They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

I’m reposting this as a sort of adjunct to David Bordwell’s excellent two-part study of Manny Farber (available here and here). Still another adjunct worth mentioning is the ninth issue of Donald Phelps’ long-defunct magazine For Now, devoted entirely to Farber’s writing (including some of his art criticism), and available here.  And my relatively recent review of Farber on Film can be accessed here.

This very personal essay was written in 1993 for my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. I’ve updated a few facts, all placed in square brackets, and corrected some typos, including one that appeared on the first page of the essay in the book, much to my irritation (as well as Manny’s) ….The photograph at the very end of this piece, before the new Afterword, taken by Andy Rector, shows Manny and Patricia with Gabe Klinger. — J.R.

They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?” Manny Farber was once asked in an interview. “It’s practically worthless for a critic,” Farber replied. “The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” A few years later, in another interview—published in French, so I can’t quote from it verbatim—he expressed his irritation with Pauline Kael writing about RAGING BULL as if she knew what was good or bad in every shot, in every scene. He wondered what would happen if the same critical method were applied to Cézanne, or to Mozart.

In fact, some of the most authentic moments in Farber’s criticism–following his lead, I won’t say the best–are those in which you can’t be sure whether he’s praising or ridiculing the subject before him. Maybe he’s doing both:

The fact that Academy Award Lee Marvin is in the film [POINT BLANK] hardly matters. His blocklike snoutlike nose makes itself felt, also the silvery snakelike hair that doesn’t look like hair, and the implacable, large-lipped mouth. Particular parts of his body and face are used like notes in a recurring musical score. His body stays stiff, vertical, very healthy and sun-burned, but he is not actually in the movie.

[The] whole movie-making system [of Howard Hawks] seems a secret preoccupation with linking, a connections business involving people, plots, and eight-inch hat brims.

Zack, who starts THE STEEL HELMET as a helmet with a hole in it, a bit like a turtle until the helmet rises an inch off the stubbled field to show these meager, nasty eyes slowly shifting back and forth, casing the area, is like someone born on Torment Street between Malicious and Crude.

The visual shocks of recognition in these verbal renderings are not exhibits in a trial but items in an inventory, and Farber’s most characteristic method is to pile these observations on top of one another, or juxtapose them in a disordered heap on the flat surface of a page, not string them together into linear narratives or arguments. To say that they go nowhere would miss the point; in point of fact they go everywhere, creating a busy and unwieldy sprawl that spills beyond the frame of whatever he happens to be discussing. (Donald Phelps’s definitive essay on Farber, included in his collection Covering Ground, is called “Critic Going Everywhere.”) For all their trailblazing—and Farber is the first American critic who took the trouble to discover what filmmakers like Hawks and Anthony Mann and Fuller and Michael Snow, among others, were actually doing—these perceptions could never serve to coax crowds into theaters (or dissuade them from going inside), which already places him well outside the tradition of American mainstream reviewing. They are equally ineffectual in proving points or settling debates, the aim of most academic writing. All they can really do is contribute to the swarm of ideas that buzz around movies, inside our heads.

His career as a critic spans thirty-five years—not nearly as long as his career as a painter, which already covers well over half a century and is still going strong, but slightly longer than his career as a carpenter (roughly 1938-1968). Born 20 February 1917 in a middle-class Jewish family in Douglas, Arizona, he started publishing a little before his twenty-fifth birthday when he was hired as The New Republic‘s art critic in early 1942; within six weeks, he was writing their movie column as well, replacing Otis Ferguson after the latter was torpedoed on a tanker overseas. The art criticism, which continued sporadically until 1961, comprises forty-odd pieces; the movie criticism, much more voluminous, lasted at The New Republic for about five years, ending when Henry Wallace became editor-in-chief and Farber, already a conservative, quit in protest. He surfaced next in The Nation, where he continued for another five years, and in Time, where he only lasted six months, replacing his friend James Agee in both slots when the latter left for Hollywood. Subsequent extended (albeit much less regular) stints included The New Leader, Cavalier, Artforum, and Francis Coppola’s short-lived City Magazine (1975), with key position papers published in between in City Lights (“Preston Sturges: Success in Movies,” with W. S. Poster, 1955), Commentary (“Underground Films: A Bit of Male Truth,” 1957), Perspectives (“Hard Sell Cinema,” 1957), and Film Culture (“White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” 1962). In 1968, the aforementioned Donald Phelps published a 101-page collection of Farber’s art and film criticism in his journal For Now. Two years later, Praeger published a larger collection of his film criticism, Negative Space, reprinted in paperback in 1974 [and in an expanded, updated, and much-improved edition, by Da Capo, in 1998]. Starting around 1968, his criticism was written in collaboration with Patricia Patterson, another painter, whom he married in 1976, and between 1975 and 1977 a final burst of Farber-Patterson collaborations, including an extended interview with Richard Thompson, appeared in Film Comment. Then silence.


