The Adventure of Perception:
A Conversation About Manny Farber with Kent Jones, Part Two
By Eric Hynes
RS: Letâ€™s shift to the way that Manny wrote about acting, about how much he could take from actions, gestures, and the embodiment of characters on screen. In some ways acting is the easiest thing to write about. The clichĂ© is for reviewers and viewers to respond with, â€śwell the acting was good,â€ť or â€śwhat a good performance,â€ť which is something to be avoided. A lot of film critics, myself among them, hardly ever get to that because weâ€™re busy talking about construction, composition, the narrativeâ€”we spend so little time describing acting or being critical of it in a way thatâ€™s valuable. He did that, and very few of us have followed that lead.
KJ: A couple of months ago on Dave Kehrâ€™s blog I got into this online altercation with a couple people about the subject of acting, and specifically about Lola Montes. Inevitably what it became was, well, do I think Martine Carol is good in Lola Montes? No, sheâ€™s good for about the first ten minutes. After that it becomes purely a movie about the brutality of celebrity culture. It works, but it doesnâ€™t work in the same way that every other great film that he made works. What I got in response was, â€śPeople talk too much about actingâ€ť and â€śItâ€™s all about the mise-en-scĂ¨neâ€ť and â€śPeople have made movies without actorsâ€ť and on the other hand I got â€śWell, Ophuls is a master and we should take our cues from him,â€ť and â€śWhoâ€™s to say he didnâ€™t want Martine Carol and even if he didnâ€™t whoâ€™s to say he didnâ€™t work miracles with her.â€ť I didnâ€™t know how to answer those questions. I was asked to give an example of a similar situation in a movie and I was like, well, The New World. I love The New World, I think itâ€™s beautiful, but I think that Colin Farrell is awful. Heâ€™s awful in a way thatâ€™s unproductive for the movie. Heâ€™s anachronistic, and heâ€™s anachronistic because heâ€™s lazy. In the middle of this movie youâ€™re seeing this incredible imagination of Jamestown and Pocahontasâ€”and thereâ€™s some dubious stuff with the Indians and this improvisational dancing that they do, but itâ€™s kept to a minimumâ€”and suddenly thereâ€™s this sad-sack guy wandering around like heâ€™s just been kicked out of a club in Los Angeles, speaking with an Irish accent with tattoos onâ€”well before Captain Cook, which is when tattoos were introduced to the western world. â€śOh no, itâ€™s all a part of Malickâ€™s plan,â€ť blah blah blah. Why is it when a great director makes a movie everything has to be perfect?
And then why canâ€™t you talk about acting? Well, the reason most people find it difficult is a) itâ€™s really hard, and b) the way itâ€™s usually described is divorced from the film. That is a very, very important point. Now Pauline Kael could write brilliantly about acting. But she was writing about the art of actingâ€”not so much in conjunction with the cinema itself. She was also very good on certain directors that excited her who were almost giving their own performance as a director, like Altman, Bertolucci. Things started to get a little thornier with Scorsese and Raging Bull; she kind of got off the boat. It doesnâ€™t have that kind of flash, itâ€™s something else, itâ€™s more meditative, dense, and difficult, and the acting sits somewhere else in the movie. I think that Manny was light years ahead of most of us in the way that he talked about acting. He was saying that the acting and the movie were working hand in hand. That sometimes when people are writing about acting what theyâ€™re really talking about is the directing, and sometimes when people are writing about directing theyâ€™re really talking about acting. And to know how the visual style of the movie is informed by the actor, by the physical makeup of the actor, by how they look within the frameâ€”not just they way theyâ€™re lit by the directorâ€”but also by what they bring, what their presence is.
The director who really took that the furthest was Cassavetes, who took gesture, movement, and emotion and worked it as a sculptor working in clay. To a certain extent Kazan did it, but Cassavetes made it all of the movie. Thatâ€™s his mise-en-scĂ¨ne. With Manny he was thinking more like an artist, like a director. If you were to talk to almost any director and say to them, â€śWell, the actor isnâ€™t very important, itâ€™s all about the mise-en-scĂ¨ne,â€ť theyâ€™d laugh you off the set. For them, the actor is everything. Itâ€™s all about the actors. Theyâ€™re the ones who are out there working with them, earning their trust, etc.
RS: Unless youâ€™re George Lucas.
KJ: Yes, not for George Lucas. Who can take somebodyâ€™s head and transplant it onto somebody elseâ€™s body, or whatever. Or BĂ©la Tarr, for another example. But by writing about acting from inside the movie rather than saying, â€śthe acting was good,â€ť or â€śthe cinematography was good,â€ť what he was able to do was break down barriers between different kinds of acting. So that he was able to see the beauty of Olivier in The Entertainer while also seeing the beauty of Nardine Nardier in Mouchette or Hanna Schygulla in The Merchant of Four Seasons or Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman. On top of that, he was also able to see how people around the edges of the movie added a lot of energy. When youâ€™re watching Casablanca it is the Bogart and Bergman show but itâ€™s also the Leonid Kinskey show, the Marcel Dalio show, the whoever happens to be in the frame show, Claude Rains, etc. etc. This was an area that nobody else was interested in, and he really understood it.
RS: It seems that nobodyâ€™s interested in it now, either.
KJ: I donâ€™t think that most people are comfortable talking about acting.
RS: Is it because none of us feel that we have any mastery over it? Do we, or should we, feel that we need mastery in order to talk?
KJ: Well, the world that you and I are addressing when we say â€śweâ€ť is the world of cinephilia and letâ€™s say the auteurist world. Thatâ€™s always been a great adventure for me, looking at the work of a director. But thereâ€™s also the individual film, and the individual moment. It is true, itâ€™s easy to look at a movie like The Fearmakers by Jacques Tourneur and see the beauty of the frame and the lighting, which was really important to him, the tone, etc. But thereâ€™s not that kind of work thatâ€™s done with the actors, and thereâ€™s not that kind of work thatâ€™s done with the script, which makes Out of the Past a great movie or I Walked With a Zombie a different kind of great movie, and makes The Fearmakers not such a great movie. I also think thereâ€™s a nervousness about acting, which came up during this disagreement I had with these guys. A nervousness that if we start talking too much about acting weâ€™re going to get back to the days of the director disappearing on the value scale, etc. I donâ€™t understand how that could happen, but maybe itâ€™s possible. But if you talk about Viggo Mortensen and what he brings to Eastern Promises, youâ€™re not slighting Cronenberg, youâ€™re actually going deeper into Cronenberg because thatâ€™s something that heâ€™s devoted a lot of time to. If it were another actor it would be a completely different movie. You couldnâ€™t put Ed Harris in that part and get the same movie. Or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Thatâ€™s why this stuff about Lola Montes seems so crazy. Itâ€™s a movie where the mise-en-scĂ¨ne is so spectacular and noticeable, but perhaps the reason itâ€™s so spectacular and noticeable is because itâ€™s meant partially to cover up a void in the center.
I also think that people make the mistake when they talk about acting, and this is something that Manny never did, of talking about iconographyâ€”that happens a lot. Or talking about the characterâ€”that happens a lot too. Or talking about the career of the actor. Like, â€śWhat a bold, brilliant new step this is for Denzel Washington, to be playing a gangster.â€ť So what? Who cares? What does Denzel Washington bring to the role and does he dissolve a lot of that self-importance that he brings to other parts, and does he work from or against his stature, which is inescapable in his other movies? These are the questions to ask. But instead you get a lot of, â€śHe played this role, and then he built on it with this role.â€ť No, he didnâ€™t. He did something else.
RS: Sidelong to the idea of appreciating the film or defining the film through the actor, Farber also, when he didnâ€™t enjoy the film as a whole, championed those who upset the apple cart, those who worked against the film from within.
