He was ninety-one-and-a-half. It had been a long and gradual decline. Yet how quickly I could switch over from “I can’t believe he’s still here” to “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
The passing of Manny Farber early last week at his home in Leucadia provided a lesson in perspective: tearing myself away from writing about Tropic Thunder, heaven forgive me, to sit at the deathbed of the greatest man I’ve known, greatest film critic I’ve read, greatest teacher I’ve had. Driving the long road south down 101 those final days, returning from the deathwatch, was a genuine ghostly experience, a tour of mutual past haunts: Kardiff Kitchen and The Coffee Mill in Encinitas; the stone’s-throw oceanfront cottage in Del Mar where he and his mate, the artist Patricia Patterson, were installed when I moved to town in 1971 and where I house-sat and pet-sat when they went off for a summer in Europe the next year; the UCSD campus where I received — I wouldn’t say earned — an M.F.A. in 1974, Manny making a good show of putting me through the wringer in my oral exam while another panelist, the experimental filmmaker Stanton Kaye, kept stepping in and answering his challenges in my stead; Sheldon’s twenty-four-hour coffee house off the Pacific Beach exit on Interstate 5, good for a caffeine run on late nights at his painting studio, unspooling 16mm films till all hours on the walls.
None of these places is still there, apart from UCSD of course, and even then not the UCSD of the early Seventies, when the Visual Arts Department was lodged in one of the old wooden cabins on Matthews Campus, formerly USMC Camp Matthews. Around it, there was no La Jolla Village Square, no La Jolla Village Center, no University Towne Centre, no Costa Verde, no Starbucks at every point of the compass. For a midday break, the nearest alternative to the school cafeterias would be the antiseptic coffee shop at Scripps Memorial Hospital: no students, no faculty to be run into there.
I wrote about my history with Manny Farber a couple of years ago, a piece still available on the Reader website for anyone who cares to pursue it, and I cannot now go into the rudiments without running the risk of repeating myself. I can be certain, without having to reread the piece, that I would not be repeating myself if I mentioned something a friend of mine, who was there at the time, expressed surprise I had left out. How could I have overlooked the parade of cineastes drawn to the university by Manny’s gravitational pull? — Rossellini, Franju, Godard and Gorin, Wenders, Herzog, et al., not to forget the critics Raymond Durgnant and Jonathan Rosenbaum. These were without question a valuable supplement to a film student’s education, and Manny was more than amenable to setting them up in their personal forums. But in my recollection, Manny, who never had enough time to dissect a movie in a three-hour class, never ran out of angles of attack, never exhausted the possibilities of juxtaposition and rearrangement, would never give over his own class time to these luminaries. He suffered no doubts that the critic’s voice was as vital as the artist’s.
So I left that out. I left a lot out. The student-written critical journal, The Movie Geek. The regal widow of James Agee (clear to the cigarette holder) who, brought in by Manny from New York, toiled in the art office in a secretarial capacity. The hilarious classroom impressions of John Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the chalk caricatures on the blackboard — words can’t convey. And maybe the biggest omission, indicative of Manny’s self-inundation with work, the reams of Xeroxed notes generously churned out for students and T.A.’s alike: “From the film’s beginning, Warhol and Fassbinder insist ‘this is a movie’ and not an experience to be lived through vicariously. Consider the off-center focus at the end of Fassbinder’s Amok film: the center is on a drip-drip gossip of two women, but the camera’s focussed on the long stupefied Raab, Herr R., watching the TV with his mind elsewhere. The tense dramatics, the anticipation and suspense, are deliberately cut out while the movie holds on a homely, honest course,” etc., etc. Whatever the scope of the tribute, Manny being Manny, me being me, it was foredoomed to inadequacy.
When I spoke to him by phone after the opening of an exhibit of his latest drawings at the Quint Gallery last May, he was unusually talkative for recent times. I was enthusiastic about the show (“I like it as much as you do,” he said), but I mostly listened, I took some notes, though I can’t make much out of them today: something about the “abomination” of how art is taught, something about the “measuring” element in drawing, something about the “time” element, something about what he took away from the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the Thirties. Slower though he had gotten, I was nevertheless lagging behind. I should have taken better notes.
For me, this is a loss of a size that contains all loss, all the things that are forever gone and never coming back. Youth, for example. Kardiff Kitchen. The Coffee Mill. Sheldon’s. The Seventies — when Manny’s published film criticism came to a stop. The single-screen theater — the Unicorn in La Jolla, to name the one where we went together to watch Barbara Loden’s Wanda immediately after my arrival. The drive-in. The double feature. The “B” movie. Technicolor. The list lengthens and lengthens. If I could put myself in a properly open and receptive frame of mind, I could perhaps look at all this loss as something like, oh, preparation. A readying. I’m still trying to learn from Manny Farber.
Click here to read "Debt" from 2006.