In Praise of Termites

DISCUSSED: Labyrinthine Criticism, William Powell’s Nose, Dogpiled Edge-of-Grammar Transitionless Writing, Contemptuous Scare-Quoting (and -Capitalization), Lester Bangs, Wittgenstein, Elbowy Directors, Donut Holes, Snake Diets, La Chinoise, Dancing Frogs and Utter Futility, Mole People, Humanism

In Praise of Termites

Franklin Bruno
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

At a 2001 panel on painter and film critic Manny Farber, held at the New School for Social Research and later transcribed in Artforum, Greil Marcus had this to say about a passage from Farber’s Negative Space:

… Farber is complaining about some movie, and he says, “It isn’t sustained.” Then there’s a parenthetical that says, “But how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?” What was really scary to me about this line, and it’s scary today, is that never having seen Musketeers of Pig Alley, I didn’t know if this was a joke, or if, in fact, it’s the only movie in eighty years that’s been sustained. I still don’t know. So you can dive into this book, and, if you are like me, you will never get out.

Marcus’s enthusiasm, and his vertigo, will be familiar to readers for whom Farber’s work is a touchstone. Blurbs aren’t everything, but those on the expanded edition of Negative Space, published by Da Capo Press in 1998, suggest that the list of Farber’s admirers is long, impressive, and heterogeneous. Who else could draw praise from Peter Bogdonavich and Jonas Mekas, Newsweek’s Jack Kroll and October’s Annette Michelson, Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag? Perhaps not all of these figures feel the book’s pull as strongly as Marcus—but others do. As another New School panelist, Salon editor Stephanie Zacharek, put it, “I sometimes want to shake it or throw it against the wall, but I always want it close by.”

Farber’s writing career began in 1942 at the New Republic, where he succeeded Otis Ferguson as the magazine’s regular movie reviewer. Stints followed at the Nation (after the death of friend and rival James Agee), the New Leader and, decades later, Artforum; other work ran in less august periodicals, such as the forgotten Esquire knockoff Cavalier. Negative Space first appeared (from Prager) in 1971, as carefully winnowed as a volume of selected poems, favoring think pieces over weekly reviewing. (Farber’s uncollected writing, including his pieces not even nominally about film, is forthcoming in a volume edited by Robert Polito.) The earliest inclusion is a 1943 defense of Chuck Jones cartoons; aside from an introduction, the latest are from 1969, on Samuel Fuller and that year’s New York Film Festival. The arrangement is chronological, except when it isn’t. The expanded edition, currently in print, adds seven pieces coauthored by fellow painter and wife Patricia Patterson in the 1970s, a three-way interview with Richard Thomson from 1977, a new preface by Robert Walsh, and a helpful index.[1]

Any edition—there is also Movies, an ugly but complete reprint of the 1971 edition—is worth celebrating for the same reasons as any collection of “practical criticism” that displays flair and insight over an extended period: Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guides, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore. (Not to mention the collected film writing of Kael, Andrew Sarris, Renata Adler, Agee, and Ferguson.) But the book’s singularity is not explained by the jar-of-cashews addictiveness common to its genre. None of the books just mentioned is merely a colloquy of freestanding aesthetic judgments; each determines a sensibility, if not a theory. But Farber’s seems uniquely tensed between the particular and the general, between the sense that the object of critical attention is being wrestled with in all its specificity and the impression that one is about to receive some broader enlightenment. This never happens; or, when it does, the illumination is partial, and comes from unexpected angles. More often, pinpoint observations and word-by-word stylistic decisions provoke questions which repeated readings deepen: just what is it for a film to be sustained?

If there were a textbook on Negative Space, it would read: “Manny Farber’s film writing has several distinctive features, the three most important being: (1) It is more concerned with form and composition than with performance, narrative, or theme; (2) it is most responsive to unpretentious B-film craftsmen (Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann) and exceedingly pretentious ‘structuralist’ technicians (Chantal Ackerman, Michael Snow); (3) it is written in an irreverent style that shuns journalistic blandness and academic cant alike.”