KJ: Of course, he was always doing that. That was just a part of who he was. But he acknowledged it. The first time I met him, when I interviewed him for Film Comment and asked about his Agee piece, he said, â€śWell, everyone seemed so worshipful of Agee at that point and it seemed so slumberous and I just wanted to reverse it.â€ť And he and Agee were really good friends, but it was the same thing that drove him to become a carpenter instead of joining the WPA. He just wanted to do the thing that everyone else wasnâ€™t doing.
Regarding Agee, he was so close to him and I think at the end of his life he wanted to say warm things about him and didnâ€™t want to be known as the guy who wrote the one negative piece about him. Now Agee was an incredibly beautiful writer. But as a critic youâ€™re reading a really good writer who worked for a while as a critic. And youâ€™re reading a critic who spent a lot of time talking about the movie that should have been made rather than the one that was. That annoyed me even when I was a kid. I donâ€™t have that high an opinion of Ageeâ€™s criticism. He was just a force, a guy who knew a lot of people, who was a great friend, a great talker, a great person to spend time with, and he really, really loved movies. And thatâ€™s something that Manny wanted to get across. And he does get it across in that piece about Agee. Itâ€™s not a piece where you think itâ€™s a damnation of James Agee, itâ€™s a description. Sometimes the description is couched in negative terms, but itâ€™s a description and an accurate one.
RS: Thatâ€™s actually the next thing I wanted to get to: Manny Farberâ€™s powers of description. We can all be impatient with critics who describe too much, certainly critics that describe plot too much, and yet Farber had a very singular way of diving into something and describing it. Few other critics have worked to that detail, moving second by second, concerning himself with orientation and spatial relations.
KJ: And also finding the right wordâ€”having the right word sit the right way in the sentence. The last time I saw him he was pretty tired. It was about a week before he died. He and Jean-Pierre Gorin and Patricia and I were sitting around the table, and I was saying how Iâ€™d been to the Turner show at the Met about five times, and I was talking about â€śThe Battle of Trafalgar.â€ť Mannyâ€™s hearing wasnâ€™t so good, and he was finding it really hard to concentrate. But he suddenly said about Turner, â€śHe had about eight arms.â€ť Now Manny always thought that I was too complimentary towards himâ€”but heâ€™s absolutely right. Thatâ€™s the way it feels when youâ€™re looking at Turner, and for a very particular reason. The compositions are so complex, the sense of space is so complex, the color is incredibly complex, and the sense of lightâ€”itâ€™s beyond my comprehension that anybody could get that on a canvas. Because your attention is constantly hovering between the light and what the light is falling on, and so paying attention to all those different things is like listening to Bud Powell play the piano, itâ€™s the same thing. It does indeed feel like he had about eight arms.
One time we were walking through his retrospectiveâ€”I wrote about this in Sight and Soundâ€”and he was talking about his painting but also about his writing and he said, â€śI try to get myself out of it as much as possible so that the object itself takes on a kind of religious awe.â€ť He was not talking about organized religion, he just meant that it takes on that spiritual awe so that youâ€™re seeing the object itself shorn of the ego of the writer. Youâ€™re in the presence of something. And you feel the presence of something. And thatâ€™s what his paintings are like. Thatâ€™s where the strange physics and geography of the paintings come into play. Nothing is seen from the same perspective. Youâ€™re seeing objects that are apparently scattered, but you donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re scattered or being seen actively, constantly, shot from one or many perspectives. It seems to be done on a table-top but not really. And youâ€™re seeing cherry pits, leaves, flowers, notes, and their presence is startling. And itâ€™s the same thing when heâ€™s writing about Cary Grant or Robert De Niro or Jeanne Dielman or Anthony Mann. What heâ€™s doing is starting within the object. Starting in conversation with the object and looking at it so much that heâ€™s giving you the object as it would describe itself. Thatâ€™s the intent. How often does he succeed? I would say thatâ€™s immaterial. Just the fact the heâ€™s even in that territory is something. And itâ€™s a quality that I donâ€™t think is sufficiently recognized or appreciated in his work.
