Negative Space (1999)

The news that one of America’s greatest film critics, Manny Farber, has passed away is triggering deserved tributes (well-documented by David Hudson at GreenCine Daily), so I feel it’s a good a time as any to remember Christopher Petit’s 1999 essay film/meditation on Farber, itself titled Negative Space (the title of Farber’s reissued and expanded compendium).

Petit has a history of biographical tributes to filmmakers, and given the dearth of films about the critical process or its practitioners, Negative Space is a welcome 39-minute tribute. For the same reason, it’s also a bit frustrating–given the privileged occasion, does Petit really have to devote so much footage of his road trip from Texas to California, or so much screen time to talking head art critic Dave Hickey (engaging as he is)? I understand the British filmmaker is attempting to make a productive comparison to Farber’s elucidation of screen space (and burrowing, exploratory approach to writing) to traversing the vast American landscape, but I quickly found the travelogue, locations, and titles cards (presented like digitally composed polaroids) somewhat distracting.

Petit does include ongoing clips of a conversation with Farber, but one wonders if these are representative declarations or simply the best sound bites culled from a single interview? To Petit’s credit, Farber comes across as mulling and freely associative in person, a temperament his friend, editor Robert Walsh, accurately describes in his 1998 introduction to Farber’s book as inching “along by layered reiteration.” In person, Farber methodically muses and drops anchors of observation along the way, and his writing represents a craftily compressed version of this process. (Walsh again: “Always ‘process-mad’–his phrase–Farber seems to have trained himself to experience, as though microscopically and in slow motion, contradictions within a film”; “just one result of his inveterate habit of repeated viewings and reconsiderations of a given film, his attempt to go beyond his private reactions to accommodate plural perspectives, and the fact that he is admittedly ‘unable to write anything at all without extraordinary amounts of rewriting.'”) In any given sitting, I imagine one only got partial flashes of Farber that shifted and reformulated over time.

My hesitations about Petit’s film, however, probably say more about what I wish it provided rather than what it does–in general, I did find it stimulating. Petit admirably includes film clips (The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Psycho) to illustrate Farber’s writing, and juxtaposes Voyage to Italy and Breathless when Farber compares the driving scenes in them, articulating his preference for Rossellini’s precise visual geography versus Godard’s flashy, chaotic montage.

Through the film’s juxtapositions and his own Marker-like, musing narration, Petit is also adept at emphasizing Farber’s “ambidextrous” background–carpenter, critic, painter, teacher–a wide ranging experience with creative construction that helped produce his brilliant sensitivity to the way films are assembled, the idiosyncratic way each of their varied pieces work (or don’t work) together. For this reason, Farber remains a favorite critic for cinephiles; his writing digs beneath the widely regarded surfaces of plot, character, and theme to ruminate on details of form or unexpected moments of fleeting cinematic pleasure. In Petit’s film, Farber is a little self-depricating when he recalls his phrase “termite art,” suggesting the label was a “corny” and “sentimental” way of getting people’s attention, but Petit nails the beauty of Farber’s writing when he suggests Pauline Kael’s prose always seemed like a substitute for a film, but Farber’s writing enticed readers to look for themselves.

Petit captures Farber complaining about recent cinema (particularly Spielberg’s “wrong” choices of color and composition, though he was known to champion Hou Hsiao-hsien and Alexander Sokurov) and conflates it with Petit’s own concerns for the demise of a certain kind of cinema, an ending that becomes all the more funereal given the critic’s death this week. “It doesn’t bother me that much,” Farber half-jokes. “It’s just that I’m going to be dead [laughs] in five years, and I feel sorry for the people who’ll come after me.” Narrating over the unearthing footage of the doomed Vesuvian couple in Voyage to Italy and titles stating the lifespans of George Sanders and Ingrid Berman, Petit closes with this thought:

“Cinema, whose flickering dreams always carried within them a sense of departure, increasingly becomes a long list of the dead. And now, as the century ends, it’s fashionable to talk of the death of cinema, as though this was somehow premature rather than just a part of the process in a wider technological revolution.”

I’m not convinced the millennium marked any kind of major transition of media, myself, but as old and new technologies continue to intermingle and coexist to varying degrees, the rooting, unpredictable, and demanding criticism of Manny Farber will continue to inspire as long as sounds and images are correlated.

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