Manny Farber


Manny Farber, King of Critics

I wanted to pop back in to say a little something about the critic Manny Farber, who died last week at the age of 91. For the latter part of his life, Farber concentrated more on his successful career as a painter, but it’s his movie criticism that has had the biggest impact, even on people who don’t know his name. Farber’s style as a critic, and his tastes, were so unusual that he rarely got regular gigs as a film reviewer; he got to take over from Otis Ferguson at The New Republic and James Agee at The Nation, but he spent most of his career freelancing. His take on movies. and pop culture in general, was like nobody else’s. There were basically two approaches to movie criticism before Farber, the highbrow and the middlebrow. The middlebrow critic, like anybody who ever became the first-string critic for the New York Times, tended to like movies with “something to say,” meaning that “prestige” pictures, the type of movie that wins Best Picture Oscars, got the best reviews. Highbrow critics saw movies as an art form with untapped potential that was constantly betrayed by the Hollywood machine. James Agee was the best and most famous of these highbrows; if you read his collected reviews, you’ll see that he felt, in common with many critics, that movies had gone downhill since the silent era (the only time when movies were a truly unique art form) and that there were only a select few movies that could be called serious art.