Television Review

SPEAKING OF the American film critic Manny Farber on Tx: Negative Space (BBC2), Dave Hickey, a fan, said: "He correctly understands that the difference between high art and low art is nothing but the audience, so when Manny looks at a B-picture - it's fuckin' high art."

I wish I had his confidence - instead, I'm saddled with an almost permanent sense of guilt that I'm wasting your time here, trying to talk about the flashy, paperweight trash that flitters across your screen as if it really amounted to something. Chris Petit, who directed and narrated "Negative Space", also seems to believe that highness and lowness are qualities of the art rather than the critic. At any rate, he talked of the sheer badness of TV, praising Channel 5 as so "deliriously bad" it made him feel he was on holiday, while watching the four other terrestrial channels made him realise he was stuck at home. Hey, Chris, I know where you're coming from.

Petit's starting point was a line of Farber's: "One of the finest moments in 1940s film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign." The moment comes in Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep; Petit said that he went back to the film after reading Farber to see if he was right, and thought he pretty much was (the viewer had to take this on trust - we were shown the moment slowed down and coarsened to a shifting arrangement of grey fuzz). Farber - a painter and carpenter as well as a critic - neglects the categories that interest most reviewers (such as the story), instead concentrating on speed, light, the way an actor walked, the tempo of the movie and above all, space.

Farber defines three types of film space: 1) the field of the screen; 2) the psychological space of the actor; and 3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers. To this list, Petit added: 4) the space between the screen and the viewer, the interaction between the two and the role of memory as the film recedes. "How much of cinema, like life, is misremembered," he said.

The crucial difference is that film, unlike life, is repeatable: we can always go back and check. So film criticism tends to the particular, the finicky; and Farber's reduction of cinema to moments, "a gesture, a change of weather", what he calls "termite art", seems the natural, claustrophobic end of that tendency.

Petit's film related Farber's understanding of space to the vast blank space of Amerca. Out West, he suggested, they have space, gaze and horizons: they don't need the artificial distance of irony. That accounts for London Bridge in the middle of Arizona; for Las Vegas. We got a lot of shots of roads, towns and tourist sites, framed in the middle of the screen like Polaroids.

Along with this came a lot of talk about the death of civilisation, and brief passages from films by Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Godard and Rossellini. It all seemed very T S Eliot ("These fragments I have shored against my ruin"); and it was thoughtful and fleetingly beautiful. What it amounted to, how Farber's termites fitted in, I haven't figured out yet. But for once, I feel fairly confident that it amounted to something.

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