Saturday, April 16, 2005

Manny Farber: Film Critic as Art Hunk


He's got two careers, each with irrefutable (and irrefusable?) calling cards: the first film critic to artfully argue the leading, lasting merit of American "genre" films, and a painter included in the very first exhibitions of the mythic American Abstract Expressionists. 'American', twice in the first sentence: clear enough.

Negative Space is biblical for film fans of a stripe either pretentious or deep, take your pick. It may also be read by many who are less serious toward the art side of film, more serious about the success side; and they will be turned-on by the early reviews, the hard-nosed syntax and the iconoclasm. "Underground Films" (1957, before the "underground" as we know it was built), "Fight Films" (1949), "Ugly Spotting" (1950), "The Gimp" (1952), "Hard-Sell Cinema" (1957): the perceptions documented in these essays were bold positions in 1949, in 1957, and they come across as divination to a 21st Century eye.

But to whom do tracts championing Hawks or the French New Wave sound radical now? Farber and film began to break apart in the post-60's era, and his late reviews sound puzzled by the advent of movies built by men educated on his precepts, but not his scruples. “Taxi Driver”? Farber's late career piece dedicated to this Scorcese/Shrader celebration of murder is ambivalent, appearing very near the end of "Negative Space," dripping palpable discomfort now as he witnesses his criticism's big influence on these guys, an influence as responsible for the bad parts in the flick as the good. Must have been bracing.

At this point in our Nation's cinematic life, Manny retreated from the critic's battle to inform and confront. He claims, believably, the break came when the public started embracing the mythic in earnest. The grand visions being manufactured by the New Hollywood (the old New Hollywood, of Coppola, Lucas, etc.), turned him off—and just when he thought film would break from the strictly small-time commercial, and give us the vast universe of the personal intelligence! Instead it decided to sell tickets, lots of tickets, and in unlocking this route to the mega-commercial with fake venerations of the commonly mythic, or mythically common, Hollywood lost Manny forever. More interesting to the Farb Man at the end were Herzog and Snow and Chantal Akerman (the names become less and less familiar the further we progress toward the end of his critical career, don't they? Wouldn't most "film fanz" of today shout, "Manny, lighten up! It's a story about a killer kabbie! Lean back and enjoy the ride!").

Was the problem that Hollywood started succeeding with brutal machines inspired in some perverse way by his own ideals? Or did he just lose interest, or get old? I think he recognized his interests had veered off into a scorched field of commercially useless art films, and he didn't like the idea of becoming irrelevant, "that old kook, that artist, Farber." It was great to play the prophet for a while, and then an apostle—but when nobody converts, you gotta change jobs fast. Becoming yet another irritating academic championing unseen art must not have appealed, so logically he gave up writing his elaborate criticism/poems for an audience so small and refined. He must have missed the bright lights, big city of the earlier days, and ultimately, he couldn’t stand to surrender all traces of populism. The goose was cooked once he saw "the public" wasn't going to follow him into these formalist art films and their aesthetic determinism. The fun for him must have always come in creating these masterpiece meditations with oodles of high art appeal as mere adornments for mass-media popular entertainments—a Marlowe-like detective, bent on discovering the transcendent art in the transient and commercial.

He left the scene when the business side superseded all other concerns—superseded? I mean finally obliterated. When the canny, ambitious film-men that came in the wake of his revolutionary insights grabbed at the one fact he promulgated that supported their program—"Action films are valid art!" —and began ramming it down our throats (The Star Wars? Sahara? The War of the Worlds? it hasn't stopped yet). We love him for that, and for being "early" on the fine art curve (instant legitimacy in Hollywood, much more so than being early on the criticism curve).

It's really these gnostic credentials as a bona fide painter, as a real “artiste”, that have kept the Hollywood buzz around his name all these years, and which confer the ultimate respectability upon him in the eyes of the film world. "Negative Space" ends with an interview of Farber, and the interview ends with his description of the many visits to his art studio from the directors he wrote about, and who had been influenced by his criticism. Not one visitor took the time to apprehend his paintings, or had the tools or patience to even look at his canvases with a semi-intelligent eye, (except—of course!— Godard, that other titan of film criticism for a certain generation). This lack of comprehension only helps the film makers he helped create (and arm) venerate him all the more passionately: Manny, the inscrutable sage! The alchemist, the prophet for our cinema age! From their lofty esthetic height, this judgment drifts down to coat the film-brains of everyone remotely connected to the medium. New Hollywood, Blockbuster Hollywood and VHS/DVD Hollywood, Weekend Box Office Hollywood; their inability to create work that lives up to his standards hasn't stopped them from supporting their bankrupt efforts with silver-dollar citations from his book. Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola Hollywood, Dreamworks and Lucasfilm and Zoetrope Hollywood, Cinecitta, Toho and CANAL/PLUS Hollywood; Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter Hollywood: they all own a copy of "Negative Space".

And now, after my birthday, so do I.


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