Manny Farber, who was? no, is, one of the most influential of all film critics, died Sunday at his California home. Writing for the mainstream highbrow journals in the 50s, and Artforum and Film Comment in the 60s and 70s, his project was, essentially, a reordering of American cinema, an upending of understood notions of high and low film culture according to visual and theoretical-esoteric criteria that hadn’t really been attempted much in American film writing before that. (The only really important American film critic before him, James Agee, understood the visual grammar but approached it as a popular art, from the perspective of an author and journalist; Farber’s closer forbears seem to me to be the European cultural theorists that informed Andre Bazin.) His collection Negative Space is required reading for anyone seeking new ways of watching and understanding movies.
Farber was attuned to visual energies and turned space into a thematic proposition (he was also ), and in his landmark essay “Underground Films” he located the true vitality of cinema, as Andrew Sarris would later in a more systematic way, in the previously undervalued genre filmmaking of Hawks, Mann, Walsh… We’re still looking for auteurs — that is, an authentic filmmaking style in the service of material — in the same way. Farber was as idiosyncratic in his tastes and inimitable in his writing style (he wrote such unfurling, precarious, all-encompassing sentences!) as Pauline Kael; as adventurous in his tastes as Amos Vogel.
In his most famous piece, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, he argues against art with grandiose aspirations to high social relevance and self-containment, and for art that
[G]oes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.