- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010


Edited by Robert Polito

The Library of America, $40, 824 pages


There was a Washington, D.C., phase in the life of Manny Farber, the esteemed movie critic and late-blossoming painter who died in 2008 at the age of 91. Between 1939 and early 1942, he lived in the city, where his elder brother Leslie was a psychiatric resident at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Arriving at the age of 22, the younger Farber worked as a carpenter’s apprentice. Among the more beguiling biographical tidbits mentioned by editor Robert Polito in his timeline to “Farber on Film,” a seemingly definitive collection of movie reviews and essays that date from 1942 to 1977: The subject’s work sites included Bethesda Naval Hospital and the dome of the Jefferson Memorial. Still vivid impressions of the city prompted a witty Farber outburst while reviewing the George Stevens romantic comedy “The More the Merrier” in a column of June 28, 1943, for the New Republic.

In the grip of a phenomenal parenthetical sentence, Farber wrote, “Anyone who has lived in Washington can tell you it is a joke on the human race (where government buildings are of a hugeness beyond comprehension, like the nebulae; where one stenographer is known to have moved three times in six weeks in a mistaken search for privacy; where millions enter the city daily; and the city, to accommodate them, has the millions already there move over a little bit - it is beyond the worst anxiety dream of a sardine before reaching its can).”

In retrospect, it seems a pity that Farber never resorted to “Souvenirs of Washington” as a theme in one of his playfully bristling and richly illustrated still lifes. They began to accumulate in the 1980s after he abandoned years of far less distinctive and evocative effort as an abstract expressionist. I’d like to have seen a juxtaposition in which he opened a can of sardines adjacent to the Jefferson Memorial.

I’d also be happier if he liked “The More the Merrier” more at first sight than he did. After all, it’s mellowed admirably as a humorous memento of the World War II home front. A treasure trove of snap judgments and reconsiderations, “Farber on Film” is the third volume devoted to movie criticism in the Library of America series. It follows a panoramic anthology called “American Movie Critics” and a slightly revised and expanded reprint of James Agee’s reviews and appreciations, originally published posthumously in 1958 as the first volume of “Agee on Film.”

The generously expanded Farber book could prove invaluable (despite a tomelike heft that has already cracked the front cover of my review copy) to moviegoers of a certain age and disposition. It restores a large [amount] of previously uncollected journalism, extending from 1942 to 1953. Later years were covered in a Farber volume titled “Negative Space,” which got an expansion and [reprint] of its own in 1998. The “lost” body of work, accounting for about 60 percent of the new collection, facilitates comparisons between Agee and Farber in the period when they were friends and colleagues. It makes sense having both books within reach when you’re time-traveling with Turner Classic Movies.

Manny Farber began reviewing at the New Republic in March of 1942 and remained there through 1946. Agee began reviewing at the Nation at the end of 1942 and quit the post in late summer of 1948. Curiously, Farber resumed movie criticism at the Nation in 1949 and sustained this gig through 1953. Fudging a tad, editor Polito ascribes his New Republic years to 1942 to 1947. Slight problem: There is only one column in 1947, a January catch-up pan of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a Christmas release packaged with a friendly notice for the Australian import “The Overlanders.”

This fudge-factor persists with the Nation tenure, which promises a chronicle from 1949 to 1954; in fact, the column wraps with a January 1954 entry that recaps the previous year.

When Farber began a third go-around as a movie critic, he was less wedded to the beat. He re-emerged as a discursive, argumentative essayist. Some enduring lines of argument emerged from these pieces, particularly during an appreciation of Preston Sturges and a 1962 polemic for Film Culture titled “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art.” The latter is considered the classic, idiosyncratic Farber defense of unpretentious, honestly banal and observant filmmaking against prestige production, which for him was almost invariably too grandiose to be tolerated.

There’s a more plain-spoken voice in the early criticism. Right off the bat, Farber seems to be saying useful and sensible things at the New Republic: “For esthetes there is nothing so much fun as kicking the movies around” or “The very boundaries of an art produce its most basic advantages” or “It used to be that characters were inherently funny, now they just say funny things.”

The later, pedantic-polemical Farber can wander off into incoherence, a conspicuous stumbling block in a quarrelsome essay titled “Hard-Sell Cinema.” If you stick it out, you’ll encounter a sentence [that] finds him coining the term “mean-spirited ‘liberalism,’ ” while mocking the typical stance of smugly condescending filmmakers when portraying ordinary people. For some reason, this catchy phrase is still ahead of its time.

Farber’s particular down-to-earth bias had a belated but salubrious influence on his painting style, which reflects something of the “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss-ant” (an inimitable Farber coinage) methodology he favored. “Tunneling” was also a favorite metaphor, indicating a desire to burrow deeply into surroundings and experience. Better that in his estimation than aspiring toward masterpieces and betraying the vanity behind your pretensions.

From the start, Farber’s movie reviews are strong on cataloguing illustrative details and cavalier about supplying a “rounded” impression. He may or may not touch base with homely reviewing obligations: what’s it called, who’s in it, what’s it about, what’s to be made of it?

Like all critics, he can be detected contradicting himself, blowing hot and cold about numerous filmmakers and performers. An obvious advantage of having the uncollected reviews back in sight is that one is reminded of the ongoing, week-to-week or month-to-month interaction between outspoken reviewer and Hollywood product flow. Part of the kick of rediscovering vintage opinions, welcome or deflating, is that the movies being evaluated become new again. They’ve yet to acquire the eventual mellowness of age and consensus reputation.

Farber had a cranky, maverick, reactionary side that may be unwelcome to some latecomers, unprepared for brushoffs of such classics as “Citizen Kane,” “To Be or Not To Be,” “Casablanca,” “The African Queen,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Some Like It Hot.” Never drawn to Billy Wilder, Farber observed “no laughs at all” in the hit farce of 1959.

My favorite discovery is that the early Farber was a pioneering spoiler, capable of summarizing an entire movie plot in an opening paragraph that also blows the denouement. He does this with a concise vengeance at the expense of Michael Curtiz’s movie version of “Mildred Pierce.” Usually hard on Curtiz, the critic found it convenient to reverse direction years later while taking Tony Richardson to task for the film version of “Look Back in Anger.” Seemingly out of nowhere, Farber invokes “the underrated Michael Curtiz.” It’s as if the prodigal father had been forgiven by an absent-minded son.

Gary Arnold was the senior movie critic of The Washington Times from 1989 to 2005.

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