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.