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"The Film Critic's Film Critic" Manny Farber: 1917 - 2008

Beaks here...

"Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece."

So opens Manny Farber's influential essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962, Film Culture), a pugilistic defense of the film artist as "ornery", "wasteful", and "stubbornly self-involved" . Like most of Farber's criticism, it's a wild, rambling read; it's also an invigorating explosion of prose that whips up all manner of ire as the critic disparages, in this instance, the paradigm-shattering cinema of Francois Truffaut, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Tony Richardson (amongst others). In conclusion, Farber advocates "buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim", preferring the casual "nailing down" of a moment to the laborious creation of "masterpiece art". The heroes of the piece are Raymond Chandler, Howard Hawks, Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne's "hoboish" performance in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. It's a jarring, essential read even today. But Farber was so much more than this essay (which is reprinted in Phillip Lopate's AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICS and Farber's own collection NEGATIVE SPACE). And now that he has left us at the age of ninety-one, after a full life of critiquing and painting, I'll turn the floor over to those more fully acquainted with his work. Here's a sharp paragraph from Some Came Running's Glenn Kenny. Movie City Indie's Ray Pride goes longer with a eloquent overview of Farber's life. (Pride excerpts this hardly complimentary sentence on Hitchcock: "[He] has gone farther on fewer brains than any director since Griffith, while cleverly masking his deficiency, and his underlying petty and pointless sadism, with a honey-smooth patina of 'sophistication,' irony, and general glitter.") And I rather like this Framework essay from Noel King. You don't have to be in complete agreement with Farber to appreciate his writing. In fact, you can disagree savagely most of the time and still gain valuable insight on the art of filmmaking. He was the best kind of critic: learned in his provocation, but fervent in the pursuit of a greater truth. And he was so damn expansive! His writing would be impossible to categorize on Rotten Tomatoes; it was the journey, not the judgment, that mattered.

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 18, 2008, 3:53 p.m. CST

    by STLost


  • Aug. 18, 2008, 3:53 p.m. CST


    by POST

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 3:54 p.m. CST

    Is Gene Shalit dead too?

    by Baron Karza

    Just ?

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4 p.m. CST

    Did he like Clone Wars?

    by TooWhippy

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:11 p.m. CST

    good night neveerlaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaandd

    by Stengah

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:16 p.m. CST

    kinda makes Chocolate covered pussy juice

    by ArcadianDS

    seem really really REALLY immature and hacked, doesn't it?

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:19 p.m. CST

    meanwhile in REAL movie news

    by ArcadianDS

    Harry Potter pushed to 2009.<p> Lets wait a day to hear what AICN thinks about this.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:21 p.m. CST

    B Movies Lose a Champion

    by StrideX13

    May we all continue to chew into the topics those elephants don't get. RIP, sir.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:24 p.m. CST

    hello and welcome to satire

    by ArcadianDS

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:26 p.m. CST


    by mrbeaks<br><br>But don't let me keep you from obsessing over five-day-old news.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:30 p.m. CST


    by ArcadianDS

    the bait being dangled was not for you. Please leave it alone.<p> It is not your dander I seek to ruffle.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:33 p.m. CST

    sorry, i shoulda signed in with some hokey url name

    by ArcadianDS

    and pimped a busted website in an obit thread.<p> (thats what I was aiming for, but I guess I.... nuked the fridge.)

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:37 p.m. CST


    by Crackles

    show some respect! This is an obit! Who's dander are you trying to ruffle?

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:38 p.m. CST

    Arcadian got pwned by the pwny pony.

    by Galactic

    And he's trying really hard to cover up this fact. BTW, R.I.P. dead guy I've never heard of.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:48 p.m. CST

    One wonders what Farber would say of ArcadianDS' defeat?

    by The Rabbit Of Carrot Shaped Doom

    Very little now i suppose. Rest in peace, good sir.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:55 p.m. CST

    Manny Ramirez is dead????????????????

    by crackerfarmboy

    Nooooo!!!!!!!!!!! Looks like LA got screwed in that deal.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 4:59 p.m. CST

    by AllieJamison

    I've never heard of Mr.Farber until Beaks' article so ...thanks for pointing the way to this interesting man. May he rest in peace.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:06 p.m. CST

    ArcadianDS -- such the fuck up you child rape apologist....


    ...isn't there some forum online some place else where you can make all sorts of excuses for Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13 year old? Just fuck off you sick mother fucker.....

