Manny Farber, A Critical Eye For Termite Art

Correction Aug. 27, 2008

After this story aired, Manny Farber's widow, Patricia Patterson wrote to say that it incorrectly described his political leanings. Her note is below.

It's always been easy to make fun of critics, even critics at large. Mark Twain described us as eunuchs in the harem, saying, "They know how it's done, and see it done every day, but they can't do it themselves." Maybe so, but nobody would ever have made such a joke about Manny Farber. Even as his real job was being a gifted painter — a poster of one of his still lifes hangs on my wall — Farber moonlighted as a film critic from the 1940s until the early 1970s.

Now, it's possible that you've never heard of Manny Farber, but in a sense you already know him, for he was one of those critics who open other critics' eyes — he was admired by everyone from Pauline Kael to Susan Sontag. The one collection of his criticism, called Negative Space, is on every critic's bookshelf, and it's amazing how often it's been quoted, borrowed from, strip-mined or used as a launching pad.

Although he knew his high art, Farber grasped that motion pictures shouldn't be looked at in the same way as Old World masterpieces like "Mona Lisa" or Madame Bovary. The movies are about looseness and movement, the boundless unruliness of life. Farber disapproved of filmmakers who tried to impose too much highfalutin order on things — this included everyone from John Huston to Michelangelo Antonioni. At the same time, he was among the first to champion Howard Hawks and that two-fisted pulpmeister, Sam Fuller.

For Farber, what made movies great is the same thing that made jazz America's enduring contribution to 20th century music — the swing, the personal virtuosity, the knockabout ease that is a democratic culture's answer to aristocratic savoir-faire. He was perhaps the first to see that the true glory of American movies lies not in high-minded message pictures like To Kill a Mockingbird or Schindler's List but in B-movies or genre pictures like The Big Sleep, where the artistry is hidden within playfulness.

If anything in Farber's work is well-known, it's his distinction between so-called White Elephant Art and what he dubbed Termite Art. While the former announces its capital-I Importance — it has the bloated pretension we now associate with Oscar bait — Termite Art goes forward by energetically nibbling away at boundaries. It's the difference between Robert DeNiro gaining 70 pounds to star in Raging Bull and that 6-foot-5-inch termite John Wayne dominating a scene with the casual confidence with which he moves across the screen.

Unlike many critics, Farber was never a systematizer or a thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of guy. He simply wrote what he saw and felt, presenting his thoughts the way Charlie Parker sprayed his notes — his passages come at you in waves that dazzle on the page but are hard to read out loud because no sentence or two can do him justice. His writing could be so sharp and funny that even today, young critics foolishly try to imitate him. But this misses the whole point: You're supposed to have your own personality, not his.

Such an emphasis on the personal is part of what made Farber so distinctively American, and not just American but of the American West. Born in Arizona, he wound up in San Diego, and his career is a triumph of Wild West individualism in all its thorny unpredictability. Politically, he was conservative* — he twice voted for President Bush — but aesthetically he was not. He was as happy to champion Godard and Fassbinder as he was in praising William Powell and Ida Lupino.

For him, the highest value was freedom. The freedom of actors to capture fleeting moments without being crushed by some director's preening visual scheme or by 50 million dollars' worth of computer-generated imagery. The freedom of filmmakers to capture life in all its rude outrageousness without feeling the need to ennoble the audience with Big Statements. And the freedom of critics to offer their personal response to work without worrying about some artistic hierarchy inherited from Europe or being forced to serve as a consumer guide. Put simply, Manny Farber was the critic as libertarian — and he left American culture a little bit freer.

*After this appreciation of Manny Farber appeared, I received the following letter from his wife, Patricia Patterson, who tells me that I incorrectly described his political leanings. My apologies. — John Powers

Dear John Powers,

Manny was not a "Conservative," a "Libertarian," a "Republican," an anything. In his early twenties he tried to join the Communist Party but they didn't want him. During WWII he tried to enlist in the army but they rejected him. After inviting him to join, it took just one meeting for the New York Film Critics Circle to ask him to leave. He came home that night saying, "They fired me." He also told me that even a therapist in Washington had "fired him" for not working hard enough. Manny was not a Republican because he never knew any. He didn't quarrel with them because he was never around them. He quarreled with the people he knew: artists, writers, teachers, carpenters. When he saw smugness, complacency, and superiority — and often those qualities went together — then he would get going, and separate himself from them. He did not vote for Bush twice. I know, because for ten years I was the family driver, and he didn't want to go to the polls. (His license had been taken away for reckless driving.) I don't know about Bush once because I was in another booth. But I do know how much he revered FDR, that he voted for Jimmy Carter, for Bill Clinton twice, even had a Jesse Jackson moment, and loved Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama. Obama thrilled him and he fretted about his winning. He and I both voted for Obama in the Democratic primaries. This I know because he was by then very ill and unsteady on his feet and he needed to fill in the form three times before getting in right. A bushy-bearded guy (our polling place is in a neighbor's garage down a dirt road) allowed it and asked afterwards, "Seen anything good lately, Manny?" So three times in public view he voted for Obama and I could get the polling guys to testify to that. Manny thought Barack was a new Lincoln — one of the great ones.

Manny was a believer in America. His parents escaped from Russia and raised him and his two brothers in a small house on the Mexican border. That's another story.

I loved him very much

Patricia Patterson, his wife

P.S.: Other than the political misinformation, I thought your piece was lovely and accurate. Would you please post this letter under your article, on the Fresh Air site.

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