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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2


Remembering artist and teacher Manny Farber 1917–2008

by Carrie Rickey, Muir ’74, M.F.A. ’76

Manny Farber, painter’s painter, critic’s critic, and man’s man

Pervasive as night-blooming jasmine, the noir-ish flyers were taped to posts outside the Muir Snack Bar, stapled to eucalyptus trees on Matthews Campus and tacked to the bulletin board at Revelle’s Coffee Hut during fall-quarter finals week, 1970. They touted “A Hard Look at the Movies,” a new course by New York painter and film critic Manny Farber. Looking back on it, it is fitting that this subterranean-style alert would trumpet the arrival of the guy who coined the expression “underground movies.”

With his Mojave of a forehead and cactus-flower ears Manny
(I can call him that: He was my teacher, I his teaching assistant) resembled a cross between Walter Matthau and Elmer Fudd and was engaging as both. A onetime football player nicknamed “Snake Hips” for the way he eluded tackles, the curmudgeon born in the Arizona bordertown of Douglas attended Berkeley High (two years ahead of his critical colleague Pauline Kael), the University of California and Stanford before heading East.

In New York after World War II, he made his reputation as an abstract painter and a writer—The Nation, The New Republic, Time, Commentary and even the girlie mag Cavalier—before returning West to make cinephiles and artists out of a generation of UCSD students who took his classes between 1971 and 1987.

“A Hard Look at the Movies” stunned students, turning our ideas about film inside out. Impeccably dressed in a suit and tie and fueled by more than one jigger of Johnny Walker Red, his idiosyncratic Wednesday night lectures in USB 2722—an in-the-moment form of performance art—were as surreal and penetrating as a Warner Brothers cartoon. To make us look, really look, at the medium, he ran films backwards, forwards, and with and without sound. To break us of the habit of seeing films as entertainment, he would show us only a snippet. Often as he deconstructed a single frame, the projector lamp would singe the celluloid, and, like a cigarette on flesh, melt it.

A practicing artist and a movie critic straddling parallel universes, Manny taught his film students to think of movies as an art that relied, like painting, on compositional dynamics—as he taught painting students to think of the cinematic possibilities within a single canvas. His influence can be found in every echelon of film and publishing. Novelist Rex Pickett, ’76 (Sideways) was inspired by “Manny’s fierce work ethic—he was either writing or painting.” Filmmaker Barbara Schock, ’78 (1998 Oscar winner for My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York) speaks of how Manny “turned the way I look at movies upside down.” Other directors he spawned include Michael Almereyda (The Good Girl), Roddy Bogawa (I was Born But…). And then there are the critics he influenced, including Duncan Shepherd, ’74 (San Diego Reader), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and me.

So many Manecdotes, as his teaching assistants used to call Manny stories. Here’s one. The place: New York. The time: 1980. I had taken Manny to a screening of an anemic Australian film at the Rizzoli creening Room on Fifth Avenue. In search of dinner, we strolled down the avenue, past Sak’s and its fabled windows. As we talked about criticism (and how the Austalian flick defied it) and an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Manny did not fail to notice the Sak’s mannequins and the backdrops. Shoulder-padded women’s-wear with inverted-pyramid silhouettes (like modernist Russian geometry) in front of what looked like Kenneth Noland stripe paintings; retro man-in-the-grey-flannel-suit menswear in front of Frank Stella-like chevrons. Manny stopped mid-sentence and said, “You know, I lived through Russian Constructivism, ’50s conservatism and ’60s lyrical abstraction sequentially. Now I’m reliving it synchronously.” Cradling forehead in hand he puzzled, “Say, did I just define postmodernism?”

Carrie Rickey, Muir ’74, M.F.A. ’76, is the movie critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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