Richard Brody of the New Yorker sits down with Kevin Lee to talk about Nothing Reconciled, an oft-overlooked masterwork he calls “splendidly modern and oblique.” Brody’s critical perspective offers important historical context for the film which screens during the Manny Farber series.
Posted tagged ‘Required Reading’
“Manny Farber’s film writing has several distinctive features, the three most important being: (1) It is more concerned with form and composition than with performance, narrative, or theme; (2) it is most responsive to unpretentious B-film craftsmen (Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann) and exceedingly pretentious ‘structuralist’ technicians (Chantal Ackerman, Michael Snow); (3) it is written in an irreverent style that shuns journalistic blandness and academic cant alike.”
-Franklin Bruno, writing in the Believer
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite moment in Negative Space, the collected writings on film by the late painter-critic Manny Farber (co-written from 1975 onward with his partner Patricia Patterson). Brash arguments, heavily allusive turns of phrase, and coruscating insights await a first-time (or repeat) reader almost anywhere you drop into the text, often within the same sentence. Farber’s collected criticism, to me, represents the very best of film writing: idiosyncratic, passionate, impetuous, defiantly anti-elitist and at times, frustratingly ambiguous or contradictory. He didn’t so much communicate an opinion of whatever film was under his lens (far from it), but with his metaphorically rich prose style, immersed you in, as he once said of his favorite 1940s film artists, “the tension of an individual intelligence posing itself against the possibilities of monotony, bathos, or sheer cliché.” Sometimes, it is hard to tell whether he liked a film or not, but you always get the sense that he parsed the images he experienced with a scrutinous and unforgiving eye, paying as much attention to the arrangement of materials in a frame as to the mannerisms of actors and technical style of the film in question.
Space and design elements were, of course, vital to Farber, but the point of fascination for me in revisiting his work over the past week was his attention to the behavioral tics and psychological peculiarities (and excesses) of individual actors. He was no fan of the “New York films” in which Kazan, Lumet, and Strasberg-influenced thesps like Paul Newman strutted their talent in the mid ’50s. For him, the histrionic, tormented, propulsively quick-paced style of portraiture to be found in films like The Sweet Smell of Success or A Face in the Crowd “sweats too much around the edges.” Simple naturalism had given way to hysterical realism; showboating conceit had overtaken the anonymity of finely etched characterization. “The actors,” Farber wrote in 1957, “don’t chew their roles so much as storm past them.” Nearly ten years later, in his essay “The Decline of the Actor,” he had identified a new mode of inauthenticity imported mainly from foreign films (Kurosawa, Antonioni): the arrest of movement, in which the actor “is hardly more than a spot,” “a body on display,” or landscape features “stuck like thumbtacks into a maplike event” (Lawrence of Arabia). On one hand, acting had become too heightened, too self-aware and exhibitionistic (Angela Lansbury’s “helicopterlike performance in The Manchurian Candidate, in which every line begins and ends with a vertical drop”); on the other, films had become so suffused with inertia that actors were increasingly enveloped by mood and milieu (Monica Vitti in Eclipse), or made to carry the weight of the film’s entire stylistic construction at the expense of character exposition. All of this leads him to conclude, in “Pish-Tush,” that “Something died in the movies when TV, wide screen, and the New Wave film made the bit player expendable.”
Whether or not one agrees with Farber’s assertion, there is something irrefutable in the idea that an actor’s personality is too often a distraction to the task at hand, that brief moments with a bit player or a skilled “sideliner” (John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight) make a deeper, more lasting impression than a well-known entity’s star turn. If it was true then, it’s even truer now, when Us Weekly, TMZ.com, and anything-goes celebrity (and sublebrity) news coverage drive an ever-intensifying public interest in the minutest details of Hollywood actors’ private lives, from baby making to bust-ups to run-ins with the law or a fellow cast member. Regardless, Farber focused on what was onscreen, and developed an iconoclastic, uproariously funny shorthand for describing the traits and personas of particular actors, sometimes in as few as two words. Jimmy Stewart had “a harassed Adam’s apple approach to gutty acting.” Orson Welles, with his “flabby body and love of the overpolished effect make any flow in his performance seem a product of the bloodiest rehearsing.” Brigid Berlin, in Warhol’s Tub Girls, is “a hippopotamus of sin,” while Edgar Kennedy is fondly remembered for his “mad wounded-bull heavings.”
The point was not to anoint new heroes or drub unfocused, underwhelming players (though he did crabbily scorn Jeanne Moreau, “always a resentful wailing wall”) or even evaluate a specific role, but to isolate those “magical, intimate” moments when actors revealed something unusual and uniquely true about themselves: “quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.” Farber judged movie performances on their own terms, apportioning praise and disdain scene to scene, moment to moment. It is a standard that, while wholly personal and inimitably subjective, is sensible and instructive, and one that applies equally well to his own writing.
-Damon Smith, FilmCatcher
The moment cineastes have been waiting for is now here: a whole range of eclectic classics begin screening tonight as part of the Manny Farber series. See Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties at 6, or Alain Resnais’s Muriel at 8:30.
PLUS! Listen to Kent Jones talk to WNYC’s Leonard Lopate about the series.
PLUS! Read a vintage Film Comment interview with Farber from 1977!
PLUS! Check out Nathan Lee’s take on the series on the Art.Cult blog.
PLUS! See Taxi Driver scribe and celebrated director Paul Schrader introduce one of his short films on Sunday during the series!
You love movies. You really, really love movies. But how will you do on this vintage Farber quiz?
Name the four movies–but more importantly–explain the similarity between the four images.
Post your insights in the comments and earn our undying admiration (and a certain amount of bragging rights).
Good luck, film lovers.
In the latest installment of our custom-made film school for cinema fanatics, homework for the day is this podcast in which Film Comment’s Evan Davis talks with the Film Society’s own Kent Jones about the legacy of Manny Farber.
Listen closely; there may be a pop quiz!
Check out the films in the eclectic, essential Manny Farber series.