Manny Farber, Critic’s Critic

Gunning for You – Manny Farber

You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Manny Farber, generally considered along with Andrew Sarris, the godfather of serious film criticism. “Visceral” was the word most commonly associated with his writings.

He came to movies from an unusual perspective. He was a painter, one of the most celebrated still life artists of his generation. He never worked for a big paper like the New York Times or a stylish magazine like the New Yorker. Instead, his work appeared in Film Culture, Artforum, The Nation and men’s magazine Cavalier.

An early advocate of the work of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh, he was also inclined towards lean B-films over more profligate big-budget pictures.

Chances are you will disagree with everything he said, especially when he was slicing-and-dicing one of your favorites, but it is equally guaranteed that you will marvel at his prose. His work had punch and clarity and it might just make you laugh.

Here are some of his musings on the 1960s movie scene:

Easy Rider (1969): “Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than good in its handling of death…The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, much less programmed than Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch), come out of nowhere…The finality and present-tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and a burning cycle.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor who is not unlike the Tin Woodsman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick, short strides.)”

On Albert Finney: “The Big Eat is a growing factor in films, in effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel, and baring of teeth. This emphasized eating has been fined and slowed down in his latest work, but within the timespan of four Finneyfilms it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character.”

The Ipcress File (1965): “This is a Chandleresque thriller that has no thrills, with an antihero who is more like a sugary flavor than an actor doing a Philip Marlowe…the only suspense is how slowly a knight (non-played ‘superbly’ by Michael Caine) can put dimes in a parking meter, crack eggs in a skillet or flatfoot his way through a library.”

The Rounders (1965): “Fonda’s entry into a scene is of a man walking backward, slating himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes-hanger stance, no motion in either arm.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): “The most famous scene is an erotic nondancer, which is neither erotic nor dancelike, in which Elizabeth Taylor suggests a gyrating milk-bottling mechanism.”

The New York Film Festival 1968: “In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s LifeHugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of a Kodak camera ad.”

On Rita Tushingham: “An even worse example of megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name. The myth that a director makes or breaks a film is regularly disproved by this actress who…carries on a war of nerves against the other actors.”

The Graduate (1968): “Benjy…leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson; the other half he’s at half mast; a flattened silhouette…Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbably menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder…Benjamin, as it turns out, is Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.”

It is unlikely you’ll get hold of this book Movies at a decent price since it is long out-of-print and a collector’s item but you can easily find Farber on Film, a whopping 800-page tome which covers his compete writings.

Goodbye Columbus (1969) ****

Despite being made at the opposite end of the decade to Loss of Innocence – for no deliberate  reason I watched these two films back-to-back –  this has a number of similarities to the earlier picture.

In the main there is a star-making turn, this time from Ali McGraw in her debut. Though playing a slightly older and much wealthier character, she is also a woman in transition, from puppy love to true love, not entirely in control of her emotions and not willing either to accept responsibility for her actions.

Richard Benjamin, in his first starring role, plays the sometimes gauche, much poorer object of her affections. He’s only connected by religious upbringing to The Graduate’s Dustin Hoffman, far more relaxed with women and comfortable in his own persona.

The camera loved McGraw the way it did Susannah York, but in these more permissive times, and given the age difference, there was much more the screen could show of the star’s physical attributes. I was surprised by McGraw’s performance, expecting much less from a debutante and ex-model (and studio boss Robert Evans’ fiancée) but she is a delight, supremely engaging as a confident character enjoying a life of privilege and engaging in witty repartee with Benjamin.

He plays a more down-to-earth character who doesn’t know what to do with his life except not get stuck with a money-making job. He would much rather help a young kid who likes art books.

It’s not a rich girl-poor man scenario but more a lifestyle contrast and both families are exceptionally well portrayed, Jack Klugman drawing on a lifetime’s exasperation as her father and Nan Martin as the uptight mother with terrific cameos from Michael Meyers as her oddball brother and especially Lorie Shelle as the spoiled-brat younger sister.

It’s a lyrical love story well told. The zoom shot had just been invented so there’s a bit over-use of that but otherwise it zips along.

A major plot point provides a reminder of how quickly men took advantage of female emancipation, the invention of the Pill dumping responsibility for birth control into the woman’s lap, leaving the male free to indulge without the risk of consequence. In other words, it was still a man’s world. Of course, without the Pill, it would be a different kind of story, romance tinged with fear as both characters worried about unwanted pregnancy and stereotypical humor as the man purchased – or fumbled with – a prophylactic.

Acting-wise McGraw is pretty game until the final scene when her inexperience lets her down. I’m not sure I went for the pay-off which paints McGraw in unsympathetic terms and lets Benjamin off rather lightly, but all in all I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Goodbye-Columbus/dp/B07R7Y38SH/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1QTJFY213DHTI&dchild=1&keywords=goodbye+columbus+dvd&qid=1592640377&sprefix=goodbye+columbus%2Caps%2C149&sr=8-3