For the first time, the complete writings of film critic Manny Farber is available from Library of America, edited by Robert Polito (Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson).
Manny Farber (1917-2008) was the first modernist film critic to write like a modernist. Writing for The New Republic, The Nation, Commentary, and Film Culture, his subversive reviews and “think pieces” championed genres and B directors (Val Lewton, Preston Sturges, Sam Fuller, Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann) for both their angst and aesthetics, which he called “termite art.” Not surprisingly, Farber was also a painter and conceptualized “negative space” as a “sense of terrain created partly by the audience’s imagination and partly by camera-actors-director.” His best criticism previously appeared in the essential Negative Space, but at long last we can evaluate his entire output.
Farber’s prose is filled with jazz and sports influences as well. He excelled at debunking dogma and grappling with contradictions and was adept at discerning the craft along with the social impact. But even when taking a film to task, he found something positive to cheer about: ”Casablanca is as ineffectual as a Collier’s short story, but with one thing and another — like Bergman, Veidt, and Humphrey Bogart — it is a pleasure of sorts”).
Or in assessing Preston Sturges, Farber observes: “He is essentially a satirist without any stable point of view from which to aim his satire. He is apt to turn his back on what he has been sniping at to demolish what he has just been defending.”
At the same time, Farber adds, “Taking the best qualities of all his movies, it is apparent that Sturges is the most progressively experimental worker in Hollywood (aside from the cartoon-makers) since the early days.”
Farber often lamented the post-war decline in American movies for turgid melodrama as well as lazy visuals. But he adored screwball comedy: “At their best these comedies have more actual invention in situation and character and more turbulence and energy than nine-tenths of the seriously intended, pretentious movies.”
And Farber praised the action directors: “Americans seem to have a special aptitude for allowing History to bury the toughest, most authentic native talents.” He called Howard Hawks “the key figure in the male action film because he shows a maximum speed, inner life, and view, with the lest amount of flat foot.” And he concluded that Walsh’s films “are melancholy masterpieces of flexibility and detailing inside a lower-middle-class locale.”
In 1965, Farber also criticized the new generation of critics (including Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag) for misreading James Agee, the first important film critic “to show a decided variance between the critic’s words and what actually went on in the film.”
“Another trouble is that the new critic — a genial combatant, doing a free-fall parachute jump onto stray truths, then leaving a critical puzzle for someone else — simplifies the Hollywood past into chaos.”
There was nothing simple or chaotic about Farber’s criticism. He luxuriated in detail and found truth in the journey.