It is one of the many contradictions that swirl around Manny Farber that for those who have read him over the years, or seen his paintings, or heard him talk, he is a mesmerizingly one-of- a-kind, even heroic figure, yet his work is in part an assault on the idea of the isolated, charismatic hero. In a career as a movie critic that lasted over three decades, he refreshingly, humorously, weirdly, and perceptively cut against nearly all our usual expectations of movies, asking us not to take seriously directors with highly personal styles, not to connect deeply with the allure of movie stars, above all not to think of movies as “art.” And in his painting, which for long was abstract and which has been representational since the 1970s, he devised a kind of picture, equally a still life and a view down onto a flat plane, whose very point is that we see a world of little entities, whether toy-size people or candy wrappers, carrots or postcards, which trail off in every direction, creating a terrain of sheer randomness.
On a first glance, however, Farber’s two endeavors don’t seem connected at all. His writing and his painting appear to be aimed at such different audiences that it is common to find people who know Farber for his unorthodox film journalism—writings in the 1940s and 1950s that focused especially on low-budget Hollywood products and, in the 1960s and 1970s, on a host of tough-minded avant-garde filmmakers—but have little real sense that he is a painter. And for many who have encountered his distinctive from-above still lifes in galleries over the years, it is often a surprise to learn that he is a movie critic, let alone one of the few original film theorists we have produced.
As a writer and a visual artist, though, Farber’s aims are connected. Although he doesn’t put it in exactly these words, his goal is an ego-free, centerless, egalitarian realm, where the pleasures of shared, everyday, domestic life are the deepest. It is a realm where the background of a scene in a movie is as engaging as what is in the foreground, where character actors, as much as any lead, come forward in all their idiosyncratic glory, and where climaxes in a film or centralized elements in a painting are overbearing and obvious by definition.
Farber’s opinions could almost be taken for the precepts of a Zen Buddhist, a latter-day Shaker, a member of an anarchist or libertarian party. Yet his voice as a writer and speaker, and even to a degree as a visual artist, belies his communitarian and pacifist thinking. He comes across, rather, as a street-smart, wisecracking, even pugnacious character. There is certainly something becalmed, retiring, even mousy about his values, but as a writer or painter he has been saying, in effect, “No thanks” or “You’re wrong” or “I’ll do it my way” for the many decades he has been in …