about the British director Richard Lester and the decor
he chose for some scenes in the Beatles romp "Help!" to putdowns of
Louis Malle and Lillian Hellman, to a celebration of the young Robert
Redford's death scene in "The Chase."
Even when you have seen the film Farber is discussing, you didn't
process it the same way he did or notice the odd things that struck
him as worth remembering. He was more apt to comment on the eyebrows
of a bit player than to recite the plot.
Farber had no appetite for power in the sense that critics usually
wield it, and he never had as many imitators as The New Yorker's
Pauline Kael. No current editor of a daily or weekly publication
would tolerate for long his nose-thumbing disregard for public taste.
After the 1940s and '50s, when he wrote about art and movies for The
New Republic and The Nation, his writings appeared irregularly, often
in art magazines. Like the movies he admired, he didn't advertise his
Champion of the B-picture over the studio blockbuster, the crime film
over the historical epic, he was almost alone in recognizing the
skill of directors and producers who did low-budget work in the '40s,
'50s, and '60s: Raoul Walsh, Val Lewton, Ida Lupino, Samuel Fuller,
Don Siegel. The exalted regard in which these filmmakers are now held
by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino can be traced
in large part to Farber's keen antennae and persuasive rhetoric.
He coined the phrase "underground film" in 1957 and developed the
metaphor in his most famous essay, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite
Art," published in 1962. White elephant art was obsessed with
treating "every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for
prizeworthy creativity." It tended to produce "bloated"
entertainment. Termite art had "no ambitions toward gilt culture" and
left "nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious,
In his deflation of Hitchcock and Welles, or "The Third Man" by Carol
Reed (a "monsterpiece"), all of them white elephants in his eyes, you
sense that Farber is trying to shock the squares. "I knew I was hip
at any point in my life," he once said. He may only be prodding his
audience to think for itself, but his smart-aleck dismissal of any
movie too popular, cleancut, or "harmonious" (a slur in his
vocabulary) denies some of cinema's deepest pleasures.
Dwight Macdonald called him an "impossibly eccentric movie critic,"
although one he always learned from. Farber could be a frustrating
stylist, too. When he writes that Howard Hawks, one of his favorite
directors, "landscapes action," he is being hermetic as well as
inaccurate. His liberation of criticism from its standard
communicative niceties can itself be an enslaving pose.
But Farber was equally rough on the European art film of the '60s.
"When did movie directors decide that boredom was part of the game?"
begins an essay that takes shots at Antonioni's "Red Desert" and
Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits." About Ingmar Bergman, he wrote in
1969: "There's so much lust for naturalism that it's puzzling how he
keeps being seduced into a soupy, pretentious symbolism."
Find television listings for Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman at LocateTV.
Farber's all-sensory approach to movies and art has made him revered
among critics of all stripes. Art, film and popular-music writing
since the '60s has been riddled with termites following his trails.
Born in Arizona, educated in San Francisco art schools, he moved East
during World War II, to Washington and then New York, where he hung
out with the Abstract Expressionists. But he is best-known for the
complex but lyrical still lifes he did when he moved back to teach in
His critical principles were similar to those he swore by as a
painter. He once said in an interview, "I think it's sinful to give
the audience material it knows already, whether the material is about
race relations or the car culture or the depiction and placement of a
candy bar." He didn't see the need for putting anything on paper or
canvas that wasn't singular and fresh.
A beloved teacher of film at the University of California at San
Diego from 1970 until his retirement in 1987, he was anything but a
buttoned-down academic. In his lectures he ran film without sound or
backward to instill a better appreciation of its translucent, mutable
nature. With his wife, the artist Pat Patterson, he collaborated on
installations of text and images.
When I was an editor at Da Capo Press in the 1980s, I tried several
times to bring out a paperback of "Negative Space." The hardcover was
by then barely in print. The expanded edition the publisher brought
out after I left is still hard to find but should be hunted down.
Reading it will introduce you to one of the most bracing critical
voices America has ever produced.
Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.