Of all the forms of cultural shock that I’ve experienced, I think the most pronounced was my move from London to San Diego in early March 1977. More wrenching than my move from Alabama to Vermont in 1959–which caused my southern accent to evaporate within weeks after it became clear that I couldn’t otherwise speak without inviting ridicule; more disorienting than my relocations from New York to Paris in 1969, Paris to London in 1974, New York to Hoboken in 1979. Part of the shock was returning to America after almost eight years abroad; another part was leaving a socialist society for the most right-wing community I’ve ever known. I found myself in La Jolla—the town where, as Raymond Chandler once put it, old people live with their parents. The smell of eucalyptus was overpowering, and the overall feel of the place was Arcadia West. American flags waved up and down the main street, and, after breakfast the morning after I arrived in a coffee shop decorated with Norman Rockwell paintings, a sweet-looking lady took my bill at the cash register and said, “Hold on, honey, while I ring this up on my Jewish organ.”

Still, there was a good reason to be there. Back in London, working securely as a civil servant in a potentially permanent job, I began to worry that as a writer I was losing contact with American speech; I was growing homesick, looking for a way to negotiate my way back to the states and some version of my roots. After sending off a slew of inquiries to teachers in various film departments, one of them struck a geyser: Manny Farber, my favorite American film critic, whom I had never met face to face, sent back a wisecracking letter in vintage Father prose that said he’d never imagined he could lure me away from London, but he needed a teaching replacement for the spring and fall quarters in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. He described the local mesas and weather, alluded to some old Hollywood actors whose houses he jogged past in Del Mar, and said, in response to my remark about not having a driver’s license, that I’d need to have a car. I phoned him and asked, “Is this Manny Farber?” “No, it’s Abraham Lincoln,” he barked back. A little later he intimated that there was “an outside chance” I could extend the job beyond two quarters, and I decided to take the gamble and make the leap. When I arrived a few months later, a little bit ahead of my forty-two cartons, four suitcases, filing cabinet, and tape recorder, it was a week after I had turned thirty-four, and two weeks after Manny had turned sixty.

When we met on campus, Manny—who bore a certain resemblance to Punch in Punch and Judy—hadn’t realized until then that we’d never met before. Back in 1969, when we were both still living in New York, I’d written him asking to reprint two of his articles, on Preston Sturges and Godard, in an anthology I was editing, for $50 each. After receiving no reply I phoned him and got my first taste of his crusty wrath: “Fifty bucks? Do you know how many years Willy Poster and I worked on that Sturges piece?” Weeks later, just before I was due to move to Paris, I wrote him a sincere fan letter saying that I’d just read the Sturges article for the umpteenth time and couldn’t imagine publishing the book without it—that my budget for fees was paltry but I’d double my offer to $100 for the Sturges. A few days later he phoned, quite friendly, accepting the offer. And that had been our only contact until I wrote him seven years later from London.


The American painter approaches independent art—without subject interest—with the firmly efficient spirit of people who believe in “getting down to brass tacks.” From Feininger’s frosted use of kinetic design to Pollock’s glum idolatry of automatic writing, strict obedience to the principle underlying an art style makes the work appear cold and persistent. The artist not only pushes one principle to the exclusion of all else, but the quick, largely decorative solving of each canvas unmasks the expedience and intensity of young Americans out to “succeed.” Once his technique is mastered, he becomes an assembly belt turning out the same machine in varying colors, sizes, and shapes. Art schools now find students masterfully covering stretched mattress ticking with aluminum house paint—no model, no subject, no composition, and soon—”Look, Ma! No hands!”
— Farber in The Nation, 17 February 1951

It’s sheer nonsense, of course, for Farber or anyone else to claim that he isn’t an evaluative critic. Go back to those quotations about POINT BLANK, Hawks, Zack in THE STEEL HELMET, all of which are clearly appreciations — even if they’re couched in the form of gruff witticisms, loving jabs. And if “criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies,” what are the four key position papers cited above but passionate arguments on behalf of Sturges, “underground films,” and termite art, polemics against “hard sell cinema” and white elephant art?

What makes Farber the most important American film critic, despite the fact that he has always been a minority taste, a critic for other critics? Among his major predecessors, I can think of only two: the underrated Harry Alan Potamkin, a Marxist intellectual and globetrotter of the 1920s and 1930s, and the overrated Otis Ferguson, a punchy slangmeister of the 1930s and 1940s. Among Farber’s contemporaries were at least three friends and comrades-in-arms: Poster, Agee, and Warshow. Among his many disciples are Greg Ford, J. Hoberman, Donald Phelps, myself, Ronnie Scheib, and Duncan Shepherd. (The latter followed Farber all the way out to San Diego from New York, where he reviews movies for the San Diego Reader.) And among those who came along a decade or so later than Farber are the two who wound up paving the main thoroughfares for others to follow in the 1960s and 1970s, Sarris and Kael.

Kael offered a role model—above all, in the intensity and clarity of her prose—but principally to those interested in “scoring.” As valuable as she could be in some cases as a debunker, one rarely saw her expanding the options of the intellectual status quo; her role, on the contrary, was to make some intellectuals feel less guilty for shunning the challenges of difficult films. Farber was virtually discovering Michael Snow and welcoming the difficulties of Straub/Huillet, Rivette, Duras, and Akerman while Kael’s kindergarten was happily and dutifully restricting itself to the intricacies of people like Peckinpah and De Palma.

Sarris started out as a significant role model himself—defending movies like 7 WOMEN, THE BIRDS, MURIEL, and GERTRUD against the philistines—but his decreasing passion for and even interest in such debates after the 1960s gradually made this option seem less and less viable. Like Farber, he had a journalistic weakness for puns and developed an evangelical mission to revise the canon, but unlike Kael or Farber, his root instincts weren’t those of a spoiler. The main concerns of his reviews when he was most effective were usually mise en scène and relationships between men and women—a respectable agenda, but not one that often entailed any radical rethinking of what art was.

Farber’s own major interests—iconography, acting, and realistic detail—weren’t especially radical either, at least in themselves. What made him different, a trailblazer, was his writing, which resembled much of his painting by generating a text that, as Bill Krohn has put it, “can be entered at any point, without hierarchy, center, or horizon-line,” entailing a “refusal to systematize” which often makes it “impossible to tell from the beginning of an essay on a film or a filmmaker where it is going to end up: There is no thesis, no antithesis, no possibility of synthesis, in part because the need to ‘get it all in’ works against the more traditional critical ambition to ‘say everything’ about a work by constructing a microcosmic model that includes, by definition, everything that can be said.”

These comments come from Krohn’s essay, unfortunately unpublished in English [though subsequently published in Framework no. 40, April 1999, and recently reprinted online by Rouge, along with a separate piece of mine about Manny's movie paintings] about Farber’s painting “My Budd” [see above]—a work deriving in part from Farber’s ruminations about Budd Boetticher. Later on, Krohn adds, “Among the notes I am struggling to integrate in this article is the uneasy question: ‘Why does the big rock in the lower right quadrant look like a pickle?’ It’s doubtful that any kind of critical study can answer that kind of question, but Farber’s essays make abundant use of these enigmatic details, which function as foreign bodies, parodies of critical remarks, banana peels for the argument.” A soft-shoe dance with comic twists and bends, Farber’s critical discourse abounds in pickles and pratfalls while invariably shooting for the moon—which suggests that his method is dialectical even if the content of his prose confounds the very notion of dialectics. If academic analysis is largely devoted to the dissolution and demystification of the mystery of art, Farber’s serious jive is passionately dedicated to its survival and perpetuation. Beneath the braggadocio, many of the questions are those of a spiteful child about things like pickles.


When I arrived in La Jolla in early March, Manny was finishing winter quarter, and I attended his final lectures, given to about a hundred students. He gave a standup routine, performed without notes and delivered in extended snatches, like lengthy jazz solos, between successive reels of whatever movie he was showing. (The first was Ichikawa’s AN ACTOR’S REVENGE. A few weeks earlier, he had shown Snow’s RAMEAU’S NEPHEW…, and when a student complained about its intractability, Manny agreed: “It’s like trying to find a friend in a stadium.”) Discontinuous viewing was his preferred way of watching a movie, a method he shared with Godard; if a movie he really liked such as ORDET was being shown several times in the campus screening room over a given week, he’d turn up each time for a different reel or two—maybe even for the same reels, whatever happened to be on.

This was around the same time that Manny gave me a portable typewriter he no longer used, a gift that automatically assumed symbolic and mythic reverberations for me. But it was hard to figure out how I could replace him as a lecturer, especially when my only previous teaching experience was freshman English for a handful of students on Long Island a decade before. It was even harder to decide what to do with a father figure, at a point in my life when I thought I had finally learned how to do without one. Having already spent over half my life away from Alabama, I regarded my own father as a benign presence in my life, but no longer a guide, advisor, or example in practical terms—at least not in the sense that he was those things for his own college students. Manny, however, seemed to radiate the most potent patriarchal presence of anyone within a fifty-mile radius, and it was difficult to resist being seduced by it—even though I was too formed by then to succumb to it entirely either, which made me both dependent and uneasy about my dependence. A year or so later, a mutual friend remarked to me that Manny had a ad habit of adopting people and then abandoning them, which was certainly true. During much of the time I lived in San Diego, he seemed to oscillate regularly and without warning between father, friend, and competitive Jewish sibling.

Manny assured me that lecturing would be a snap for me—just like writing, he said—but when he came to visit my second lecture, the only one he ever attended, I was far from hitting any sort of stride, and the students, who were asked to fill out evaluation forms, were far from enthusiastic. I even antagonized some of them with my manner and methods, and by the time the final student evaluations were handed in toward the end of the quarter, it was evident that I had flopped—not only in my lectures for undergraduates, but even (to a lesser extent) in my critical writing seminar for graduate students, where I was resented by some for my lack of smarts about How to Get Ahead in the Art World, which I was belatedly discovering was precisely the reason some of the students were in grad school. Indeed, there were times when this seemed to be what the whole department—largely composed of displaced New York artists—was chiefly concerned with. To put it bluntly, I was discovering for the first time how thoroughly the sixties in America were over. And I couldn’t even pass a driving test.

Part of me, to be sure, was much too proud to care, but that only made things worse. Unlike Manny, I couldn’t bridge the gap between writing and lecturing as if they were one and the same process, and couldn’t or wouldn’t find a standup manner for winning over a crowd. In the writing seminar, I was dismayed to find a lot of the students trying to write just like Manny, and proved less effectual than I wanted to be in helping them to find their own voices.

Meanwhile, my attempts to get a driver’s license were all pathetic failures. Looking back at my appointment book for 1977, I can see that I probably spent more time taking driving lessons that I did watching movies, and each time I flunked the road test, it was for a different reason; once or twice I even flunked the written test as well. Although I could usually take a bus to campus, I was still helplessly dependent on others when it came to having any sort of social life, and Manny wasn’t the only one who was getting fed up with my recalcitrance. (In mid-July—perhaps as a conciliatory gesture for having yelled at me in exasperation on the phone—he drove me all the way into downtown San Diego to take the written test. Then he got so fidgety waiting around for me that he asked me to take the bus back.)

Then there was the problem of Jean-Pierre Gorin, the former Godard collaborator who was one of Manny’s closest buddies and until recently had been the other UCSD lecturer in film aesthetics. On a few days’ notice, J-P had quit in the middle of winter quarter to fly to the Philippines to work on APOCALYPSE NOW—a job that proved to be less consequential than he had hoped—and then had come back to Del Mar. Not long after I had been phased out of the program, he had been phased back in, and we regarded each other more than a little warily. I resented what I regarded as the hard-sell, closet-intellectual demagoguery of his lecturing style and his concomitant reputation as a campus ladykiller, and he obviously felt threatened by my relationship with Manny; the air was thick with bad vibes and petty sibling rivalries.

Patricia, however, who was only a couple of years older than me, was fast becoming my best friend in San Diego—like the sister I always longed for and never had. I was beginning to suspect that part of what I responded to most in her and Manny’s recent collaborations came from her influence, such as the gradual transition from praise to abuse in their extraordinary TAXI DRIVER essay (“The Power & the Gory,” Film Comment, May-June 1976), culminating in a shock cut from skeptical analysis to a bolt of anger in the beginning of the second part: “What’s really disgusting about TAXI DRIVER is not the multi-faced loner but the endless propaganda about the magic of guns.” It’s conceivable, of course, that Manny came up with that sentence—the sudden switch in tone certainly matches his method—but I don’t recall any sort of anger about phallic gun worship in his earlier solo pieces; and given all the noirs he was celebrating, there were plenty of opportunities. It seemed, in any case, that a certain ideological sophistication and a stronger sense of social criticism had entered Manny’s work around the same time that his collaborations with Patricia started, giving these pieces a certain moral density that were quite distinct from the macho celebrations of his earlier work. (If I had to define a basic psychosexual difference between Manny’s movie predilections and mine, he, along with Kael, sees the medium as basically masculine, whereas I go looking in it for the feminine.)

We never got into political arguments, but our differences were making themselves felt. At one of our first meetings, Manny assigned me the job of inviting filmmakers to campus that spring, and when he suggested I include John Milius, I loftily replied that I wasn’t willing to be associated with an outright fascist. If memory serves, he dropped the matter there, but in his interview with Richard Thompson, which was being conducted around the same time—actually started before I arrived in San Diego and completed a few weeks afterward—he includes a pointed commentary on a scene from Milius’s THE WIND AND THE LION that I’ve always taken to be a reply of sorts to my London-bred intolerance. (Elsewhere in the same interview is an irritated response to Stephen Heath’s Screen article, “Narrative Space,” which I had just gotten Manny to read.)

Discussing THE DEER HUNTER with him a couple of years later, which I loathed and he rather liked— especially, as I recall, for the taboo-breaking singing of “God Bless America” by the major characters in the final scene—I asked how he felt about the dehumanized depiction of Vietcong soldiers as vicious insects. He conceded that maybe it was questionable to show the Vietcong as being nothing like us, but no more so than the liberal approach, which would be to show them as being exactly like us. (On the whole, his social observations were nearly always iconographic; commenting on the differences between 1930s and 1970s movies, he once praised the treatment of people in the former by saying, “In the 30s, every shape was legitimate.”)

Given my own impulses toward collective endeavors, largely inspired by my years abroad, I had hoped that some sort of collaborative writing project could be embarked on by Manny, Patricia, and myself; or, barring that, that we could at least critique one another’s pieces while we were still working on them. But something in Manny—perhaps in Patricia as well—firmly resisted any proposals along these lines, even when we were working simultaneously on separate pieces for Film Comment. Their essay, to date the last critical piece published by either or both of them, was on JEANNE DIELMAN, which I felt obliquely tied to because of my own earlier writing about that film in “Edinburgh Encounters,” one of my pieces that had most impressed them. My own essay, on Luc Moullet, is possibly the single piece of mine most influenced by Manny, even though Manny hadn’t liked Moullet’s LES CONTREBANDIÈRES one bit when I had screened it for him. Ironically, I recall that all three of us felt annoyed at being segregated and marginalized together in a section toward the back of Film Comment (November-December 1977) entitled “Beyond the New Wave.”

One key difference (among others) between our respective pieces was our different positions about stars: JEANNE DIELMAN has a luminous star performance, by Delphine Seyrig, whereas the aesthetics of LES CONTREBANDIÈRES Are virtually defined by its absence of stars and all that goes with them. Several years later, when Manny got a shelty puppy, he named it Jimmy, after Cagney. Indeed, I suspect that even his admiration for Straub/Huillet has something to do with their star presences.


A few other stars in the Farber canon: the heroes of Werner Herzog, the loft in WAVELENGTH, “Lee Marvin’s Planter’s Peanut Head,” working-class domestic interiors, Barbara Stanwyck, Wellman, Godard, Fassbinder, “Stan and Ollie” (the title of a 1981 painting), “Rohmer’s Knee” (ditto, 1982 [see above]), Agee, Bresson’s Mouchette, Peckinpah, John Wayne in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, William Demarest, James Stewart in Anthony Mann westerns, Wile E. Coyote, Jane Greer, Mexico. Over half of these are associated with violence and sadism.


By this time I had moved into a beautiful house overlooking a canyon in Del Mar, a mile or so from Manny and Patricia’s house, which I was sharing with Louis Hock, a fellow teacher and filmmaker, and I was getting around by driving illegally, still without a license—a necessary recourse in order to get to my classes. As my teaching stint was drawing to a close, I had the unprecedented good fortune of learning that I would be receiving a $5,000 NEA grant, which would free me for a spell from having to worry about the rent, and receiving this news produced the first spark of an autobiographical book that quickly grew into [my 1980 book] Moving Places. I started working on this project as soon as fall quarter ended, and early in the next year, Louis and I were joined in our roomy house by Ray Durgnat, who had been hired at UCSD as my replacement—someone I had already admired, written about, and subsequently met and befriended in Europe a few years before, an exploratory critic whose methods suggest certain links with Manny’s. As I recall mentioning to Brooks Riley, Film Comment’s assistant editor, we had all the makings of a full-fledged termite colony.

It was thanks to Ray that I finally passed a driving test in February 1978; shortly after passing his own first test, he drove me to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Oceanside, gave me a gentle pep talk, and even supplied me with a Valium. (A few hours later, after it grew dark, I talked him into going to see CITIZEN’S BAND, which we both liked, in a movie theater up the coast that had once been a church and still had pews to sit in.) Not long afterward, Ray and I and David Ehrenstein began collaborating on “Obscure Objects of Desire”—a discussion of nonnarrative for Film Comment that Manny and Patricia had helped to inspire, although we couldn’t persuade them to participate in it. [This is now available online here.]

Then, by the following spring, when I was far enough along Moving Places to want to show a few portions of it to friends for comments, I sounded out Manny and got turned down. Patricia agreed, but eventually could make good on her promise only by coming over to my house on two successive afternoons and reading the pages in my presence. (When I had previously lent them to her, Manny had returned them to me with terse apologies about both of them being too busy.)

By then, however, my relations with Manny had grown much shakier. Ray had had to return to England in the middle of his second quarter, and I had been hired temporarily to take over his classes for a couple of weeks. Then, when the department chairman had asked me to continue teaching these courses for the remainder of the quarter, something in me finally rebelled against the feelings of rejection I had previously experienced, and I sent back a refusal, defiantly adding that I had too much contempt for the department. (I was thinking of many things at that point—including the fact that the faculty, at quarter’s end, had even forgotten to rule on my former job application, obliging me to insist on their calling an additional meeting in order to make their ejection of me from the program official.) This response coincided with the opening of a major retrospective of Manny’s paintings at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, which proved to be a highly tense affair for me in other respects. (A woman who lived far away, and had recently written me that she thought she loved me, turned up for the event without prior warning and proceeded to ignore me for most of the evening.) Manny was livid about my remark to the department, but I mainly learned about this from other people. Four days later I called a peace conference—the two of us met in neutral territory, at a Denny’s—and did my best to bring about a reconciliation, with ambiguous results. About six weeks later—spurred by the generous offer of one of his former students, Carrie Rickey, to let me share her studio in SoHo as a flatmate—I moved to New York.


Autobiography plays a very ambiguous and uncertain role in Farber’s work. Apart from some jokey asides —like a passing reference to the appearance of his nephew Jerry Farber in Orson Welles’s MACBETH in his list of the top movies of 1950 for The Nation (13 January 1951)—personal references are scrupulously excluded from his criticism. Nonetheless, a good many of his paintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s are clearly autobiographical, such as “Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.” (1979), “Nix” (a vast and complex meditation on Sturges’s comedies in relation to the minutiae of Farber’s own life circa 1983), “For Fontaine Fox” (an homage to Toonerville Trolley, a comic strip from his childhood, 1983), and “Tuy was great” (about a visit to Spain in 1984). And in a copiously detailed, year by year “Biography” appended to at least two catalogues devoted to his art work, he is often personal to the point of being confessional. Here, for example, are four complete entries from the catalogue published by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to accompany a massive Farber retrospective held between 12 November 1985 and 9 February 1986:

1932 Parents move to Vallejo, California to be closer to favorite son, Leslie, a pre-med student. Plays alto sax and some clarinet in another jazz orchestra, Kenny Clark’s, and has brief celebrity as a halfback on football foundry high school team. Parents’ dress store does robust business with prostitutes, a major profession in a thriving Navy city.

1949 Writes on art, jazz, furniture, and films for The Nation under books editor, Margaret Marshall, after stint clipping in the magazine’s library. Takes over as Time film critic when Agee goes to Hollywood to write for John Huston. Lasts six months and is fired after a series of mediocre reviews. These include reviews of WHITE HEAT, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, and Rossellini’s GERMANY, YEAR ZERO.

1972 Starts incorporating snap lines and stepped-on lines made with paint soaked string within the interior of paint abstractions. Allied to small slabs of colored paper, the
increased use of colored chalk, the aim is an increased density. Solo show: O.K. Harris, New York City; San Diego State University. First trip to Europe, spends two weeks at Venice Film Festival. Sees films by Fassbinder and other young European directors, builds a “Radical Film” course around these experiences at UCSD. Two lectures at [Pacific] Film Archives on Straub and Fassbinder; a seminar at New York University, monitored by Annette Michelson, concerning Farber’s switch in critical concern from the Hollywood action film to the experimentalists in New York and the radical directors outside the U.S.A. Meets filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, who later joins UCSD faculty, becoming a sort of twin brain with Farber.

1982 Long interview with Cahiers du Cinéma editors and Jean-Pierre Gorin appears in April Cahiers with “A Dandy’s Gesture” on magazine’s cover. Accidentally torches Patricia’s studio making coffee on cheap hot plate. Altercation with campus cop leads to incarceration in campus police station during fire; long court battle brings conviction for resisting arrest and forty hours teaching remedial writing to prefreshman students. Exhibits at Richard Bellamy’s Oil and Steel and Diane Brown in Washington D.C. concurrently.

In a footnote to an essay of mine about Farber’s “movie paintings”—written in 1983 and published two years later, in New Observations #36 [and reprinted 15 years later in The Somnambulist no. 2, Spring 2000, a Chicago magazine with an even smaller circulation]—I noted that “the relationship between autobiography and film criticism is both intricate and unavoidable, yet the rules of social etiquette governing this delicate connection—which require a suppression of autobiography in most marketplace criticism practiced by writers less well known than Pauline Kael or Gore Vidal—keep it in relative obscurity. Considering Farber’s own precise sense of his position in relation to both film criticism and painting, it seems understandable that only the relative obscurity and hermeticism of his paintings would permit a comfortable adoption of the autobiographical mode; the relative exposure of his [film] writing, combined with its rhetorical strategies, make this tactic seem less tenable in print.”

Considering the dialectic between exposure and concealment running through his work, it hardly seems surprising that he refused to appear in Gorin’s second solo feature, ROUTINE PLEASURES, a film he very much likes, even though a good half of the film is directly about him. [In 1999, he did appear in Chris Petit’s 39- minute video NEGATIVE SPACE.]

With rare exceptions, Farber also avoids mentioning other film critics. (When he sarcastically quotes Robin Wood on ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS toward the end of his 1969 Hawks piece, the citation remains anonymous.) His only piece on another film critic that I’m aware of, a 1958 review of Agee’s collected criticism, is one of the more balanced assessments of that critic that we have, but it also faults his late friend for using “other critics’ enthusiasms” in the course of calling him “a master of critics’ patter, the numbers racket, and the false bracket.”

Perhaps the most sustained case against Farber as an “impressionistic” critic the dirtiest of all academic adjectives in a post-Screen context—is made in Robin Wood’s Personal Views, where a page and a half is devoted to the multiple errors about visual details in passages by Farber about TOUCH OF EVIL and WEEKEND in his introduction to Negative Space, followed by these remarks:

“The whole chapter, with its extraordinary associational processes, comes very close at times to stream- of-consciousness, and is worth looking up as an example of what you can get away with, with a bit of swagger. Such `impressionism’ says as much about Farber’s assumptions about his readers as it does about his own perceptions and his way of experiencing films. It is assumed that they will not know the films very well either, but will not feel this as much of a handicap in attending to discussions of them so vague as to be unchallengeable.”

The last word seems to me a key one. If Farber’s radical distance from what is commonly regarded as academic film study could be encapsulated in a single idea, this would be the notion that nothing he has to offer as a critic can be either verified or challenged. The same thing is true, of course, of Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” not to mention most of Agee’s criticism (Warshow’s is another matter), and if Agee’s status among methodologically trained academics is almost as low as Farber’s, this may ultimately say as much about the limitations of academically approved methodologies, theories, and principles of accuracy as it does about the limitations of Agee and Farber. The strengths of both writers are above all literary; it is merely a casualty of absentminded pigeonholing that classifies Agee as “literature” and Farber as something else. Indeed, it could be argued that Farber’s prose at its best is even more vigorously—and rigorously—constructed than Agee’s and in most cases is equally suited to perform the work of evocation, suggestion, analysis, and mimesis that it sets out to do.

By situating the movie on neither a screen nor a blackboard but inside a critic’s overactive head, Farber obliges it to mingle with its immediate neighbors as well as some of its distant cousins, and what emerges from this mingling often has more to do with the world and its complexity—above all, as we experience it—than any close analysis of whether an actress was sucking her thumb or smoking a cigarette in a particular shot (one of Wood’s examples). Faced with such an image, Faulkner might have theoretically gotten the detail wrong as well. But what he would have had to say about the image he wound up with might well have mattered more than whether it was accurate or not.

To write criticism that places itself beyond verification or challenge is to define criticism as an art, not a science, and to define that art in terms of art rather than scientifically. Exercised on its own terms, without reference to business or scholarship, such a practice defies the use of pull-quotes and advertising blurbs as much as term papers and dissertations; it usually becomes impossible, in fact, to appropriate or adapt it for any purposes other than its own. Refusing to reach for final conclusions about anything—the ultimate aim of marketplace and university criticism alike—it can only revel and luxuriate in its own activity, hoping at best merely to keep up with rather than master the art that it engages.


I’m trying to remember precisely and correctly the important things that happened, but I can’t be sure I’m always succeeding; memories play their own tricks with these emotional residues, adding their own emphases and sometimes subtracting anything that doesn’t fit. Whatever happened, I know that I never entirely got over a feeling of being rejected by Manny on some level. Some of it came back again when he failed to offer any response to Moving Places after it was published in 1980, eventually provoking a hurt, angry note from me that I no longer remember clearly—except that I sent it along with a piece on Straub/Huillet’s FROM THE CLOUD TO THE RESISTANCE that I had published in late 1982, which concluded with a tribute to him and Patricia. This eventually prompted an apologetic call from him—perhaps with Patricia’s encouragement—in which he essentially said that it wasn’t that he didn’t like the book, it’s just that he liked my criticism more. He also admitted to feeling that he’d spent so much of his life in flight from things I was writing about, like Judaism and family, that it was difficult for him to deal with such material. (I often wondered, in fact, what it had been like to be born with a name like Emanuel.)

Years later, I felt twinges of the same rejection when he turned down my offer of a free subscription to the Chicago Reader [many years later, he accepted a renewal of this offer, and did subscribe for a spell]—but this time they were only twinges. He said that now that he was devoting himself exclusively to painting, reading about movies was no longer easy for him. Whatever he meant and whatever the reason was, I accepted it. (It was probably the truth, anyway; in the lower right white square of his 1991 painting “Seed, Field,” written with some of the look and authority of a street sign, is the message, “No film.” To the best of my knowledge, the last time Manny worked on a movie piece was in the late 1970s–on Syberberg’s HITLER, A FILM FROM GERMANY, which excited him quite a bit—but he never finished it. It’s possible that his relative distance from the cities that showed many of the movies he loved most, and a resulting feeling of remoteness from—and lack of mastery over—the “film scene” played a role in his eventual abandonment of criticism.)

It’s always easy to forget how shy he is, like so many tough, stoical types. During my fall quarter at UCSD, I screened Sturges’s CHRISTMAS IN JULY one night at my house and invited him over. He was so overwhelmed by the experience that he left, speechless, after the first reel. I suggested later to him that it seemed to me a movie about the Depression, even though it was released in 1940 and had a contemporary setting. Some time after that, while trying to explain to me some apparent limitation of his own, he referred back to my comment and said, “You know, I’m not someone who ever survived the Depression. It’s not the sort of experience you ever really get over.” Only weeks or months later did I discover, from someone else, that he had never seen this Sturges movie before that night—although he subsequently gave lectures about it more than once—and was too embarrassed to admit this to me. (1)

It amazed me when he once told me that he regarded his dismissal from Time in 1949 as one of the great failures of his life, particularly because I doubt that he would have made much of a lasting impression on other critics had he remained there. (He seemed to agree with me, however, when I once cited his articles on Sturges, Walsh (2), and TAXI DRIVER—none of which could have ever conceivably appeared in Time—as his three best pieces. Is it significant that all three are collaborations?) The dream of hitting the ultimate jackpot that is so central to CHRISTMAS IN JULY hovers over the energy of Manny’s writing like a perpetual promise; yet in his life, I suspect, it has been closer to functioning like a permanent malediction. Condemned forever to traverse the marginal backwaters of art while hoping to break into the mainstream of entertainment, his achievement must seem like a mockery of his dreams—and vice versa, for that matter. His critical positioning—as important to his writing as his composition is to his painting—always paradoxically aims at a notion of bull’s-eye that can exist only in a marketplace context where objects and ideas compete for our attention. He has been living this contradiction, it would seem, for the better part of his life—the contradiction of the realist bent on the construction of formal paradigms, the Horatio Alger who projects his starstruck dreams into the abstract relationship between a Tootsie Roll and a cherished movie. Brilliantly cluttered by the everyday flotsam of American culture—domestic knickknacks otherwise ignored by history and criticism alike—his writing and painting both express a love of the world as it’s given that finally, perhaps even tragically, precludes any radical strategies for changing it.

Anyway, it’s easy enough to forgive him now, because whatever else he did or didn’t do, he invited me along with him on a two-day trip to Los Angeles in December 1977, only five days after I officially taught my last class in his department. I suppose it was his way of making up for not rehiring me, and it was a good way, a gentle way. I went along with him in his car to a slide lecture he gave about paintings at an art school. Shortly before his lecture was due to start, he suffered a sudden bout of stage fright that he confessed to me in the parking lot; he was mortified to discover that his socks didn’t match, and I did my best to convince him that no one would notice—as no one did. After the lecture, we went to see THE AMERICAN FRIEND at the Los Feliz and spent the night in a beautiful house on a hill belonging to a friend of his, a sculptor and his lawyer wife. The next day, I went around with him on numerous errands and visits to various friends and galleries; then, after we ate dinner with a mutual friend and went with her to see CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND at the Cinerama Dome, he drove with me back to Del Mar, and we talked the whole way. It was a warm and peaceful two days, and the two-hour drive back was especially pleasant, the best time I can remember spending with him.

The whole experience was like a throwback to Checking Up—a nightly ritual of my father in the 1940s and 1950s, practiced five nights a week, when he drove across the river from Florence to the movie theaters in Sheffield and Tuscumbia, collecting the final receipts of ticket sales from the cashiers after the last shows started, then driving back across the river to Florence again. It was a special privilege for me or my brothers to come along on this hour-long ride and talk, letting the night roll by.

I won’t even tell you what Manny had to say to me about THE AMERICAN FRIEND and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND on the way back to Del Mar; that’s our secret.



1. 2009: From the recently published Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (New York: Library of America, 40), I’ve just learned that this couldn’t have been quire accurate; in the December 21, 1942 issue of The New Republic, he described CHRISTMAS IN JULY in some detail, and with clear admiration. So it would probably be more accurate to say that 30-odd years later, he rediscovered it.

2. “Raoul Walsh: ‘He used to be a big shot,’” Artforum (November 1971), and Sight and Sound (Winter 1974/ 1975).


This essay was written fifteen years ago, in 1993, at the instigation of Ed Dimendberg when he was an editor at the University of California Press and I was preparing my first collection of pieces, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Ed wanted specifically (a) a piece that was original for the book, apart from all the linking half-dozen introductory autobiographical texts I was writing, and (b) a piece that explained my position vis-à-vis Manny Farber.

I responded to this request by staging, quite deliberately, a kind of shotgun marriage between the autobiographical approach of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), dealing mainly with my childhood experience of movies (as the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors), which California was reprinting at the same time, and the critical approach being highlighted in Placing Movies, which was designed as a companion volume. This essay was also designed to conclude the first of the book’s five sections, called “The Critical Apparatus”. It was only months or years later that I fully became aware that one of the main, subterranean subjects of this essay, in fact central to its closing lines, was male Jewish sibling rivalry—something Manny and I shared in our backgrounds, and the likely cause of some of our problems together.

Manny and Patricia read this piece when it was at or near the galley stage and offered some factual corrections, all of which I incorporated. Then Manny refused to speak to me for a few years after the book came out. According to our mutual UCSD friend Louis Hock, this was because seeing the essay in a book rather than in manuscript or galleys made my comments about Visual Arts at UCSD much harder for Manny to take. Eventually he got over this and apologized, and we spoke on the phone several times afterwards. The last time I saw Manny was in July 2004, when I flew to New York to see him and Patricia lecture on Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh at the Walter Reade. I spoke to both Manny and Patricia about many things, but I remember in particular his fulminations against Michael Moore. He had mellowed considerably and become gentler, but some of his positions had remained the same.

Even though Manny voted twice for George W. Bush (which I’m told he later regretted), I already miss him.

Postscript/Correction (8/27/08): I’ve just discovered — coincidentally, only moments after Barack Obama became the Democratic Presidential candidate by acclamation — that I was wrong and had been misinformed. Patricia just sent the following letter to John Powers:

“Dear John Powers,

Manny was not a “Conservative,” a “Libertarian,” a “Republican,” an anything. In his early twenties he tried to join the Communist Party but they didn’t want him. During WWII he tried to enlist in the army but they rejected him. After inviting him to join, it took just one meeting for the New York Film Critics Circle to ask him to leave. He came home that night saying, “They fired me.” He also told me that even a therapist in Washington had “fired him” for not working hard enough. Manny was not a Republican because he never knew any. He didn’t quarrel with them because he was never around them. He quarreled with the people he knew: artists, writers, teachers, carpenters. When he saw smugness, complacency, and superiority — and often those qualities went together — then he would get going, and separate himself from them. He did not vote for Bush twice. I know, because for ten years I was the family driver, and he didn’t want to go to the polls. (His license had been taken away for reckless driving.) I don’t know about Bush once because I was in another booth. But I do know how much he revered FDR, that he voted for Jimmy Carter, for Bill Clinton twice, even had a Jesse Jackson moment, and loved Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama. Obama thrilled him and he fretted about his winning. He and I both voted for Obama in the Democratic primaries. This I know because he was by then very ill and unsteady on his feet and he needed to fill in the form three times before getting it right. A bushy-bearded guy (our polling place is in a neighbor’s garage down a dirt road) allowed it and asked afterwards, “Seen anything good lately, Manny?” So three times in public view he voted for Obama and I could get the polling guys to testify to that. Manny thought Barack was a new Lincoln — one of the great ones.

Manny was a believer in America. His parents escaped from Russia and raised him and his two brothers in a small house on the Mexican border. That’s another story.

I loved him very much

Patricia Patterson, his wife

P.S.: Other than the political misinformation, I thought your piece was lovely and accurate. Would you please post this letter under your article, on the Fresh Air site.”

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