RS: The piece in Cinemascope that Jean-Pierre Gorin wrote about Farberâ€™s painting dispels the notion that he stopped writing to start painting, and youâ€™ve said similar things yourself. Did he express frustration about writing, or were these just different ways of getting at these things that he most cared about?
KJ: He was writing, painting, and teaching, and I think at a certain point something had to give. He and Patricia were going to write a book, but they just got to the point where they had done that. The physical act of writing was tough. This was pre-computer and more importantly pre-DVD and pre-tape even, so that going back and looking at something over and over again was difficult. There were things they always wanted to go back and do, like Van Gogh by Pialat, both of them really loved that film. And Hou Hsiao-hsien and maybe Kiarostamiâ€”both gave them that urge. But as he said in that interview for Film Comment, the carpentry, the writing, the painting, the teaching, the brutal fact is that theyâ€™re all the same thing. I never took one of his classes, but I know enough from looking over the notes and from talking to people that they were Manny Farber productions. Itâ€™s not like he changed himself into a teacherâ€”he went and taught in the same way that he painted and wrote. It has to do with, as you mentioned, that sense of description, and that sense of description comes from, as he would say, the desire to get it right.
RS: What film in the program are you excited about seeing as it relates to Farber?
KJ: Itâ€™s exciting to look at Griffith again through his eyes. At his genius with volume and space. It was really exciting to go back and look at Wavelength again. Itâ€™s fifteen years more exciting than it was the last time. Itâ€™s an absolute thing of beauty, a real thriller. But I also looked at Me and My Gal again, and The Roaring Twenties. On Dangerous Ground I watch about once a yearâ€”for me itâ€™s one of the great American films. The fact that itâ€™s slightly flawed makes me love it even more. Voyage to Italy I also look at frequently. To look at them again in this context is very exciting. You also canâ€™t look at Not Reconciled by the Straubs enough. Thereâ€™s something about the way that the Straubs are discussed that Manny and Patricia wipe out when they go into it. Patricia in particular was really excited visually by the Straubs and also by Fassbinder. The way that Manny and Patricia worked together, the way that their energies melded and they conversed with each other and built on each otherâ€™s ideasâ€”in a way you see something very similar happening with the Straubsâ€™ films.
RS: Their relationship seems so remarkableâ€”each being a force on their own and then to finding a partner with whom they create and communicate.
KJ: Itâ€™s incredible. I think that collaboration was always exciting for Manny. His piece on Preston Sturges in Negative Space was written with his friend Willard Poster. He often referred to Jean-Pierre as his twin brain as a teacher. Whenever you were around him he never spoke from the viewpoint of the master speaking to the pupil. When you talked to him you were conversing, talking with him, working something out together. That was utterly unique about him.
RS: If you tried to do that he would deflect it?
KJ: Iâ€™m not sure, because I never tried. We became close friends pretty quickly, and we probably wouldnâ€™t have if I had been on my knees. He and Patricia went through a lot together, they lived a pretty rough existence for a while before he was invited out to California to teach. But that whole time they had their solidarity, they were collaborating in life as a couple but also as close collaborators in art. They would talk about each otherâ€™s work and paint side-by-side in the studio. When they moved to California they eventually built their own separate studios, but thatâ€™s her garden in his paintings, and her paintings are a complete other universe, just as beautiful as his, and they deserve to be better known. When you read their writing you can see the links that both of them have with the aesthetic experience, with films. Itâ€™s an incredible thing, a rare thing.
RS: Is she coming out for the program?
KJ: Yes, she is, but sheâ€™s not going to be standing up and speaking or anything. She just wanted to see the movies. She hasnâ€™t seen them in a while
RS: This should have been the first question but Iâ€™ll make it one of the last. You first met Manny on assignment for Film Comment, right?
