Manny Farber's Criterion

by Kent Jones

Created 02/28/14

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"One of the most important facts about criticism is obvious: it’s based on language and words. The desire is always to pursue: what does the word mean, or the sentence, or the paragraph, and where does it lead? As you follow language out, it becomes more and more webbed, complex. The desire is always to find the end. In any thought you put down, what you’re seeking is truth: what is the most believable fact and where is the end? You always have to seek the end." - MF, 1977

A note: these are not Manny Farber's "favorite" films, just ten films in the Criterion collection that he wrote about. The quotes are placed in the order in which the pieces were written.

  • A man with a forlorn and wistful face sits down at a table, takes two forks in his hands, plunges the forks into two rolls, bows, and begins the most memorable scene in movie history. It is the dance of the rolls from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.” Back again after almost two decades, this picture is still the most satisfying of all movies, and seeing it again now, with all those miles of reels in between, makes Chaplin’s art look better than ever. Actually, “The Gold Rush” is so perfect you wonder how he did it…On [his] mastery of pantomime, and on his exact knowledge of what he wants and what is humanly moving, he builds a character, then fits it into a situation, and it comes out all of a piece.
    These situations begin with something absurd: a dancer’s feet represented by two rolls, a house half on, half off a cliff, a meal made from a shoe. But Chaplin’s pantomime changes the situation into something significant with human feeling—the rolls come alive with the personality of a dancer, the house, for all the triteness, becomes a stirring reality, and what happens to the shoes is unbelievable. An absurdity has been made real and enormously significant; that is where you feel whatever emotion was intended by Chaplin. But at the same time, shoelaces aren’t spaghetti, and so you’re laughing. It is this interwoven double play that constitutes the complex genius of Chaplin. (1942, The New Republic)

  • The importance of “In Which We Serve,” the movie of British sailors which Noel Coward wrote, directed, produced and acted in England, is that it contains the vitality noticeably absent in most films. Coward is trying continually to keep the screen expressive. In the shipbuilding scene at the start, he gets exactly the rhythm of construction, and especially the individual’s importance in it, some of the energy, danger and craft. The important battle scene on the ship in last year’s battle at Crete brings out progressively the increasing pressure on the men, which never undermines their complex teamwork behind cannons and below the decks; the direction of action here is something any director would be proud of. When the screen is expressive in this sense, something of significant content is being shown, keyed to the pace of the action, and having the right camera angle, the right gestures and sounds to produce an experience the audience participates in, as emotion defined by movement. Even the description of sailors’ shore leave, which censorship and the established mores of popular art keep at a “naice” level, are given a kind of vitality by the right casting, timing and dialogue; so that they come out stronger, more admirable for being natural. (1942, The New Republic)

  • A macabre melodrama about incestuous adolescents; rates top honors in every film department for its tough-minded, unselfconsciously clumsy but delicate treatment of a subject a movie crew could easily have murdered. Turns up one fascinatingly grotesque image after another; set in the small, special world of a fantastically disordered bedroom, it works with a sick brother and his sister who wander about in bathrobes seeking some new gadget or ritual for kicks; crowds the whole tremulous desperation of two deeply affectionate, anarchic little beasts into the performances of Stéphane and Dermit, whose acting of the queer and fantastic should be studied by the overrated Julie Harris-Shirley Booth-Marlon Brando academy of overplaying. (1953, The Nation)

  • The fall, brief rise, and death of a Joan of Sartre, a prostitute determined to be her own woman. The format is a condensed Dreiserian novel: twelve near-uniform segments with chapter headings, the visual matter used to illustrate the captions and narrator’s comments. This is an extreme documentary, the most biting of his films, with sharp and drastic breaks in the continuity, grim but highly sensitive newsreel photography, a sound track taped in real bars and hotels as the film was being shot and then left untouched. The unobtrusive acting inches along in little, scuttling steps, always in one direction, achieving a parched, memory-ridden beauty. A film of extraordinary purity. (1968, Artforum, with Patricia Patterson)

  • Red River (1948), as a comment on frontier courage, loyalty, and leadership, is a romantic, simple-minded mush, but an ingeniously lyrical film nonetheless. The story of the first trip from Texas to the Abilene stockyards is a feat of pragmatic engineering, working with weather, space, and physiognomy. The theme is how much misery and brutality can issue from a stubbornly obsessed bully (John Wayne, who barks his way through the film instead of moving), while carving an empire in the wilderness. Of the one-trait characters, Wayne is a sluggish mass being insensitive and cruel-minded on the front of the screen; Joanne Dru is a chattering joke, even more static than Wayne; but there is a small army of actors (Clift, John Ireland) keyed in lyrically with trees, cows, and ground…Hawks gets exhilarating situations: the stampede in Red River is great, maybe because everyone shuts up during the panic. He can be very touching, as in Harry Carey Jr.’s death with four or five cowboys standing in straight-line silence in a strangely hollowed out terrain that suggests Gethsemane. (1969, Artforum, with Patricia Patterson)

  • Easy Rider, a sparsely written cross-country movie with a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on extravagant motorcycles, is marred by draggy, romantic material: chunks of time spent on glinting handlebars, hippies solemnly sprinkling the earth with seeds at sundown, ghastly Bachrach portraiture. Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than pretty good in its handling of death, both the actual event and in the way the lead acting, like Ryan-Holden’s in The Wild Bunch and Shirley Knight’s in The Rain People, carries the scent of death. The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, less programmed than Peckinpah’s, come out of nowhere, involve an explosion of grief-stricken acting (Fonda and Hopper), and are snipped off. The finality and present tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside, and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and burning cycle.
    There’s quite a portrait dead-center of Easy Rider: a young Southern lawyer, ex-athlete, town drunk, good-natured and funny. Practically a novel of information, this character’s whole biography is wonderfully stitched from all directions (a lawyer’s son with a shaky but established position in the town, with an unbiased scorn for his own mediocrity), sprung in short time without being obviously fed. Jack Nicholson’s acting of “George” is done with dishevelment, squinty small-town gestures, and a sunniness that floods the performance. (1969, Artforum)

