Manny Farber: Not Quite Termite

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I’ve read a good amount of Manny Farber over the years, but never till now in bulk, and I have to say the effects of a review here and there and of Negative Space cover to cover aren’t even comparable. It’s more than quantitative, more even than cumulative. It’s the difference between “No!” and “No! No! No! No! No! No! NO!,” each negative inflected in subtle, thoughtful and hilarious microtones of repudiation.

There’s even a narrative of sorts to this collection, for you storybook fans. Farber settles into the critic’s role after the frenzied anarchy of b-movies has lost out to stately pictorial delivery systems of meaning, and he makes writing well his revenge. He perversely isolates some minor facet to prize within some major chore to endure — often a film now cherished by you, I, or some other non-stupid person. When Farber pulls through purgatory to his ultimate reward — the emergence of the underground film movement of the late ‘60s — you feel like the guy’s earned it, even if Wavelength isn’t exactly your idea of happily-ever-after.

Farber didn’t evaluate art “on its own terms,” but good criticism never does. As a critic, you can suspend your judgment while letting art have its way with you, but if the art knocks you out (which is what you’re hoping) it has broadened your own terms, expanded your own tastes, made you a bigger and more appreciative human being — not prevailed in its own distinct sphere. Anything less than that is careerism or condescension, a disservice to readers and artist alike, or some respectable practice apart from criticism — sociology, maybe, or publicity.

Farber seems to have skipped that first step more often than not. (It’s hard to tell — even great critics sometimes do the preliminary work off the page, which can make their verdict feel abrupt and closed-minded.) You don’t read him for empathy or flexibility, though his struggle with Godard, which results in harder-won insights that usual (including the realization that the director had chosen the one dull scene in Breathless — the Parvulesco interview — as the template for his future films) might make you wish that more of his opponents (as filmmakers come across here) made the critic doubt his instincts.

Not only did Farber’s idiosyncratic formalism blinded him to how movies operate as culture, but he indulged in some of the worst pun-as-putdown name-mangles I’ve encountered in print (“Catherine Deadnerve”?) — and I grew up on Cracked. And yet, Farber watches these movies so relentlessly, looking so much more closely at what’s happening onscreen than a film’s admirers often do. His dissections of an actor’s flawed performance are almost clinically revelatory, and his skepticism allows him to locate a director’s strengths better than most fans could, (No Bergman celebrant would be as sharp about the tension between the Swede’s bracing naturalism and glib symbolism as Farber is in his review of Shame.) Fans, after all, often have even less insight into what’s worthwhile about art than artists themselves do. If nothing else, Farber reminds us that our enjoyment of art often requires a willed enchantment — alter your perspective by a few degrees and that bewitchment dissipates.

Rereading “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” for the first time in years, I realized how loosely I’ve adapted those categories in my own thinking. They’re such necessary concepts, helping me (for instance) understand how meaningful middlebrow complacency can feel like a haven from pop’s untrustworthy thrills, that brilliant and wide-ranging as elucidation of them is, they’ve taken on a life of their own. In general, though I frequently disagree with Farber I rarely argue with him — I just follow his contentions forward like jazz solos. But though he shares the termite’s disrespectful appetites, Farber’s argumentative energy couldn’t sustain itself as contrarian sophistry. It’s the aesthetic conviction behind his own “squandering-beaverish endeavor” that makes his prose still worth reading, even if the judgments they resulted in aren’t always the point.

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