For years, hardcore cineastes have cherished the quirky film criticism Manny Farber (1917-2008), a genuine hipster and a subtle writer in a genre increasingly given to thumbs-up-or-down consumer guidance. His offbeat views, collected in a single volume, Negative Space (1971), included the first serious celebrations of Preston Sturges’ kinetic comedies and Sam Fuller’s tabloid realism. Farber also championed male action films, the horror productions of Val Lewton, and the burgeoning underground movement.
His single most famous piece distinguished between Hollywood’s monumental phoniness (“white elephant art”) and the visionary genius of directors who focus on movement and moments (“termite art”). Anyone interested in film will want to devour this latest collection — all of Farber’s criticism, spanning some 35 years and including not only Negative Space but hundreds of pages compiled from his uncollected work. Years of reviews for The Nation, The New Republic, The New Leader, and other magazines reveal both the genesis of Farber’s unusual opinions but also the rather conventional ideas at the core of his aesthetic. I suspect his acolytes will be surprised to learn that Farber was first and foremost a realist, constantly measuring film against his notion of everyday truth and searching for “the human element.” This explains his distaste for the high artifice of the American Hitchcock, as well as his impatience with the sentimentality of John Ford or Frank Capra. Even film noir was too talky and improbable for him. Before he abandoned criticism altogether for teaching and painting (his first love) in the late ’70s, Farber (in essays written with his wife) found his ideal cinema in the German New Wave, especially Fassbinder, Wenders, and Herzog. Given the high production values of the Library of America, is it too much to expect that the publisher would avoid so many typos? Or that someone would have caught the glaring factual error in the editor’s altogether overblown introduction? No matter. Farber’s muscular prose demands the attention of anyone who cares about movies.