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[whitespace] Manny Farber
Photograph by Carol Sonstein

One Cool MF: "If I were still a critic, I would loathe knowing the person I was writing about. There's enough of an incestuous relationship between subject and writer."

Negative Space Man

Former film critic Manny Farber and his theories of reel-ism

By Edward Crouse

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Manny Farber's criticism surfaced in The New Republic, Commentary, Film Comment or The Nation--scouring a reader/ viewer. His unique and acid sensibility owed less to lit. crit. and more to action painters. His unusual smashing of the reader into the screen becomes the title of his collected volume, Negative Space, after the three types of space possible: "(1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers." Ninety-eight percent of film criticism was and is still composed with a bulletlike, single-minded persuasive railroading effect--judgement pure and/or simple. Farber's voice read more like point-blank sawed-off buckshot, flying madly into the screen and embedding in it, burrowing into, out and around filmic material, as something experienced and immediate. This crosshatching was accomplished in "The Power and the Gory" (co-written with his wife, Patricia Patterson), where he exalts, probes, crucifies and lauds Taxi Driver, sometimes in the space of two sentences, drawing out the contradictions in its formal approach to politics, women, Hollywood, power, gun fetishes. His 1950 essay on John Huston has one of the earliest and insidious uses of the word "camp."

The new, expanded edition of Negative Space (Da Capo Press) was hailed as the best film book of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. Farber was recently the subject of an experimental essay video by British critic-director Chris Petit titled, not surprisingly, "Negative Space."

Is there a difference between a journalist and a critic?

Not much, I guess, not much. Journalism seems harder to me. You have to be on the mark every day. I don't see much difference. You have to tell the truth in each area.

Besides the script with [James] Agee that you were writing, have you done any more?

I've never done any movies. Never wanted to either. The one with Agee was--I don't know. He was a great friend, a great talker, a great man with words. It was always exciting being with him. We were constantly going through different directors, different films--in an entirely different atmosphere from what goes on now. [pause] Now you're going to ask me why.

You had a hell of a lot more screens and movies then, I guess. The underground theaters that you describe--"The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge."

Pretty good line.

Those don't really exist anymore.

It's much different and not much fun. I grew up in the days when the movies never stopped, screens always filled. Something very beautiful about that constant flow of images. The lack of commercialism in terms of ads, the relationship to the audience wasn't so strong. You were divided, you were enclosed by the movie--terrific. That's been gone for a long time.

At your peak of movie watching, how many did you see a day?

I was lucky. I think I see about as many movies now as then. I only saw about two or three movies at the most per week, ever. That allowed me to concentrate on one movie. Why'd you ask that?

In your wake, critics would tout their cinephilia. Truffaut said that he saw three a day, Fassbinder claimed to have seen four a day.

I could never take that kind of regimen. Jim Agee went to many more a week. Pauline [Kael] did, too, and Andy Sarris. I don't know what it means. Once I started teaching, the whole game changed. My relationship to film viewing changed. Patricia and I had a projector and fold-up silver screen in our living room. We watched the same film constantly, with or without sound, often stopping, running it backwards. Tom Luddy sent the best films from the archives and often the directors: Rossellini, Godard, Franju. An intense little community was studying, talking about film.

The new version of Negative Space has added tremendously from your later period. Is it missing anything? What would you have included?

A piece that Patricia [Patterson] and I wrote on the Venice Film Festival, the year we first saw The Merchant of Four Seasons [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971] and the Duras film. We just forgot about it when we were putting together the book. It's actually a better piece than the one on Fassbinder that made it in. It was an awfully hard piece to write--we spent about two weeks in London holed up with the damn thing. The ones that are difficult to write tend to turn out better. Your concentration is more intense. You're forced to define things things more closely. The time element increases the depth of the writing. The articles that go easy [in my work] are not worth reading. There's a drop-off in my work in a certain year, when I pretty much disappear from criticism. I begin to teach more and get to see the films over and over again. This is what I call the "swerve" in my work. I learned much more about directors, photographers, etc. There's a shift into foreign films when I finally start writing again--or when we start, when it involves Patricia. I wish to God I could write the Val Lewton article again so I can write about I Walked With a Zombie. I'd love to write about Tourneur. He's got a beautiful eye. The Rossellini movie [Viaggio in Italia] comes out of that period. I wish I'd written about Muriel, the Resnais film. I would have loved to have written on Mizoguchi. This hiatus was about five or six years, when I was doing carpentry. Afterwards, that's where I get much more involved with technique, the working of a film.

You've said that you didn't like to meet actors, directors you'd written about.

My recalcitrance had to do with being influenced and nudged around by them. I could be straighter in writing. That was a problem I had with Agee, [who was] living with Huston, Ida Lupino. He handled it very well, though. If I were still a critic, I would loathe knowing the person I was writing about. There's enough of an incestuous relationship between subject and writer. I have a great love of the actual.

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From the October 11, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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