Manny Farber dies, 91

So much of film criticism in 2008 is the blind leading the lame, so the loss of the long-retired but not forgotten Manny Farber is just one more bad indicator, as they say in the financial world. Got to meet the man once; he was hard of hearing and it was a noisy room, but I wanted to tell him that I too was a fan of rotund actor Eugene Pallette (visible on one Bay Area screen tonight (Aug. 21): the Stanford Theatre’s revival of The Bride Came C.O.D.), and that I bet Farber didn’t know Pallette had been a professional jockey once. He didn’t!

Jonathan Rosenbaum will be writing up this great man’s obit. J. Hoberman already has; what I’d add is that Farber’s vocation as a fine artist dictated the way he wrote about cinema. In his best work (just reprinted last year but still found in libraries and used bookstores), he boiled down the sound and fury of the movies to crafty bits of word-jazz. Which is the way we remember movies, anyway.

Farber’s praise was not for the “brilliant performance” or the “harrowing drama” but for the empty space in the frame, the shape of an actor’s head, the brilliant punnish putdown; in one instance, describing that French actress with the famous pout as “Jeanne Morose.”

Here’s some Farber phraseology, picked out of my nearby copy of Negative Space: Preston Sturges’ regular Pat Moran, with one of the great Brooklyn voices, “as if its owner had just been smashed in the Adam’s apple by Joe Louis.” Two Rode Together, a John Ford film with a bit of a cult: “The movie’s mentally retarded quality comes from the discordancy and quality of the parts: it’s not only that they don’t go together, they’re crazy to start with.” [that's Henry Poole Is Here in one sentence, by the way] …”It’s incredible, the amount of leeway that is allowed. If a prop man locates a bench from an antique store next to a tree in a just-set-up campsite, the scene stays in, though the film for the proceeding five minutes has been insisting on formidable wilderness.”

For anyone who was sorry to see the bad townie girl with the thick glasses die in Strangers on a Train: “One of the best studio actresses (Laura Elliott: a sullen, sexy small-town flirt with ordinary, nonstudio glamour) gives a few early sections extraordinary reality. …Hitchcock has always been a switch-hitter, doubling a good actor with a bad one, usually having the latter triumph. It takes real perversity murdering off Elliott and settling for Ruth Roman, a rock lady in Grecian drapery …” (Slightly unfair, since Roman was all Warner Brothers had its stables to match the Ingrid Bergman type; unfortunately, Roman was merely shaped like Hitchcock’s longtime crush. Moreover, those shots of Union Station and some of the neo-classical buildings on the Mall suggest Hitchcock was trying to make Roman a marbly Roman matron.)

And, to finish off, Farber’s assault on a film considered unassailable: “Item: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is almost a comedy of overdesign, misshapen with spectaclelike obtrusions: the camera frozen about 10 feet in front of a speeding cyclist, which, though it catches nice immediate details of his face, primarily shows him fronted onscreen for minutes as a huge gargoylish figure. The camels, by far the most exciting shapes in the movie, photograph too large in the ‘cineramic’ desert views. An actor walking off into fading twilight becomes the small papery figure of an illustrational painting; Jack Hawkins’ General Allenby, so overweighted with British army beef, suggests a toy version of Buckingham Palace guard. While the other technicians are walloping away, the actors, stuck like thumbtacks into a maplike event, are allowed—and then only for a fraction of the time—to contribute a declamatory, school-pageant bit of acting.” 

Here’s to the great man … 

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