Not a reference to how long it’s been since my last entry, long though it certainly has been. Instead, I cheer at today’s long-awaited arrival from the US of Negative Space, Manny Farber’s book of film criticism. The book had been in my Amazon cart for ages, at the price of about £9, though for some reason I never got round to buying it; then, after Farber’s death last summer, the book suddenly went out of print and the second-hand price shot up to £35, £40 or more. Same story on abebooks. A month or so ago a copy turned up on eBay for about $11 (though the shipping from the States cost almost as much as the book), and I leapt on it.
I borrowed a copy from the library a few years ago and was, of course, immensely impressed - above all by Farber’s preternatural recall of the geometry of a particular shot in a film. And he’s so right about so much. But even at the time it felt as if he was being a little unfair on some of the ‘big beasts’ of Hollywood - the purveyors of what he termed, in a celebrated phrase, ‘white elephants’: grand, would-be significant but, he thought, rather empty prestige pictures. Having now read what later critics like Andrew Sarris and the great David Thomson have to say on the subject of such 1940s/1950s directors as William Wyler (one of Sarris’ ‘less than meets the eye’ directors), Joseph Mankiewicz and Fred Zinnemann, I can see just how influential Farber has been. And the current high critical standing of a super-efficient, unpretentious director like Don Siegel owes much to Farber’s early advocacy of what he called ‘termite art’. (There’s a fantastic, and much-quoted, remark about Farber to the effect that he used to play both brows against the middle.) Farber was obviously reacting against the stifling orthodoxy of his time - the sort of claims to significance that we can perhaps guess at when we see how biggish-budget Hollywood dramas like The Reader and Revolutionary Road (now something of a dying breed) are marketed - but I wonder whether this prevented him from seeing that Wyler and co were just as craftsmanlike as his low-budget exemplars like Siegel. It seems to me that these tasteful, ’steady’ films - to take two examples starring Audrey Hepburn, The Nun’s Story (Zinnemann) and Roman Holiday (Wyler) - give cinema its bearings, in a sense: perhaps it’s because you know where you are with films like this that more exciting and excitable films can do what they do. (It’s the same with acting: somewhere in Negative Space Farber gives Henry Fonda a hard time for not being the tremendous force of nature that his co-star Eugene Pallette is in a particular film, conveniently forgetting that as the star Fonda has to carry the picture, and that a film with Pallette being larger than life at its centre would quickly become wearisome.)
Anyway, it’s been quite a while since I read the book, so I imagine I’ll take a look and find that Farber, clever fellow that he was, already has an answer to all my caveats.