Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Manny Farber in Tehran

This is a piece I originally wrote for the newsletter of The Library of America, and reportedly published last winter, though they have not sent me a copy yet. The reason was my posting of Manny Farber articles, long before they decide to publish his film writings (Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber). When somebody from The Library contacted me and was curious, or somehow amazed, about how I did those Farber posts on my blog, then it was my turn to become surprised by this fact that not long before starting to work on publishing the book, she has not been acquainted with the name in New York City! Well, in that case I must say if there is passion, it doesn’t matter that you are in New York or Mashhad, because it just calls you by your name.

In my early teens (early 1990s) there was only two film journal in Iran, one a yellow magazine and mostly about Iranian commercial films and the other, Film Monthly a more serious publication with a certain approach toward Iranian art films and western cinema. When I get interested in their magazine, I went back to their previous issues from 1980s (they had started publishing Film shortly after the revolution) and there was numerous translations of famous journalistic argument between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael (from 1960s of course). I think first time I heard Manny Farber’s name there, but I’m not so sure. Anyway, I knew the man’s name, but there was no sampling of his writings. I had only a brief survey of his critical approaches and his ideas about how a movie should be! It’s funny that auteur theory became a very popular in the 1980s Iran because simply in the 1970s everyone was too busy with the revolution to notice these things! And Film Monthly did a great job in bringing up some names and among them Farber.

His name was somewhere in the back of my mind till not long after my first encounter with Film Monthly I became a contributor at the age of 19 (in 2000). I believe I was one of the few people who started to explore American movies in a more Academic manner and not in the nostalgic love-letter kind of writings that was very common among the critics who had lost their magic lanterns during revolution (in those days screening foreign films became obsolete and all cine clubs were closed down).

There was a small library of foreign language book (mainly English) in Film Monthly office that became my Mecca. Whenever I was in Tehran (I’m living in northeast of Iran) I’ve spent a great deal of time in that library. All materials were from pre-revolution nevertheless there was lot of thing to read: all the past issues of Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cahier du Cinema, Sight and Sound, etc. And by the way there was a ragged copy of For Now#9 edited by Donald Phelps from late 1960s and there comes my real introduction to the world of Farber. And when from last May I began to post Farber’s writing on my blog I used the very same source.

My Budd

At the time of Farber’s passing I wrote a long piece (“a critic in the shadow”) about him in Film Monthly and I used it as a pretext to attack the disastrous state of film criticism in Iran. I focused on Farber’s stubbornness, his complicated mind, abstruse language and that kind of professional dignity that every critic needs. I emphasized on the way he praises American films of the golden age and the way he talks about them to remind to my colleagues how a great treasure is hidden in the past. In addition, underscoring Farber’s retirement from criticism was a basis for this argument that every critic needs a break. Talking about my colleagues, the speed of work doesn’t give a chance to make a balance between experiences of life and art. Long pauses make us to reconstruct our thoughts and ideas about the medium that we are dealing with, the medium that is changing every day. This part was my reaction to film critics of my generation which are practically everywhere, they are in daily newspaper, journals, radio, TV and web. Too busy with being around in all events just for the sake of being in. As I observe, even there is no time for watching films that used to be a critics main task! The response to that Farber piece was enormous and despite the obscurity of his name among film goers and film readers, most people were very excited about the passages of Farber work that I had translated for the occasion.

Howard Hawks II

In Iran there are uncountable film journals (when last winter an American friend was visiting Iran he was amazed by the variety of these magazine – a daily newspaper dedicated to cinema, like variety, “Film and Psychology”, “Film and social studies”, an special publication for film scripts that prints a classic and a contemporary screenplay each month, a kind of Iranian version of “cinematographer” and many more) And these journals are filled with Farsi translated reviews from American film critics (Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli, J. Hoberman, Peter Travis, Michael Wilmington and Jonathan Rosenbaum). One can verify the influence of these critics (especially those with a more popular taste like Ebert) on Iranian younger film reviewers. In this case my return to Farber was an attempt to evoke that lost seriousness and depth that was evident even in Farber’s short reviews.
--E. K.


