Manny Farber
  • Manny Farber

Manny Farber was a friend of mine before we ever met. I recall exactly how I was introduced. I had read Pauline Kael's jeremiad on Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory, “Circles and Squares,” in her first (and at the time, only) collection of film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies, or perhaps I had read it upon its initial appearance in Film Quarterly magazine in 1963. Whichever, it was an attack that aroused nothing so much as sympathy for its victim and curiosity to read for myself the essay that had incited it. I got hold of the pertinent issue of Film Culture, America's Independent Motion Picture Magazine, No. 27, Winter 1962/63, either directly from the magazine's offices or, more likely, from that lifeline to the outside movie world for a suburban Minneapolis high-schooler, the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. The lead article, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” by Andrew Sarris, told me what I had shelled out a dollar-fifty plus postage for, but it got completely upstaged by the article immediately following it, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” by Manny Farber, a piece that left my head feeling like a punching bag after a Cassius Clay workout, and that seemed to embody to the nth degree the kind of art the author was touting: “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”

One thing leads to another. Kael to Sarris to Farber. I may have recognized the third name from a handful of references in the collection of James Agee's criticism, Agee on Film. I may not. But here, clearly, was a new acquaintance to cultivate. He would confide to me later that when the magazine hit the stands he had an urge to go into hiding, and that Pauline Kael, who had a piece on Shoot the Piano Player immediately following Farber's in the magazine, tracked him down to tell him she could not make out what he was talking about. Yet the terminology of his title has — shall we say? — gnawed, burrowed, wormed its way into the critical vocabulary and has been much appropriated and misappropriated by others. Only a couple of years ago when I was in Madrid I picked up a flier for an art exhibit entitled “Arte Termita contra Elefante Blanco.” But I get ahead of myself.

The next step would have been similar. (One thing leads to another.) I was reading a book-length survey of the contemporary cinema called The Contemporary Cinema — this was one of the means whereby a Minnesota rube could find out about the blanks he had to fill in in his film education — by Penelope Houston, an editor and critic of the British film magazine, Sight and Sound, to which I had a subscription. In the book, there was a chapter incongruously headed “Production Values,” if I remember right, wherein she summarized an earlier article by the same Manny Farber, “Underground Films,” from a 1957 issue of the political journal, Commentary. By then the term had been snapped up by the editor of Film Culture, Jonas Mekas, and applied to the experimental films of Brakhage, Breer, Baillie, and company, something very different from Farber's application of it to the work of unsung Hollywood action directors, lean, lithe, unpretentious, who toiled in the shadows of “the water buffaloes of film art,” Kazan, Zinnemann, Stevens, and company. And he had, to go by the date of publication, been exploring this terrain all by his lonesome, without the aid of an auteurist map, William Wellman, William Keighley, and John Farrow right in there with the anointed Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann. Well, I had to get my hands on that, too, and did so by way of a call slip at the Minneapolis Public Library, dredging up from the vaults a bound year's worth of the periodical, to be read and re-read on the premises.

The next step is less distinct. How I learned that Farber at that time — smack in the middle of the Sixties — was writing a monthly column for Cavalier, a girlie magazine with Playboy-ish intellectual aspirations, I can't say. I confess I already knew the magazine, and had a copy of it from circa 1962, which I wish I still had today, with a peekaboo pictorial of Jane Fonda in it. In any event, it now became a monthly must, and luckily there was a newsagent at Seventh and Hennepin, bless him, who was willing to sell me unlawfully anything I had the coin to pay for. This period in Farber's criticism was, I see in retrospect, unsurpassed in freewheelingness and wordplayfulness, and my head got sharply turned. I had a new star to hitch my wagon to. His influence on my own scribblings, although unnamed, did not go unnoticed by my twelfth-grade English Composition teacher. It was not until after I had made his acquaintance in the flesh that I was compelled to find other writers to mimic. You can't very well look a man in the eye on a daily or weekly basis when you're stealing from him. Besides which, you may easily enough tap another's language, syntax, even to an extent taste and enthusiasms, but you cannot take over his vision. And no other film critic has been so deeply involved with literal, actual, active vision — with looking, with watching, with seeing, experiencing, reacting. But again I get ahead of myself.

The eventual meeting would occur in the last half of my senior year at Columbia University, a school chosen solely for the number of proximate movie theaters in New York City, my primary yardstick for Quality of Life. By this time Farber — I was still on last-name terms with him — had moved his column to Artforum, readily available in the college library, and in some ways his most hospitable venue ever, where his observations on movies could share space with views of Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol instead of views of naked women. Through a dorm-mate on the fifth floor of John Jay Hall, a card-carrying auteurist and not precisely someone I would call a friend, I got wind of a writing workshop run by Farber at the School of Visual Arts, ninety-some blocks southward in Manhattan. The dorm-mate had blazed this trail in the Fall semester, reporting back erroneously that Farber was “really old, maybe eighty,” and I would follow along on that trail come Spring. (One thing leads to another.) And then there he was, sitting six feet away from me, his prominent brow and forehead suggesting superhuman braininess, starting off fearlessly reading aloud from a recent piece he had penned on Luis Buñuel: “His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints....”

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