Monday, August 18, 2008

Film critic and artist Manny Farber R.I.P.

The great film critic and artist Manny Farber, passed away last night at age 91. Passed onto us and posted below, from BlogDance, as a tribute to Manny, part of his classic essay "Termite Art vs. White Elephant Art"

"Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.

"An exemplar of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of the work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is Fran├žois Truffaut. Shoot The Piano Player and Jules Et Jim, two ratchety perpetual-motion machines devised by a French Rube Goldberg [leave behind] the bladelike journalism of The 400 Blows.

"The common quality or defect which unites apparently divergent artists like Antonioni, Truffaut, [Tony] Richardson, is fear, a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film. Coupled with their storage vaults of self-awareness and knowledge of film history, this fear produces an incessant wakefulness....

"Good work usually arises where the creators...seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than
the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

"[John Wayne in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance] is a 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 overactor (Lee Marvin). Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for
rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sunset behind them.

[Kurosawa's Ikiru] sums up much of what a termite art aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin."

There's also a cool reminiscence at Glenn Kenny's blog Some Came Running.

What do you think, Termite Art or White Elephant Art, which one's for you, who do you think belongs in which category?


mr. pink said...

There's plenty of White Elephant Art I love (starting with Truffaut, and the sublime Two English Girls may be a hybrid of both). But it dominates the movies so thoroughly now that stuff like the "mumblecore" movies (which might be called Larva Art) gleams by comparison just because it doesn't gleam. I miss the unpretentious but surprising genre movies Farber cites, where all the hard edges of human behavior haven't been sanded away.

Negative Space is an amazing book. I'd love to see a touring retrospective of Farber's art.

Singapore Sling said...

J. Hoberman has a great piece today in the Voice: