- Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber
Academic consideration of American film criticism has tended to elide the achievements of Manny Farber (1917-2008), who produced some of the discipline's most idiosyncratic and provocative work during his thirty-five years of activity. Greg Taylor's Artists in the Audience went some distance toward correcting this mistake, but thanks to Library of America's publication of Farber's complete film writing, scholars now have easy access to his corpus along with the ability to reevaluate Farber's place in American film criticism.
Unlike the canonical figures of the last half-century (Agee, Simon, Sarris, Sontag, Kael, Ebert), Farber had only one collection published in his lifetime: 1971's Negative Space, generously expanded in 1998. A significant problem with this collection was its emphasis on Farber's criticism after he left regular reviewing in 1954. It is clear that his work, while undeniably his, took a markedly different approach from 1942 to 1954, when he was grinding out reviews for the New Republic and the Nation. His famous contradictory style and oppositional taste are certainly present in this early period of his writing. Taylor identifies this period as one in which Farber developed a cultist critical approach, using criticism to adjust perceptual understanding of mainstream cinema in the 1940s, therefore recapturing the highbrow cultural mantle. By limiting access to this highbrow realm through extremely oppositional tastes, Farber could represent a vanguard intellectual sensibility. This is important, because other commentators have tended to devalue Farber's earlier period. While he is more stylistically reserved than his later position papers and Artforum columns would be, Farber is no less brash and exciting in his cultism.
The most revelatory strain of Farber's writing during this period was his emphasis on cultural representation. The popular reading of Farber's work maintains that he deals with spatial relations in cinema, analyzing space's function across a variety of parameters; the elements of mise-en-scène along with acting get the most attention. While his columns in the first phase of his career do address these elements, much more space is devoted to how cultural properties are depicted in movies. A particularly scathing example comes from a 1943 review of Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky (1943): "The all-Negro film is no less Jim Crow than a bus where whites sit in front and Negroes in back, because the film is owned, operated and directed by whites, even to the song writers." An earlier claim: "[The Negro's] blues, dress, his whole attitude, do not exist in a vacuum but have meaning only as they are seen inside the society that made them." Both of these passages illuminate Farber's frustration with American culture in real life not showing up in the movies. No mention is made of Minnelli's manipulation of space, the provocative details at the edges of the frame, or the intensity of physical movement. This cultural position certainly does not serve to normativize Farber; as Taylor points out in his book, Farber's judgments rarely show him serving the [End Page 65] function of consumer guide that the vast majority of film critics fulfill. Rather, the emphasis of his opposition is placed in a different area than it would be more than a decade later.
Some may argue that much of Farber's writing in these early years has to do with the publications for which he worked and the critics from whom he took over-in other words, those articles are not as "Manny" as the later ones. His embrace of vernacular, sports journalese, and oppositional taste certainly appears to have taken some influence from Otis Ferguson, the New Republic critic Farber succeeded when Ferguson shipped out to the South Pacific. (He died in combat the following year.) Similarly, Farber took over for James Agee at the Nation in 1949. Both magazines, thanks to their history and to Ferguson and Agee, had developed a "house style" to...