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In “Memoir of War,” Marguerite Duras Suffers Through the Nazi Occupation

In adapting the wartime diaries of Marguerite Duras, Emmanuel Finkiel captures the author’s oblique style, which filters events though a thick layer of ennui, and centers on women who deal with inflicted trauma by torturing themselves. When Duras’s episodic memoir was released in 1985, her U.S. publisher changed the French title La Douleur (a/k/a Pain) to a more generic The War: A Memoir. Writer-director Finkiel (Voyages) deals with both aspects, using voiceover narration and subjective visuals to express Duras’s anguished emotional state, and also presents a clear-eyed vision of history as nerve-wracked Parisians anticipate the end of Nazi occupation.

Memoir of War works best when there’s tension between the inner thoughts of Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) and outside forces that require her to take action. After she meets Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the eager collaborator who arrested her husband (like Duras, writer Robert Antelme was in the French Resistance), they commence an intellectual seduction that explores the iron grip and tenuous grasp of power. But the bulk of the 127 minutes involves Marguerite exquisitely suffering in a haze of cigarette smoke, fretting over the fate of Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), whom she worships yet may no longer love.

Cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine uses long lenses to present Marguerite’s slippery state of mind, rendering solid buildings as expressive blurs and transforming robust men into Giacometti stick figures. It’s one of the effects Finkiel employs to convey the duality of her prose (Duras is simultaneously participant and observer), but his balance is off. He emphasizes Marguerite’s passivity — she waits, she worries — over her resolve. While clearly adoring Duras’s work, Finkiel doesn’t credit the strength it took for her to ruthlessly detail the experience.

Memoir of War
Directed by Emmanuel Finkiel
Music Box Films
Opens August 17, Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

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Marguerite Duras Kills Film All Week at Lincoln Center

Among the fascinating
bastards
born when the French New Wave and the nouveau roman swapped precious fluids, the films of novelist Marguerite Duras are beautiful, monstrous sleepwalkers, creeping through modern emptinesses and doped on remembered conversations. In a real sense, they feel like movies made by and about dead people — narrative experiences from limbo.

Already the author of nine relatively conventional novels when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Duras felt the winds blowing, and as her fiction became sparser and more enigmatic alongside fellow rad fictioneer-turned-auteur Alain Robbe-Grillet, she decided to make the move to film, first with versions of her plays La Musica (1967) and Destroy, She Said (1969). Both films were stylishly austere and poised, ballets of zombie-like disattachment, but the latter, included in this selective Walter Reade retro, comes off as her New Wave manifesto, her version of Last Year at Marienbad, with ample Beckettian contradictions, luxury-hotel intimations of doomsday, and a saturated sense of
ennui. For us meat-eaters, it might be the thickest cut on the table.

From there, her cinematic sensibility became even more restrictive, frozen, and radically implacable. Despite the presence of French cinema’s Brahman caste, from Delphine Seyrig to Jeanne Moreau to Bulle Ogier, the characters are petrified figures in the landscape, and around them the films don’t really move — they float like smoke in a sealed room. Nathalie Granger (1972) is Duras’s first out-and-out anti-film, a strangely comic visitation with two nearly mute women (Moreau and Antonioni vet Lucia Bosé) who live with two children (one of them with behavioral problems at school), and whose chilly life of waiting and numbness is interrupted only by news of rampaging homicides in the neighborhood and a call from Gérard Depardieu’s baffled door-to-door salesman.

Shades of Chantal Akerman, Duras
cut the fat until her film silently bled, but it’s practically orthodox compared to the aesthetics that followed. India Song (1975), her most beloved film, is another look-backward tale of romantic disaster and cross-purposes, set almost entirely in the French Embassy in Calcutta (but shot in French estates) and starring Seyrig as the compulsively promiscuous wife of the ambassador (Michael Lonsdale). Duras crafts an opulent frieze of poised intentions and desires so repressed the actors don’t dare move a muscle.

The famously unsignifying Marienbad looks like Noah by comparison. Here is where Duras shifts almost entirely toward narration to relay story, employing multiple voices articulating inner and outer ruminations over the often immobile cast, as if the filmmaker has decided she trusts only language, and not the rest of cinema’s arsenal. (Duras’s general intent, she has said, was to “murder” cinema.) India Song is as haunting and dreamlike as it can be soporific; once Lonsdale’s cuckold begins (and never stops) howling in agony off-screen, it coalesces into a kind of anesthetized horror film.

Le Camion (1977) indulges in synced
dialogue a good deal more, as an aimless truck drive through wintry Parisian suburbs is intercut with Duras and Depardieu sitting in her study talking with little
urgency about a script they never end up filming. Cinema is hung, drawn, and quartered. Le Navire Night (1979) and Agatha et les Lectures Illimitées (1981) both return to India Song‘s voiceover strategy, but even more ascetically — Duras’s camera roams empty landscapes and posh interiors, barely glimpsing immobile actors, while soundtrack personas limn a sometimes complex past history of lost love and
betrayal. (When, in Le Navire Night, we see Dominique Sanda suddenly brush out her enormous blond locks, it has the shock of violence.) Though coming close to
romance-fiction material, the films could hardly be less pulpily satisfying.

