One thing that readers new to Manny Farber ought to understand right off the bat: you are more likely to disagree with him more than any other film critic you will come to respect and love. "A...cavalry film that is like an endless frontier-day pageant, [title temporarily redacted] has the discombobulated effect of a Western dreamt by a kid snoozing at an Esso station in Linden, New Jersey." Said cavalry film also has a "mentally retarded quality" and features, among other non-savory figures, "a screaming little Bowery Boy in braids who's only bearable in the last shot when the camera just shows his legs hanging limply from a lynching tree." Ouch. The film in question is, as it happens, Saint John Ford's 1961 Two Rode Together, one of his problematic but still revered late pictures, and one that this correspondent still regard with affection. Farber's assessment no doubt pleases his fellow Ford sceptic James Wolcott, one of the many luminaries who provide back-cover blurbs for the gargantuan new Library of America collection Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writing Of Manny Farber. But I doubt it finds much favor with fellow blurber Martin Scorsese. Who actually had to lie down for a lot worse, as the Farber newbie will see once he or she gets to an essay co-written with Patricia Patterson entitled "The Power And The Gory" late in the book. Farber's takedown was of course written well before Ford's work was deemed canonical, but feisty would-be critics who want to draw attention to themselves by cocking a snoot at various and sundry putative classics can draw an object lesson from such Farber vitriol in any event: that is, if you can't actually concoct a supportable argument, you should at least try to make up for it with some entertaining writing.
"Battle or no battle, that the movies are an art is a fact." No one since Vachel Lindsay was as prepared and qualified to argue this position than Farber was, and Farber wrote the above sentence in a 1944 essay called "The Happiness Boys." If you're inclined to mine through this collection piecemeal, it's a good place to start. But on every page there's some vivid reminder that criticism is, pace Jeff Jarvis and the whole "everyone's a critic" crowd, more than just opinion-mongering; that it is a practice and a discipline, and that those facts don't have to inhibit it from also being a lot of raucous fun. And the above-mentioned object lessons almost never stop.
For instance,from his review of Wyler's Detective Story, this great wad of chewy verbiage that also demonstrates the advantage a culturally-engaged New-York based film critic could wield over his less plugged-in peers: "Among this traffic is a string of recent Broadway exiles: Lee Grant as a man-hungry shoplifter with a sinuously unfeminine wiggle, a parrotlike head, and some other not quite hilarious tricks, which she moiders with her East Side dialect; Joseph Wiseman, a degenerate cat-burglar who sweeps into the familiar Jewish palms-up gesture as no man ever did before—yet he seems to have genuine pool-hall cynicism and chilling scorn for the 'artists' with whom he is working; Michael Strong, Wiseman's dumb crony, who crosses the affectations of a slack-jawed delinquent with those of a hep cat, doing this with glib exaggeration that makes actor seem more confused than character." One wonders, today, how many contemporary admirers of, say, Michael Shannon have seen even an iota of his stage work, and could bring their knowledge of it to bear on any characterization of his movie performances.