The Adventure of Perception: A Conversation About Manny Farber with Kent Jones, Part Two

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The Adventure of Perception:
A Conversation About Manny Farber with Kent Jones, Part Two
By Eric Hynes

Interview continued from here.

RS: Let’s shift to the way that Manny wrote about acting, about how much he could take from actions, gestures, and the embodiment of characters on screen. In some ways acting is the easiest thing to write about. The cliché is for reviewers and viewers to respond with, “well the acting was good,” or “what a good performance,” which is something to be avoided. A lot of film critics, myself among them, hardly ever get to that because we’re busy talking about construction, composition, the narrative—we spend so little time describing acting or being critical of it in a way that’s valuable. He did that, and very few of us have followed that lead.

KJ: A couple of months ago on Dave Kehr’s blog I got into this online altercation with a couple people about the subject of acting, and specifically about Lola Montes. Inevitably what it became was, well, do I think Martine Carol is good in Lola Montes? No, she’s good for about the first ten minutes. After that it becomes purely a movie about the brutality of celebrity culture. It works, but it doesn’t work in the same way that every other great film that he made works. What I got in response was, “People talk too much about acting” and “It’s all about the mise-en-scène” and “People have made movies without actors” and on the other hand I got “Well, Ophuls is a master and we should take our cues from him,” and “Who’s to say he didn’t want Martine Carol and even if he didn’t who’s to say he didn’t work miracles with her.” I didn’t know how to answer those questions. I was asked to give an example of a similar situation in a movie and I was like, well, The New World. I love The New World, I think it’s beautiful, but I think that Colin Farrell is awful. He’s awful in a way that’s unproductive for the movie. He’s anachronistic, and he’s anachronistic because he’s lazy. In the middle of this movie you’re seeing this incredible imagination of Jamestown and Pocahontas—and there’s some dubious stuff with the Indians and this improvisational dancing that they do, but it’s kept to a minimum—and suddenly there’s this sad-sack guy wandering around like he’s just been kicked out of a club in Los Angeles, speaking with an Irish accent with tattoos on—well before Captain Cook, which is when tattoos were introduced to the western world. “Oh no, it’s all a part of Malick’s plan,” blah blah blah. Why is it when a great director makes a movie everything has to be perfect?

And then why can’t you talk about acting? Well, the reason most people find it difficult is a) it’s really hard, and b) the way it’s usually described is divorced from the film. That is a very, very important point. Now Pauline Kael could write brilliantly about acting. But she was writing about the art of acting—not so much in conjunction with the cinema itself. She was also very good on certain directors that excited her who were almost giving their own performance as a director, like Altman, Bertolucci. Things started to get a little thornier with Scorsese and Raging Bull; she kind of got off the boat. It doesn’t have that kind of flash, it’s something else, it’s more meditative, dense, and difficult, and the acting sits somewhere else in the movie. I think that Manny was light years ahead of most of us in the way that he talked about acting. He was saying that the acting and the movie were working hand in hand. That sometimes when people are writing about acting what they’re really talking about is the directing, and sometimes when people are writing about directing they’re really talking about acting. And to know how the visual style of the movie is informed by the actor, by the physical makeup of the actor, by how they look within the frame—not just they way they’re lit by the director—but also by what they bring, what their presence is.

The director who really took that the furthest was Cassavetes, who took gesture, movement, and emotion and worked it as a sculptor working in clay. To a certain extent Kazan did it, but Cassavetes made it all of the movie. That’s his mise-en-scène. With Manny he was thinking more like an artist, like a director. If you were to talk to almost any director and say to them, “Well, the actor isn’t very important, it’s all about the mise-en-scène,” they’d laugh you off the set. For them, the actor is everything. It’s all about the actors. They’re the ones who are out there working with them, earning their trust, etc.

RS: Unless you’re George Lucas.

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KJ: Yes, not for George Lucas. Who can take somebody’s head and transplant it onto somebody else’s body, or whatever. Or Béla Tarr, for another example. But by writing about acting from inside the movie rather than saying, “the acting was good,” or “the cinematography was good,” what he was able to do was break down barriers between different kinds of acting. So that he was able to see the beauty of Olivier in The Entertainer while also seeing the beauty of Nardine Nardier in Mouchette or Hanna Schygulla in The Merchant of Four Seasons or Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman. On top of that, he was also able to see how people around the edges of the movie added a lot of energy. When you’re watching Casablanca it is the Bogart and Bergman show but it’s also the Leonid Kinskey show, the Marcel Dalio show, the whoever happens to be in the frame show, Claude Rains, etc. etc. This was an area that nobody else was interested in, and he really understood it.

RS: It seems that nobody’s interested in it now, either.

KJ: I don’t think that most people are comfortable talking about acting.

RS: Is it because none of us feel that we have any mastery over it? Do we, or should we, feel that we need mastery in order to talk?

KJ: Well, the world that you and I are addressing when we say “we” is the world of cinephilia and let’s say the auteurist world. That’s always been a great adventure for me, looking at the work of a director. But there’s also the individual film, and the individual moment. It is true, it’s easy to look at a movie like The Fearmakers by Jacques Tourneur and see the beauty of the frame and the lighting, which was really important to him, the tone, etc. But there’s not that kind of work that’s done with the actors, and there’s not that kind of work that’s done with the script, which makes Out of the Past a great movie or I Walked With a Zombie a different kind of great movie, and makes The Fearmakers not such a great movie. I also think there’s a nervousness about acting, which came up during this disagreement I had with these guys. A nervousness that if we start talking too much about acting we’re going to get back to the days of the director disappearing on the value scale, etc. I don’t understand how that could happen, but maybe it’s possible. But if you talk about Viggo Mortensen and what he brings to Eastern Promises, you’re not slighting Cronenberg, you’re actually going deeper into Cronenberg because that’s something that he’s devoted a lot of time to. If it were another actor it would be a completely different movie. You couldn’t put Ed Harris in that part and get the same movie. Or Jean-Claude Van Damme. That’s why this stuff about Lola Montes seems so crazy. It’s a movie where the mise-en-scène is so spectacular and noticeable, but perhaps the reason it’s so spectacular and noticeable is because it’s meant partially to cover up a void in the center.

I also think that people make the mistake when they talk about acting, and this is something that Manny never did, of talking about iconography—that happens a lot. Or talking about the character—that happens a lot too. Or talking about the career of the actor. Like, “What a bold, brilliant new step this is for Denzel Washington, to be playing a gangster.” So what? Who cares? What does Denzel Washington bring to the role and does he dissolve a lot of that self-importance that he brings to other parts, and does he work from or against his stature, which is inescapable in his other movies? These are the questions to ask. But instead you get a lot of, “He played this role, and then he built on it with this role.” No, he didn’t. He did something else.

RS: Sidelong to the idea of appreciating the film or defining the film through the actor, Farber also, when he didn’t enjoy the film as a whole, championed those who upset the apple cart, those who worked against the film from within.

KJ: Of course, he was always doing that. That was just a part of who he was. But he acknowledged it. The first time I met him, when I interviewed him for Film Comment and asked about his Agee piece, he said, “Well, everyone seemed so worshipful of Agee at that point and it seemed so slumberous and I just wanted to reverse it.” And he and Agee were really good friends, but it was the same thing that drove him to become a carpenter instead of joining the WPA. He just wanted to do the thing that everyone else wasn’t doing.

Regarding Agee, he was so close to him and I think at the end of his life he wanted to say warm things about him and didn’t want to be known as the guy who wrote the one negative piece about him. Now Agee was an incredibly beautiful writer. But as a critic you’re reading a really good writer who worked for a while as a critic. And you’re reading a critic who spent a lot of time talking about the movie that should have been made rather than the one that was. That annoyed me even when I was a kid. I don’t have that high an opinion of Agee’s criticism. He was just a force, a guy who knew a lot of people, who was a great friend, a great talker, a great person to spend time with, and he really, really loved movies. And that’s something that Manny wanted to get across. And he does get it across in that piece about Agee. It’s not a piece where you think it’s a damnation of James Agee, it’s a description. Sometimes the description is couched in negative terms, but it’s a description and an accurate one.

RS: That’s actually the next thing I wanted to get to: Manny Farber’s powers of description. We can all be impatient with critics who describe too much, certainly critics that describe plot too much, and yet Farber had a very singular way of diving into something and describing it. Few other critics have worked to that detail, moving second by second, concerning himself with orientation and spatial relations.

