In about 1977, I met Manny Farber in a funky little cinema in La Jolla. Jacque Demy’s Peau d’Âne was on screen. My nascent punk rock sensibilities precluded a heartfelt enjoyment of what would later become one of my favorite Demy films, but Farber generously included the handful of folks who had gathered that evening in a lively discussion of this sweet film. And that discussion probably turned my head around in regard to appreciating the film.
By that time, Farber had more or less retired from film writing to devote his energies to painting at teaching at UCSD. Recently published at that time was his seminal collection of writings, Negative Space, which still is a cogent and wonderful (re)read after all these years.
Farber’s love of what he termed as “termite art” led him to become a champion of B movie aesthetics against the likes of “art-infected” filmmakers like Orson Welles or Hitchcock - “the water-buffaloes of film art.” He was an early and important defender of the likes of Sam Fuller and Nick Ray.
“A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward, eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity,”
His film writing veered toward an equally unkempt vision embracing formalist critiques, his own particular take on film, and huge breadth of film and art history that allowed him to make brilliant connections between avant garde and commercial filmmakers, popular and art-critical aesthetics, and a messy holistic vision of what film art should and could be.
Arguably, Farber may have been the greatest critical mind writing about film in America in the 20th century (he started writing in 1942). And though he was relatively inactive in publishing for many years, his classes at UCSD were somewhat legendary, influencing a newer generation of filmmakers and film-thinkers. After many years of being unavailable, Negative Space was republished 10 years ago.
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