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"Farber on Film" -- Manny being Manny


I have been reading "Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber," edited by Robert Polito (also contributing an illuminating introduction), which just came out yesterday. Farber is best known for his seminal collection of film essays "Negative Space," but I am finding this more rewarding. Partly because the reviews included are as expected funny, tough, exuberant and insightful, rivaling those of Farber's contemporary and friend, the legendary James Agee. But it's also because Polito's book gathers all of Farber's film writing, from 1942 to 1977 from a variety of publications including  "The Nation" and "The New Republic," and organizes them chronologically. That way he shows the development of Farber's aesthetics, week by week and film by film, over four decades. And it also allows the reader to see old classic movies again, as if for the first time, and through the eyes of one of our best critics.

Some of his responses to films that have since become canonical are refreshingly contrarian.

On "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)

"Probably ‘Mrs. Miniver' will be called the best picture of 1942. It has all the things that win Academy Awards. The ‘The Great Ziegfeld' and ‘GWTW' were miles long and Miniver is so long it gets lost. Also it has Morality. So it is in the way of an epic and I can't remember any epic that didn't win something, or why do they make them? But most of all this picture is not very good and was made by MGM and that clinches the argument, because the publicity department at Metro has already started the campaign."

Good call, Manny: "Mrs. Miniver" did indeed win six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. Perhaps more remarkably Farber has described the award-winning formula that has always worked in Hollywood: substitute almost any of the Oscar winners in the seven decades since he wrote that and it will read just as true.

Maybe that's what I find so bracing and depressing about this book. All the things Farber declaims against, all the folly, bad taste, bad faith, wrongheadedness, arrogance, self-righteous ignorance, pretentiousness and vanity are exactly the same today. Like this, written in 1944:

"Among movie-goers there is a sect whose members prefix all discussions of films with the statement: "I only go to the movies to be entertained.' The statement implies that the rest of us, who are serious about films, go to them as we would to castor oil. Any appreciation of art is a satisfaction of an emotional need and therefore a pleasure; the people who go to the movies just to be entertained are not referring to this pleasure but are implying that the movies aren't art and if taken at all ought to be taken frivolously, and that those who do think the movies are an art go to them in a vain pursuit of nonexistent esthetic values. All theimplications of their statement seem to me snobbish and silly.

"The main trouble with their proposition is that it actually supposes that a person can consciously leave all of his experience of life and his desire for new experiences behind him when he goes to the movies, and can present to the movie a kind of third-rate part of himself interested only in being diverted by what he believes are third-rate representations of life..."

Let's face it, Manny -- you just hate everything.

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