Manny Farber, who died August 18 at 91, was a critic who helped establish mainstream American filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, and even animation guru Chuck Jones, as legitimate subjects for serious artistic criticism.
Farber was also an accomplished fine artist and art teacher with five decades of solo and group shows and multiple grant awards to his credit. His canvases are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In the 1940's American film criticism was generally more a matter of calendar listings and thinly veiled industry bible PR than honest and passionate evaluation. Inspired by the writing of the New Republic's Otis Ferguson and a handful of others, Farber began writing his own movie column for the New Republic. Along with another TNR contributor, James Agee, Farber became an imaginative and incisive defender, and also scourge, of the commercially popular mainstream filmmaking of the day. Much of what he championed — from Humphrey Bogart to Bugs Bunny — has since been elevated to the American pop-culture pantheon.
In his 1943 essay entitled "Short and Happy," Farber dared to challenge the prevailing critical orthodoxy by suggesting that the cartoons coming out of Warner Bros. now-fabled animation studio were not only vastly superior to the work of the Disney Studios but were some of the best popular film art in existence. Farber wrote that Warner Bros. carton directors such as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones used "the whole sphere of man's emotion and behavior simply as a butt for humor, no matter what it leads to."
Born in 1917 in Douglas, Ariz., a copper town on the Mexico border, Manny Farber was the son of Jewish storekeepers. Football led him first to the University of California at Berkley and then Stanford where he studied drawing and fine art. After stints at various art schools, Farber settled in New York.
He left the New Republic in the late 1940s, and later wrote for Time magazine and then the Nation, the New Leader, and Film Culture. Every place he landed, Farber beat the drum on behalf of B-movie directors including Sam Fuller and Don Siegel, as well as figures now accepted as neglected geniuses of American film such as Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges.
Farber's style was drolly impatient, culturally far-reaching, and addictively conversational. In it, the reader sensed a mind that loved film-going enough to hold filmmakers accountable for their efforts with the same elevated combination of annoyance and appreciation formerly only accorded to playwrights, classical and jazz musicians, and fine artists. His 1957 essay "Underground Films" applied the term not to experimental short works but to what Farber called "the endless flow of interesting roughneck film passing through theaters from the depression onward." Genre films by Hawks, Siegel, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Val Lewton, and others mostly dismissed by mainstream critics of the day were, Farber wrote "the only films that show the tension of an individual intelligence" behind their creation. His 1962 essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" decried the lumbering pretension Farber felt was gutting worthwhile filmmaking, with special scorn heaped upon Michelangelo Antonioni and François Truffaut.
While writing criticism and painting, he supported himself for decades as a carpenter, and was a member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. He worked on big construction jobs up and down the East Coast, but eventually quit because the work interfered with his painting, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1978.
In 1967, Farber was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, and two years later joined the fine art faculty of the University of California at San Diego where he remained until his retirement in 1987. In 1998 an expanded edition of his seminal 1971 collection of film criticism, "Negative Space," was issued.
Though "Negative Space" was not a best seller in its day, the influence of the work of a writer that the late Susan Sontag declared "the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced." A bit more measured, Dwight McDonald declared that Farber was "an impossibly eccentric movie critic whose salvos have a disturbing tendency to land on target."
Farber continued to publish sporadically on film and art in Artforum and Film Comment, frequently in collaboration with his third wife, Patricia Patterson, and was an early admirer of Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Chantal Akerman. His painting often incorporated film themes including a series of portraits of favorite filmmakers including Preston Sturges and Anthony Mann.