In every instance, as in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras’s storytelling obsessively details the fallout of ruined romance — she was the Empress Dowager of Regret. Her films were always rarefied cocktails happily sipped by the cognoscenti, and she was routinely feted at Cannes and Berlin, and nominated for Césars. However forbidding, they pumped her cult, as did the high-profile adaptations, by the likes of Resnais, Peter Brook (1960’s Moderato Cantabile), and Tony Richardson (Mademoiselle, from 1966), all of which are showcased this week as well. The Lincoln Center series also includes several of
Duras’s shorts and, rather quixotically, Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous Every Man for Himself (1980), in which Jacques Dutronc’s character explains to his classroom that Duras is in the next room, though we never see her. Years later,
Godard explained this odd flourish by admitting that Duras was in fact in the next room during filming — such was her enigmatic allure, but also such was Godard’s regal respect for the reality of movies.

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Hiroshima Mon Amour Returns to the Big Screen at Lincoln Center

The seminal-ovulary date-night ordeal of the fresh-baked French New Wave, this moody, swoony benchmark was one of those movies — and in 1959-60 you had scores to choose from — that could remake your young life and redefine your ideas of what’s tragic, romantic, and grown-up cool in the postwar world.

Working from a radically self-involved screenplay by Marguerite Duras, erstwhile documentarian Alain Resnais stepped into the new street riot of modernist cinema with innovative weapons — impressionistic editing, subjective time shifts, abstracted visuals, erotic shadowplay — and crafted the first film to juxtapose disastrous erotic passion with the political disasters of the mid century.

Emmanuelle Riva is a haunted French actress on location in Japan; Eiji Okada is a married architect indulging her for a two-day impromptu, and as their memories and stories commingle, the past — of the Hiroshima bombing and of occupied-Europe guilt and heartbreak — rises like floodwaters. Bedevilingly stylish even as it flirts with neurotic navel-gazing, Resnais’s ruminative classic is merely the first salvo in his career’s exploration of why we shape life into storytelling — and how sometimes we fail.

All of his characters are contrivers of meaning, taletellers compelled to rebuild the scaffolding of memory and history as a way of insisting on their own significance. The significance of the war’s cataclysmic legacy is, on the other hand, never in doubt.

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Beau Travail

Dir. Claire Denis (1999).
Denis’s sensational transposition of “Billy Budd” to a French Foreign Legion post on the horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut is a small, gorgeously explosive shock. Time drifts, memories flicker. The hypnotic ritual suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras but the mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity is Denis’s alone.

Tue., Oct. 11, 7 p.m., 2011

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“Marguerite Duras on Film” at Anthology

It’s not quite Tab Hunter’s fantasy arthouse drive-in in Polyester, advertising “Dusk to Dawn: Three Marguerite Duras Hits,” but Anthology Film Archives’ seven-feature-plus-shorts retro is the best way to experience the cinematic side of Madame Duras’s multimedia life.

A name novelist since just after WWII, Duras became a bonafide intellectual celebrity with her Academy Award-nominated script for Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima, mon amour (starring Duras’s later close collaborator, Delphine Seyrig). Her work was adapted for the screen before and after—often by mismatched temperaments, as when gushy Jules Dassin handled this most arid of stylists in 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966). The next year, Duras, 53, with full confidence in her sensibility and the hypnotic draw of her voice, began to shoot her increasingly screenplay-terse stories for the screen.

Movies were the medium of the moment, and everyone wanted a shot. Duras’s son had turned 18: “[He] never talks about my books. What he loves is the cinema. It’s maybe because of him I’m getting involved. He can join the crew.” She was no one-off dabbler. Over the next two decades, the doyenne of French letters created her own industry of trance-y movies, enthralled with themselves (mirrors are ubiquitous) and entirely inseparable from their author’s engulfing personality.

The early features are minimal narratives, distinguished by barbiturate-paced line readings and an air of society about to either implode or go comatose. Destroy, She Said (1969), Duras’s second film (from a novel of the same year, published with staging directions), has a trio of lovers at a resort hotel closing in on neurasthenic Catherine Sellers—the film’s key scene is a long card game that’s something like an interrogation, during which Sellers’s entire spectrum of reactions is run through in seemingly random order. Nathalie Granger (1972) is a pre-Jeanne Dielman study in housewife lassitude, with a very young Gerard Depardieu’s washing machine salesman unnerved and unmanned by the blasé stonewalling of Lucia Bosè and Jeanne Moreau—who would play Duras in 2001’s Cet amour-là, based on the memoir of Duras’s late-in-life secretary/ companion/ untouchable homosexual love object, Yann Andréa, who himself appears in Duras’s Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981).

Through her fecund 1960s and ’70s, Duras scavenged and repurposed the same memories, scenarios, and characters in successive novels, plays, and films. (Edmund White suggests a non-theoretical motive for Duras’s reiterations: an alcoholic’s attempt to restore an ever-eroding memory. “Since Duras drank in order to write she seldom recognized her own writings when she reread them.”) India Song (1975) plays out a scenario that Duras had been reworking since novels The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) and The Vice-Consul (1966). The crucial scene is a scandal at a reception ball in the colonies (the film is ostensibly set in Calcutta, though Duras spent her first seventeen years in French Indochina). India Song’s Embassy setting looks abandoned from the outside, but characters in swank evening dress still go their appointed rounds within, silent and almost incorporeal amid purling cigarette and incense smoke. There is no on-screen dialogue; the story comes from the layered soundtrack of non-diegetic conversation and unseen narrators gossiping about the adulteries of Anne-Marie Stretter (Seyrig), seen drifting between dance partners as the lugubrious blues of Carlos d’Alessio title tune plays over and over again, different but the same. Only Michael Lonsdale’s disgraced vice-consul—gone mad because he cannot reconcile himself to his environment, a type who recurs in Duras’s work—fails to behave, but his wounded-animal roar of protest barely registers over the ceremony.

