Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Farewell, termite

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Farewell, termite

Manny Farber died yesterday and everyone's trotting out the forced analogies. Here's mine: his prose was like hard, tacky gum. I think that sounds kind of cool, but in case you're wondering, it's a compliment. Sadly I can't really expand on what others are saying. Not only did I not know Farber personally but I had only just begun to become acquainted with his work. A year or two ago I finally stumbled upon his famed celebration of "termite art," and that essay has been crawling through my brain and eating at my consciousness ever since, kind of like a...well, you get the picture.

Termites, termites, termites. I know, it's already a cliche to talk about the little critters in conjunction with Farber. I mean, God, you might get the impression writers of tributes and obits have never read anything else by the guy and are just scrounging for whatever's closest at hand. Well, full disclosure: aside from parts of "Underground Films" and a few other snatches here and there, I haven't read much else by Farber. His acclaimed volume Negative Space has been languishing in my Amazon shopping cart alongside the English translations of Cahiers du cinema: jewels of film criticism idling their time behind glass cases while I save up pennies for purchase. But if I was writing about these damned termites merely out of convenience, I wouldn't bother. No, I think they're worth mentioning because they struck quite a chord with me, one that continues to reverberate.

For those of you still wondering what I'm on about, Farber wrote an essay called "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" in a 1962 issue of Film Culture (which according to J. Hoberman also contained groundbreaking work by Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and Jack Smith). He celebrated films in which one figure or element eats away at the fabric of the plot or the staid mise-en-scene. Or as he puts it:

"...buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin."

The description is pointedly downbeat but rather than celebrating disposability, Farber was puncturing pomposity and appreciating vitality - the kind of vitality that only emerges when the artists move alongside and within their material. A crucial difference between the elephant and the termite is not just activity but size: yes, the termite is small and the elephant is big, but more relevant is the fact that the tiny termite makes the surrounding material seem larger, overwhelming, mysterious, while the elephant trivializes its environment. Hence, a termitic approach can, paradoxically, make the world of the film seem even bigger, because the whole is out of the artist's grasp. In case you're wondering, I doubt if this is what Farber was getting at (indeed "all is expendable" and "buglike immersion in a small area" suggest otherwise) but I think it's the logical conclusion of his argument, which is why it stays with me despite some differences in taste.

One director, who has never to my knowledge been classified as a "termite" is Steven Spielberg, one of the filmmakers who first raised my excitement about the medium as a kid. What I remember best about his early work is not the huge set pieces with spaceships and killer sharks, but the lived-in sense of domesticity he conveyed in Richard Dreyfuss' and later Henry Thomas' households, or at least the juxtaposition between the special effects and these homey scenes (full of half-heard TV clips, throwaway lines, and cluttered suburban artifacts). The pleasing friction between a seldom-recognized termitic ability and the larger-scale spectacle of elephantitis (used sparingly, but effectively) suggests my ultimate take on Farber's work: that both termites and elephants have their place, and while termites deserve to be celebrated, it is often their relationship to the work's elephantine qualities which make them and the work so compelling.

Actually, in picking out termitic aspects of elephantine works (like John Wayne's performance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? or scenes of domestic squalor in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner) Farber may have been inadvertently pointing up this quality himself. Though he was ostensibly lamenting the rareness of this termitism, I'd say that the most fascinating termitic activity is when the bugs are swarming all over elephant dung that a lumbering white pachaderm left behind (there's an image for you). Perhaps film is at its finest as a scavenger's art, eating away at the detritus of its own pomposity.

Manny Farber
1917-2008


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