Faber on Film covers the lifetime of film criticism by one of America's most interesting film critics, Manny Farber. The 800 page-plus volume is arranged in chronological order, starting with Farber's "With Camera and Gun," published on March 23, 1942, and ending with "Kitchen without Kitsch" of December 1976. (Farber's Guggenheim Fellowship application follows the Kitchen essay,) and divided into three sections: 1942-1947, 1949-1954, 1957-1977.
Edited and introduced by Robert Polito, poet and critic, director of the New School Writing Program since 1992, and author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, the volume will be a feast for the the movie scholar, the fan of movie criticism, and the serious film aficionado who is a regular viewer of classics films. But it will be hard going for the average reader with no background. The introduction, for instance, is heavy on film critical history, “Farber also was among the first critics to write about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an early champion of Werner Herzog, and an exponent of such experimental directors as Michael Snow, George Kuchar, Andy Warhol, and Chantal Akerman.” The reviews themselves, as well as the critical essays, require a certain level of film awareness to be properly appreciated. But the volume provides to background of any kind on the major persons or themes that appear on Manny Farber's stage.
Manny Farber, critic and painter, wrote film reviews for numerous publications such as New Republic, The Nation, Film Culture and Commentary. His work has previously been available only in the compilation known as Negative Space, published in 1971 and re-issued in 1983, but this volume includes pieces from Negative Space as well as Farber's other work, adding about 400 pages of writing from the 1940s and 50s.
One of the things that becomes quickly apparent as you read these reviews is that Manny Farber writes with an awareness that cuts laser-like through whatever political correctness of the time in which he exists requires. Native Land is a “story of the fight of the labor unions against fascism…” This was in early 40s and the film in question was about labor union struggles in America. Native Land “is honest where Hollywood is always dodging, it tells a story which too long has been distorted through the mouths of congressmen and newspapers.” He slams a documentary, “Appeasers are simply labeled as men who wanted peace, which they did, but other things as well, and of those things there is no mention.” You just won't see this king of writing from Roger Ebert. Ours is an era of timidity that would quite possible annoy the hell out of Manny Farber. One thing we could be sure of, however, is that his pen would not be sparing. And more than the political landscape get a good haircut from Manny. Hollywood never gets a free pass either. Of Bambi Farber writes, “The robust irrationality of the mouse comedies has been squelched by the syrup that has been gradually flowing over the Disney way.” Farber takes on the way that race was portrayed, “Behind the romantic distortion of Negro life in Tales of Manhattan is a discrimination as old as Hollywood.”
One of the pleasures of reading this volume chronologically is the anticipation that one experiences as Farber is making his way, review after review, to the more famous films that have become part of Hollywood cannon. What will Farber say about these films? Of Casablanca, he writes, “ Casablanca is as ineffectual as a Collier's short story, but with another thing and another – like Bergman, Veidt, and Humphrey Bogart – it is a pleasure of sorts.” Rashomon is “supposed to get down to the bedrock of such emotions as lust, fear, and selfishness, but actually it is a smooth and somewhat empty film…” Certain other canonical films aren't covered in great detail – don't look for a piece on the classic On The Waterfront for instance. Still others, like The Day that Earth Stood Still, a film about a “high-minded interplanetary federalist from Mars…” receive a paragraph.
There are here also the critical essays that Farber wrote during his career. Pieces like "The Gimp," "Blame The Audience," "Hard-Sell Cinema," "Underground Films" and the rest as well as director profiles.
What is disappointing about this collection is that it is presented chronologically without presenting any context or background. The average reader will soon get lost in the sea of material that provides no editorial guidance or any kind of support in the form of signposts: brief histories, capsules of background information, of the key issues and people and currents that Farber writes about.