The Truck (1977) is protest in itself, a mesmerizing, rueful film made of stalled preliminaries. Depardieu and Duras—small, bunched, hermetic—sit alone in a deep-shadowed room that re-arranges itself between shots. They read from and discuss her new script for a film about a truck driver who picks up a hitchhiking woman “of a certain age.” Their conversation is periodically interrupted by traveling passenger’s-eye images of the industrial sprawl west of Paris, construction sites and roundabouts in damp dusk, set to Beethoven. The movie they’re describing never actually begins, but its discussion builds a nest of strange associations; Depardieu and Duras, melding with the proposed characters, enter into an unlikely flirtation and a confessional, as doomsayer Duras dredges up her bottomless disappointment.

After an unlikely resurrection through detox, Duras won the Prix Goncourt for her most popular book, The Lover, but ever-worsening health finished her as a director. The comic premise of her last film, 1985’s Les Enfants, sinks into the drudgery of a dropout manifesto, with 40-ish Axel Bogousslavsky playing a nonconformist seven-year old. As the filmmaker’s mouthpiece, Bogousslavsky never touches Duras’s singularly droll, oracular gravity in The Truck. Who has tried since?

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Nathalie Granger

Dir. Marguerite Duras (1973).
A meditative study somewhere between a literary text and a filmic narrative, this early Duras feature gains a good deal of atmosphere from the house where it was shot, the author’s home outside Paris where she wrote Hiroshima, Mon Amour. An allegory of the imagination, it requires patience. One reward is an amusing turn by Gerard Depardieu in the unlikely role of a washing machine salesman.

Fri., March 12, 9:15 p.m.; Tue., March 16, 7 p.m., 2010

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Manny Farber 1917-2008

Painter, carpenter, university professor, and underground model for scores of American film critics—myself included—Manny Farber died early Monday morning in San Diego, where he had lived, taught, and worked since the early ’70s.

Farber, who began reviewing movies for the New Republic during World War II and wrote for all manner of smallish magazines thereafter, was a legendary figure—more connoisseur than critic, less a pedant than a hipster. He had an utterly distinctive voice and a genius for coinage (“underground films,” “termite art,” “carbonated dyspepsia”). He had superb taste and fantastic range.

Marching to the beat of his own drum, Farber was among the first American critics to appreciate Hollywood genre artists Howard Hawks and Don Siegel as well as European modernists R.W. Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman. I’d like to say that I discovered him in the third-rate men’s mags for which he wrote in the mid ’60s—but it was actually a few years later, in the tonier pages of Artforum. In any case, I was totally hooked. Who was this guy? How did he learn to write like that? (On Siegel: “What is a Don Siegel movie? Mainly it’s a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness.”)

Farber wasn’t like other critics. He didn’t proselytize and he didn’t create systems. Rather, he articulated his idiosyncratic perception, which is to say: He had a sensibility. Farber was as punchy and hardboiled, at least in his prose, as Sam Fuller (a director he admired) and as masterful a vernacular stylist as S. J. Perelman (who, knowledgeable as he was, nodded to Farber in one of his pieces). As was said of Perelman, before they made Manny they broke the mold.

Although he wrote like a champ, Farber was far from literary and is, I’m told, very difficult to translate. He described lowbrow action flicks as if he were discussing a canvas by Franz Kline and referenced comic strip artists in the context of avant-garde filmmakers like Marguerite Duras. My mantra when I began reviewing for the Voice was WWMD—like, what would Manny do? And, in a sense, it still is.

Originally printed in the Village Voice May 20-26, 1981: J. Hoberman on Manny Farber

Termite Makes Right

The Subterranean Criticism of Manny Farber

Now that The New York Times has put Manny Farber on record as the best still-life painter of his generation, it seems a bit perverse to shift the spotlight to his movie criticism. But the fact is that the 64-year-old Farber is an artist-essayist on the level of Fernand Leger or Robert Smithson. His writing, intermittently published in an odd assortment of journals between 1942 and 1977, combines the historical perspicacity of Andrew Sarris and the verbal punch of Pauline Kael with an eccentric individualism that’s all its own.

Farber has the strongest visual bias in American film criticism. Playing both ends against the middlebrow, his pieces are thick with inside references to painting, photography, and comic strips. (“I don’t get why other critics don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the other arts,” he says.) Like the surrealists, he’s fond of destroying narrative continuity by taking in a film in random, 15-minute chunks. On meeting Farber, his appearance is as striking as his method. A prominent forehead and jaw connote intelligent pugnacity, while the rest of his features cluster mid-face to give him the stylized appearance of a kindly Chester Gould character. “What he really looks like,” critic Richard Thompson once wrote, “is philosopher-king of all the bums in all the grind houses in the world, bringing a Promethean message to us from Plato’s cave world of the triple feature.”

Part of that message is embodied in a key 1962 essay that originally appeared in Film Culture. (The same astonishing issue also contains Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” Jack Smith’s “The Perfect Cinematic Appositenness of Maria Montez,” and Kael’s review of Shoot the Piano Player.) Farber’s contribution, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” is the snappiest jeremiad I’ve ever read. Its target is films that are inflated, over-wrought, precious, “tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence” – white elephant stuff, in which the artist tries “to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” Against this beast (personified by Antonioni, Truffaut, and the then modish Tony Richardson) Farber raises the red flag of termite art, a mysterious form that flourishes in dark corners where “the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence.” Farber’s termites include journalists, pulp writers, B-movie directors, and comic-strip artists – intuitive, unself-conscious professionals who have “no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”

Although I interpreted it to suit myself, Farber’s white elephant/termite dichotomy was crucial for me. I got my first regular writing gig in 1972 for a shortlived successor to the East Village Other that was known as the New York Ace and operated out of a fetid basement on West 16th Street. Under the rubric “Terminal Termite,” I tried to work out a kind of Farber-inspired cultural criticism capable of ping-ponging back and forth between Brakhage movies and Coca-Cola commercials. After a few of these, the editor asked me to please explicate my “incomprehensible logo” and “buglike theory of art” (a reference, he probably thought, to our working conditions). I composed a tribute to Farber that segued seamlessly into a rabid attack on such current white elephants as 2001, Performance, and El Topo. With that issue, the Ace folded.

[

Actually, I had stumbled across Farber a few years earlier, in the pages of Dan Talbot’s Film: An Anthology, which included Farber’s 1957 essay “Underground Films.” A hard-boiled paean to a then-unsung cadre of action directors (Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Mann, Karlson), “Underground Films” took Farber three years to write and was originally intended for Vogue. This exciting, if morose, manifesto not only anticipated the discoveries of the French auteurists, it audaciously valorized the style and mise-en-scene of a movie over its plot. Farber’s “hardgrained cheapsters” thrived on precisely that material that was most hackneyed and childish. Typically, he compared them to basketball layers who did their best shooting from the worst angle on the court.

“Underground Films” contains all of Farber’s attributes – the pop-culture connoisseurship, the canonization of a peripheral form, the authoritative painter’s jargon worked into a nervy, wise-cracking, baroque prose style. (All that’s missing is his trademark reference to Cezanne’s “niggling, tingling” brushwork.) Like Raymond Chandler, Ben Hecht, or S. J. Perelman – who once wrote “With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one” – Farber could twist the American vernacular into something like a salt pretzel. “The films of the Hawks-Wellman group are underground for more reasons than the fact that the director hides out in subsurface reaches of his work,” wrote Farber appreciatively. “The hardbitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, soundtracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged by a giant sponge.” It was startling to discover that Farber was knocking out copy like this every month for the back page of Artforum.

Rereading Farber’s essays before the interview, what struck me was how reflexive they are, how much they describe his own modus operandi. When he writes that “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,” he could be predicting his own development, the successive occupation of disparate realms (the B movie, the structural film, European modernism) without settling into any of them. When he cites the “important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art” as “an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage,” he’s acknowledging the painter’s traits that inform his criticism – the sense of space as a malleable substance, the capacity for collaging raw perceptual data, the knack for looking at movies from the inside out.

A congenital maverick, Farber was born in an Arizona copper town one mile from the Mexican border. His parents owned a dry-goods store. As a student he was interested in both painting and journalism, but became a carpenter as an alternative to working for the WPA. Arriving in New York in the late ’30s, he intersected two key intellectual scenes: the Partisan Review crowd and the future Abstract Expressionists. In 1942 he succeeded Otis Ferguson as the movie critic for The New Republic, writing for it, and its cousin The Nation, off and on for the next 11 years. (At times, Farber’s beat included art criticism as well: Matisse’s “line is as much a thing of genius as Cary Grant’s dark, nonchalant glitter. With one swift, sure, unbroken flip of the wrist he can do more for the female navel, abdomen, breast, and nipple than anyone since Mr. Maidenform.”) Despite his remarkably prescient appreciations of Tex Avery, Val Lewton, Sam Fuller, and The Thing from Another World, Farber was consistently overshadowed by his  more famous crony, James Agee.

[

Like a veteran relief pitcher, Farber was “traded” to the New Leader. Then, after dropping out of regular criticism to write his position papers – “Underground Films,” the acid “Hard Sell Cinema,” “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” – 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.) When Farber abruptly decamped for Artforum in late 1966, the shift in perspective was more complex than just a move from the psychic environs of 42nd to those of 57th street.

Arguably, Farber did his best writing in his three years at Artforum: a canny mixture of career appreciations (Hawks, Fuller, Seigel), straight reviews, and pithy reports on various New York film festivals. Moreover, he pushed his termite aesthetic into new territory, revealing an enthusiasm not only for Jean-Luc Godard but for the structural films of Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Ken Jacobs. His affinity for the latter group may well be a factor of Farber’s painterly eye, but he credits his wife and collaborator, the painter Patricia Patterson, with leading the expedition into the avant-garde. Farber’s last stint as a regular critic was in 1975 after he and Patterson got teaching positions at the University of California at San Diego, where they still live. For seven issues, the Farbers worked for Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine, filing exhortatory reviews of the European modernists (Fassbinder, Herzog, Duras, the Straubs, Rivette, Akerman) that he was then teaching. “Duras should direct a Continental Op story,” he says. “Two grudging, monosyllabic writers.”

Farber isn’t grudging in conversation, just understated. He measures his words, spends a lot of time listening, and asks as many questions as I ask him. What was Michael Snow’s new film like? What do I think of Herzog? Where did I go to college? The interview turns quickly into a discussion. Among the topics is Fassbinder’s decline from an arch-termite to a total white elephant (“The low budget helped a lot – he’s over-produced now.”) Farber and Patterson were among the first American critics to discover Fassbinder. They caught The Merchant of the Four Seasons at the 1972 Venice Film Festival, writing in Artforum that it was “the single antidote to thoughts of suicide in the Grand Canal.” Hollywood, Farber thinks, “is being castrated because it doesn’t get any help from the inventions of people like Snow, Rocha, Gehr. Somehow, it’s cut off from all pictorial contributions by outsiders.” He found Raging Bull “a terrific movie technically, but much too narcissistic and aggressively ambitious.” Excalibur? “Horrible. I always thought Boorman had a better eye.”

Right now, Farber tends to downplay his writing. He calls it “excruciating” work. (Farber’s difficulty with deadlines is legendary. Film Comment is still waiting for his piece on Syberberg’s Hitler film.) He’d rather talk about his paintings – the aerial views of Milk Duds boxes and lollipops scattered in stringent, centerless patterns across a desk-blotter surface, or the works of the “Auteur Series,” which employ the same overhead perspective and overall compositions as well as a host of miniaturized objects in suggestive, rebus-like formations. (“I like work… termitically.”) The elements in Howard Hawks “A Dandy’s Gesture” include railroad tracks and a model train, a speedboat, an airplane, an elephant, and what look like bits of a Hershey bar. They’re all roughly the same size. Slanting off the canvas at the lower edge is a somewhat larger reporter’s tablet filled with scrawled notes on Scarface and His Girl Friday.

The “Auteur Series” includes paintings on Preston Sturges, Anthony Mann, and Marguerite Duras. Farber tells me he’s currently working on William Wellman and Luis Bunuel. The canvases take a long time to finish. “I don’t go to movies that much any more,” he says. “I think about them while I’m painting.”

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Manny Farber 1917-2008

Painter, carpenter, university professor, and underground model for scores of American film critics—myself included—Manny Farber died early Monday morning in San Diego, where he had lived, taught, and worked since the early ’70s.

Farber, who began reviewing movies for the New Republic during World War II and wrote for all manner of smallish magazines thereafter, was a legendary figure—more connoisseur than critic, less a pedant than a hipster. He had an utterly distinctive voice and a genius for coinage (“underground films,” “termite art,” “carbonated dyspepsia”). He had superb taste and fantastic range.

Marching to the beat of his own drum, Farber was among the first American critics to appreciate Hollywood genre artists Howard Hawks and Don Siegel as well as European modernists R.W. Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman. I’d like to say that I discovered him in the third-rate men’s mags for which he wrote in the mid ’60s—but it was actually a few years later, in the tonier pages of Artforum. In any case, I was totally hooked. Who was this guy? How did he learn to write like that? (On Siegel: “What is a Don Siegel movie? Mainly it’s a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness.”)

Farber wasn’t like other critics. He didn’t proselytize and he didn’t create systems. Rather, he articulated his idiosyncratic perception, which is to say: He had a sensibility. Farber was as punchy and hardboiled, at least in his prose, as Sam Fuller (a director he admired) and as masterful a vernacular stylist as S. J. Perelman (who, knowledgeable as he was, nodded to Farber in one of his pieces). As was said of Perelman, before they made Manny they broke the mold.

Although he wrote like a champ, Farber was far from literary and is, I’m told, very difficult to translate. He described lowbrow action flicks as if he were discussing a canvas by Franz Kline and referenced comic strip artists in the context of avant-garde filmmakers like Marguerite Duras. My mantra when I began reviewing for the Voice was WWMD—like, what would Manny do? And, in a sense, it still is.

Originally printed in the Village Voice May 20-26, 1981: J. Hoberman on Manny Farber

Termite Makes Right

The Subterranean Criticism of Manny Farber

Now that The New York Times has put Manny Farber on record as the best still-life painter of his generation, it seems a bit perverse to shift the spotlight to his movie criticism. But the fact is that the 64-year-old Farber is an artist-essayist on the level of Fernand Leger or Robert Smithson. His writing, intermittently published in an odd assortment of journals between 1942 and 1977, combines the historical perspicacity of Andrew Sarris and the verbal punch of Pauline Kael with an eccentric individualism that’s all its own.

Farber has the strongest visual bias in American film criticism. Playing both ends against the middlebrow, his pieces are thick with inside references to painting, photography, and comic strips. (“I don’t get why other critics don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the other arts,” he says.) Like the surrealists, he’s fond of destroying narrative continuity by taking in a film in random, 15-minute chunks. On meeting Farber, his appearance is as striking as his method. A prominent forehead and jaw connote intelligent pugnacity, while the rest of his features cluster mid-face to give him the stylized appearance of a kindly Chester Gould character. “What he really looks like,” critic Richard Thompson once wrote, “is philosopher-king of all the bums in all the grind houses in the world, bringing a Promethean message to us from Plato’s cave world of the triple feature.”

