Most film criticism is historically divided into two eras: before the French New Wave and after the French New Wave. Until the ’60s, serious writing on film was hard to come by, but the passion, encyclopedic movie knowledge, and bountiful imagination of the Cahiers du cinÈma critics and others ushered in the world of film theory, academia, and a worldwide culture of cinephilic scribblers.
When Pauline Kael, an icon of the more popular latter era, died a couple years ago, there was a lot of press devoted to her career. Icons previous to the ’60s, however, tend to receive much less attention even though their historical influence may have actually been more pronounced. John Patterson offers a brief commentary on film critics and particularly one such writer from its beginnings, Robert Warshow, for the Guardian. And last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times offered a feature profile of another pioneer, Manny Farber, who has turned to painting the last few decades and is opening his latest exhibition in San Diego. (The link may require registration.) Farber was one of the early mavericks, a piercing wordsmith who engaged movies from the ’40s to the ’70s in publications like The New Republic, Commentary, and The Nation and sifted them through his eccentric intelligence.
Farber was known as an early champion of the American action film and Hollywood stylists like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, and even Chuck Jones. During the ’40s, when film criticism was largely a formal mediocre affair with commentary like, “Mr. So-and-So directs this picture professionally with a sure and steady hand,” Farber would feverishly laud the work of, say, Warner Brothers cartoonists:
Some of the best movies of the year are seven-minute cartoons called by names like All This and Rabbit Stew or The Fighting 69th 1/2, which come on as unheralded transitions in the double bill and feature the notorious Bugs Bunny, a rabbit that not only performs physical feats of a Paul Bunyan magnitude but is equally sharp with his mind. . . Despite the various positions on humor (Tex Avery is a visual surrealist proving nothing is permanent, McKimson is a showbiz satirist with throwaway gags and celebrity spoofs, Friz Freling is the least contorting, while Jones’s specialty, comic character, is unusual for the chopping up of motion and the surrealist imposition: a Robin Hood duck, whose flattened beak springs out with each repeated faux pas as a reminder of the importance of his primary ineptness), the Warner cartoonists are refreshing iconoclasts because they concentrate on so many other humor antecedents besides brutal mishaps, cultural punning, balletlike sadism. (1943)
Farber was no less eloquent when it came to features, as this paragraph from his comments on Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) reveals:
Though there is an unfortunate alliance here with [screenwriter] Graham Greene’s glib encapsulation of people, and the feeling here that Reed is deserting intelligence for a lyrical-romantic kick, the precocious use of space, perspective, types of acting (stylized, distorted, understated, emotionalized) and random, seemingly irrelevant subject matter, enlarges and deepens both the impression of a marred city and a sweet, amoral villian (Welles), who seems most like a nearly satiated baby at the breast. But it bears the usual foreign trademarks (pretentious camera, motorless design, self-conscious involvement with balloon-hawker, prostitute, porter, belly dancer, tramp) overelaborated to the point of being a monsterpiece. It uses such tiresome symbol-images as a door that swings with an irritating rhythm as though it had a will of its own; a tilted camera that leaves you feeling you have seen the film from a foetal position; fiendish composing in Vuillard’s spotty style, so that the screen crawls with patterns, textures, bulking shapes, a figure becoming less important than the moving ladder of shadow passing over it. (1950)
As the quote suggests, Farber had a passion for spatiality (“the most dramatic stylistic entity”) and how it was represented in film in terms of “1) the field of the screen, 2) the psychological space of the actor, and 3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” Many of his essays have been published in the 1998 expanded version of his 1971 Negative Space, a book praised by cultural voices as diverse as Susan Sontag and William Gibson. Reading it generates a potpourri of cinematic images mediated through the unexpected twists and turns of Farber’s imaginative language.
Those lucky enough to visit his art exhibition in San Diego will only gain additional perspectives into the heart and mind one of the major American film critics of the 20th century.