This capsule description shows why there is no such textbook. First, Farber’s formalism is neither as abstract nor as single-minded as (2) suggests. He’s terrific on actors’ bodies: “[William] Powell, an artist in dreadful films, would first use his satchel underchin to pull the dialogue into the image, then punctuate with his nose the stops for each chin movement.” He’s equally adept at pointing out how faulty plot construction can fail a movie: “It is inconceivable that this high-glossed, ultrasophisticated drama [Sweet Smell of Success] hinges on a dope-planting act in a nightclub that is carried out with as little difficulty as water finding its way through a sieve.” Later pieces, especially those also signed by Patterson, show heightened concern with what literary- or politically-minded readers are pleased to call a film’s content. From “The Power and the Gory,” their split decision on Scorsese’s magnum opus: “What’s really disgusting about Taxi Driver is not the multi-faced loner but the endless propaganda about the magic of guns.”

None of which changes the fact that all Farber’s writing is deeply informed by his parallel—in fact, much longer—career as a visual artist. His visual descriptions are bracingly acute. On the framing typical of late-sixties arthouse cinema: “Antonioni must have invented it: the human future as an island silhouetted against a sharp drop of unsympathetic scenery. There are two or three delineated elements, none of which act as support for the other.” His richest essays switch from film to painting and back as though it were beyond argument that art is art is art. (Sportswriting, jazz, and carpentry are also touched on, the last having been Farber’s day job for many of his writing years; prose fiction and staged drama, hardly ever.)

Farber’s best-known paintings, in turn, allude to favored films and directors, though not by aping their visual styles. A first-generation abstract expressionist who showed alongside Franz Kline and Philip Guston at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, he turned to representation in the 1970s, around the same time he stopped publishing, and has never looked back; at eighty-five, he now paints full-time. But stating that Farber’s painting and criticism are “deeply informed” by each other is more textbook boilerplate. Attending to About Face, a major (seventy-plus works) retrospective that originated at San Diego’s Contemporary Museum of Art, may help us do better. The show traveled to the Austin Museum of Art, and is on view at New York’s P.S. 1 until mid-January 2005. (We’ll get there, but not for a while.)

The bit of cinephilic erudition Marcus quotes is not entirely representative of Farber’s method. In a 1999 interview with Edward Crouse, he admits (or boasts), “I never saw more than two or three movies a week, ever,” far fewer than Agee, Kael, or Andrew Sarris, never mind the monomaniacs at Cahiers du Cinema. If Farber’s judgments are forceful, even intimidating, it’s not because he’s seen more than you have, but because he’s looked harder. The Musketeers passage, which occurs midway through a deflation of Strangers on a Train, is worth setting down in full:

Nothing, even the pristine engineering of the bashful, uncomplaining Master, is sustained here (how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?). Walker’s contaminated elegance, which suggests Nero Wolfe’s classy, intricate hedonism, with omelettes in a brownstone, dissolves into momma’s boy brocade. Alongside a pretty block of husband-wife bickering in a record shop, its unusual use of glass partitions, sexual confidence and bitchiness in a girl with glasses, there are literally acres of scenes in elegant homes and tennis stadiums which could be used to stuff pillows if there were that many pillows in the world.

The argument is direct: despite his reputed precision, Hitchcock can’t control the best elements of his film. What is more important is the detail of the examples, and the techniques with which they are rendered. The dogpiled, edge-of-grammar quality, achieved partly by the removal of transitions. The references to pop-cultural flotsam (Musketeers, Nero Wolfe) barely on most readers’ radar, even at the time of writing; elsewhere, Farber praises Agee’s similar facility with “stray coupons.” The substitution of a spatial relation (“alongside”) for an expected temporal one (“after”). The repetition of a word (“pillow”) as a design element on the page.

Other key strategies:

Get-it-over-with plot summaries: “The Fox (bleak outlands, two forbiddingly lonely women trying hopelessly to make a go of a chicken farm, an extremely willful hunter-soldier wants the stranger of the two girls) is…”

Scare-quoting (and -capitalization) at its most contemptuous: “For this reason, many people, including the critics of The New Yorker and Time, think the movies are full of ‘ideas’—‘disturbing,’ ‘offbeat,’ and even ‘three-dimensional.'”

Metaphorical figures more vivid in their own right than as terms in a comparison: Agee makes clichés “sparkle like pennies lost in a Bendix”; an unnamed actor “shuffles around downtown like a coat sleeve looking for an arm to stick in itself.”

