Every film writer today should pay particularly close attention to Farber's essay, "The Gimp" (written for Commentary in 1952), one of four landmark essays editor Robert Polito singles out in his introduction to Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (824 pp. Library of America $40.00) as "B-movie-steeped, careering slams of the 1950s and '60s" that gave Farber some measure of "notoriety as a film critic." In it, he warns the reader of the "Gimp," derived from a string lady golfers used in the Victorian era to raise their hem ever so slightly when preparing to hit the ball. He proceeds to apply this concept to fifties cinema:
Something like this device has now been developed in Hollywood. Whenever the modern film-maker feels that his movie has taken too conventional a direction and is neglecting "art," he need only jerk the Gimp-string, and—behold!—curious and exotic but "psychic" images are flashed before the audience, peppering things up at the crucial moment...His subsequent takedown of such now-venerated films as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) can be quite shocking to today's film aficionados. But it also reminds one that it is the victors that write the history books. Twenty, thirty years from now, won't it be Slumdog Millionaire—last year's flash-in-the-trash winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture—which will be remembered over the far superior Synecdoche, New York, which received nary a nomination? One doesn't even need to go back that far to see a good example of this. Go back to 2007 and scratch your head when you wonder why David Fincher's Zodiac continues to be ignored by all but the most informed movie-lovers. But I digress...
The point is that "The Gimp" is quite a relevant essay at this particular point in 2009, when film writers start determining their best of 2009 lists, or for that matter their best of the 00s; when Hollywood starts getting its "For Your Consideration" ad campaigns together; when theaters start exhibiting its Oscar-bait films that seem to have something important to say (some try to say it before you even sit your ass in the theater—Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire anyone?) but don't know how to do it without hitting you on the head. "The Gimp" speaks to this, and film writers should heed its warning:
The Gimp is the technique, in effect, of enhancing the ordinary with a different dimension, sensational and yet seemingly credible. Camera set-ups, bits of business, lines... are contrived into saying too much. Every moment of a movie is provided with comment about American society. "Original" characters are sought, the amount of illogical and implausible material is increased, to such a point that movies which try to be semidocumentary actually seem stranger than the Tarzan-Dracula-King Kong fantasy.
Farber so convincingly breaks down the contrivances set up by filmmakers, he even manages to zing this writer with one of his favorite films 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire by pointing out the manipulation behind one of this writer's favorite performances, that of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski:
...the hero, a sharp-witted Polish mechanic, conveys heavy passion by stuttering the first syllables of his sentences and mumbling the rest as though through a mouthful of mashed potatoes, a device that naturally forces the spectator to sociological speculation; disgusted with the fact that the hero has apparently been raised in a pigpen, the spectator is impelled to think about the relation of environment to individual development. Tennessee Williams's hero is getting ahead in his work, is a loving husband, makes "those colored lights" with his sexual genius, and is possessed of a delicate moral sensitivity. But all these bourgeois attributes have to be matched with their opposites for the sake of excitement, and so [director Elia] Kazan pulls his [Gimp-]string and you see the Polack slobbering, licking his paws, howling like a troglodyte, hitting his wife so hard that he sends her to the maternity hospital, playing poker like an ape-man, exuding an atmosphere of wild screams, rape, crashing china and drunkenness. And to make sure every two-year-old will understand how bad life is in this Grimm's fairy-tale hovel, Kazan hammers his point home with continual sinister lights, dancing shadows, gaseous oozings.Farber's cranky expressiveness is so persuasive in its description of Brando's performance (as directed by Kazan, he keeps reminding you), by the time one gets to the final line of the paragraph and he says "every two-year-old," one realizes he is the two-year-old to which Farber is directing his diatribe. See? Farber is not above pulling his own Gimp-string when necessary.
To contemporary audiences, more so than his 1952 readers, the most astonishing aspect of the essay is how Farber utilizes Citizen Kane (1941), of all films, to drive his point home. This essay is surely one of the earliest ones to praise Welles' film, even with a backhanded compliment like this one:
Citizen Kane and its Gimp-effects were generally laughed off by high-brows in Hollywood and elsewhere...But one had the feeling, during the war years, that, as Hollywood turned out dozens of progressively more realistic action films... it was more than a little concerned with what Welles had done in the symbolic enriching of a movie through florid mannerisms.And what are these "florid mannerisms?" Why some of the techniques that have become standard in today's cinema: dark cinematography, unusual camera angles, deep-focus photography, worm's eye views, flashbacks, fragmented storytelling...
...mismated shock effects that had never been seen before in Hollywood... The spectator had trouble arranging these disparate items into a convincing visual whole, but his brain was mobilized into all sorts of ruminations about avarice, monomania, and other compulsions. Even the devices for moving the story along were complicating and interrupting...
There were certain dramatic high points like the rough-cut in the "March of Time" projection room, the kid outside the window in the legacy scene, and the lurid presentation of an electioneering stage. But in between these was a great deal of talk, much less action, and almost no story.One could easily mistake such words about the Welles' landmark film as damning, but Farber is really just saying, sure, it worked great in Kane, and the film was innovative, but the cult of Hollywood filmmakers that sprung up around the film has learned the wrong lessons from it. He goes on to lament the virtual extinction of the naturalistic film, wondering if Hollywood will ever "be able to go home again."
Are there any Hollywood filmmakers currently out there, eschewing the use of the Gimp in their films? Maybe because I just reviewed Public Enemies, the type of B-movie Farber might have championed, Michael Mann, with his attempts at verisimilitude through his use of the digital camera and emphasizing action over expository dialogue, strikes me as a rather obvious example. What filmmakers can you think of that aspire to stay clear of Farber's Gimp?