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:15 p.m. CST

    Not movie news?

    by FilmZ0mbie

    Interesting words coming from people who not only watch and appreciate film, but actively read what others have to say about it. Read what this guy had to say about film and then tell me this isn't truly relevant and sad news for the world of movie buffs.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:16 p.m. CST


    by chipps

    I'm a jerkwad and i only come to this website in order to anonymously criticize it. This is in order to compensate for all the beatings and wedgies I got/am continuing to get in school. also i like join the band wagon and kick people when they are down. now off with me to the other websites i criticize.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:17 p.m. CST

    It always mystified me...

    by chaplinatemyshoe

    how Farber got film criticism gigs. Everything I've read by him I hated on multiple levels. He always reminded me of every artist I've met who doesn't like film that tries to be artistic. What he represents as a critic is probably greater than the validity of his opinion...

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:20 p.m. CST


    by SergioGiorgini

    Normally I don't think RIPieces are always a place to joke but, fuck me, did that make me chuckle!

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 5:36 p.m. CST

    Great article about Farber

    by reality6

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 6:07 p.m. CST

    awesomely tasteless

    by frankenfickle


  • Aug. 18, 2008, 6:53 p.m. CST

    I will say that in an age of Internet journalism...

    by The Eskimo

    ...where half the time people don't even bother to spell check their work, it is nice to see someone appreciated for their writing style. You don't always have to agree with someone, but you can respect the way in which they choose to present their arguement. Truly a lost art these days.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 7:21 p.m. CST

    a great loss

    by bronsonbronson

    manny once said that cinema should be not like an archer, trying to constantly hit a false bulls eye, but like a meal worm, chewing around the edges of a subject until its so ground up and digested that you can see and understand every atom of its being. This is how Manny expected film to be, and I base my expectations off of his. I've had the pleasure of working with some of his students, and my actual phone background is one of his paintings. I never gotten the opportunity to meet the man, but i certainly wish i had. A literal jack of all trades who could probably build the damn camera, and make the best film around with it. he'll be missed infinitely, and it's incredibly sad to think that all we'll have left of him is books. such a limited medium for a man that defied any such boundaries. When it comes out hopefully later this year on Criterion, you MUST see Jean-Pierre Gorin's ROUTINE PLEASURES... you'll fall in love with this man that left us too soon, even at 91...

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 8:41 p.m. CST

    Film criticism...

    by cowsaysmoo what all us talkbackers and the writers for this and nearly every other movie site participate in. The death of a major force in this field is big news, even if you have no idea who the man is. R.I.P.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 8:43 p.m. CST

    Oh yeah...

    by cowsaysmoo

    ...and George Lucas is the sexiest tomboy beanpole on the planet. Uhh..ha ha?

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 9:10 p.m. CST

    Add to Friends

    by BadMrWonka

    don't worry, I'll be filling the "pretentious wannabe filmmaker" role here in the talkbacks.<p>I read a lot of Farber's criticism in film school, and Beaks is right. I got the most out of it when I disagreed with him.<p>it's easy to see movies now as just sort of money and merchandising machines. and in a way, there was always a lot of that, even before mcdonald's toy tie-ins. but the essential question was, is this an art made to entertain rather than enlighten? are filmmakers more or less painters on the side of the road doing flattering portraits? and when they hand over the portrait, and it's an abstractio, and the buyer doesn't like it, who has failed? the painter or the public?<p>anyway, heady stuff. Farber is seriously worth reading on a lot of levels.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 9:12 p.m. CST

    "Did he like Clone Wars?"

    by Cruel_Kingdom

    Classic, TooWhippy! CLassic!

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 9:18 p.m. CST

    Well said

    by hiroprot23

    Totally agree that Farber could be most useful when you disagree. I never would have thought I could so thoroughly enjoy a critic who disliked "The Third Man" aka the greatest film ever. And I just knew Beaks would be the one to write this up.

  • Aug. 18, 2008, 10:33 p.m. CST


    by warsinthesun

    Where can I find some of his reviews? I can't seem to find any...

  • Aug. 19, 2008, 12:30 a.m. CST

    Where To Read Farber

    by mrbeaks

    NEGATIVE SPACE is available via Google Books.

  • Aug. 19, 2008, 3:34 a.m. CST

    Never heard of him

    by masteryoda007

    Fuck critics

  • Aug. 19, 2008, 12:06 p.m. CST


    by vic twenty

    Nice name - great book.

  • Aug. 19, 2008, 6:08 p.m. CST

    journey not the judgement that mattered

    by Prossor

    instead of that being your little provocative article ender, care to actually explain the context you're talking about that? no? chocolate pussy covered juice?

  • Aug. 19, 2008, 7:26 p.m. CST

    Thanks mrbeaks

    by cowsaysmoo

    I will look it up.