  • Ma Nuit Chez Maud is civilized work, beautifully spaced out and observed. Very straight, not pretentious in any way. Rohmer has conceived a potential love affair that doesn’t take, by way of a 24-hour verbal sparring match that is magically phrased by Trintignant and Françoise Fabian. A very atmospheric movie—dry, cold snow, both outside, in the forest-y suburb and inside, in the minds of two people who can’t be totally happy. It’s unusual to center a film inside an encounter of hesitance, either-or moments; his resolve wavers, then he catches himself, the girl goes through a lot of changes from understanding, then sympathy, to miffed and final resignation. Trintignant’s drying-out technique for suggesting vulnerability is that of a lean-exquisite miniaturist in a very private, intelligent ground-covering act. Within Fabian’s taunting, flamboyant role is the pathos of a confused intelligence at loose ends. She’s very exciting. (1970, Artforum)

  • A rich catalog of mythology and symbolism about donkeys squeezed into a queer script that wanders and doubles back, detailing the varieties of evil and self-destruction that Bresson seems to be saying is Human Nature. Anne Wiazemsky is exquisitely and movingly beautiful, both willfully perverse and strong in character (a standout scene: eating spoonfuls of honey while practically trading her body for a night under a miser’s roof). I think this is a superb movie for its original content, exhilarating editing, and Bresson’s Puritanistic camera work, belt-high and wonderfully toned, that creates a deep, damp, weathered quality of centuries-old provincialism. (1970, Artforum)

  • Ozu’s rigidly formalized, quaint hominess, a blend of Calvin Coolidge, Blondie, and Mies’s neo-plastic aesthetic, is like coming into a beautifully ordered home and being surrounded by respectful manners. It doesn’t quite reach the pedestal of being “utterly Japanese,” or “an unusually profound presentation of character.” Simply poised linearism is probably closer to the truth. The simple-minded Jane Austen script (who’s going to marry whom) shows a Fifties image of Japanese life in which there is often a bland proper face with a spectacular keyboard of gleaming white teeth. “Profound characterization” seems to be a minor concern of the director compared to that of creating a delicately poised domestic panorama and in the process making workable some of the oldest tools in movie construction…The whole story moves towards the serene, ironic death of a lecherous father, unlike any other movie, in a kind of Morse code line. You see a little segment of family drama, then silence, followed by three shots of the brewery’s wide tubs lined against a wall just outside the omnipresent doorway, which is Ozu’s most consistent compositional device, and then another piece of middle-class soap opera. This scene-silence-bridging routine (sometimes wildly emotional music is played over the chapter division landscapes) repeats until the last of the three shots of black crows on a very blue-serene shore ends the graceful dot-dash parade and leaves the Ozu message: all is transitory, but the family remains. (1970, Artforum)

  • Badlands is the Bonnie-Clyde bloodbath done without emotions or reactions, plus a suave, painterly image (the visuals resemble postcards with the color printed twice) that bespeaks a near-comatose Dakota life. The lethargy of S. Dakotans is joined with a girl’s (Sissy Spaced) deadpan, rosy-sided diary on the soundtrack. It takes this bloodless chick eight murders to figure her ex-garbage slinger with Nat Cole in his heart as not only “trigger happy,” but, in fact, “the hell-bent type”…One thing that stands out is the way that many of the new demons in Hollywood and Marin Co. lived their youth in the Eisenhower 50s, hid out in film schools and Corman-ish B films during the heyday of Godard and Snow, and exploded in the ‘70s as impatient Prousts in an attraction-repulsion syndrome with the pious, smug Americanism that pummeled their teenaged years. These 30-year-olds, who are on a kick investigating myths, cliches and autobiography, were educated in an era that was unforgettable, not only for the sponge mop, Pat Boone and Korea, but for sincerity, chastity and the drabbest clothes of the 20th century, charcoal gray being the big color. The main point being made here is that each movie…gets its bite from being a backlash against the solemnity of the ‘50s. (1975, City, with Patricia Patterson)


    March 22, 2014
    04:58 PM

  • By dudlyarse
    March 23, 2014
    04:09 PM

    Awesome list. Thanks for posting.
  • By JimmyLew
    March 30, 2014
    12:39 AM

    Love Farber. Thanks for compiling!
  • By futurestar
    April 22, 2014
    11:24 PM

    I have lots of friends that have an aversion to watching sub - titled films. I do not press the point of the great films they may have missed. Like Beavis and Butthead - words get in the way. To argue point would be senseless. Glad I was taught to embrace the written word very early on, Wear grade school libraries shelves dry, then make my 1st paycheck with taxes taken out as a teenager working in an art house movie theater. Cinematic poetry in any language engulfed with hungry eyes.
  • By SamWizeGanji
    July 09, 2014
    03:53 PM

    Some of my favorite films
  • By futurestar
    July 25, 2014
    10:40 AM

    what can I say. again here are films I know very well and all of them offer substance and sustenance in spades. keep ' em coming. thanks for sharing.
    August 16, 2014
    11:29 PM

  • By LawrenceG
    January 30, 2016
    01:30 AM

    In the notes to Ozu's The End of Summer, the phrase " The simple-minded Jane Austen script (who’s going to marry whom)" is striking. A reader who finds only this in Jane Austen's work is either not a close reader, or is so overwhelmed by preconception, that critical judgement becomes valueless.
  • By JDHMathews
    April 22, 2016
    06:33 PM