The Adventure of Perception:
A Conversation About Manny Farber with Kent Jones
By Eric Hynes
The brilliant American film critic Manny Farber died in August at age 91. In honor of his great friend and idol, critic and Film Society of Lincoln Center programmer Kent Jones organized a film festival that would celebrate Farber's life, writing, and teaching. The series, titled Manny Farber 1917-2008, is now playing at New York's Walter Reade Theater, through November 26 (click here for ticket info). For the occasion, Reverse Shot's Eric Hynes sat down to talk with Jones about Farber and why he and his friends chose certain films for the festival. Of course, the conversation grew and expanded to encompass not only Farber's legacy but approaches to criticism itself. Thanks to Kent Jones for his time and candor.
RS: Rather than Manny Farber’s all-time favorites or something like that, your selections for the Film Society program seem somewhat organic, like a conversation you’re having with Farber through these films.
KJ: Years ago Bruce Goldstein and I talked about doing a series at Film Forum that would have been Manny’s favorite movies of 1951, which is a piece in Negative Space. That kind of thing would have been one way to go. Another way was to go through Negative Space, which is how everyone knows him, and just take the films that are representative of his selections, what he focuses on in his books. Off the top of my head those would be along the lines of Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Gai savoir, and so on. But this word you mentioned—conversation—comes into play because I knew Manny, we were very close. And his partner, Patricia Patterson, became one of my closest friends. He was 91, and we all knew that he would have to go at some point, but it was still very painful for us. When I say us I mean myself and Jean-Pierre Gorin, Robert Walsh, Robert Polito, his art dealer Mark Quint, Michael Almereyda, Duncan Shepard, who was his former student and is a critic out in San Diego, and Patricia, obviously.
So when Manny passed away in August we talked a lot about different ways of honoring him, and when the opportunity for this show came up, I called Patricia and asked a few people—some of the names I mentioned as well as Jim Hoberman—and just asked for their thoughts. Patricia thought it would be a good idea to pick the stuff he had taught, not the stuff that was the focus of his writing. Beside the fact that it seemed like a great idea, it gave Patricia and I something to focus on. Patricia had spent the last 40 plus years of her life with Manny, and for me in a completely different way it was very important too. Manny himself would have just blanched at the idea of a series of his favorite movies of 1951—it would have seemed like madness to him. He probably would have blanched at this too, but at least he’d have tolerated it because it would have been a little more surprising. Because that’s what his writing was all about, what his painting was all about, and that’s what he was about as a person—to be constantly looking at things anew. So in his spirit, just thinking of him, and of how he saw things, and how he would group things together, and then going through his class notes of which there are volumes—that’s how the series came together.
RS: For those of us who mostly know Manny through Negative Space, and not knowing necessarily what he taught through the years, there are some surprises. Such as, for me, seeing Two or Three Things I Know About Her on the schedule, only knowing his opinion on the film from a New York Film Festival wrap-up, which was basically…
KJ: A pan.
RS: …a pan, right—though a very Manny Farber kind of pan.
KJ: Singing the crisp image that Raoul Coutard gets . . . It seems that every time I talked to him he was telling me how—unsurprisingly maybe—he wished he could have written more about Nick Ray, that he could have done justice to him and how special those early films are. He knew Nick Ray, and I think he felt a certain personal debt to him. He felt similarly about James Agee, he kind of regretted having written that piece about Agee. In the last few years of his life he was thinking back to his friendships with people. When he was writing as part of the New York intellectual world of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, his instinct was always to pull away from what everyone else was doing and take another look. There’s a piece that he wrote that’s in a Nation collection of art criticism where he kind of pans Matisse. As you just said, he does it in a very Manny Farber way, but he’s not somebody who’s going to write from the perspective of looking at an old master. He’s always looking at things from the now, directly. There are always surprises.
Something he said to me a couple of times was, “I really think I missed the boat on Hitchcock.” Patricia and I were talking about this recently, about how he would always make such a big deal about not liking Hitchcock, yet he taught Notorious, he taught North by Northwest, he taught and really loved Vertigo, he taught Strangers on a Train, which is a movie he writes a lot about, somewhat disparagingly, somewhat admiringly. He and Patricia called me once to tell me how thrilling it was to go back and look at On the Waterfront—I don’t remember one good word that he ever wrote about Elia Kazan. He was always going back and looking. Which is the opposite of other critics. The most famous example is Pauline Kael, who made a point of never going back and looking at things again, but that was her personality and the way that she operated, and she was working a completely different kind of critical territory. She was thinking in terms of this conversation with her audience. He was thinking in terms of a conversation with the film. That’s something very different. So she didn’t have to go back and take a second look; he did. It was ongoing.
RS: It’s inevitable to make comparisons between these critics. Reading Kael you get the sense that everything’s judged against the Thirties films, with James Agee it’s the slapstick comedies of the Twenties, and with Farber at times there’s a sense of looking back at the Forties films. And yet it’s somehow different. You get the sense that he’s also wide awake to the moment and how his opinion is changing.
KJ: I have a lot of thoughts about that, but in her case, when someone asked her near the end of her life what for her was the golden age in Hollywood they fully expected her to say the Thirties and in fact she said the Seventies. That was the golden age. She was there, and not only was she there but she was actually a part of what made that moment so exciting. I tried to watch Nashville again recently and I found it utterly impossible. I think it’s just a bad movie. But I still remember her excitement over it. At the time the film seemed good, and I love other Altman movies, but that one just seems hopelessly pretentious and hokey to me, like Short Cuts, whenever he gets into a pessimistic vein. As a matter of fact there’s a good, at this point, uncollected pan of Nashville by Manny and Patricia that’s absolutely vicious that was in Coppola’s magazine City.
But Kael’s excitement was palpable. She knew Peckinpah, she was talking to Marty Scorsese and Coppola, and she had her ill-fated adventure out in Hollywood with Warren Beatty. Nonetheless I know what you mean, in her writing you do feel like there’s an attachment to that era. But anyone who’s really worth their money as an artist, as a writer in this case, is going to be driven by the formative moment of their life. That’s just true, it goes without saying. People can’t constantly spend their lives reinventing themselves. You keep going deeper. I’m 48 years old and I see that now. The perfect example is Wes Anderson’s films, which I love. But you’re seeing movies, regardless of whether they’re good or not, that seem like they could be taking place in another era but aren’t. The same with Tarantino’s movies, they’re not pegged to another era but they’re suffused with another era. In Tarantino’s case probably the Seventies and in Wes Anderson’s case more like the early Eighties or something. But that’s true of all artists. That’s why there were so many films during the Seventies and Eighties that were indebted to the Fifties, because these were people who grew up in that era.
So when Manny and Patricia write about Mean Streets—another uncollected piece that was in City—they talk about how much that movie is devoted to capturing a certain kind of familiar cultural and social mindset that comes out of the Fifties. Harvey Keitel opening his drawer and finding a monogrammed shirt, being subservient and taking orders from an uncle, the relationships between men and women, yes it’s the Seventies but it’s the Fifties too, for we all know that Marty Scorsese grew up in the Fifties. Same thing with Joe Dante’s movies. And Manny identified that as a critic and teacher. One of the reasons that I put Voyage to Italy and On Dangerous Ground together in the series is because he put them together as a teacher. Two home movies with professional actors, two movies that are “one plus one,” where you have Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders plus the Italian landscape, Ingrid and George as a frosty British couple in a faltering marriage plus the warm, open Italian culture equals that’s what you get at the end of the movie. On Dangerous Ground: Robert Ryan as a violent, righteous city cop plus the simplicity of the snowbound landscape and Ida Lupino equals his regeneration. You’re seeing the regeneration of a couple and the regeneration of this cop. Nobody else would go there. And he was always thinking in those terms, he was thinking of pairing Thirties movies together from wildly disparate places. For him, that’s where he lived, the Thirties, I would say—specifically regarding the depression, just seeing and remembering how it felt, how people looked and walked, what the energy was like.
Talking about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which was a Forties film but rooted in the depression, his note on it is, “manic energy but peculiarly manic futility of that time.” That’s a pretty damn good description of Preston Sturges’s films in general and of what makes them so special. He had his own era that he was coming out of, but he was looking at that also. Which other people don’t do. He was acknowledging that as a force in human nature. It allowed him to move on to the Straubs. What excited him in Howard Hawks leads to what excited him in the Straubs, and Fassbinder and Jeanne Dielman. When I wrote a piece about David Thomson where I said it’s too bad that he doesn’t go back and take another look at people, I got an angry letter from a friend of his who said, “You used Manny Farber as an example, and it seems like he’s stuck in the Thirties.” Well if he is, it’s news to me, because he’s always telling me how much he likes Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. He’s seeing the continuity, he’s acknowledging the presence of the Thirties in his own makeup and the fact that movies and cultural artifacts from different eras speak to each other.
RS: Putting aside the specifics of any particular critic, it takes a certain self-assurance to be okay with being wrong or changing or shifting your opinion, re-orienting yourself without losing yourself.
