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Watching The Master through the Weird Vision of Manny Farber

Over his thirty years of writing about film, including the landmark essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” Manny Farber challenged the pretentions of art house cinema while celebrating the inventiveness of B-movies. Today, Farber's criticism deserves to be read as itself a kind of art.

Watching The Master through the Weird Vision of Manny Farber

After serving  many years as a veteran radio producer and video-journalist at the...

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| Scene from PT Anderson's The Master

There used to be two kinds of movies, the blockbuster and the indie-art film, and then someone in Hollywood figured out how to disguise one as the other. Case in point: The Master, the Paul Thomas Anderson hand-wringer that’s not about Scientology and features what may be the most savage, radical portrayal of the lost American anti-hero since De Niro in Taxi Driver, or De Niro in Raging Bull, or De Niro in Meet the Fockers. For me, the experience of watching The Master was like walking a suspension bridge: unsteady, thrilling, dangerous, but halfway there I wondered if I hadn’t been duped by some illusion of risk. How often do suspension bridges fall? They don’t.

That sense of being led to safety under the guise of danger peaked halfway through the film, the jailhouse scene: Philip Seymour Hoffman, the leader of a nascent self-actualization movement, has been arrested on fraud charges. Joaquin Phoenix, his unlikely mascot and follower, gets into a scrap with the police, and they both end up in adjoining cells. Hoffman is calm, amused, while Phoenix rips off his clothes, smashing his head on the bunk like Rain Man on crystal meth, and it’s like I’m watching Hoffman watching Phoenix literally act his pants off, and we both know he’ll get an Oscar for this. While there’s enough in the film to provoke, from Joaquin as Freudian Id to Amy Adams, who plays Hoffman’s controlling wife, as chilling Superego, it’s as if the movie is aware of its own weird greatness. It smells like a work of art, but it looks like some focus group’s idea of what a work of art should look like. Consider this: The Master, described by Associated Press as a “cult film,” broke the record for opening-day per-screen earnings in 2012.

It used to be that a “cult film” would bomb in the mainstream and then, as culture evolved, so would its standing—a cautionary tale for commerce that sees taste as a top-down, trickle-down process. The cult film, if we let it, then becomes a “classic:” Pink Flamingos, Night of the Living Dead, Citizen Kane. Turns out the marketplace doesn’t have time for this. Easier to skip the steps from cult to classic, create the illusion of art, and maybe in the end make a decent film, like The Master. What’s missing, though, is the anxiety of risk, the sense that the bridge might really fall because the guy who built it was under the spell of some vision (think of Samuel Fuller or Stanley Kubrick), rather than the well-rehearsed rules of structural engineering. I get the same sense when I buy an Apple product: it’s neat, I like it tons, but I’m uncomfortable that Apple knew this about me before I did. I wish I could stop thinking about this kind of thing and just watch the movie.

The man behind my own cinematic buzz kill is Manny Farber, who wrote about film for The New Republic, Commentary, and The Nation for three decades from the 1940s. It’s crucial that Farber was also a visual artist, a painter, because it was from that context that he called Hollywood on its cynical co-option of the artistic impulse. “The self-confidence of these new picture-makers,” he wrote, “is of a kind that feels the audience’s eye will accept anything, no matter how dull or unconvincing, if it is dressed up in some sort of trappings borrowed from ‘Art.’” He wrote like Jackson Pollock painted, in splashes of ideas, crushing cigarette butts into the wet pigment, often never quite getting to the point but filling the canvas. The best films for him were the B-movies of his childhood, growing up in Arizona in the Depression, where:

“…theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge.”

What on earth does that mean? It doesn’t matter, you keep reading, and the experience of reading the Farber essay matches Farber’s experience of watching the film: it’s not an interpretation, but a cracking, felt chronicle of the event. For example, China Is Near, a 1967 Italian political drama, is:

“…a beehive film in which a dozen digitlike, turned-away people, mostly unlikable (they seem small even in the bed scenes) suggest a kind of ratty elegance within a humid, Marienbad structure of boredom, deeply diminished pieces of nothing, somber suavity. The plot, criss-cross or mixed doubles, centered around an innocuity running (who knows why) for local office, has been likened to Stendhal and genius. Some of it is fun, particularly two lower-class lovers with a cynical snap to them, but most of the time you just sit there and watch.”

You imagine Farber telling this to the cab driver on his way to some shop in Brooklyn to get smokes, but what sounds effortless is in fact rigorous, painstaking: some essays, he said, took months, even years, to write. How long till he settled on “beehive,” or how long to uncover the baffling image of the pirate and the giant sponge? It’s the artist’s prerogative to baffle if the image is fresh, and the pirate-sponge is fresh, it’s how he felt: it comes off like a morphine dream, the best kind. He laboured over the essays the way he laboured over canvases: nothing, in the placement of colour or shape or language, is arbitrary.

