20th century Painter
(February 20, 1917–August 18, 2008)
Manny Farber, Iconoclastic Film Critic and Artist, Dies at 91
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Manny Farber, a painter whose spiky, impassioned film criticism waged war against sacred cows like Orson Welles and elevated American genre-movie directors like Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller to the Hollywood pantheon, died on Monday at his home in Leucadia, Calif. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a friend and colleague at the University of California at San Diego.
Mr. Farber, a quirky prose stylist with a barbed lance, responded to film viscerally. He despised what he called the “art-infected” films of cinematic greats like Welles and Alfred Hitchcock — “the water-buffaloes of film art,” he once called them — preferring the work of genre directors like Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman, who transformed pulp material and genre conventions into “private runways to the truth.”
In a famous essay for Film Culture magazine in 1962, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” he lambasted the portentous, meaning-laden cinema of Welles and his progeny and praised the freewheeling, instinctive work of underrated directors of crime, western and horror films.
“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,” Mr. Farber wrote.
In his view, “Citizen Kane” ran a distant second, if that, to “The Curse of the Cat People” or “Winchester ’73.”
Emanuel Farber was born in 1917 Douglas, Ariz., near the Mexican border, where his father ran a dry-goods store. His two brothers became psychoanalysts, and one of them, Leslie H. Farber, gained fame as an author.
He enrolled first in the University of California at Berkeley, then transferred to Stanford, and finally studied painting at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design.
After college, instead of plunging into an art career, he traveled east to live with Leslie near Washington and became a carpenter; he moved to New York in 1942 to pursue a career as a painter and critic.
He started out as an Abstract Expressionist and in the 1960s produced works on shaped, unframed Kraft paper. In the 1970s he developed an idiosyncratic style of still life. Often depicted from a bird’s-eye view, it incorporated pop objects like candy bars or alluded to scenes from his favorite films.
Retrospectives of his work were held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 1985 and at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2003.
Mr. Farber’s film criticism appeared in a bewildering variety of publications. In 1942 he succeeded Otis Ferguson as film critic for The New Republic, and in the late 1940s he became the film critic for The Nation, succeeding James Agee. He later wrote on film for Commentary, Artforum, Film Culture, Film Comment and the girlie magazine Cavalier.
“He was up there in the Clement Greenberg category as a critic, but operating on a wavelength so unusual that he was hard to peg, which is how he wanted it,” said Kent Jones, the associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “He understood film in a very immediate way — he could see the plasticity of it, the beauty of film in motion, in a way no one else could.” In 1970, Mr. Farber began teaching film at the University of California at San Diego, from which he retired in 1987. His teaching methods were unorthodox. As he talked, he showed snippets of film, sometimes with the sound off and sometimes run backward through the projector.
Later in his career he began writing his film criticism in collaboration with his wife, Patricia Patterson, also an artist. She survives him, along with his daughter, Amanda Farber of San Diego, and a grandson. His first two marriages ended in divorce.
Although he initially favored American directors, Mr. Farber embraced the work of Europeans like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. His last piece of film criticism, for Film Comment in 1977, was on the Belgian director Chantal Akerman.
A sampling of his film criticism appeared in “Negative Space,” first published in 1971; in 1998, Da Capo Press published an expanded version of the book.