KJ: This is the guy who did say that, “critical judgment is a derelict appendage.” Now I remember Howard Hampton once took me to task for quoting that chapter and verse, saying that it’s not true, that he’s very judgmental. Well yeah, he is very judgmental. But a) he’s always revising his judgments, but more importantly, b) if you read the piece about Taxi Driver it’s not the judgment of the movie that you come away remembering, it’s something else. It’s the particular, peculiar way that they (Manny and Patricia) place that movie, the way that they describe it, take it apart and put it together again, the way they get at the different energies involved—that’s what makes it exciting. It’s about a conversation with the film, rather than with the audience. So the piece, like all of his great pieces with Patricia and without, comes from within the movie, and from over and under and around the movie, it comes from an intimate relationship with the movie. He never thought you could see anything enough if you were going to write about it. So obviously your opinion is going to change. You have to have self-confidence but also be committed to the adventure of perception.
RS: Which leads me to another perhaps larger issue in writing and criticism. He knew he had strengths and weaknesses as a film watcher. But he had a way of emphasizing the things he cared and knew about while leaving out the rest. Every writer has a weakness where they respond to something in a film more powerfully than they respond to other things—that’s just natural, that’s personality. And I think he had a way of doing that that made you feel like those other things didn’t matter.
KJ: For him, describing the plot was just wasted time, or wasted space rather. That is his weakness, I suppose you could say, because his penchant was to look at the immediate experience of the movie, the excitement of watching Cary Grant move in kabuki-like fashion and then integrate it in counterpoint with the rhythm in His Girl Friday. And it’s true what he says that you can tell somebody the plot of His Girl Friday in one sentence. Though I like the idea of Termite Art, I don’t think it’s an everlasting category. The White Elephant/Termite Art opposition always struck me as reactive to a particular moment rather than “here are definitions in art.” When he said he thought that he missed the boat on Hitchcock, part of the reason is probably because Hitchcock is a lot about storytelling, the intricacies of storytelling. Now there are two sides to that, because Hitchcock and Hawks knew you could get away with a lot if you do certain things correctly. You can’t make sense of the plot of North by Northwest if you try to envision it the way Arthur Hiller would have directed it or something, but you can make sense of it in other ways—emotionally everything ties together. Hitchcock also knew he couldn’t get away with that sequence he wanted of the body falling out of the car in the auto plant. He just knew. De Palma would have done it. If he were making it he would have had no qualms about it because he doesn’t really visit questions of logic very much. At all. Ever. But in Hitchcock that’s a very important thing.
Getting into this question of the theme—when he’s writing about Matisse, or about Lawrence of Arabia, what he’s saying in those two different pieces is that there’s an addiction to the idea of creating a fully rounded, completely delivered thing called a masterpiece. Which is actually damaging to what’s interesting in the work of certain artists. I know what he means, but I often wonder how one can escape the idea of the totalizing vision. Michael Snow certainly didn’t do it in Wavelength. For Manny that particular film works because it’s all of a piece—structurally, thematically, visually, experientially, sonically, texturally. So I can sort of go there with him, but I also have to say that the way people organize principals of storytelling and filmmaking do tend to think in that box in a box, top-down way. I sympathize with the aesthetic, but looking at the idea of Termite Art can have a limit. Having said that, never once when I was with him did I hear him use the words Termite Art or White Elephant Art, and Patricia said she never heard him use them either. For him it was generated from a moment and people have to realize that.
RS: Even in the things he wrote after that, toward the late Sixties, I don’t see that logic at play, or that terminology applied.
KJ: He’s applying the terminology in the sense that, as in the introduction to Negative Space, what he likes in art—and he’s going on about Fuller, Chuck Jones, Band of Outsiders—no one else loves for the same reasons. Maybe. More likely people don’t know that they love them for those reasons, or those reasons aren’t so easy to speak about. It’s easy to talk about the speed in His Girl Friday, how fast-paced it is. It’s not so easy to talk about how visually Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell fit together and how their rhythm works with the rhythm of the film, sometimes setting it, sometimes offsetting it. That’s a tall order. And that’s where he starts. Those are things that people are reacting to when they’re watching the movie. As Raymond Durgnat would have said, they’re reacting to them unconsciously. When he goes to the movies the average Joe is performing a lot of complex mechanisms. Manny says the same thing in the interview that he and Patricia did with Richard Thompson for Film Comment, that the average customer is asking lots of questions about how an Anthony Mann western works. They’re just not doing it verbally, or consciously. But they’re doing a lot of sizing up, reacting in a way that is a combination of sizing it up against reality and the sensual experience.
*Top: Caravaggio's Last Supper; Manny Farber, 1998