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Manny Farber's collected movie reviews: 'Farber on Film' is a two-fisted treasure

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Manny-Farber_lMother lode, treasure trove – the usual clichés of value plenitude don’t do justice to the just-published Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (The Library Of America), edited by the critic and poet Robert Polito. Movie critics and fans of movie criticism know what an event this is, which, given the neglected, beat-down state of professional film criticism these days, will only sell about 39 copies of this 824-page $40 mother lode/treasure trove of prose pleasure.

So I’m writing this for anyone who’s never worn out a copy of the only previous collection of Farber’s reviews, Negative Space, to try and convince you of the immense pleasures that await you here. Manny Farber (1917-2008), critic and painter, wrote movie reviews for publications ranging from the starchy New Republic to the raunchy girlie mag Cavalier. This is your first bit of proof that Farber had an itch to get his opinions in print anywhere he could (one measure of a critic who wants to communicate, not just simmer in theory-juice). He never followed the pack, or became part of any “school” of criticism, or held back a judgment because he thought he’d be jeered at or now allowed at the cool-kids’ table (one measure of a critic who would never become a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, one-line-jokester careerist).

Farber covered movies from 1942 to 1977, which means that in this book he weighs in vividly on everything from Casablanca (“The people in Hollywood don’t project their hokum without reason; they know the pleasure one gets from seeing Ingrid Bergman, so noble and utterly clear, Mr. Bogart’s mouth, which seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood”) to Taxi Driver (“Some of the best things come from the sense that the director and lead actor know what it is to be poor, to live in a N.Y. walk-up, the tormenting lethargy of depression”).

His prose can be grabby and bold; here’s a first sentence: “The new Disney cartoon Bambi is interesting because it’s the first one that’s been entirely unpleasant.” A foe of both sentimentality and the rambling plot summary, Farber uses his art education as a movie-review tool: “The bogus art which has been creeping into the Disney pictures is really hammered at you in this one. It is an affectation of reality, like a Maxfield Parrish painting… The films are now doused in sweet sugary tints, flowery violets, fancy-pants pinks… this new development is a synthetic reveling in vulgarity.” A fan of the early, energetic Mickey Mouse shorts, Farber punches out the last line in his 1942 Bambi review, “Mickey wouldn’t be caught dead in this.”

There is a crunched, word-cramming intensity to Farber’s prose; he had the gift of making it seem as though he was working out an idea or an argument about a movie in his mind, and was letting you in on his thought-process. Like any first-rate critic, Farber can write a pan of a movie you love and still have you admiring his reasoning; he can also make you want to run out and see movies you’d passed by. Boy, was I glad to catch 1943’s Ida Lupino melodrama The Hard Way on TCM recently after reading Farber’s praise of it, including the sort of observation that never gets made in reviews of any kind these days: “I would like to point to a raucous, vulgar nurse, played wonderfully by an actress whose name is not given.”

People who only know Farber’s film reviews from his long, prolix, latter-day examinations of directors such as Godard and Fassbinder are going to be amazed at what he did early on in tight little 800-word reviews of regular commercial product. Farber on Film has been edited by Robert Polito with useful notes and meticulous care that never becomes fussy.

This is one of the best books of the year.

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