Monday, August 18, 2008

Manny Farber, 1917-2008

This one hurts. When Raymond Durgnat died, for instance, I was still just discovering his work. But Farber's Negative Space was re-issued around the same time that my cinephilia really started to kick into high gear, and perhaps no single collection of film criticism & reviews has been more important to me. I have more to say on this, but it won't be ready tonight or even this week. A few words, though, from the man himself:

The virtues of action films expand as the pictures take on the outer appearance of junk jewelry. The underground's greatest mishaps have occurred in art-infected projects where there is unlimited cash, studio freedom, an expansive story, message, heart, and a lot of prestige to be gained. Their flattest, most sentimental works are incidentally the only ones that have attained the almond-paste-flavored eminence of the Museum of Modern Art's film library, i.e., GI Joe, Public Enemy. Both Hawks and Wellman, who made these overweighted mistakes, are like basketball's corner man: their best shooting is done from the deepest, worst angle. With material that is hopelessly worn out and childish (Only Angels Have Wings), the underground director becomes beautifully graphic and modestly human in his flexible detailing. When the material is like drab concrete, these directors become great on-the-spot inventors, using their curiously niggling, reaming style for adding background detail (Walsh); suave grace (Hawks); crawling, mechanized tension (Mann); veiled gravity (Wellman); svelte semicaricature (John Farrow); modern Gothic vehemence (Phil Karlson); and dark, modish vaudeville (Robert Aldrich).

—"Underground Films," 1957

It's easy to "dissolve boundaries" between the "false dichotomies" of "high and low." But Farber understood that truly dissolving boundaries doesn't mean consuming anything and everything with abandon (anyone can do that with ease, and The System prefers you to do it that way) but rather approaching art with a set of practices, time-tested, to make sense of certain configurations of the cultural terrain. Farber's main interest, of course, was neither in being a "cultural critic" nor in connecting his formal analyses to deep sociohistorical currents. Nevertheless his criticism is amenable to these projects I think.

I'm pretty sure I've blogged this before, but: here are his deliberately small-scale "best films" of 1951 (a year-end list I've always liked precisely for its colorful and tenacious resistance to received wisdom): Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren), Fixed Bayonets (Fuller), His Kind of Woman (John Farrow), The Thing from Another World (Hawks/Nyby), The Prowler ("Joe Losey"), The People Against O'Hara (John Sturges), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise), The Man Who Cheated Himself (Felix E. Feist), Appointment with Danger (Lewis Allen—in his piece, Farber or the editor incorrectly cites this as Background to Danger, which is a Raoul Walsh-helmed Bogart film from 1943), and the honorable mentions: The Tall Target, Against the Gun, No Highway in the Sky, Happiest Days of Your Life (a truly hilarious British boarding school film! -ZC), Rawhide, Excuse My Dust, The Enforcer, Force of Arms, The Wooden Horse, Night Into Morning, Payment on Demand, Cry Danger, and (Farber can't remember the title, but it's) A Hound for Trouble. I've only seen a handful (and not yet the Fuller). Anyone seen them all?

2 comments:

Mike Grost said...

For what its worth, I liked:
Cry Danger (Robert Parrish)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
thought these were among the lesser films of otherwise gifted auteurs:
Fixed Bayonets (Fuller)
The Thing from Another World (Hawks/Nyby)
The Tall Target (Mann)
and did not like at all:
The People Against O'Hara (John Sturges)
Rawhide
The Enforcer
I saw part of Appointment With Danger years ago, and would like a chance to see the whole thing.
*
Among the good 1951 films not included in the list:

An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
Angels in the Outfield (Clarence Brown)
Belle Le Grande (Allan Dwan)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (Raoul Walsh)
Day of the Fight / Flying Padre (Stanley Kubrick shorts)
Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu)
Father's Little Dividend (Vincente Minnelli)
The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe)
The Idiot (Akira Kurosawa)
The Law and the Lady (Edwin H. Knopf)
Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor)
Man in the Saddle (André De Toth)
The Man From Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmer)
The Mating Season (Mitchell Leisen)
No Questions Asked (Harold F. Kress)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)
On Moonlight Bay (Roy Del Ruth)
The Racket (John Cromwell)
Rich, Young and Pretty (Norman Taurog)
The River (Jean Renoir)
Spoilers of the Plains (William Witney)
St. Benny the Dip (Edgar G. Ulmer)
The Texas Rangers (Phil Karlson)
Tomorrow Is Another Day (Felix Feist)

Patrick Ciccone said...

Zach,

You can find about 82 Farber pieces in the digital Nation archive. I believe the great majority them are not reprinted elsewhere, though I haven't looked closely, since I've been concentrating on harvesting the Auden pieces.

Patrick