KJ: And also finding the right word—having the right word sit the right way in the sentence. The last time I saw him he was pretty tired. It was about a week before he died. He and Jean-Pierre Gorin and Patricia and I were sitting around the table, and I was saying how I’d been to the Turner show at the Met about five times, and I was talking about “The Battle of Trafalgar.” Manny’s hearing wasn’t so good, and he was finding it really hard to concentrate. But he suddenly said about Turner, “He had about eight arms.” Now Manny always thought that I was too complimentary towards him—but he’s absolutely right. That’s the way it feels when you’re looking at Turner, and for a very particular reason. The compositions are so complex, the sense of space is so complex, the color is incredibly complex, and the sense of light—it’s beyond my comprehension that anybody could get that on a canvas. Because your attention is constantly hovering between the light and what the light is falling on, and so paying attention to all those different things is like listening to Bud Powell play the piano, it’s the same thing. It does indeed feel like he had about eight arms.

One time we were walking through his retrospective—I wrote about this in Sight and Sound—and he was talking about his painting but also about his writing and he said, “I try to get myself out of it as much as possible so that the object itself takes on a kind of religious awe.” He was not talking about organized religion, he just meant that it takes on that spiritual awe so that you’re seeing the object itself shorn of the ego of the writer. You’re in the presence of something. And you feel the presence of something. And that’s what his paintings are like. That’s where the strange physics and geography of the paintings come into play. Nothing is seen from the same perspective. You’re seeing objects that are apparently scattered, but you don’t know if they’re scattered or being seen actively, constantly, shot from one or many perspectives. It seems to be done on a table-top but not really. And you’re seeing cherry pits, leaves, flowers, notes, and their presence is startling. And it’s the same thing when he’s writing about Cary Grant or Robert De Niro or Jeanne Dielman or Anthony Mann. What he’s doing is starting within the object. Starting in conversation with the object and looking at it so much that he’s giving you the object as it would describe itself. That’s the intent. How often does he succeed? I would say that’s immaterial. Just the fact the he’s even in that territory is something. And it’s a quality that I don’t think is sufficiently recognized or appreciated in his work.

RS: The piece in Cinemascope that Jean-Pierre Gorin wrote about Farber’s painting dispels the notion that he stopped writing to start painting, and you’ve said similar things yourself. Did he express frustration about writing, or were these just different ways of getting at these things that he most cared about?

KJ: He was writing, painting, and teaching, and I think at a certain point something had to give. He and Patricia were going to write a book, but they just got to the point where they had done that. The physical act of writing was tough. This was pre-computer and more importantly pre-DVD and pre-tape even, so that going back and looking at something over and over again was difficult. There were things they always wanted to go back and do, like Van Gogh by Pialat, both of them really loved that film. And Hou Hsiao-hsien and maybe Kiarostami—both gave them that urge. But as he said in that interview for Film Comment, the carpentry, the writing, the painting, the teaching, the brutal fact is that they’re all the same thing. I never took one of his classes, but I know enough from looking over the notes and from talking to people that they were Manny Farber productions. It’s not like he changed himself into a teacher—he went and taught in the same way that he painted and wrote. It has to do with, as you mentioned, that sense of description, and that sense of description comes from, as he would say, the desire to get it right.

RS: What film in the program are you excited about seeing as it relates to Farber?
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KJ: It’s exciting to look at Griffith again through his eyes. At his genius with volume and space. It was really exciting to go back and look at Wavelength again. It’s fifteen years more exciting than it was the last time. It’s an absolute thing of beauty, a real thriller. But I also looked at Me and My Gal again, and The Roaring Twenties. On Dangerous Ground I watch about once a year—for me it’s one of the great American films. The fact that it’s slightly flawed makes me love it even more. Voyage to Italy I also look at frequently. To look at them again in this context is very exciting. You also can’t look at Not Reconciled by the Straubs enough. There’s something about the way that the Straubs are discussed that Manny and Patricia wipe out when they go into it. Patricia in particular was really excited visually by the Straubs and also by Fassbinder. The way that Manny and Patricia worked together, the way that their energies melded and they conversed with each other and built on each other’s ideas—in a way you see something very similar happening with the Straubs’ films.

RS: Their relationship seems so remarkable—each being a force on their own and then to finding a partner with whom they create and communicate.

KJ: It’s incredible. I think that collaboration was always exciting for Manny. His piece on Preston Sturges in Negative Space was written with his friend Willard Poster. He often referred to Jean-Pierre as his twin brain as a teacher. Whenever you were around him he never spoke from the viewpoint of the master speaking to the pupil. When you talked to him you were conversing, talking with him, working something out together. That was utterly unique about him.

RS: If you tried to do that he would deflect it?

