Manny Farber wrote like he ran with the Beatniks, smoking, drinking and bopping to jazz rhythms. In Farber on Film, we get the straight, the uncut, the complete writings of Farber on film.
Farber wrote scores of film reviews for The Nation, Time, The New Republic and other publications. But his reviews rarely fit into the “first this, then that, and I liked it because” box that most reviewers cram themselves into. Farber mused on the beauty of images, confronted actors’ choices, challenged directors, and digressed down rarely trod paths in order to introduce pertinent impertinences and relevant social revelations.
Farber was a self-described champion of “termite art”: he loved eccentric virtuosity rather than “white elephants,” conformist monstrosities that “pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” Termite art, in contrast, is “ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” White elephant art was seamless mass in “pursuit of... continuity” and “harmony,” while termite art participated in the world: it is “an act of observing and being in the world” and
“goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”Farber taught film classes at UC San Diego that, as professors at the university are (or at least were) wont to do, made huge demands on the student. You’d have to not only watch every film listed on the syllabus but remember every detail, too. Farber tore down the idea that a film is a whole, with first this, then that happening - which is, of course, the way the vast majority of people watch films. Indeed, per Farber, most people aren’t watching so much as being pickled in white elephant shit. In his classes, says Duncan Shepherd, who wrote film reviews for the San Diego Reader, “It wasn’t so much what he had to say... so much as it was the whole way he went about things, famously showing films in pieces, switching back and forth from one film to another, ranging from Griffin to Goddard, Bugs Bunny to Yasujiro Oz,” and playing clips without sound, backwards, mixed in with slides of paintings, and so on. Farber taught his students to observe, to ravage like termites.
The hundreds of film reviews in this book are, in short, a guide to Western culture in the 20th century. Your guide is witty, scathing, unforgiving, and never so high-browed that he’s afraid to love a good roll in the mud. One quote, from a 1953 review, will have to suffice: “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliché-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.”
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Brian Charles Clark, 2010