For a great many people, and particularly numerous film critics, the perceptions gleaned from youthful hours spent in the dark were significantly enhanced by Manny Farber. From 1942-77, Farber peddled his tough-hewn essays about the movies to the Nation, the New Republic, Film Culture and anywhere else that would have him. Now one of his learned readers — British documentarian, TV director and sometimes feature filmmaker Chris Petit — has repaid Farber by lionizing him in “Negative Space,” a sleight-of-hand docu/road-movie in which form gleefully follows function. Currently making the rounds of film societies and museums, pic should be eagerly welcomed by cable outlets.
Farber is a detail fetishist, and his writing is suffused with an appreciation for the lingering, adhesive quality of movies — the way seemingly unimportant movements and images can sear themselves into our minds, mingling with our real-life memories until the one becomes indistinguishable from the other. If Bresson freed movies from the constricting grip of theatrical presentation, so Farber liberated film criticism from an equally decayed, theatrical-artificial way of seeing films.
Any one of Farber’s sentences is packed with the tersely lyrical detail of a Sam Fuller set-up (sample: “Richard Widmark, who has the look of a ham that has been smoked, cured and then coated with honey-colored shellac,” from Farber’s 1969 evisceration of “Two Rode Together”). He is perhaps best-known for coining the designation “termite art” and asserting, “Space is the most dramatic stylistic entity” in film (“Negative Space” is the title of Farber’s seminal collection of pieces).
More than paying a familiar, ceremonial homage to Farber, the intent of Petit’s film is to explore these and other key tenets of Farber’s writing through a multifaceted aesthetic approach.
The driving scenes from “Breathless” and “Voyage to Italy” are compared in side-by-side panels. Farber’s gravelly voiceover rhapsodizes about the angles, groupings and use of space in the latter, while dismissing the former as so much “jazz.”
Then, there is a further juxtaposition — a driving scene from Petit’s own video-diary footage of his trip across the expansive vistas of the American Southwest, en route to meeting Farber at his Leucadia, Calif., home. The constants are the notions of dynamic space and “termitic” detail — the shower drain from “Psycho” shown against color video footage of a shower drain in a contemporary Phoenix motel room.
Petit largely avoids personality-profile overtures. He doesn’t grill Farber about why he abandoned writing, or on his taste in recent cinema (territory covered extensively in Kent Jones’ excellent Film Comment interview). Even when Farber appears onscreen, Petit makes sure we’re drawn first to how he has placed Farber in the frame — posed awkwardly in his art studio and, later, comfortably disposed at his kitchen table.
The ensuing dialogue runs the gamut from painting (Turner is not termitic enough) to movies (the luminance of Fassbinder’s lighting) to, finally, the perilous state of contemporary film criticism, how it has gotten away from the essence of Farber’s ideas (ironic, given the legions who cite his influence) and how it has been bamboozled by the hokum of Spielberg and other New Hollywood directors.
“Critics write about the wrong things,” Farber says before adding, acerbically, that it doesn’t matter so much to him, “because I’ll be dead in five years.”
While there’s the sense that Farber could go on forever (and at only 39 minutes, one wishes the film would go on a bit longer), Petit never quite develops all the desired associations between the Farber material and his study of the “space” of America itself. He makes a few concise, Chris Marker-esque connections and gets some humorous soundbites from art critic Dave Hickey, but the ultimate impression is of a half-formed canvas — a show reel intended to get someone to step in and fund the remainder of the project.