Then there are the puns, often redundant with their surroundings. The coinages “Monica Unvital” and “Jeanne Morose” only reinforce a fuller critique of Antonioni’s heroines of existential ennui. Cruelest is his treatment of British kitchen-sink queen Rita Tushingham (perhaps best known to many present readers as the cover star of the Smiths’ single “Hand in Glove.”) Like a schoolyard bully, he mocks her name repeatedly—“Tushless situation,” “the Tush treatment”—throughout a decimation of her acting called, I’m afraid, “Pish-Tush.” Even this cheapo stuff is part of the warp and woof of Farber’s maximum-thread-count prose.

Throughout Negative Space, Farber observes exactly one (pre-New) journalistic convention. He shuns the first person, with telling exceptions—Jean-Luc Godard “is the filmmaker that most consistently makes me feel like a stupid ass”—and never enters a piece via personal anecdote. As Polito notes in his catalog essay for About Face, the sole mention of Farber’s birthplace is just one more stray coupon: the main set of Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings “might be good for a Douglas, Arizona, high-school production.” (Farber’s paintings display a stronger autobiographical impulse.)

In playing down the personal, he’s miles away from Lester Bangs, his nearest equivalent in rock criticism. As Howard Hampton noted in “Let Us Now Kill White Elephants,” (the Believer, September 2003), neither is a hypester or a flack, and both excel at arguing themselves past received positions. (Bangs’s love-hate relationship with Lou Reed is a more tortured version of Farber’s with Godard.) But if Farber ever staggered home from the Thalia vomiting Seconal before phoning his exes, we’re not in on it, and not merely because the New Leader wasn’t Creem. His language constantly calls attention to itself, but hardly ever to Manny Farber. It isn’t that his writing pretends to objectivity; it’s just that, in the formulation “my response to this movie,” the emphasis falls squarely upon the second term. Farber wrote as he paints: as a modernist, with all the self-consciousness about the medium that label implies, but one whose concern with his chosen subject matter is no less serious than his interest in his own materials and methods.

Farber’s impolitic tone has also led to the misconception that his writing is anti-theoretical or, worse, anti-intellectual. Anti-academic, perhaps: no one is likely to mistake Negative Space for a scholarly work. The bulk of its contents was written for general readerships, long before the disciplinary rise of film studies. Even in the 1970s, the jargon of the field is notably absent: I count one “mise-en-scène” and zero “suture”s. He rarely pauses to acknowledge that anyone had previously thought or written compellingly about movies, with his metareview of Agee on Film and a swipe at high-toned populist Gilbert Seldes being notable exceptions. “The Subverters,” Farber’s 1966 Artforum debut, is patently his entry into the then-contemporary mêlée over the merits of the auteur theory: “One of the joys in moviegoing is worrying over the fact that what is referred to as Hawks might be [screenwriter] Jules Furthman, that behind the Godard film is the looming shape of [cinematographer] Raoul Coutard.” (The notion that “worrying” is a “joy” is characteristic.) But it’s only clear that Farber is siding, more or less, with Kael (and Andre Bazin) against Sarris (and Francois Truffaut) to readers who know that the battle is joined; none are named in the text.

In this respect, Negative Space resembles Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations—another curiously organized work, short on citations and professionalized vocabulary, from which some readers never escape. Wittgenstein had reasons of his own to cover his tracks, one being that his primary philosophical adversaries were those who made a dogma of his own earlier work. In Farber’s case, though, there are indications that he might have written more systematically—not, one imagines, less vividly—under different circumstances. In the book’s introduction, he grouses that “newspaper editors believe readers die like flies at the sight of aesthetic terminology.” Having any use for such terminology—even if he has to invent it himself—is one thing that distinguishes Farber from Kael, with her notorious inquiry “Is There a Cure for Film Theory?” For all Farber’s specificity, he is also (again like Wittgenstein) a not-so-secret theory-builder whose biggest ideas peek out from behind or around accumulations of details.


Getting down to cases: “Termite Art vs. White Elephant Art,” published in 1966 in the relatively specialized Film Culture, is Farber’s most puzzled-over piece, for reasons we’ll soon discover. As polemic, the essay opens straightforwardly, conducting a two-pronged attack on a kind of cinematic “masterpiece” that strives to gather reflected glory from European high-art models. One prong is sociological: the “gilt culture” aspirations of current filmmakers are traced to their need to be viewed as great artists. (Another argument against the auteur theory is implicit: some directors believed it, to the detriment of their practice.) The other prong is formal or compositional, and not confined to movies. Farber argues that Cézanne’s unfinished works, shorn of the burden of doing something brilliant, or even professional, with every inch of space, are his most exciting. He then accuses contemporaries “from Motherwell to Warhol” of treating “art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area” before locating the same tendency in directors as different as Antonioni, Truffaut, and Tony Richardson.

