Tarzan vs IBM: Manny Farber (1917-2008)

At the time of Manny Farber’s death this summer, he hadn’t published any film criticism since the late seventies, focusing instead on his collage-like, perspective-defying paintings. (The image used here appears in the latest issue of CinemaScope, which also includes a “guide to Farber“). For me, Farber remains the greatest film critic the United States ever produced (check some of his greatest hits at the invaluable Greencine blog). He ventured further out than most of his peers, all the while maintaining the swiftness and vinegary tone of a thirties B-picture roughneck and the incisive poetics of a Frankfurt school brainiac. His bebop syntax, brut exuberance, and sculptural texture are all immediately striking. But there’s also a ceaseless squirreling of ideas amid all that kinetic language.

Manny Farber, Sherlock Jr., 1982

Too much film criticism remains just perfunctory writing at the service of utilitarian opinions. Farber’s clutter of angles and tangents, the vulgar modernism and pulp formalism, always served a wealth of ideas. A champion of Wellman and Akerman, Walsh and Snow, his taste can only be considered eclectic when set against an incurious narrowness of cultists or so-called experts. Consider this sentence, written somewhat prophetically in 1968, on Godard:

At the end of this director’s career, there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage… already he has a zoo that includes a pink parakeet (A Woman Is a Woman), diamond-black snake (Contempt), whooping crane (Band of Outsiders), jack rabbit (Carabiniers) and a mock Monogram turtle (Breathless).

Godard and Farber cross paths at this year’s Viennale Film Festival. Godard’s first transmission in years is an erstwhile “trailer” for the festival; there will also be a sidebar tribute at the fest devoted to films of Farber’s liking. Surprisingly, it’ll only include slapstick silents. It seems much of Farber remains unexplored terrain.

Bernardo Rondeau

One Response to Tarzan vs IBM: Manny Farber (1917-2008)

  1. Doug says:

    Bernardo, I love your phrase “clutter of angles and tangents,” which definitely describes Farber’s prose, and one of the main reasons so many of us are so energized by his writing even thirty years later.

    Thanks for the link to Godard’s trailer, too, which is a fascinating glimpse of his skills at video montage (his magisterial and must-see Histoire(s) du cin√©ma has just been released on DVD in the UK).

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