Friday, August 29, 2008

Manny Farber

It wont mean much to many but the saddest news of the week came on learning of the death on 19 August of Manny Farber one of the lions of film criticism and one of the most independent voices ever to turn his attention to serious analysis of the art of the film. Long ago, way back in the sixties, Farber wrote his still iconic piece “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art. It appeared in a 1962 Film Culture and I think I still have a copy somewhere. Back in the mid 60s, this piece turned us all around. It was as significant in its day as Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory” which also appeared in that very same issue of Film Culture. I’m going to cheat in my appreciation here by quoting at length from a piece by Jim Hoberman which was reprinted in last week’s Village Voice as part of Hoberman’s eulogy for the great man. Hoberman writes: “Farber's contribution, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," is the snappiest jeremiad I've ever read. Its target is films that are inflated, over-wrought, precious, "tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence" – white elephant stuff, in which the artist tries "to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Against this beast (personified by Antonioni, Truffaut, and the then modish Tony Richardson) Farber raises the red flag of termite art, a mysterious form that flourishes in dark corners where "the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence." Farber's termites include journalists, pulp writers, B-movie directors, and comic-strip artists – intuitive, unself-conscious professionals who have "no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything." Farber’s enthusiasms played into the hands of buffs, enthusiasts, auteurists and others who were seeking out byways of American film history and discovering the delights of noir and westerns. Farber directed us towards Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh and they became the gods whose work was to be found nestling in ‘ranch nights’ at suburban revival houses, the programs of MUFS and SUFS and at independent cinemas like the Carlton Moviehouse where the proprietor would run all sorts of stuff if you just asked him to put it on. In his later years Farber became a highly regarded painter, as indicated in Hoberman’s note, and was able to forego the pleasures of meeting deadlines. Regrettably for Australians, his work appeared in all sorts of difficult to find magazines and I’m not sure, beyond the one book "negative Space", whether it has been collected in the same way that that the work of others like Sarris and Pauline Kael has. That’s a pity but maybe his death, in his nineties, will prompt a resurrection of some of the best writing ever on film….For a much better appreciation try here …

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