The brilliant American film critic Manny Farber died in August at age 91. In honor of his great friend and idol, critic and Film Society of Lincoln Center programmer organized a film festival that would celebrate Farber’s life, writing, and teaching. The series, titled Manny Farber 1917-2008, is now playing at New York’s Walter Reade Theater, through November 26 (click here for ticket info). For the occasion, Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes sat down to talk with Jones about Farber and why he and his friends chose certain films for the festival. Of course, the conversation grew and expanded to encompass not only Farber’s legacy but approaches to criticism itself. Thanks to Kent Jones for his time and candor.
. . . RS: For those of us who mostly know Manny through Negative Space, and not knowing necessarily what he taught through the years, there are some surprises. Such as, for me, seeing Two or Three Things I Know About Her on the schedule, only knowing his opinion on the film from a New York Film Festival wrap-up, which was basically…
KJ: A pan.
RS: …a pan, right—though a very Manny Farber kind of pan.
KJ: Singing the crisp image that Raoul Coutard gets . . . It seems that every time I talked to him he was telling me how—unsurprisingly maybe—he wished he could have written more about Nick Ray, that he could have done justice to him and how special those early films are. He knew Nick Ray, and I think he felt a certain personal debt to him. He felt similarly about James Agee, he kind of regretted having written that piece about Agee. In the last few years of his life he was thinking back to his friendships with people. When he was writing as part of the New York intellectual world of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, his instinct was always to pull away from what everyone else was doing and take another look. There’s a piece that he wrote that’s in a Nation collection of art criticism where he kind of pans Matisse. As you just said, he does it in a very Manny Farber way, but he’s not somebody who’s going to write from the perspective of looking at an old master. He’s always looking at things from the now, directly. There are always surprises.
Something he said to me a couple of times was, “I really think I missed the boat on Hitchcock.” Patricia and I were talking about this recently, about how he would always make such a big deal about not liking Hitchcock, yet he taught Notorious, he taught North by Northwest, he taught and really loved Vertigo, he taught Strangers on a Train, which is a movie he writes a lot about, somewhat disparagingly, somewhat admiringly. He and Patricia called me once to tell me how thrilling it was to go back and look at On the Waterfront—I don’t remember one good word that he ever wrote about Elia Kazan. He was always going back and looking. Which is the opposite of other critics. The most famous example is Pauline Kael, who made a point of never going back and looking at things again, but that was her personality and the way that she operated, and she was working a completely different kind of critical territory. She was thinking in terms of this conversation with her audience. He was thinking in terms of a conversation with the film. That’s something very different. So she didn’t have to go back and take a second look; he did. It was ongoing . . .