  1. Hi,
    I translated a piece about Farber in my blog:


  2. Thanks for the translation, and the link, Vahid. I'll put a permanent link to your seriously organized blog on my link pages. keep on keepin' on.

  3. Thanks Ehsan for your kind attention ... About "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs", a lovely cinematic incident happened to me ... last week, one night, I watched and enjoyed it a lot and the next day, I found that you just had a post about this "mini-masterpiece" ... a true cinematic incident!

    About Manny Farber, I recently started "Farber on film" and I amazed by depth of his view and writings ... I hope in the near future I could translate some of his reviews in Persian.

  4. Vahid,

    Yeah, I noticed your recent viewings section and it's great that you dig Naruse. I have nearly 10 of his films, from 1930s to 1960s, and I picked that particular one to watch, because I'm making a new list for Film Monthly magazine, - something like "25 film jazz score of all time!" And I felt like watching that because of the jazz score. Naruse will be the subject of my next column in Film Monthly about my discoveries and rediscoveries.

    About translating Farber, it's a great idea, and somehow necessary. You've seen the catastrophic condition of film writing in Iran and maybe these effort open some eyes and awaken that lost dignity among film writers and film readers in our country.

    ...And a petite complain: you've rated "Leave her to heaven" a half star (in your own vocabulary it means worthless and a total waste of time). Here, I'm not agree with you and waiting to hear or read your arguments for that. :)


  5. Ehsan,

    "Leave her to heaven" was a film that I watched with high anticipation, I read previously something about in somewhere. So, it seems you are another fan of this movie ... Film watching experience and reading about lessoned to me to be cautious in judging against movies (especially classics) which I don't like in first viewing ... then, I'm ready to revise such judgments if I'd be shown the opposite direction ... but, as an outlining why I don't like it: the problem goes to it's storytelling, how it unfolds the events based on the motivations. Very soon, we understand Ellen's insane jealousy and in each step plot expands in very simple, predictable straightforward manner. The example of appearance of Ellen's previous fiancé in trial's scene show how the plot locally seeks simplest ways to move forward. You may argue thematically that showing the fatal consequence of such jealousy is so notable in this feature, but I ask "how" the story show it to us and how ingeniously?

    Another point, Ehsan, Are you interested in Kent Jones writings? he is one of the great admirers of Manny Farber and Faber's writing style and view influenced him a lot. I believe in him as one of the great contemporary film critics. In Sight and Sound (June 10 issue) question about most inspirational books you have ever read, Jones had both "Negative Space" and "Farber on film" in top of his list ...

  6. Vahid, about Mister Jones, well, I know him, I've read him and I am aware of his Farberian slant, but none of them in particular. Let's put it this way: I have not worked on him as I did on Farber, Durgnat, Rosenbaum and a couple of Cahiers writers. But I'm open to new voices, and ready to dig any good criticism.

    Though, it's not a tough job to recognize Farber in Jones. For instance when Jones allures to the darkness of dark noir world:

    "Jacques Tourneur’s quietist Out of the Past represents the film noir high end—as compared to the pulpy inventions of Edgar G. Ulmer’s lowend Detour. It’s distinguished by Tourneur’s masterful, eerie control of surfaces, as well as a jokey, hard-boiled argot. The movie isn’t so much keyed to Robert Mitchum’s hunky somnambulism as it is in full accord with it. Out of the Past lays to rest the notion that noir was strictly a matter of rain-soaked streets and shafts of light flooding through venetian blinds, since its most striking sequences take place in a lake region under California sunshine."

    This is for sure, Farber, but not that good, not with that complication and far from the semi-Argot language of Farber, which I love most.

    Now tell me, you only write/translate for your own blog, or you have work in print, too? I must add that blogging is the healthiest form, but I wanted to know where else I can read your works.

    Thanks to you, this post has become a fat, juicy one!

  7. Ehsan, thanks for your encouragement for my blogging experience. What you have seen there are little exercises for me to find proper way of writing and translation ... of course I have a long way to do as I wish (I remember my first attempt to translate a piece of Kent Jones, nearly 3 year ago, was really disastrous)and I need to read and see more and more. Maybe, in near future I do some works in print, but I'm not in a rush now.

    I'm glad for this dialogue with you and I'm sure we will have more in detail afterwords.


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