Manny Farber, RIP


Manny Farber, who just died at age 91, was one of the most influential critics of the last century. He was an extremely opinionated writer, which means, naturally, that I had enormous disagreements with him; he denounced some great films and praised some poor ones, and at times his prose veered from the idiosyncratic to the incoherent. But that's not what was important about him. Farber gave a vocabulary to everyone eager to knock down those walls separating "high" culture from "low." In essays like "Underground Films" and "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" and in appreciations of filmmakers as diverse as Val Lewton and Don Siegel, he denounced overblown, self-satisfied Art-with-a-capital-A and celebrated well-crafted detritus:

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence,

so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it. The occasional newspaper column by a hard-work specialist caught up by an exciting event (Joe Alsop or Ted Lewis, during a presidential election), or a fireball technician reawakened during a pennant playoff that brings on stage his favorite villains (Dick Young); the TV production of The Iceman Cometh, with its great examples of slothful-buzzing acting by Myron McCormak, Jason Robards, et al.; the last few detective novels of Ross MacDonald and most of Raymond Chandler's ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing in the letters compiled years back in a slightly noticed book that is a fine running example of popular criticism; the TV debating of William Buckley, before he relinquished his tangential, counter-attacking skill and took to flying into propeller blades of issues, like James Meredith's Ole Miss-adventures.

This is all old hat now, of course, but such attitudes were liberating in the '40s, '50s, and '60s; they helped pave the way for a day when much of the intelligentsia assumes as a matter of course that a video game or a comic book might have more merit than a Merchant-Ivory picture. And Farber wasn't some philistine engaged in cheap reverse snobbery: He also championed some of the most challenging avant-garde efforts of the era. The man practiced what he preached, too—after years of writing for The New Republic, The New Leader, and other places where the spotlight of culture was very much in evidence, he…well, I'll let J. Hoberman tell the tale:

he signed on as the movie reviewer for a second-string strokebook, Cavalier. (According to Greg Ford, who helped Farber assemble his one anthology, Negative Space, Farber never bothered to save these pieces, which then had to be excavated from Times Square backdate magazine stores.)

And then he jumped to Artforum. These juxtapositions might not seem unusual in the Internet era, when roughly a third of you are reading this with a New Republic story open in one tab and a porn site up in another. You'll have to trust me when I tell you that this is not an ordinary career path.

Farber was also an acclaimed painter, a part of his life that eventually edged his criticism aside. I have to admit I thought he'd died long ago. I'm glad to hear he made it to 91.

NEXT: Friday Funnies

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  1. Wow, seems to me as if Manny was a real down to earth kinda of guy. RIP.


  2. How did u know i had a porn site open in the other tab?!!?!?

  3. Hell, just 10-15 years ago you could forget about something like Battlestar Galactica being raved about by critics, because it was (gasp) sci-fi, and therefore shit.

    I remember when Terminator came out and I was telling everyone it was great, the directing was great, Arnold did a really good job as a robot, etc. I got laughed at. Then, a little later, it was the best thing since sliced bread and Cameron was a genius.

    Yes, I realize I just did a “I knew it was great before everyone else” story. Except it’s true.

  4. Epi – pretty cool! 🙂

    That’s what a friend of mine calls the “Clash effect” – all of a sudden, Joe dies and everybody loved them and knows all of their songs

    Or think from Stripes right before Anita leaves Winger.

    Happy friday!

    Jesse – thanks for posting this!

  5. He sounds great and all, but he’s no Allen Vanneman

  6. Um, where’s the link to Cavalier?

  7. He sounds great and all, but he’s no Allen Vanneman

    HAHAHA, genius

  8. I thought so myself. But the final touch was misspelling my own name. “Ex ungue leonem,” as the saying goes.

  9. I’m somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of Farber until today. The breaking down of barriers between “high” and “low” culture-whatever such barriers may still exist, anyway-is part of what I’ve been trying to do at Reflections on Playboy.

    But in the spirit of tearing down the art-entertainment dichotomy, may I point out that it’s arguably cheap to refer to Cavalier as a “strokebook”? According to an article here at
    Titian’s 1538 painting The Venus of Urbino was essentially commissioned as wank material. But maybe it and Cavalier deserve to be spoken of more respectfully nonetheless.

  10. ‘Etz chaim he’ dude, as the ex used to say… if you will it, it is no dream. state of israel, dude.

    (i admit i had to look up that hebrew bit)

    also – you dirty, libertine libertarians! surfing porn at work WHILE also reading web sites about your godless philosophy? for shame!

  11. And then he jumped to Artforum. These juxtapositions might not seem unusual in the Internet era, when roughly a third of you are reading this with a New Republic story open in one tab and a porn site up in another. is a KEYLOGGER!!!!!

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