It was on the issue of labour that he challenged the film business, both Hollywood and the European art house, in his famous essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” “Good work,” he wrote, “usually arises when the creators… seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or anything… It goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” This is Termite Art. The workmanlike B-movies had it. John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he says, is a Termite turn: while other capital-A Actors in pancake makeup chew up the film-lot scenery (the cacti that the crew had planted just the night before), Wayne settles into his own tiny corner of the film, nibbles at the idea of a man sitting in a chair against the wall as if it mattered only to him. Put that against Antonioni’s La Notte or L’Avventura, in which the director’s “aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” This is White Elephant Art. Both are labour intensive, but one is humble and unpretentious “without point or aim” while the other is Grand, and wants loud credit in exchange: applause, awards, big opening-day box office. The essay happily rambles like a grandfather who has misplaced his meds, but scores its point: Elephant art is hyper-aware of its audience, the critics, the awards panels. It has a pre-determined goal, and is therefore understood by the marketplace. Meanwhile, Termite art doesn’t even seem to know it’s art, it just is. As he puts it in the more coherent, but less deliciously Termite-y essay, “Hard-Sell Cinema:”

“It is hard to say where the business mind first entered the door of American creativity. Tracing its antecedents is like working backward across a terrain of quicksand, but one fact keeps thrusting forward: in the rise of cold, short-stack, grounded Macy’s artistry, there is an aroma of mean commercial competitiveness.”

Think of the “new” (in 1957) jazz musicians: Getz and Brubeck—”deft and crisp on their run-on gimmicks,” wrote Farber, but without the integrity, pain, and sometimes whimsy of a Charlie Parker. Getz “turns the baritone sax into a thing that can be easily mastered, like a typewriter.” The same cardigan-clad account execs listening to Brubeck’s “Take Five” on the home Hi-Fi, and feeling authentic, were lining up to see serious films, like Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men. The serious film pulled sentiment and sympathy from the consumer like a miner pulling coal froman open-pit vein. Plug in Henry Fonda as the big-hearted, doe-eyed surrogate of the moviegoer who feels like he’s the one who saved the innocent man from being fried.

In a way, Manny Farber’s frisky iconoclasm matched the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, working around the same time at Columbia University: Trilling made a case for complex and difficult art, as an antidote to the 20th-century culture of easy answers. “Mind does not move toward its ideal purposes over a royal straight road,” he wrote, “but finds its way through the thicket of its own confusions and contradictions.” Great literature takes work not just to create but to consume: the reader is also a kind of termite, gnawing and devouring and trying to make sense of the grand, rumpled contraption that is art. For Trilling the stakes were high: difficult art exposed the lies of too-easy ideologies, like Stalinism, which put on its sick happy face and hid its own complexities and contradictions behind violence and the gulags. In a way, Trilling saw totalitarianism as a kind of White Elephant political nightmare: big, brash, enticing, dangerous.

But that’s Trilling, and his big macro canvas. Farber painted smaller. He wrote about the marketplace and its fondness for White Elephant masterworks not for political reasons but because, as an artist, it pissed him off. On the one hand it’s quaint stuff 50 years on, so little do we even notice the long-standing marriage between commerce and art. But on the other hand it’s worth noting how commerce feeds an appetite for complexity, for old-fashioned, hand-tooled Termite industriousness.

This brings me back to The Master, which I swear was a good film, but then why did I feel snookered? In response to the record-breaking box office on opening day, Weinstein Co., the distributor, credited “guerilla marketing by PTA” (their nickname for director Paul Thomas Anderson) and pop-up screenings, of which I’d never heard. Turns out a pop-up screening is the calculated, cinematic equivalent to a flash mob: the film just shows up at a theatre (in Los Angeles or New York) and through near-military viral marketing on social media people come and leave with the sensation that the whole event grew organically. This in turn feeds more Twitter buzz, the film develops instant street credibility, and on it goes: same as selling sports shoes on YouTube without appearing to sell sports shoes on YouTube, through manufactured grassroots “activism” also known as astroturfism. The pop-up gives the impression of a Termite team of hipster visionaries rushing the still-dripping print from a bathroom film lab in some Greenpoint studio loft. And even if we know otherwise it still feels good, somehow, to think they think we value this kind of thing: the illusion of Termite industriousness makes White Elephant art seem more subversive and risky than it actually is. The Master is not a work of Termite art, it’s just been packaged and sold that way. Manny Farber may have seen all this coming. But he gave up on film writing in the ‘70s, before the advent of astroturfism, to focus on his art. He died in 2008 at 91.

I love Manny Farber but the problem is that once you’ve read him you can’t un-read him. After the jailhouse scene in The Master, once it was clear I was in the presence of well-crafted White Elephant Art, I started the distracting game of looking for an honest Termite moment, the aim of which, according to Farber, is “buglike immersion” in some detail for no other reason than that it’s there: “nailing down one moment without glamorizing it,” the work that gnaws at its own boundaries. Surely PTA had it in him. But every frame in The Master is a gem: polished, uncontaminated, but none so sharp you’d cut yourself. Some of it’s downright startling, and a handful of great actors swing for the fences, but mostly you just sit there and watch.

Only later did I think: so what? I crossed the suspension bridge with a manufactured, well-orchestrated thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. It’s possible I’ve been reading Farber not as a kind of art in itself, which it is, but as some kind of dogma: rules for viewing. That’s a mistake. The best criticism doesn’t teach or preach but struggles to convey in language some original experience, even as that experience defies expression. You get it in Farber, and Pauline Kael, Lionel Trilling and Geoff Dyer: Termite criticism, or buglike immersion in a subject where the conclusion, a Facebook-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down, is irrelevant. What matters is that they read and see and think, and by writing prompt us to do the same. If we end up feeling like a pirate discharged from a giant sponge, even better.