Part of that message is embodied in a key 1962 essay that originally appeared in Film Culture. (The same astonishing issue also contains Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” Jack Smith’s “The Perfect Cinematic Appositenness of Maria Montez,” and Kael’s review of Shoot the Piano Player.) Farber’s contribution, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” is the snappiest jeremiad I’ve ever read. Its target is films that are inflated, over-wrought, precious, “tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence” – white elephant stuff, in which the artist tries “to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” Against this beast (personified by Antonioni, Truffaut, and the then modish Tony Richardson) Farber raises the red flag of termite art, a mysterious form that flourishes in dark corners where “the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence.” Farber’s termites include journalists, pulp writers, B-movie directors, and comic-strip artists – intuitive, unself-conscious professionals who have “no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”

Although I interpreted it to suit myself, Farber’s white elephant/termite dichotomy was crucial for me. I got my first regular writing gig in 1972 for a shortlived successor to the East Village Other that was known as the New York Ace and operated out of a fetid basement on West 16th Street. Under the rubric “Terminal Termite,” I tried to work out a kind of Farber-inspired cultural criticism capable of ping-ponging back and forth between Brakhage movies and Coca-Cola commercials. After a few of these, the editor asked me to please explicate my “incomprehensible logo” and “buglike theory of art” (a reference, he probably thought, to our working conditions). I composed a tribute to Farber that segued seamlessly into a rabid attack on such current white elephants as 2001, Performance, and El Topo. With that issue, the Ace folded.

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Actually, I had stumbled across Farber a few years earlier, in the pages of Dan Talbot’s Film: An Anthology, which included Farber’s 1957 essay “Underground Films.” A hard-boiled paean to a then-unsung cadre of action directors (Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Mann, Karlson), “Underground Films” took Farber three years to write and was originally intended for Vogue. This exciting, if morose, manifesto not only anticipated the discoveries of the French auteurists, it audaciously valorized the style and mise-en-scene of a movie over its plot. Farber’s “hardgrained cheapsters” thrived on precisely that material that was most hackneyed and childish. Typically, he compared them to basketball layers who did their best shooting from the worst angle on the court.

“Underground Films” contains all of Farber’s attributes – the pop-culture connoisseurship, the canonization of a peripheral form, the authoritative painter’s jargon worked into a nervy, wise-cracking, baroque prose style. (All that’s missing is his trademark reference to Cezanne’s “niggling, tingling” brushwork.) Like Raymond Chandler, Ben Hecht, or S. J. Perelman – who once wrote “With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one” – Farber could twist the American vernacular into something like a salt pretzel. “The films of the Hawks-Wellman group are underground for more reasons than the fact that the director hides out in subsurface reaches of his work,” wrote Farber appreciatively. “The hardbitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, soundtracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged by a giant sponge.” It was startling to discover that Farber was knocking out copy like this every month for the back page of Artforum.

Rereading Farber’s essays before the interview, what struck me was how reflexive they are, how much they describe his own modus operandi. When he writes that “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,” he could be predicting his own development, the successive occupation of disparate realms (the B movie, the structural film, European modernism) without settling into any of them. When he cites the “important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art” as “an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage,” he’s acknowledging the painter’s traits that inform his criticism – the sense of space as a malleable substance, the capacity for collaging raw perceptual data, the knack for looking at movies from the inside out.

A congenital maverick, Farber was born in an Arizona copper town one mile from the Mexican border. His parents owned a dry-goods store. As a student he was interested in both painting and journalism, but became a carpenter as an alternative to working for the WPA. Arriving in New York in the late ’30s, he intersected two key intellectual scenes: the Partisan Review crowd and the future Abstract Expressionists. In 1942 he succeeded Otis Ferguson as the movie critic for The New Republic, writing for it, and its cousin The Nation, off and on for the next 11 years. (At times, Farber’s beat included art criticism as well: Matisse’s “line is as much a thing of genius as Cary Grant’s dark, nonchalant glitter. With one swift, sure, unbroken flip of the wrist he can do more for the female navel, abdomen, breast, and nipple than anyone since Mr. Maidenform.”) Despite his remarkably prescient appreciations of Tex Avery, Val Lewton, Sam Fuller, and The Thing from Another World, Farber was consistently overshadowed by his  more famous crony, James Agee.

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Like a veteran relief pitcher, Farber was “traded” to the New Leader. Then, after dropping out of regular criticism to write his position papers – “Underground Films,” the acid “Hard Sell Cinema,” “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” – 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.) When Farber abruptly decamped for Artforum in late 1966, the shift in perspective was more complex than just a move from the psychic environs of 42nd to those of 57th street.

