Trechos de um debate sobre Farber:
IN HIS 1957 ESSAY “Hard-Sell Cinema,” Manny Farber talks about “the businessman-artist”: someone who “has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation.” Farber names Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz in jazz, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Elia Kazan in movies. It’s one of many pieces in Negative Space where you get the idea Farber was in a bad mood pretty much from the beginning of the ’50s to the end.
In particular Farber talks about New Yorker short-story writers. And he goes on and on and on until he gets to a phrase about “ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” When I first read that sentence in 1971 or 1972, I found it absolutely terrifying. I found a lot of Negative Space terrifying.
One of the things that I found scariest were the pieces in which Farber went through the work of a particular person, like Howard Hawks, in three or four pages. Just like that–boom, boom, boom, in and out. Like somebody walking through a room and looking around, going in one door and out the other.
The idea, the arrogance, the sense that there were only a certain number of things that really needed to be said and that I, Manny Farber, know what they are, and here they are, and out the door. That was terrifying. It seemed like half of what he wrote was in a five-minute vein, even if it took seven minutes to read.
“Ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” It’s scary for a writer to come across a sentence that so plainly says what it means, in which the prose is so exquisitely balanced, and you take pleasure in the way the words are put together, and you worry that you’ve written things about which something like that could be said over and over and over again.
Walter Benjamin once said that an author who teaches a writer nothing teaches nobody anything. One thing that I think happens for many writers reading Farber is that they feel themselves on trial. They feel this same scrutiny that’s brought to bear on actors, on directors, on painters, on musicians, on comic-strip artists. Maybe they feel lucky that Manny Farber has never read them and therefore doesn’t have an opinion on them.
THERE’S BEEN A LOT of talk about Manny’s desire to nail things. The first time we ever met was in the hotel where he and Patricia stay when they come to New York. And we sat down to talk. And there was a woman playing a harp in the background. God knows why at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday there was a woman playing a harp in the middle of the hotel, which was deserted.
But we’re sitting there having our coffee and talking. And every once in a while Manny would stop in the middle of a sentence and say something like, “Gee that harp, the way that it drags. It’s like she’s one note behind the melody, and she’s really supposed to be there”–and he kept working at it throughout the conversation until he finally nailed what it was about this harp player that was driving him bananas.
WHEN YOU START TO READ one of Manny Farber’s pieces, you have no clear sense of where he’s going to take you. He jumps right into the surface of a movie, and you’re looking around to see where he is going to pop up next, to see what he is going to come up with. He comes up with dazzling arguments and delightful turns of phrase. It’s constantly surprising.
I think that sense of surprise is matched by few critics. The other critic who shares that quality is Farber’s friend and colleague Pauline Kael, but he is even more freewheeling and wild in the way he makes connections. That’s probably why his work feels so fresh, even today.
WHEN YOU’RE READING Jean-Luc Godard’s film criticism and he’s talking about, say, a camera movement in a Sam Fuller movie, you’re thinking, well, it’s not a surprise that this guy would go on to become a director and, in fact, use camera movements exactly like that. What Manny did, by contrast, was to actually describe the movie. So if you’re reading his pieces from the ’60s, like “Cartooned Hip Acting” or “The Decline of the Actor,” he’s describing the changes that were seeping into the way movies were being made and the way things were being visualized–the differences in acting, the way that the actor was used in film in the ’30s and ’40s as opposed to the ’60s, when, as he says of Antonioni, or of the John Huston movie Freud, the actors are reduced to patches of light hacked out of the overall darkness of the frame.
It doesn’t matter whether you agree with what Manny has to say. I like some Antonioni movies and I like plenty of white elephant movies. But the point is, the description is the most important thing, as opposed to the value judgment.
THERE ARE TWO THINGS that stand out for me in Negative Space and have for over thirty years now. One is a passage where Farber is talking about the best films of 1951. The last one he mentions is “a Chuck Jones animated cartoon–the name escapes me,” and he goes on and describes it. He doesn’t even bother to ask somebody what it was called, let alone make a phone call or look it up. Just what the hell.
The other is where Farber is complaining about some movie, and he says, “It isn’t sustained.” Then there’s a parenthetical that says, “But how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?” What was really scary to me about that line, and it’s scary today, is that never having seen Musketeers of Pig Alley, I didn’t know if this was a joke or if, in fact, it’s the only movie in eighty years that’s been sustained. I still don’t know. So you can dive into this book, and, if you are like me, you will never get out.
Trechos de um debate sobre Farber: