Daily Archives: January 1, 2020

Thinking about (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber

This piece had a somewhat tortured history. Commissioned but rejected by Artforum (for reasons that were never explained) circa 1982, it first appeared in a special issue of New Observations (#36, 1983) edited by the late Gilberto Perez, entitled “Horses, Hegel and Film,” where by necessity the illustrations were relatively sparse. In its present form, it first appeared in the 12th issue of the online journal Rouge in 2008. Two excerpts from it are reprinted in a superb recent collection, Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, that I’m proud to be part of. — J.R.

1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 361. ‘The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing’, Manny Farber replied in 1977 to an interviewer inquiring about the relationship between his dual activities as a painter and film critic. (1) The remark points to a two-part obsession that by now has persisted for more than four decades. A master at perceiving the delicate nuances of brutal facts, Farber has always had an uncanny knack for hitting on truths in a language of wisecracking braggadocio that eliminates any possibility of a dispassionate or precise scientific observation. With his feet firmly planted in the anonymous turf of an underground termite (to conflate two of his favourite terms), Farber 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.

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The Puppet Master

From the November 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

ThePuppetmaster

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece about the childhood and early adulthood of octogenerian Taiwanese puppet master and actor Li Tien-lu. This is the second part of a trilogy about Taiwanese life in the 20th century, covering all but the first few years of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). Hou’s preference for filming entire scenes in long takes from fixed camera angles and for eschewing close-ups has never been as masterfully employed and modulated as it is heresome of the landscape shots are breathtaking. The film alternates between re-created scenes from Li’s life, Li speaking directly to the camera about his past, and extracts from his puppet and stage performances, creating a layered density in the narrative that does full justice to the complexity and poetry of Hou’s investigation. In Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles. 142 min. (JR)

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