Boo-Yah!

Manny Farber’s not just my favorite film critic, he’s one of my favorite writers period. His style tickles the shit out of me, and I do mean just his style: the man could’ve written all those sentences about dynamic interest rate models and I’d still be hypnotized by their measured clankiness, vertical drops and sudden switchbacks. (I don’t even mind those dodgy double-edged sentences—anathema to some—which, depending on the angle you’re holding the book at, can look like either a compliment or a mortal insult.) But of course it was film that he wrote about, The strength of his descriptive powers guided me to a slew of movies I might never have picked up otherwise, like The Lineup and The Lusty Men and The Roaring Twenties, and if the price of experiencing gems like these is giving up the occasional 90 minutes for a Rawhide or a Little Big Horn, well, I can handle that. He also made me look at movies harder than I ever had by effortlessly picking out visual patterns such as the horizontal fanning-out of men and horses repeated throughout The Wild Bunch. If one of Kael’s strengths was dragging ideas that lie dormant in most people’s minds into the light of day, Farber specialized in perceptions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else in the world, using a personalized lexicon that shaved and curled the normal meaning of words, and regrouped them under the rules of his peculiar syntax, making them come out as hard and compressed as a Modernist poem. Like Kael he was a master at describing how actors appeared on the screen, but he went further, detecting in them modes of expression that the actors themselves could scarcely have intended:

One of the good termite performances (John Wayne’s bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief treat is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance….Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging over-actor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting—a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.

This new collection is more than the addition of a mere handful of pieces à la the recent-ish Warshow and Agee reissues—it’s a legitimate Big Deal, approximately twice the 460 some-odd pages of the Da Capo edition of Negative Space, allowing it to double as a bludgeon capable of beating Harry Knowles half to death. Nor is it just a piling on of juvenilia, junk, and rehashes: there are new, or rather unfamiliar, thoughts on Welles, Hitchcock, Hawks, & Co., major essays on the war film, noir, et cetera, plus hundreds of regular reviews containing no end of surprises. (He was lukewarm towards Rio Bravo, and Hail the Conquering Hero caused him to turn on much of what he’d previously liked in Sturges.) I’ll still be clutching my copy of Negative Space on my deathbed, though (and thanks to that durable binding I expect to be able to), simply because I spent so many happy and productive hours with it. My one regret about it has nothing to do with Farber per se: that haunting shot of Karen Morley never appears in the actual Scarface. What the hell was Hawks thinking?

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