I first heard about Manny Farber while reading David Thomson's excellent NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM (see review under "Movie-ing 2," below). Thomson described Farber as a longtime movie critic who never liked anything much, and was well known for his crankiness.
Hey, a grumpy old guy who spent years finding faults in lots of classic old movies? Sounded like this was right up my street. I wondered why I'd never heard of Farber before.
Now I know why. Because I grabbed FARBER ON FILM (2009/2016), a complete collection of Farber's movie reviews from the early '40s through the late '70s.
Man, was he grumpy.
Farber started writing movie reviews for magazines like THE NATION and THE NEW REPUBLIC, then moved to CAVALIER in the mid-'60s, and later wrote for FILM COMMENT and ARTFORUM. And though he occasionally admits to liking or admiring some aspect of a movie, most of the time he picks stuff apart, or gives one paragraph of attention to movies you've actually heard of.
I didn't realize there was going to be 800 pages of this. But I got through a huge book of Graham Greene's writing on movies awhile back, so I figured I could handle this, too. And I thought seeing lots of old movies through the eyes of an old grump might be amusing.
And I was wrong. I got about 150 pages in before I started skimming, then skipping around. There may be some hidden gems in there somewhere, but I doubt it. Farber hits a real low point in the late '60s -- hey, it was a bad time for movies -- but he comes back to life briefly in the mid-'70s, just in time for a whole new generation of filmmakers. Most of whom he doesn't like. Also just in time to retire to become a teacher (on film studies) and a painter. He died in 2008.
Farber wrote like a college professor. He knew a lot, but it's often really technical, or it's really dry.
He seemed to get very little joy out of his work. Even when Pauline Kael was reviewing a really bad movie, at least she got something out of it so you could sympathize with her suffering. Manny just grinds it out, like he started out tired.
He didn't like CASABLANCA, for instance. He called it hokum. It was -- a big dish of wartime feel-good hokum. But how sour would you have to be not to enjoy it? Not to enjoy Bogart saying almost everything you ever wanted to hear him say in a movie? Or Claude Rains when he says "I'm shocked -- SHOCKED, I tell you -- that there's GAMBLING going on in this establishment!" What kind of clod couldn't enjoy that?
Farber hardly ever cracks a joke, unless it's to make fun of someone's name -- pretty much the lowest of the low when it comes to humor. He doesn't ever seem to be enjoying himself much -- though he DID seem to like putting together lists of REALLY BAD movies. Maybe he just SAW too many REALLY BAD movies.
Even in the late '60s and early '70s, he was still complaining. He grudgingly admits to admiring some parts of EASY RIDER and THE WILD BUNCH. He enjoys Marty Scorsese's work, first MEAN STREETS, then he goes on for pages about TAXI DRIVER. (Is this why there's a laudatory quote from Scorsese on the back of the book?) But by late 1975 he's already got a grudge against Steven Spielberg.
For years I've wanted to see a book called something like THE COMMON MAN'S GUIDE TO MOVIES -- what an educated non-film-expert thinks of a batch of movies, without getting into all the critical theories and biases that even Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert got sucked into.
This is not that book. And unless you like hearing someone complain for hours on end, it ain't worth $30.