Manny Farber, 1917-2008

Many Farber, the painter and critic, died a few days ago, on August 18th. I’m not an expert on Farber, but the handful of reviews and essays I’ve read really wowed me. His writing style is inimitable, which is probably fortunate: any attempt to really follow in his prosodical footsteps would be bound to end in ignominy. All the same, I consider him a guiding light for my own critical writing. He wrote about film in a really fresh way: he was alive to the (sometimes quite deep) surfaces of film, in a way that seems appropriate for a painter.

He recognized that cinema is a largely inchoate art, at least in the way it works on you. Sure, there’s Plot, and Character, and Theme, but there are also all these pictures, coming at you at 24 frames a second, each one of them arriving with attributes of composition, space, atmosphere, color — and populated by actors full of gestures, attitudes, vocal tics — any single detail of which might harmonize with the classical demands of the overarching story, but which might as well undermine it, or doodle its own particular details in the margins of What’s Supposed To Be Going On.

Farber is probably best known for coming up with two terms for oppositional categories of art: “White Elephant Art” versus “Termite Art.” “White Elephant Art” is self-important, self-conscious of itself as “Art” with a capital “A” — there’s a big overlap here with the idea of the “middlebrow.” In Farber’s own words:

Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.

Termite art, on the other hand, is unpretentious, less concerned with overarching “values” than with what’s right in front of its face:

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

These categories are still at work, stomping or chewing their way through the cultural landscape. The main new development in cultural production, between the publication of ” White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” and today, might be the self-consciousness that’s crept into the creation of material that would have previously sat contentedly in the B-movie burrows of termite land. With the advent of “Grindhouse” and the blockbusterization of the superhero story, perhaps we can start talking about “White Termite Art.”

What I didn’t know about Farber, until reading through some obituaries, was that in addition to being a critic and a painter, he was also a professor, teaching for a long stretch at UC San Diego. Here is a description of his teaching technique, from Duncan Shepard’s fine reminiscence:

Manny’s film classes… were the stuff of legend, and it seems feeble and formulaic to call him a brilliant, an illuminating, a stimulating, an inspiring teacher. It wasn’t necessarily what he had to say (he was prone to shrug off his most searching analysis as “gobbledegook”) so much as it was the whole way he went about things, famously showing films in pieces, switching back and forth from one film to another, ranging from Griffith to Godard, Bugs Bunny to Yasujiro Ozu, talking over them with or without sound, running them backwards through the projector, mixing in slides of paintings, sketching out compositions on the blackboard, the better to assist students in seeing what was in front of their faces, to wean them from Plot, Story, What Happens Next, and to disabuse them of the absurd notion that a film is all of a piece, all on a level, quantifiable, rankable, fileable. He could seldom be bothered with movie trivia, inside information, behind-the-scenes piffle, technical shoptalk, was often offhand about the basic facts of names and dates, was unconcerned with Classics, Masterpieces, Seminal Works, Historical Landmarks. It was always about looking and seeing.

He would endlessly preview the week’s movies on the wall of his studio on campus or his rented house in Del Mar, lugging an anvil-weight 16mm projector to and fro, together with three or four valise-sized boxes of celluloid, and yet throughout these endless hours he felt no necessity to watch every reel of every movie. If you wanted simply to know How It Ends, he might not have the answer. One week he had previewed Kurosawa’s wide-screen High and Low without benefit of an anamorphic lens, so that the image was squeezed like an accordion, and all of his prepared comments on narrow spaces and vertical lines, perfectly true to what he was seeing, had to be modified on the fly when the film was shown in class, stretched out horizontally with the proper lens. He was constitutionally unable to make things easy on himself.

I’m not, at this stage of my career, self-possessed enough to teach a class like that; of course, I’d enroll in a class like that at the drop of a hat.

There’s a very good collection of links to writings on Farber here, and a generous selection of the man’s words themselves (including essays on paintings as well as films) here.

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