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Night, Termite

Manny Farber, defender of cinephilia against the cinephiles

By Spencer Parsons, Fri., Aug. 29, 2008

Night, Termite

"[Sam] Fuller's scripts are grotesque jobs that might have been written by the bus driver in The Honeymooners," writes painter and critic Manny Farber in a laudatory piece from 1969. A few lines later, describing a scene from Pickup on South Street, he enthuses, "Bresson in his own Pickpocket film doesn't get close to the directness or the freshness." Bresson, by the way, rates as another of his favorites. "What's good about his films," Farber goes on, "is lovable; the daring, uninhibited use of semidocumentary techniques that save the movie from Fuller's mind, an unthinking morass at best. Against so many insane scenes ... there is a straight technique that seems all movie, with no tie-ins to other media."

It's beyond tough love, this brutal cinephilia of Farber's. We've been missing it terribly since he returned his full artistic attention to painting in the late 1970s, and now he's gone for good, dead as of two Mondays ago, aged 91. Farber had no use for masterpieces, wouldn't have been caught dead announcing an "instant classic," and however intoxicating his prose, little of it scans well into blurbage. Imagine a Howard Hawks Blu-ray box screaming, "a connections business involving people, plots, and eight-inch hat brims." Then picture the 10 or 15 of us grownup Ralph Wiggums who would enthusiastically pony up on that basis.

Farber's frankly macho, pugilistic style could be cruel and testy with films, filmmakers, and performers he loved (and get out of the way if he didn't love) but had everything to do with the way his insatiable intelligence dug into a whole movie as moment-by-moment, accumulating experience, scratching at its every feint, contradiction, and curlicue to unearth all its pleasures, whether intentional, unintentional, or unknowable. Championing what he called "termite art" (having no other object than "eating away the immediate boundaries of ... art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement") over "white elephant art" ("a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciocity"), Farber prized the direct recording of gesture that reveals people over the stylistic coups that announce a director. He'd freely call out all manner of attitudinizing, snobbery, and even racism (see the Fuller article mentioned above) in the films he admired, preferring a human engagement with inanity or insanity to any form of politeness or correctness in art or apologetics in criticism.

In a typically explosive 1966 piece titled "The Subverters," Farber penned not only the most direct and convincing broadside against auteurism that I could imagine but offered perhaps the most rewarding and exciting lens for looking at all movies, good and bad, focusing on the subversive nature of the movie experience, "the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film." Yet it would be a mistake to peg Farber as a connoisseur of camp or a rescuer of junk-culture. Farber admirably, irreverently refused to be in awe of cinema, but neither did he pose himself as superior. After all, how can anyone be superior to an experience?  

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