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Manny Farber (1917 - )

Related: film criticism - American artists - American literature


Manny Farber is an American painter and film critic, born in 1917 in Douglas, Arizona. He taught at the University of California San Diego.

In Negative Space, a collection of his film essays, he writes on the virtues of "termite art" and the excesses of "white elephant art." In an essay originally published in 1962, he eloquently champions the B film and under-appreciated auteurs, which he felt were able, termite-like, to burrow into a topic. Bloated, pretentious, white elephant art lacks the economy of expression found in the greatest works of termite art.

"Termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art," Farber contends, "goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manny_Farber [Jul 2006]


From the 1940s to the 1970s, Manny Farber's criticism surfaced in The New Republic, Commentary, Film Comment or The Nation--scouring a reader/ viewer. His unique and acid sensibility owed less to lit. crit. and more to action painters. His unusual smashing of the reader into the screen becomes the title of his collected volume, Negative Space, after the three types of space possible: "(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." Ninety-eight percent of film criticism was and is still composed with a bulletlike, single-minded persuasive railroading effect--judgement pure and/or simple. Farber's voice read more like point-blank sawed-off buckshot, flying madly into the screen and embedding in it, burrowing into, out and around filmic material, as something experienced and immediate. This crosshatching was accomplished in "The Power and the Gory" (co-written with his wife, Patricia Patterson), where he exalts, probes, crucifies and lauds Taxi Driver, sometimes in the space of two sentences, drawing out the contradictions in its formal approach to politics, women, Hollywood, power, gun fetishes. His 1950 essay on John Huston has one of the earliest and insidious uses of the word "camp." --By Edward Crouse, Negative Space Man, from the October 11, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

"Underground films: a bit of male truth" (1957) - Manny Farber

"The problem of interpretation ...": authorial and institutional intentions in and around Kiss me deadly (2000) by Richard Maltby re-examines the critical location of Kiss me deadly, arguing that its strategies of incoherence, contradiction and allusion result in large part from the circumstances of its production and exhibition. The essay discusses the history of the movie's encounters with the Production Code Administration, the Legion of Decency and the Kefauver Senate Subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency. By considering the cultural status of the paperback book industry in general, and the works of Mickey Spillane in particular, the essay also explores the limits and possibilities for the adaptation and exploitation of a Spillane novel in the mid-1950s.

A more self-consciously avant-garde American critical position, however, pursued a strategy closer to that of the Europeans. Manny Farber shared Macdonald's fear that that "Midcult"-what Robert Warshow called the "mass culture of the educated classes"-might overwhelm high culture through the circulation of commodified art imitating "the forms of culture without understanding its essence."(84) But Farber's response to the threat that middlebrow culture might successfully market aesthetic value to the masses, and thereby deliver a version of Matthew Arnold's "sweetness and light" through the Book-of-the-month club differed from Macdonald's pessimistic call to reinforce cultural class hierarchies. In a prematurely postmodern gesture of inversion, he constructed a vanguardist aesthetic out of Hollywood's cultural detritus. The movies provided the raw material for Farber's "termite art" precisely because Hollywood was itself incapable of aesthetic integrity, and its products had not been commodified into "art."(85)

The aesthetic that [Manny Farber] articulated in his 1957 Commentary essay, "Underground films: a bit of male truth," explicitly rehabilitated discredited objects: the "faceless movies, taken from a type of half-polished trash writing" that resulted in "tight, cliché-ridden melodramas about stock musclemen," produced in "the most neutral, humdrum, monotonous corner of the movie lot".(86) For Farber, Aldrich's "viciously anti-Something movies" made him "the most exciting" newcomer in the group of underground artists who "are able to spring the leanest, shrewdest, sprightliest notes from material that looks like junk, and from a creative position that, on the surface, seems totally uncommitted and disinterested":

These artists are liberated from such burdens as having to recoup a large investment, or keeping a star's personality intact before the public; they can experiment with inventive new ideas instead of hewing to the old sure-fire box-office formula.(87)
Their "termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art" was as ephemeral as it was unpretentious, concentrating on:
nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.(88)

Farber's criticism remade the movies into the source of a resistant, vanguard vision of popular art, not by elevating the aesthetic intentions of their directors but by constructing the critic as a resistant, artistic spectator, "a sort of agent provocateur for a culture of negation"(89) in the diverse aesthetic and ideological positions of academic film criticism since its emergence, representing, as Greg Taylor has argued, the means by which "individuals can stake a claim to artistic authority within a commodified cultural marketplace; when we reconstruct the culture that constructs us, we hope to transcend consumption by aestheticizing it."(90)

(84) Robert Warshow, "The legacy of the 30's," in The immediate experience (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 34; Dwight Macdonald, "Masscult and midcult: II," Partisan review 27, no. 4 (Fall 1960), 630; Greg Taylor, Artists in the audience: cults, camp, and American film criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 27, 47.
(85) Taylor, Artists in the audience, 37.
(86) Farber, "Underground films," 14, 16.
(87) Farber, "Underground films," 14; Farber, "Blame the audience," (1952) in Negative space, 55.
(88) Farber, "White elephant art vs. termite art (1962)", in Negative space, 135, 144.
(89) Taylor, Artists in the audience, 15.
(90) Taylor, Artists in the audience, 15.

via "The problem of interpretation ...": authorial and institutional intentions in and around Kiss me deadly, 2000 by Richard Maltby http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr0600/rmfr10e.htm [Feb 2006]

See also: Robert Aldrich - 1957 - underground films - Manny Farber - American cinema

Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (1971) - Manny Farber

Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (1971) - Manny Farber [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

First Sentence:
The saddest thing in current films is watching the long-neglected action directors fade away as the less talented De Sicas and Zinnemanns continue to fascinate the critics.

Vittorio De Sica (July 7, 1901 - November 13, 1974) was an Italian neorealist director and actor. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vittorio_De_Sica [Aug 2005]

Fred Zinnemann (April 29, 1907—March 14, 1997) was a noted film director. He was born in Vienna, Austria. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Zinnemann [Aug 2005]

see also: Many Farber - USA - film

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