Similar negative judgments were already present in 1957’s “The Gimp” and 1962’s “Hard-Sell Cinema”: movies are at their worst when they strain for effect, as though the director were elbowing you to notice every cleverly chosen p.o.v. and camera move. This also applies to psychology and plotting: in certain “beautifully controlled Freud-Marx epics, the only things that really move are the tricks and symbols.” All these essays, “Termite Art” included, can also be read as contributions to the culture-versus-kitsch debates that centered, in their day, around Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg. As ever, our man’s position is tricky: he’s not anti-pop, decidedly not anti-art, and nearly always more concerned with creators than audiences.

Against elephant art—“the iceberg film full of hidden meanings”—Farber sets termite art, or, at one point, “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art.” Such work, in whatever medium, “feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Examples include John Wayne’s “hoboish” performance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the “sober fact-pointing” of Raymond Chandler’s letters (not his novels?), and exactly one scene in a Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. Most of Farber’s praise is reserved for parts or elements, rather than whole works; Kurosawa’s Ikiru is the only film singled out, in the essay’s abrupt closing paragraph, as entirely “buglike.”

The termite/elephant distinction, then, is in part Farber’s colorful way of expressing a preference for the unassuming over the grandiose, or for the human-scaled over the epic—but only in part. When it comes time to elaborate on individual films, it’s remarkably difficult to unravel just what Farber takes to be the virtues and vices of, say, Jules and Jim, and the final diagnosis of the “flying out effect” of Truffaut’s work is mystifying, an impressionistic image unmoored from the original distinction: “As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.” This is an indictment of some sort, but not one supported by the established (so we thought) terms of debate.

The titular notion of “negative space,” a phrase that appears only in the book’s openly theoretical introduction, is just as slippery. After that comment about editors and flies, Farber plunges ahead in a mock-pedagogical vein—the one I swiped some paragraphs earlier:

If there were a textbook on film space, it would read: “There are several types of movie space, the three most important being: (1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.”

Types (1) and (3) involve space in a literal sense. The latter concerns what is represented; the former, how. Type (2) is where the trouble starts: no longer Morose, Jeanne Moreau “works in a large space, which becomes empty as she devastates it with scorn,” while performers like Jane Fonda control an area that “extends about six inches to any side of their bodies, and anything else is uncontrollable, unattainable, and therefore hardly concerns them.” He’s not describing the size of an image, or even the relative scale of a presence or gesture within it, but something balanced on a thin edge between the physical and the psychological. The pages that follow scramble the picture further: while the third type of space “controls everything else—acting, pace, costume,” all three interact in multifarious ways. In decades past, Farber railed against anything that smacked of symbolism (those “Freud-Marx” epics), but now, he calls Orson Welles’s use of space in Touch of Evil “allegorical,” and not perjoratively.

Adding “negative” to “space” does not simplify matters. In any graphic (or photographic) arts course, you’ll learn a neat definition of “negative space.” It is the space that is not your subject; well-used, it has a compositional relevance of its own. Draw a donut. The region between the donut and the edges of the paper (the “contour”) is negative space; so is the hole. Contrast this with one of Farber’s attempts—there are several—to delineate the notion: “Negative space assumes the director testing himself as an intelligence against what appears on screen, so that there is a murmur of poetic action enlarging the terrain of the film, giving the scene an extra-objective breadth.”

One thing is clear: we’re not just talking donut holes here. Despite the straightforward example of “huge-seeming” figures in a glacial landscape (from Alexander Nevsky), formal, narrative, and imaginative elements are all in play. We’re out of the realm of treating the screen as an easel, and into—what? No one doubts that all the features discussed, however categorized, all contribute to a film’s final effect. But if some kinds of space, negative or otherwise, are pictorial, others psychological, still others “allegorical,” why call them all space?

Farber, I think, accepts the “flying out effect” of his own categories; he may even intend it. One suspects that he doesn’t especially like the idea that his notions may be incommunicable; hence, his incessant attempts to exemplify and support them. But as he does, the framework he began with changes from an either-or into a well-and-but-yet, with the result that the object of criticism also looks more interesting that it did originally. Or, as he says in the interview that ends the 1998 edition of the book: “The thing becomes filigreed.”

The introduction to Negative Space reaches another important conclusion. In 1960s film, Farber argues, “the illustrative naturalism that serviced Keaton’s Navigator through Hawks’s Red River simply broke apart.” For decades the codes of framing, lighting, and editing that governed what film theorists usually dub “Classical Hollywood Cinema” was a spatial lingua franca. At his forties-fifties tetchiest, Farber sometimes seems to be handing out penalty cards for overly conscious deviations from these norms. But after Godard, Pasolini, a reassessed Antonioni, the Tower of Babel has fallen. Henceforth, space is always a problem, one that every director—every film—is obliged to solve anew.

The directorial individualism with which Farber makes peace has implications for his writing as well. Now that “the space in film has been wildly and ingeniously singularized… it doesn’t seem right that the areas for criticism should be given over so completely to measuring.” That is: once, movies could be rated in accordance to some standard, established partly by reference to other movies; now that their strategies are incommensurable—“singularized”—the up-or-down assessments of the journalistic review are no longer adequate, or even meaningful. The same thought lies behind Farber’s dismissal of “evaluation,” again from the closing interview: “It’s a derelict appendage of criticism.” Farber doesn’t quit publishing immediately after making these remarks. But the introduction’s final sentence, which returns to the termite/elephant distinction, gets at both the necessity of saying something and the increasing difficulty of saying anything:

… all the directors I like—Fuller’s art brut styling; Chuck Jones’s Roadrunners; the inclement charm Godard gets with drizzly weather, the Paris outskirts, and three nuts scurrying around the same overcast Band of Outsiders terrain—are in the termite range, and no one speaks about them for the qualities I like.


Farber’s painting over the thirty-odd years since these passages were written should not be seen solely as a running illustration (or defense) of his criticism. But the degree to which he transfers energies and concerns from one medium to another is hard to miss.[2] The modestly scaled “Auteur Series” of 1976–8 is not the first figurative work Farber exhibited—arrangements of musty office supplies and forgotten concession-stand treats date from 1973—but these are his first paintings to reference particular films. In Preston Sturges (1976), which initiates the series, there’s “negative space” aplenty, in the textbook sense of absence. The center of the picture is empty save for morsels broken off of the Tootsie Rolls that occupy the painting’s rightmost edge. (Their wrappers poke up from the bottom of the frame.) The composition, a skewed frame around a void, makes no attempt to evoke Sturges’s antic pace.

Instead, Farber simply writes his subject into the painting. Dominating its upper third, a yellow notepad reads, in critic-in-the-dark scrawl, “feeding four flies, a glass of milk, and one piece of white bread to a snake.” This phrase describes the diet of the specimen kept by Charles “Hopsy” Pike (Henry Fonda) in Sturges’s The Lady Eve. It is a close paraphrase of dialogue that occurs more than once in the film, but it is an almost exact quote—originally, the snake was “rich, pampered”—from Farber’s own 1954 essay on Sturges (co-written with one W. S. Poster, about whom I have discovered nothing). This clue resolves much of the surrounding imagery. A packet of pipe tobacco bears the image of an ocean liner, one of the film’s main settings; the model trains that alternate rhythmically with the Tootsie Rolls refer to the characters’ disastrous honeymoon; and so on. (As currently shown, the painting’s title has been switched from the director’s name to the movie, possibly to avoid confusion with 1983’s larger Nix, which refers to several Sturges films.)

Other works in the series—on Hawks, Mann, Fassbinder—present more intricate systems of reference, allusion, and response. Overlapping with Farber’s withdrawal from criticism, they manifest the old impulses in a new way. Kevin Parker goes further: “Farber’s painting and writing are the same thing.” I’m not so sure—they’re about the same thing, until explicit cinematic references trail off in the mid-1980s. The paintings’ decentered, “all-over” look is a solution to the compositional problems of abstract painting, here given a figurative twist. But it is also a response to the difficulties of representing his thinking about movies—about anything—distinct from the compromises of expository prose. The reader of Negative Space might enter at an arbitrary point; the viewer of the paintings can hardly do otherwise.

The larger paintings that follow (variously on board, canvas, and mounted paper) are to the “Auteur Series” as his capacious late essays are to his single-film reviews. Even the titles indicate that the net is expanding: “Other Men’s Women,” Etc.; Mostly “The Wild Bunch.” Half-legible scribbles on flopped-open notebooks and torn scraps of paper—always depicted, never collaged—appear frequently; so do model railroad tracks, which both divide and connect. Visual puns abound: in 1981’s Roads and Tracks, half a grapefruit rests on a headshot of James Cagney, as payback for his table manners in The Public Enemy.

This particular gag is no fresher than “Pish-Tush,” but it indicates how the referential aspects of these paintings interact with their composition and technique. Farber’s film paintings are all still lifes of a sort. A photograph of his studio in the About Face catalog shows a shelf of toy cowboys and other objects. From these, he makes tabletop arrangements which serve as his “model,” though changes in scale and rendering complicate the completed paintings. Films of Farber at work show him painting on boards laid flat; thanks to the angle from which he approaches their surfaces, objects near the top edge come out elongated, and the whole takes on a just-off-bird’s-eye perspective. The method is a literal-minded extension of Cézanne’s famous device of tipping a surface toward the viewer at a steeper angle than what’s on it. Still later, in circular, where-do-I-look? paintings made between 1980 and 1985, spatial coherence is at most local. A typical detail, from Rohmer’s Knee (1982): a whitish wedge of cheese floats free of a neutral black field; a metal ruler, rendered in a conflicting perspective, lays across its top edge at an impossible angle; the entire contraption is a seesaw for two tiny human figures, out of scale with others nearby. The depicted props interact as memories, words, images might, on the page or in the mind.

Arguably, another cinematic influence lies behind these paintings’ surface action. Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1968) receives as much play in Negative Space as any other single movie, first in an essay that emphasizes the variety of “form and manner of execution” among the director’s films, then in a double review with Buñuel’s Belle du Jour (starring “Catherine Deadnerve”), and lastly in the introduction, where he dubs Godard “a cunning De Stijlist.” It isn’t that Farber thinks Godard’s choppy anthropology of a Maoist cell (and temporary farewell to the narrative feature) is so terrific. The actors are “puerile,” the politics, incredible: “The film actually sees itself as part of the movement to shake up the Establishment.” But visually, La Chinoise sticks with him, with its shallow, sidelong camera moves and scenes “set-up like a first-grade primer,” as student radicals spout dialectics “like fervid teachers against a blackboard.” Much of the action (barely) occurs in front of broad swatches of primary color, studded with slogans and torn-out magazine pages which underscore the dialogue and complete the composition.

Painted fifteen years later, Farber’s last explicitly movie-centered works play out against just the same kind of uninflected backdrop. Before the circular paintings just mentioned, Farber’s earth-toned backgrounds were usually worked with visible brushstrokes or otherwise variegated. But from the mid-1980s forward, the ground is “sectioned” (Gorin’s word) into equally sized hunks of flatly applied color, recalling both Mondrian and comic-strip panels. Other elements are set on or against—never “in”—this ground. In “have a chew on me” (1983), a cardboard stencil of the word “UP” sits on the border between a region with a yellow background, and an adjoining green one. Both colors show through the holes that form the word. (Remember our donut?) But the background itself is no more a depiction of something than a blank sheet of paper is; it can’t be understood as representing the tabletop or other real-world surface on which all else is arranged. This device, which allows the contents of a particular work to bump up against one another associatively or even “allegorically,” as well as pictorially, is as close as Farber comes—closer, anyway, than his prose—to demonstrating what he might have meant by “negative space.”

I’ve already noted that Farber stopped including easily traceable movie references in his paintings in the mid-eighties. (Not incidentally, he retired from teaching around the same time.) What supplanted them? Everything: food, chunks of pottery and metal, more handwritten notes-to-self (from phone messages to dream reports), renderings of art-book reproductions, and a great deal of vegetable life. Domestic Movies, an important painting from 1985, bridges the shift in his concerns. Though specific allusions are absent, strips of multicolored film leader run around and between the painting’s Post-It notes, cereal bowls, and potted plants. In part, it’s a painting of film rather than about film, weighing the artificial products of the cinema against the natural ones of his and Patterson’s Southern California garden.


Cellulose may have trumped celluloid in his paintings, but Farber still has movies on the brain. The San Diego run of About Face was accompanied by four screenings—one short, one feature—curated by himself and Patterson. Farber attended all four, and briefly cointroduced two, once with Patterson, once with Gorin.