KJ: Yeah, it was about nine years ago. I really knew him at the end of his life. It was strange because I did write him a letter once, and I never heard back but I didnâ€™t think anything of it. So when Richard Jameson asked me to do this, he said, â€śTheyâ€™re really looking forward to meeting you.â€ť I was like, youâ€™ve got to be kidding. In the instant it felt like I was going to meet Tolstoy or something. But that was quickly dispelled. He always read my writing and talked to me about it, and about how hard it is for the critic to combat the build-up. Thatâ€™s something he tried to combat in his own writing, which was a holdover from reading sportswriting in the Twenties. Youâ€™ve always got to build up the star. He felt like he did too much of that, which is very strange if you know his writing through Negative Spaceâ€”it doesnâ€™t feel that way. Itâ€™s part of the reason why he was reacting against Agee, rightfully, for what he wrote about Olivier and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Once he said to me, â€śI just read this piece you wrote about Lost in Translationâ€”is it really that good?â€ť I was like, well, itâ€™s good. And while he was very admiring of my writing, which meant a lot to me, he also said, â€śThey canâ€™t all be that good. You have to remember that. You have to be brutal about that.â€ť Itâ€™s something that had an effect on me, something Iâ€™d already been thinking about, and it crystallized while talking it over with him. He was always interested. â€śWhat have you seen? I think you nailed this, I think you missed this.â€ť Always just going back and wanting to talk through things. Even when his energy was slowly dwindling away he was up for more. And thatâ€™s rare too.
RS: Do you think your writing is more or less like Farberâ€™s over time?
KJ: When I was younger I certainly went through a moment where, in certain ways, without thinking about it, I was working with his relationship to language. But thatâ€™s his relationship to language, and it takes time to find oneâ€™s own relationship to language if youâ€™re committed to doing it. And the best place to start is always to work from the people you admire. For me, itâ€™s my thinking. Iâ€™ve been reading him very carefully since I was fifteen years old. He struck a chord with me when I was young, and continued to strike the chord and struck other chords deeper as I got older. There are other people whose thinking has meant a lot to me, like Brian Eno and Richard Rorty. For me, theyâ€™re all of a piece. Robert Walsh, who edited the Da Capo edition of Negative Space, we discovered that we share virtually the same taste. Heâ€™s a friend of Brian Eno, heâ€™s read Rorty very carefully. Itâ€™s not a coincidence that we came together through Manny and share those tastes, because thereâ€™s an intellectual backbone in Mannyâ€™s writing that isnâ€™t necessarily there for other critics. You can say it about AndrĂ© Bazin, to a certain extent you can say it about Serge Daney. I think you can say it about Andrew Sarrisâ€™s writingâ€”itâ€™s a different approach. Itâ€™s rare. You canâ€™t say it about Ageeâ€™s writing. Thereâ€™s an aesthetic, moral, intellectual backbone to Mannyâ€™s writing, a spine, and itâ€™s assembled over a lifetime, and itâ€™s the result of a sensibility thatâ€™s constantly in motion and engaged in the adventure of perception. These are things that mean a lot to me, and theyâ€™ve made their way into my writing in one way or another, and I canâ€™t be the judge of it.
RS: Engaged in the adventure of perception . . . thatâ€™s really lovely.
KJ: It fits, because it is an adventure and he conducted it as an adventure. The last time he was here, the last time he traveled, he was pretty out of it, he was disoriented, and we took him to the hospital. It turned out that he had pneumonia and we didnâ€™t know it at the time. When he was released from the hospital and before he went to the airport I waited with him in the car while the others were getting some things ready. He was just sitting there, and he didnâ€™t have the energy to speak, and wasnâ€™t really moving and just seemed out of it. Then this woman walked by in a nurseâ€™s uniform, and he caught her out of the corner of his eye. And he said, â€śInteresting woman, sheâ€™s got a funny gait.â€ť I looked and sure enough she had this odd kind of walk. And for him, that was everything. It was always like that. Always wanting to talk moreâ€”what else, what else? He didnâ€™t want the adventure to stop. And it didnâ€™t.
Top: Corot's Italian Women; Manny Farber, 1996