I was fortunate in my timing. This was early 1970, when the injured Willis Reed would hobble onto the basketball court at the start of Game Seven in the NBA Finals, and Manny — I was now on first-name terms — was a red-blooded American sports fan as happy to talk, in after-class adjournments to the coffee shop, about the Knicks as about the new Hitchcock or new Bresson. Too, he was preparing a show of his recent paintings in SoHo or thereabouts, a side to him I had known nothing about. Film buffs as a breed have a dangerous tendency to put on blinders to anything outside a movie screen, and the broadening of my horizons to the world of art studios, galleries, openings, and the bohemian digs he shared with his fellow painter and future wife, Patricia Patterson, was a healthy thing. Most fortunate of all, he was then putting together his own collection of film criticism, and I was flabbergasted and flattered to be called upon to help sift through the file box of clippings that dated back to the Forties, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Leader. (I'm sure my main function was to plump unreasonably for the stuff from Cavalier.) Fortunately, also, Columbia was in the throes of its annual Spring shutdown due to student revolt, a new tradition, and I was freed to spend my time as I pleased, else I might not have graduated. I'd have opted to sift with Manny rather than study for finals.
A year later, after he had decamped to UCSD to start up a program of film studies in the Visual Arts Department, he was back in New York for the launch of his book, Negative Space, at a reception in the New Yorker Bookstore over the New Yorker Theater, where he recruited me as a teaching assistant. I had since landed a reviewing job at a movie trade paper edited by the father of one of my fellow students in Manny's writing workshop (one thing leads to another), but seeing that I had more money going out than coming in, and was sleeping on a jerry-built shelf three feet from the ceiling in a tiny cell intended as the maid's quarters in a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, I jumped at the chance. And the course of my life was set. Minneapolis to New York to San Diego. One thing leads to another.
Manny's film classes — I can speak first-hand of only three years of them, though they would continue for another thirteen until his retirement in 1987 to devote himself full-time to painting — were the stuff of legend, and it seems feeble and formulaic to call him a brilliant, an illuminating, a stimulating, an inspiring teacher. It wasn't necessarily what he had to say (he was prone to shrug off his most searching analysis as “gobbledegook”) 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 Griffith to Godard, Bugs Bunny to Yasujiro Ozu, talking over them with or without sound, running them backwards through the projector, mixing in slides of paintings, sketching out compositions on the blackboard, the better to assist students in seeing what was in front of their faces, to wean them from Plot, Story, What Happens Next, and to disabuse them of the absurd notion that a film is all of a piece, all on a level, quantifiable, rankable, fileable. He could seldom be bothered with movie trivia, inside information, behind-the-scenes piffle, technical shoptalk, was often offhand about the basic facts of names and dates, was unconcerned with Classics, Masterpieces, Seminal Works, Historical Landmarks. It was always about looking and seeing.
He would endlessly preview the week's movies on the wall of his studio on campus or his rented house in Del Mar, lugging an anvil-weight 16mm projector to and fro, together with three or four valise-sized boxes of celluloid, and yet throughout these endless hours he felt no necessity to watch every reel of every movie. If you wanted simply to know How It Ends, he might not have the answer. One week he had previewed Kurosawa's wide-screen High and Low without benefit of an anamorphic lens, so that the image was squeezed like an accordion, and all of his prepared comments on narrow spaces and vertical lines, perfectly true to what he was seeing, had to be modified on the fly when the film was shown in class, stretched out horizontally with the proper lens. He was constitutionally unable to make things easy on himself. It never would have occurred to him to follow the conventional pattern (see Robert Osborne on TCM) of introductory remarks, uninterrupted movie from beginning to end, concluding remarks, and call it a day. It was unthinkable ever to repeat the same movie and the same lecture at a later date. People were forever taken aback to find out that something he had written fifteen or twenty years earlier no longer represented his views on the matter. Everything had to be re-examined afresh, looked at from a different angle, turned on its head. Nothing was nailed down, fixed, finalized. Like the metaphorical termite of that 1962 essay, he was always moving forward, less inclined in 1972 to talk about Preston Sturges or Val Lewton than about Werner Herzog or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While he was very much the sort of teacher to attract followers, hungering for his wisdom and wit, thirsting for his approval, he was not the sort to have actual disciples. He had all the requisite charisma, just not the dogma. He was, succinctly put, too individual, too inimitable. No one could keep up with him.
My privileges have been many. I was privileged, right off the bat in California, to be a sounding board as his essay on Raoul Walsh, “He Used to Be a Big Shot,” took shape before my eyes on the typewriter and sometimes with scissors and adhesive, a fascinating process that nonetheless did not cure me of my own neurotic secrecy about the act of writing. All of his film criticism from that point on, until the last published piece in 1977, was co-signed by his wife Patricia, who brought a matching eye for visual detail and added a Memorex memory for dialogue. (It is sobering to realize that the length of time from his first film reviews in The New Republic to that last one in Film Comment is very close to the same length of time I've been writing in these pages, starting from my second year at UCSD.) I was privileged, too, to be at Manny's and Patricia's wedding, and to have them at mine, very small affairs. Privileged to watch the Super Bowl with him when his 49ers squeaked out their first championship. Privileged to have access to his thoughts on movies in the decades since he stopped publishing them. From afar, it might be tempting to read his silence on the post-Star Wars cinema as one of those eloquent silences, a silence that speaks volumes, yet anyone who knows him will know that his engagement in movies has hardly flagged.