A typical juxtaposition: Goodbye, South, Goodbye, a distant, glacially paced film by contemporary Hong Kong director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, and Chuck Jones’s 1943 One Froggy Evening. (You know: “Hello my honey, hello my baby, hello my ragtime gal.” Both films use get-rich-quick schemes as a metonym for the futility of human endeavor.) Other features included Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, whose pickpocketing scenes Negative Space heretically rates above Bresson’s, and Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry. (Paired with Laurel and Hardy’s Two Tars, this was the only one of the four I was obliged to miss.)

The first in the series paired Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) with, of all things, The Musketeers of Pig Alley. Musketeers, it turns out, is an eighteen-minute proto-gangster film from 1912, just one of the numerous Biograph two-reelers turned out by what Gorin called “the Griffith-Gish machine.” After seeing it, I’m still unwilling to speculate on the precise significance of “sustained,” but one can sense the volume of thought pressed up behind the “How many films…” one-liner that scared Greil Marcus so.

The story is nothing. On what a title card terms “New York’s Other Side,” seamstress Lillian Gish and sister Dorothy become mildly entangled with “The Snapper Kid,” leader of a gang of hoods who have, unbeknownst to her, recently mugged her violinist beau. The film’s real interest is formal; with no camera movement within a shot, what narrative there is accumulates from rhythmic permutations among discrete camera setups. Here is a coldwater flat; here is a hallway with a staircase; here is the teeming street. Seen today, the short’s rhythm and technical constraints are strikingly similar to those of Michael Snow’s Wavelength or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmans, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—radically stripped-down films Farber and Patterson championed in the 1970s.

The Grand Illusion, on the other hand, is not a movie to which you’d expect Farber to direct his attention, or ours. It’s unmentioned in Negative Space, and one of the few references to its director is a sarcastic poke at film-festival “myth”: “Renoir is deadly accurate on ‘human passions,’ hard-working folk, and the plight of the poor.” Worse yet, this particular film is at pains to propound Big Themes, soppy liberal-humanist ones at that: the meaninglessness of war, and the essential nobility and comradeship of Men of Every Nation, Class, and Religion (and exactly one farmhouse fräulein). The single rose cultivated, and later snipped, by Erich Von Stroheim’s Nazi officer symbolizes—there is no other word—the Inevitable (and Not Entirely Lamentable) Demise of European Civilization. We already know Farber’s more than capable of reorganizing his own critical categories. But isn’t this movie the kind of pale pachyderm he’s had in his crosshairs all along?

On the afternoon of the screening, after working through About Face for a few hours, and Negative Space for a few years, the choice made sense. Renoir’s prisoners are a variant on the tight-knit bands of gangsters, cargo pilots, newshounds that populate the Howard Hawks movies Farber doted on early in his critical career. Their bonding may be backed by rhetoric, but it’s stitched together modestly, believably, from small exchanges of food, song, and physical contact, as when Pierre Fresnay washes Jean Gabin’s legs. In scenes packed with the observational detail Farber prizes, the characters squander their energies in an ultimately fruitless attempt to burrow their way under and out of the camp, one coffee can at a time. (One subtitle reads, “Watch me play the mole.”) If any figures in a movie can be said to eat away at their immediate boundaries, and turn these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement, it’s this crew. Their termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss qualities are as bald as Farber’s puns.

The film’s closing moments can stand in for Farber’s deliberate trudge from particular to particular, against the grain of two media and seven decades. Contrasting with Stroheim’s brace-stiffened frame, Gabin and Marcel Dalio hunch diagonally across a snowy expanse as featureless as a just-primed canvas. Like the objects that lie over two adjoining sections of the late paintings, they’ve just crossed over an “unreal” line: the border between France and Germany. The scene depends in part on well-thumbed antiwar cliché, already pounded home by unbelievable dialogue: “You can’t see the borders. They’re man-made. Nature could care less.” But Renoir again gives the idea dramatic and visual form. The line has no physical embodiment, but it’s hardly illusory—once the pair makes it across, the German patrol, who can see them as clearly as we can, is duty-bound to hold their fire. Even in the final long shot, the effort of every step is distinctly visible. As figures in a composition, these forms organize the space that surrounds them. As subjects of a representation, they’re interchangeable, indistinguishable. They could be anyone; they could only be human. ✯

More Reads

The Topography of the Familiar

Benjamin Lytal

Blurbs for the Home and Workplace

BLURBS FOR THE COWORKER To get within ten feet of L____ is to experience the electrifying tension between the personal and the political. Equal parts gossipmonger and ...


I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say

Luc Sante