The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Manny Farber on Acting

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It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite moment in Negative Space, the collected writings on film by the late painter-critic Manny Farber (co-written from 1975 onward with his partner Patricia Patterson). Brash arguments, heavily allusive turns of phrase, and coruscating insights await a first-time (or repeat) reader almost anywhere you drop into the text, often within the same sentence. Idiosyncratic, passionate, impetuous, defiantly anti-elitist and at times, frustratingly ambiguous or contradictory, Farber didn’t so much communicate an opinion of whatever film was under his lens (far from it), but with his metaphorically rich prose style, immersed you in, as he once said of his favorite 1940s film artists, “the tension of an individual intelligence posing itself against the possibilities of monotony, bathos, or sheer cliché.” Sometimes, it is hard to tell whether he liked a film or not. Yet you always get the sense that he parsed the images he experienced with a scrutinous and unforgiving eye, paying as much attention to the arrangement of materials in a frame as to the mannerisms of actors and technical style of the film in question.

Space and design elements were, of course, vital to Farber, but the point of fascination for me in revisiting his work over the past week was his attention to the behavioral tics and psychological peculiarities (and excesses) of individual actors. He was no fan of the “New York films” in which Kazan, Lumet, and Strasberg-influenced thesps like Paul Newman strutted their talent in the mid ’50s. For him, the histrionic, tormented, propulsively quick-paced style of portraiture to be found in films like The Sweet Smell of Success or A Face in the Crowd “sweats too much around the edges.” Simple naturalism had given way to hysterical realism; showboating conceit had overtaken the anonymity of finely etched characterization. “The actors,” Farber wrote in 1957, “don’t chew their roles so much as storm past them.” Nearly ten years later, in his essay “The Decline of the Actor,” he had identified a new mode of inauthenticity imported mainly from foreign films (Kurosawa, Antonioni): the arrest of movement, in which the actor “is hardly more than a spot,” “a body on display,” or a landscape feature “stuck like thumbtacks into a maplike event” (Lawrence of Arabia). On one hand, acting had become too heightened, too self-aware and exhibitionistic (Angela Lansbury’s “helicopterlike performance in The Manchurian Candidate, in which every line begins and ends with a vertical drop”); on the other, films had become so suffused with inertia that actors were increasingly enveloped by mood and milieu (Monica Vitti in Eclipse), or made to carry the weight of the film’s entire stylistic construction at the expense of character exposition. All of this leads him to conclude, in “Pish-Tush,” that “Something died in the movies when TV, wide screen, and the New Wave film made the bit player expendable.”

Whether or not one agrees with Farber’s assertion, there is something irrefutable in the idea that an actor’s personality is too often a distraction, that brief moments with a bit player or a skilled “sideliner” (John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight) make a deeper, more lasting impression than a well-known entity’s star turn. If it was true then, it’s even truer now, when Us Weekly,, and anything-goes celebrity (and sublebrity) news coverage drive an ever-intensifying public interest in the minutest details of Hollywood actors’ private lives, from baby making to bust-ups to run-ins with the law or a fellow cast member. Regardless, Farber focused on what was onscreen, and developed an iconoclastic, uproariously funny shorthand for describing the traits and personas of particular actors, sometimes in as few as two words. Jimmy Stewart had “a harassed Adam’s apple approach to gutty acting.” Orson Welles, with his “flabby body and love of the overpolished effect make any flow in his performance seem a product of the bloodiest rehearsing.” Brigid Berlin, in Warhol’s Tub Girls, is “a hippopotamus of sin,” while Edgar Kennedy is fondly remembered for his “mad wounded-bull heavings.”

The point was not to anoint new heroes or drub unfocused, underwhelming players (though he did crabbily scorn Jeanne Moreau, “always a resentful wailing wall”) or even evaluate a specific role, but to isolate those “magical, intimate” moments when actors revealed something unusual and uniquely true about themselves: “quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.” Farber judged movie performances on their own terms, apportioning praise and disdain scene to scene, moment to moment. It is a standard that, while wholly personal and inimitably subjective, is sensible and instructive, and one that applies equally well to his own writing.

Manny Farber 1917-2008, a film series curated by Kent Jones, screens Nov. 14-26 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. For more information, visit


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:44 pm

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