Arguably, Farber did his best writing in his three years at Artforum: a canny mixture of career appreciations (Hawks, Fuller, Seigel), straight reviews, and pithy reports on various New York film festivals. Moreover, he pushed his termite aesthetic into new territory, revealing an enthusiasm not only for Jean-Luc Godard but for the structural films of Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Ken Jacobs. His affinity for the latter group may well be a factor of Farber’s painterly eye, but he credits his wife and collaborator, the painter Patricia Patterson, with leading the expedition into the avant-garde. Farber’s last stint as a regular critic was in 1975 after he and Patterson got teaching positions at the University of California at San Diego, where they still live. For seven issues, the Farbers worked for Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine, filing exhortatory reviews of the European modernists (Fassbinder, Herzog, Duras, the Straubs, Rivette, Akerman) that he was then teaching. “Duras should direct a Continental Op story,” he says. “Two grudging, monosyllabic writers.”

Farber isn’t grudging in conversation, just understated. He measures his words, spends a lot of time listening, and asks as many questions as I ask him. What was Michael Snow’s new film like? What do I think of Herzog? Where did I go to college? The interview turns quickly into a discussion. Among the topics is Fassbinder’s decline from an arch-termite to a total white elephant (“The low budget helped a lot – he’s over-produced now.”) Farber and Patterson were among the first American critics to discover Fassbinder. They caught The Merchant of the Four Seasons at the 1972 Venice Film Festival, writing in Artforum that it was “the single antidote to thoughts of suicide in the Grand Canal.” Hollywood, Farber thinks, “is being castrated because it doesn’t get any help from the inventions of people like Snow, Rocha, Gehr. Somehow, it’s cut off from all pictorial contributions by outsiders.” He found Raging Bull “a terrific movie technically, but much too narcissistic and aggressively ambitious.” Excalibur? “Horrible. I always thought Boorman had a better eye.”

Right now, Farber tends to downplay his writing. He calls it “excruciating” work. (Farber’s difficulty with deadlines is legendary. Film Comment is still waiting for his piece on Syberberg’s Hitler film.) He’d rather talk about his paintings – the aerial views of Milk Duds boxes and lollipops scattered in stringent, centerless patterns across a desk-blotter surface, or the works of the “Auteur Series,” which employ the same overhead perspective and overall compositions as well as a host of miniaturized objects in suggestive, rebus-like formations. (“I like work… termitically.”) The elements in Howard Hawks “A Dandy’s Gesture” include railroad tracks and a model train, a speedboat, an airplane, an elephant, and what look like bits of a Hershey bar. They’re all roughly the same size. Slanting off the canvas at the lower edge is a somewhat larger reporter’s tablet filled with scrawled notes on Scarface and His Girl Friday.

The “Auteur Series” includes paintings on Preston Sturges, Anthony Mann, and Marguerite Duras. Farber tells me he’s currently working on William Wellman and Luis Bunuel. The canvases take a long time to finish. “I don’t go to movies that much any more,” he says. “I think about them while I’m painting.”

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Technology THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Harrowing Ideological Cinema Based on a Sermonic Tolstoy

Robert Bresson’s final film—made when he was 81—is a harrowing scour of ideological cinema, based on a sermonic Tolstoy story about greed but turned by Bresson into a pantomime stations of the cross, so completely focused on sensuous minutiae, moral interrogation, and the fastidious lasering away of movie bullshit (like acting and action) that it comes as close as any movie has to 15th-century Christian icons. Except the film’s not expressly Christian—Bresson is far less a spiritualist than a precision pragmatist—and it is totally modern. Bresson may stand as the most elusive master filmmaker; the large corpus of critical scholarship hasn’t fully sussed him out, or fully translated his intensely particular strategies into an unimpeachable aesthetic. (Of course, with his Manichaean declarations and acres of silence, Bresson himself was no help.) Every viewer has their own evaluative task ahead of them: Kent Jones’s audio commentary offers a rich and close reading of the film, but two 1983 French TV interviews with Bresson and a snippet of Marguerite Duras extolling his virtues only muddy the waters. And muddy they should well be.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Summer Clearance

I originally began this review with a long paragraph about the meaning and function of criticism, but I’ve deleted it; the summer heat is not conducive to abstract discussions. Besides, I knew in my heart that I’d written it merely to avoid discussing four shows I don’t particularly want to review. Their openings, and even some of their closings, are long past, the Off-Broadway institutions having as usual dumped all their major spring openings into the weeks after the Tony cutoff date, apparently just to cause backlogging in weekly columns. Now the hot weather’s here, and nobody cares very much about anything, least of all the theater. Same-sexers, who make up such a large segment of the playgoing audience, are all busy having celebratory same-sex in Texas bedrooms while they plan their Canadian weddings. (I recommend Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where a translation of mine opens at the Shaw Festival later this month.) The world is in upheaval; the resident lunatic in the White House is busy truckling alternately to God and Mammon, with zero regard for the American public; and the Middle East, the economy, and the environment are all busily making a bleak future look bleaker. With all that going on, who really needs a report on recent plays that didn’t suffice?

No one, frankly, but the management doesn’t underpay me to fill my columns with reflections on the approaching end time, so report on insufficient plays I must, at least until somebody produces a sufficient one again. At that, none of the works I have to write about is unworthy. Eric Bentley once said that it was easier to explain the existence of the universe than the production of a dull play, but he may have been exaggerating: He was reviewing a string of mid-’50s Broadway sex farces—two of them in historical costume. My undesired subjects, all produced by nonprofit institutions, are more honorable denizens of the script list (a dull sex farce in historical costume being less honorable than anything). Reasons for producing them were clearly visible; it was reasons for sitting through them that fell short.

