Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art” remains one of the most influential pieces of film criticism ever written (it certainly influenced me — even inspiring the name of my first film blog with my colleague R. Emmet Sweeney). If you’ve never read it, Farber essentially argues in favor of small scale boundary breakers (termite art) over big, bloated works of “importance” (white elephant art). Also, if you’ve never read it, buy this book for crying out loud.
In a lovely essay for Film Comment on “The Shining” and the new “Shining” documentary “Room 237,” critic B. Kite uses an inventive twist on Farber’s white elephant/termite art terminology to describe the particular and peculiar aesthetic of the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick:
“In the years since Stanley Kubrick’s death, his films have come to seem ever more anomalous. Some of this has to do with his movies’ characteristic registers, which, in their mixture of grandiosity, the monumental, with intimations of a weirdly teasing, hermetic design, suggest nothing so much as an unholy Farberian crossbreed: the elephantine termite.”
Many critics have built their own rubrics out of the raw materials of Farber’s theory, but I’ve never read one quite so simple and yet so clever. And it fits: Kubrick is perhaps the ultimate “elephantine termite” — crafting spectacular movies in disreputable genres like science-fiction, horror, and war, often heralded by critics and movie buffs but largely ignored by the Hollywood awards establishment (Kubrick himself never won a Best Director Oscar). The phrase goes a long way towards explaining Kubrick’s appeal as well: the filmmaker who makes genre films unlike anyone else, neither high nor lowbrow.
Kite’s entire essay is superb and worth a read. “The Elephantine Termite” is worth stealing, with respectful acknowledgement of its source.
Read more of “Escaping the Overlook.”