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Natural Selection

By Michael Sragow

MANNY FARBER wrote on film for the Nation before Agee. He is still kicking: teaching studio art and lecturing on movies at UCSD. He was the most genuine thing about the Critics Week of the U.S.A. Film Festival from which I've just returned.

If you have any moral or poetic sense at all, it's hard to dislike a guy like Farber--even if his writing and the films he's apt to praise eschew moralism and poetics. All the words he uses and the statements he makes come from deep in the center of the man. They hit you with the impact of felt experience and funky artistry.

Few are as funky as Manny himself. He gained his latter-day reputation in the late fifties. Coming out of a semi-retirement which he spent as a carpenter in a Long Island town, he derided the Hollywood white elephants of that day in punchy prose. He didn't hurl jeremiads from on high, as high-falutin' auteurists do given half the provocation. Instead, he coined the phrase "termite art" to describe what he did like--taut action films with subversively-explored characters--and pulled off a Socratic sleight-of-language which reduced the Establishment to outraged epithets.

So there was Manny Farber, telling me that the problem with film criticism was the hype-type language used. "Everyone has an eye on the big score," he said. "You can put the name 'Van Gogh' in place of 'Peckinpah' in the reviews Straw Dogs got--that's how obscene this obsession with greatness has become...Film is a most complex thing, you can't judge it seriously on one viewing...but after a while no one looks at it closely anymore." This wasn't prepackaged. Farber brooded, the middle of his wizened face wrinkling, and his eyes shielded from the stares of fellows.

It's no use arguing. He is, of course, right. But Farber doesn't worry about what less-hardened souls want to change: the cheapjack genre orientation of commercial film in general. Farber is a sensualist, and it enters his criticism in his acceptance of the good laid out for him along with the bad that dominates. It also means that, for Farber, the presence of a "physical" screen actor can compensate for the psychology the narrative develops, and the thoughts espoused. By talking with him, I learned things about the film art that you can only learn from a quirky, home-grown intelligence. But he couldn't convince me--nor, finally, did he even want to--that larger criteria are always pretentious, or that romantic visions and moral judgements are, in art, absolute evils.

WHICH MERELY LEADS up to a year's best list. Even if I can't think of more than six films that meant much on re-viewing, listing them lets me act--in theory, anyway--as a cop for the audience and scold for the hacks. (I've also limited my outlook to those films that opened in Boston between Christmases--tossing out one crowd's Clockwork Orange and another's Dirty Harry).

What are my criteria? Well, all apologies to Manny, sincerity first of all: respect for the specifics of film narrative. Second, scope: the complexity of narrative situations, the intensity of their expression, their final relevance to any audience.

The Confession was shuttled out of Boston without surplus discussion or playing-time: it entered the Harvey chain, but played the Orson Welles in a print dubbed with bad American gangsterese. Photographed by Raoul Coutard, written by Jorge Semprun, directed by Costa-Gavras (there's talent in those credits), this chronicle of the Czech Slansky trials resonates with modern fears of industrial slates, of resulting dehumanization, and the ascendance of politics over morals. But it's no sermon: the bulk of the film is anti-melodramatic, a complex historical document, and terror comes through to both mind and gut because of it.

The Conformist features the year's freshest colors, passionate direction, and a beautiful girl who can act, Dominique Sanda. It is also meaningfully ridden with guilt and melancholy. Filmmaker Bernardo Bertollucci--once a Godard acolyte--here encloses himself in circular storytelling and claustrophobic environment. A repressed homosexual (Jean-Louis Trintignant) turns to Fascism to become one of the boys, can't cut the mustard even then, and finally returns to simpering solitude when Mussolini falls. The film examines the paths decadence travels in a decrepit society: note that the liberal professor whom Trintignant reveres fled Italy when his student most needed him, and--with the comic tone of a benign cuckold--tolerates wife Sanda's lesbianism. Bertollucci expresses his characters' anxieties and pleasures without the heavy hand of The Damned's Luchino Visconti: depraved emotions are not slobbered over.

Hoa Binh puts two David Copperfield kids in the middle of Vietnam horrors. It's a slight piece of social history. But it is accurate, emotionally powerful, and if it didn't preach pacifism in a Have-Have Not war, it would come very close to non-partisanship. The film's power is in the eye of Raoul Coutard, who here debuts as writer-director. American soldiers freeze in grotesque command postures. A theater explodes and its audience flees, losing intestines en route. Slum kids piss on a child-exploiting businesswoman's car. The connecting tissue doesn't equal the fragments, but these fragments are hard-edged stuff.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Little Murders are two flawed but worthy American films. The first evokes a time when a man could win on style alone--the American Dream at its most basic. A tin-horn gambler and a golden-haired whore play out a laconic male, smart-bitch female romance in the 1890's Northwest. The portrayal is vivid, the material trite. Little Murders is a child's garden of negations. It plays on TV family stereotypes until their insular evils are revealed--and set in the context of a stupidly monied America. It's a rare, original, American comedy, but director Alan Arkin slings more mud with Jules Feiffer's screenplay than he can make stick with his staging. Gordon Willis's camera helps quite a bit. Beatty in the first film and Gould in the second give their best performances yet on film.

Straw Dogs is Sam Peckinpah's film of this year. You do the man injustice if you follow plot hints superficially without noting the ambiguities he's planned. Susan George's character is, I think, the key to a generous interpretation, and much more than the hot-assed coed she's been taken for. There are no simple heroes in the film: all are caught in cultural conflicts and personal traumas which Peckinpah doesn't sort out sufficiently. Peckinpah's belief in territorial imperatives works better on a mythic scale than on that of chamber drama. Still, he's the most talented director on this list. If he's just keeping his hand on a camera, playing for the budget to make another Wild Bunch, that is almost all a gifted man can do to stay solvent in Hollywood.

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