Not always that far short, either. Take D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law, getting its local premiere an inexplicable 38 years after its posthumous publication in the volume of collected plays that made Lawrence a figure to be respected, if not exactly cheered, in British playwriting. Written around 1912, his work fits the pattern of post-Ibsen naturalism that was then being established on the English stage by the Court Theatre under Granville Barker, whose plays the Mint Theatre has lately been bringing to New York’s dilatory attention. As such, it was a logical choice for the Mint; and the script, though uncertain in touch and ungainly in putting the two aspects of its story together, has Lawrence’s sensibility in it, which is not to be sneezed at. It also has, more regrettably, his habit of either not coming to the point or being wildly overwrought about it. The events in The Daughter-in-Law, about a mother-dominated coal miner’s struggle to win the respect of his haughty bride while a bitter strike looms outside, don’t always seem to be happening in sequence, and some are dragged out till they seem to be happening twice; it’s as if A Doll’s House had gotten miscollated with Gorky’s Mother. The names in that comparison, though, suggest the stature and seriousness of Lawrence’s attempt. A lot of the play’s details of observation, too, are fresh, and Martin L. Platt’s production, despite generally uneven acting, makes it look lucid and true, through designs (sets by Bill Clarke, costumes by Holly Poe Durbin) that catch the careworn quality of a mine workers’ town without self-conscious drabness or grunge. Only the distance between Lawrence’s understanding of his people and the awkward way he tells his story makes the gap into which your attention lapses.


Even so, he does better than Marguerite Duras, whose gnomic Savannah Bay might be described as all gap and no drama. Or maybe, given the hieratic, fashion-shoot archness of Les Waters’s staging, all Gap—the brief but interminable evening most often seems to be about watching stately Kathleen Chalfant walk around in nice-looking clothes, by Ilona Somogyi, while Robert Wierzel’s lights flood the backdrop with swashes of various pastel hues. Chalfant can make even the most dissociative speech sound cogent, but her striking presence does little to enliven the portentous cat-and-mouse game Duras has set up, in which a young woman (Marin Ireland) alternately chats with and interrogates a much older woman (Chalfant), apparently a once famous actress, who may or may not be her grandmother. The apparent purpose of the interrogation is to unearth the story of the young woman’s long-dead mother. As in other Duras works, the old woman is a wealthy and domineering figure; unlike better Duras works, this one wallows in its secrets without granting the audience any alternative substance to reward their patience as they watch it wallow. Duras compounds the felony by having her two characters discuss a Piaf recording we hear at the outset as if Piaf were some unknown relic of antiquity, rather than a singer instantly recognizable worldwide. Maybe Duras wrote her play to be buried in a time capsule; it should certainly be buried somewhere.


Next to it, Kate Robin’s Intrigue With Faye looks almost respectably solid. Robin’s trouble, antithetical to Duras’s, is that her dramatic structure is altogether too pat. A live-together couple, she a therapist and he a wannabe filmmaker, try to strengthen their bond by recording their time apart from each other on video. Predictably, this burgeons into a marketable project for him (through a female TV producer with whom he’s had a one-night stand). Less predictably, she turns out to be hot for the fame a nationwide airing of their domestic difficulties might bring, while he, magically grown virtuous and mature from the experience, rejects the chance. All of which would be fine, if you could believe it for one instant of the muddled but sincere woman and the chronically dishonest, self-serving man you’ve watched for most of the evening. While the first act has the excruciating dullness of microscopic accuracy, much of what comes after the break replaces it with the glib ring of TV story editing. More dismissive reviewers have used the occasion to send Robin, who showed some early promise as a playwright, back to her work on Six Feet Under. I’m inclined to think that, though this script is unsalvageable, it suggests she has enough dramatic sense—and enough hunger for what’s genuine—to make us hope that she might turn up with a real play sometime.

Jim Simpson’s production makes this one look real enough, at least on the surface, though he’s oddly directed its many interpolated video clips as overacted celebrity camp. Benjamin Bratt deepens the flaw in Robin’s writing with one of those smooth, empty performances young media stars often give onstage: every tiny gesture believable, but not an ounce of conviction behind it. Juliana Margulies, in contrast, not only grounds her character strongly but goes way beyond the script in the blinding fury with which she plays her climactic tantrum, confirming the strong impression she made in the even more factitious Ten Unknowns: This is an actress I’d like to see tested in a great dramatic role, without delay.


Without delay is how Matt Pepper seems to have written St. Crispin’s Day, as if he were rushing to beat the Delacorte’s Henry V into town. A sort of “Porky’s goes to Agincourt,” it injects Shakespeare’s low-comic soldiers with post-Gulf War cynicism and Monty Python mock-orotundity, entirely oblivious to the notion that Shakespeare, and a few thousand of his successors, have beaten it on both counts. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking there’s much comedy, let alone satiric revelation, left to be squeezed from the idea of Fluellen as a macho closet queen, or Henry himself as a blasé manipulator: Put M*A*S*H in medieval burlap and it’s still a rerun. Simon Hammerstein’s staging keeps the rowdy-dow steadily on the move, however, and some of his performers—notably David Wilson Barnes, Alex Draper, Michael Gladis, and Darren Goldstein—come off considerably better than their material.