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Manny being Manny...

Posted by Wesley Morris  August 19, 2008 05:12 PM

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The painter and film critic Manny Farber has died at 90. Here are a couple of his choicer observations from "Negative Space," a few of which he wrote with his wife, the artist Paula Patterson. I bought a copy in college, and over the years it taught me something about film criticism that hadn't yet occurred to me. You don't necessary read it to argue with the critic but to try to see what they've discovered in a writer and director. Reading Farber (and Patterson) was like experiencing subjective travel writing from a couple that happened to be traveling in the dark, without leaving their seats.

On Preston Sturges: As a moviemaker, the businessman side of Sturges was superficially dominant. He even seems to have begun his career with the intention of giving Hollywood a lesson in turning out quick, cheap, popular pictures. He whipped together his scripts in record-breaking time, cast his pictures with unknowns, and shot them faster than anyone dreamed possible. He was enabled to do this through a native aptitude for finding brilliant technical shortcuts. Sturges tore Hollywood comedy lose from the slick gentility of pictures like "It Happened One Night" by shattering the realistic mold and the logical build-up and taking the quickest, least plausible route to the nerves of the audience. There are no preparations for the fantastic situations on which his pictures are based and no transitions between their numberless pratfalls, orgies of noise, and furniture-smashing. A Capra, Wilder, or Wellman takes half a movie to get a plot to the point where the audience accepts it and it comes to cinematic life. Sturges often accomplishes as much in the first two minutes, throwing an audience into what is generally the most climactic and revelatory moment of other films.

On Werner Herzog (with Patterson): The only roof Werner Herzog admits to is the sky; even the indoor shots of a dwarf prisoner, roped to a swivel chair, are unenclosed, chaotic, spacious. Herzog perversely subverts any potential drama, always opting for spontaneous activity over a pre-thought plan. One of his most rambunctious examples of history erupts in "Aguirre [Wrath of God]," The Spanish are making an assault on a cannibal village. They push in front of them an improbably acquiescent black slave on the proposition that he'll scare the savages to their knees. As they move forward, the ground turns at an angle, the stalwart Castilians roll around like marbles, and the spectator wonders why, where and what the director and his camera are doing. What are these Indians? Where are these countless arrows coming from? You can image [sic] Hezog whipping his frazzled actors before him with some of his movie's frazzled dialogue: "Move you sons of ducks, la pudre duh madre, keep the cannon out of the water!"... The overwhelming isolation of every mortal in the human kingdom is the sensation of any Herzog frame. When two types of loss-alienation can split apart within one frame, the movie is inevitably at its most hurtful and associative. Perhaps his entire oeuvre defines around the miracle scene, utterly dirty, of an Algerian hammering stones into gravel. His clenched doggedness is suddenly matched by an equally weathered intruder who takes a stiff, belligerent stand toward the camera. It captures a whole area's existence, dry mid-Sahara, and the outsider's impotent relation to it.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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