Manny Farber, painter's painter, critic's critic and man's man, passed away on Monday at the age of 91, leaving behind a wife, daughter, grandson, many canvases and an influential collection of movie criticism, "Negative Space."
With his Mojave of a forehead and cactus-flower ears, Manny (I can call him that: he was my teacher, I was his teaching assistant) resembled a cross between Walter Matthau and Elmer Fudd and was as engaging as both. A onetime football player nicknamed "snake hips" for the way he eluded tackles, the guy born in the Arizona bordertown of Douglas attended Berkeley High (two years ahead of Pauline Kael), the University of California and Stanford before making his way East.
During the '40s and '50s his jazzy movie commentaries were published in The Nation, The New Republic and Commentary. Wordplayful and alert to form, these essays struck readers attuned to Swing as a kind of literary Be-bop. He sang of undersung filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Don Siegel at the same time fledgling French critics Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were doing same in Cahiers du Cinema. Manny, who must have been born with an internal seismograph that made him particularly sensitive to cultural quakes and fault lines, was unusually alert to a film's rhythms and visual compositions -- qualities that few others had ever noted. No surprise that initially he was drawn to films that had the driving movements and physical clashes that one might see on the gridiron. It was Manny who coined the term "underground films." In 1957.
When he wasn't at the movies or writing about them, he was painting or "carpentering," as he put it in a characteristic verbification. (He boasted that he personally built most of Levittown.) By the '60s his lyrical abstractions -- chiffon-sheer mists of color on Kraft paper -- had the layers and textures of his movie writing in the heady Commentary and groiny Cavalier, a girlie mag.
When he arrived in 1971 at the University of California, San Diego to teach a course called "A Hard Look at the Movies" he stunned students (I among the freshmen) with his idiosyncratic lectures, an in-the-moment form of performance art surreal and penetrating as a Warner Brothers cartoon. To make us look, really look, at the medium, he ran films backwards, forwards, with and without sound. Often as he deconstructed an individual frame, the projector lamp would burn and melt the celluloid. We were dry sponges soaking up the ocean of films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Preston Sturges, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Raoul Walsh. Manny influenced his students (one of whom, Rex Pickett, went on to direct an Oscar-winning short and write the novel on which "Sideways" was based) and, from Duncan Shepherd to Jim Hoberman to Jonathan Rosenbaum, a generation of movie critics and art critics. (Duncan's appreciation of Manny's pedagogy and pep says it all.)
Manny's writing and painting informed and enriched each other. When representation -- in the form of scribbled lecture notes and cheap candy he used to eat in the studio -- crept back into (and onto) his canvases, it indicated the way the art world was heading. Abstraction was the palate-cleanser, representation re-introduced the flavors of story and narrative that would be tasted as though for the first time.
So many Manecdotes, as his teaching assistants used to call Manny stories. Here's one. The place: New York. The time: 1980. I had taken Manny to a screening of a limp Australian film at the Rizzoli Screening Room on Fifth Avenue. In search of dinner, we strolled down the avenue, past Sak's and its fabled windows. As we talked about criticism (and how the Australian film defied it) Manny did not fail to notice the mannequins and the backdrops. Shoulder-padded women's clothes with inverted-pyramid silhouettes (like Russian-modernist geometry) in front of what looked like Kenneth Noland striped paintings, retro man-in-the-grey-flannel suit menswear in front of Frank Stella-like chevrons. He stopped and said, "You know, I lived through Russian constructivism, '50s conservatism and '60s abstraction sequentially. Now I'm reliving it all at once." He paused, cradling forehead in hand. "Say," he asked, "Did I just define postmodernism?"