Manny Farber, TV critic?
One of the treasure-troves of the fall is about to be unearthed: Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (The Library of America), edited by the poet Robert Polito. For any movie fan who’s carried around and memorized chunks of the only previous, relatively-slim collection of Farber reviews, the eruptive Negative Space, this new volume — 880-plus pages of Manny-festations to be published Oct. 1 — is a dream come true.
So why am I writing about a movie book on a TV blog? Because one element that crops up here and there in Farber on Film is something previously unknown to me: that Farber occasionally reviewed television shows and made some typically original, provocative statements about what we used to call the small screen.
Writing in 1959, Farber asserted, “In its early period, TV hit roads which few in pop-comedy thought to travel… For the first time, large audiences saw a muderously dry infantry life (Sgt. Bilko), a morbid, bickering slum series (The Honeymooners), and a driveling Mr. and Mrs. (I Love Lucy), all of which were funnier in their depiction of the mirthlessness of daily existence than for their expected comic embroidery.”
What Polito describes in his marvelous introduction as Farber’s “fierce, serpentine essays that shun movie-criticism commonplaces like character psychology, story synopsis, and social lessons” was also true of his occasional TV pieces.
Farber wrote about Mike Wallace and Jack Paar, about the vaunted Edward R. Murrow’s celebrity interviews (“answers fell through Murrow’s disinterest like coins in a gum machine”), and took swipes at the pretentions of overrated TV writers such as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, and other purveyors of “dialogue-character-idea cliches” that give me goosebumps of pleasure. (What I wouldn’t give for reviews by Farber, who died in 2008, of shows like Mad Men and American Idol.)
Yet Farber remained optimistic about television’s potential: “Any year now, TV may realize that little help is needed from neighboring arts… Working well within the restrictions of the medium, TV could shake the now muscle-bound audience out of its easy chairs.”
It’s fascinating to think that, at around the same time Farber was writing some of his greatest film essays — “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art,” “Underground Films,” “Cartooned Hip Acting” — he was also casting a sharp eye at television, then commonly considered a vastly inferior medium to film. Yet it also makes sense, since Farber was always ahead of the curve (and frequently around the bend and twisting the curve into a mobius strip), always cussedly independent, and endlessly curious about every way in which people communicated with each other through various media. For Farber, it was primarily film and fine art (he was also a first-rate, utterly original painter). Now we know we can add television to this list.
I cannot urge you enough to pre-order your copy of Farber On Film today.