Revered critic who analysed films as 'moving collages'
Few film critics become revered cult figures in their own right, but the writer and painter Manny Farber was arguably the prime exception. Susan Sontag called Farber "the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic [the US] ever produced." From the 1940s on, Farber originated a new strain in American film criticism.
His was a critical eye that examined films in detail, appreciating their rhythms, their use of visual space, the particular styles and presences of actors: an approach far removed from the literary, narrative-based approach that still dominates newspaper film reviewing. Adopting a pugnacious, talkative tone that has repeatedly been characterised as "hard-boiled", Farber often concentrated on seemingly marginal aspects of a film - aspects that nevertheless crystallised a vital impression of what that film actually felt like to watch.
"A lot of the movies I went for," he once explained, "were very much like the way we see and remember films - as fragments, gestures. We don't retain whole shapes, but a sight gag from one, the cliffhanger from another, someone's trousers from a third." Farber would watch a film repeatedly, resulting in richly idiosyncratic analyses: a prime example being the 1976 response to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, "The Power and the Gory" (published in Film Comment), which Farber wrote in collaboration with his third wife, the painter and writer Patricia Patterson. One of his foremost critical aims, he once put it, was "burrowing into the movie."
Farber favoured the work of cinema's individuals and marginals rather than the conventional pantheon of "great" cinema, which he regarded as cumbersome and academic. His 1957 essay "Underground Films" was not, in fact, about the artistic underground but a defence of then forgotten or underrated "soldier-cowboy-gangster directors" such as Howard Hawks and William Wellman - the sort of film-maker who "uses private runways to the truth, while more famous directors take a slow, embalming surface route."
An enduring manifesto was "White Elephant Art vs Termite Art" (1962), with Farber espousing the latter school over the masterpiece aspirations of the former. Farber argued for a provisional, hard- won form of film-making in which the creators "seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavour that isn't anywhere or for anything."
As he proposed, in a now famous definition, "a peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it always goes forward eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Farber was …