KJ: I’m not sure, because I never tried. We became close friends pretty quickly, and we probably wouldn’t have if I had been on my knees. He and Patricia went through a lot together, they lived a pretty rough existence for a while before he was invited out to California to teach. But that whole time they had their solidarity, they were collaborating in life as a couple but also as close collaborators in art. They would talk about each other’s work and paint side-by-side in the studio. When they moved to California they eventually built their own separate studios, but that’s her garden in his paintings, and her paintings are a complete other universe, just as beautiful as his, and they deserve to be better known. When you read their writing you can see the links that both of them have with the aesthetic experience, with films. It’s an incredible thing, a rare thing.

RS: Is she coming out for the program?

KJ: Yes, she is, but she’s not going to be standing up and speaking or anything. She just wanted to see the movies. She hasn’t seen them in a while

RS: This should have been the first question but I’ll make it one of the last. You first met Manny on assignment for Film Comment, right?

KJ: Yeah, it was about nine years ago. I really knew him at the end of his life. It was strange because I did write him a letter once, and I never heard back but I didn’t think anything of it. So when Richard Jameson asked me to do this, he said, “They’re really looking forward to meeting you.” I was like, you’ve got to be kidding. In the instant it felt like I was going to meet Tolstoy or something. But that was quickly dispelled. He always read my writing and talked to me about it, and about how hard it is for the critic to combat the build-up. That’s something he tried to combat in his own writing, which was a holdover from reading sportswriting in the Twenties. You’ve always got to build up the star. He felt like he did too much of that, which is very strange if you know his writing through Negative Space—it doesn’t feel that way. It’s part of the reason why he was reacting against Agee, rightfully, for what he wrote about Olivier and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Once he said to me, “I just read this piece you wrote about Lost in Translation—is it really that good?” I was like, well, it’s good. And while he was very admiring of my writing, which meant a lot to me, he also said, “They can’t all be that good. You have to remember that. You have to be brutal about that.” It’s something that had an effect on me, something I’d already been thinking about, and it crystallized while talking it over with him. He was always interested. “What have you seen? I think you nailed this, I think you missed this.” Always just going back and wanting to talk through things. Even when his energy was slowly dwindling away he was up for more. And that’s rare too.

RS: Do you think your writing is more or less like Farber’s over time?

KJ: When I was younger I certainly went through a moment where, in certain ways, without thinking about it, I was working with his relationship to language. But that’s his relationship to language, and it takes time to find one’s own relationship to language if you’re committed to doing it. And the best place to start is always to work from the people you admire. For me, it’s my thinking. I’ve been reading him very carefully since I was fifteen years old. He struck a chord with me when I was young, and continued to strike the chord and struck other chords deeper as I got older. There are other people whose thinking has meant a lot to me, like Brian Eno and Richard Rorty. For me, they’re all of a piece. Robert Walsh, who edited the Da Capo edition of Negative Space, we discovered that we share virtually the same taste. He’s a friend of Brian Eno, he’s read Rorty very carefully. It’s not a coincidence that we came together through Manny and share those tastes, because there’s an intellectual backbone in Manny’s writing that isn’t necessarily there for other critics. You can say it about André Bazin, to a certain extent you can say it about Serge Daney. I think you can say it about Andrew Sarris’s writing—it’s a different approach. It’s rare. You can’t say it about Agee’s writing. There’s an aesthetic, moral, intellectual backbone to Manny’s writing, a spine, and it’s assembled over a lifetime, and it’s the result of a sensibility that’s constantly in motion and engaged in the adventure of perception. These are things that mean a lot to me, and they’ve made their way into my writing in one way or another, and I can’t be the judge of it.

RS: Engaged in the adventure of perception . . . that’s really lovely.

KJ: It fits, because it is an adventure and he conducted it as an adventure. The last time he was here, the last time he traveled, he was pretty out of it, he was disoriented, and we took him to the hospital. It turned out that he had pneumonia and we didn’t know it at the time. When he was released from the hospital and before he went to the airport I waited with him in the car while the others were getting some things ready. He was just sitting there, and he didn’t have the energy to speak, and wasn’t really moving and just seemed out of it. Then this woman walked by in a nurse’s uniform, and he caught her out of the corner of his eye. And he said, “Interesting woman, she’s got a funny gait.” I looked and sure enough she had this odd kind of walk. And for him, that was everything. It was always like that. Always wanting to talk more—what else, what else? He didn’t want the adventure to stop. And it didn’t.

Top: Corot's Italian Women; Manny Farber, 1996