Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cathy de la Cruz on The Carpenter Who Appreciated Termites

In his 1962 essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” Manny Farber said that narrative feature films “have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies.” Before reading this essay and thinking about the concept of termite-art, all I knew of termites were that they were pests. They were secretive insects that could be living inside an antique chair on the side of the road.

Going to graduate school in La Jolla, California where Farber taught for many years before retiring by the time I came along, was my first exposure to physical termites. My fellow Visual Arts grad students and I had artist studios and would occasionally swap furniture. I remember someone whispering into my ear not to take a certain desk because there were termites living inside of it. I wondered why this classmate didn’t put a sign for others to be aware of this potential problem since she wouldn’t always be around to whisper a warning.

Farber said: “a particular act about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”

I live in Arizona now, the state that Farber was born and where he may have begun one of his early jobs as a carpenter. Currently, there are termites eating away at the casita I live in and it is not lost on me that a man who made and repaired wooden structures for a good chunk of his life would consider termites the constructors or even de-constructors that artists interested in having a dialogue with the rest of the world should model themselves after.

There are little piles of wood shavings in certain corners of my home and the previous tenant warned me about the termites. The termites I live with are quiet. They may be able to hear me, but all I hear are drops from the shower faucet. I never hear or see them.

Farber coined the term, termite art as that which digests and regurgitates the world and the artist’s experiences of that world into art. Termite art eats the house that it lives in, and in doing so, sees the inside of the structure it calls home by ingesting it. In doing this, the termite-artist also gains a better view of the external world that the home is situated within. The introduction of Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies states: “The important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art is an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage.” Farber did not seem to care for the journey in cinema as much as he did for the tunneling.

I am beginning to think of my casita in a way I had previously not considered—I am beginning to think of my home as alive. If artist, Gordon Matta-Clark was around today and cut my house into two for one of his pieces, I imagine termites would break free. Termites would be everywhere. In an New York Times article on a Matta-Clark retrospective, Nicolai Ouroussoff said about the trained architect-turned-artist’s splitting of suburban homes with a power saw: “The physical process (of hammering away at the house’s foundation) becomes more important than the final perfected vision.”


Termites live in darkness. Farber believed that the best art came from artists who did not have an aim to go one particular place. Farber said the reverse to termite art was when a filmmaker made up her mind from the beginning that she knew what her film was going to be about and that there was no escaping that direction for the viewer. A pitfall of what Farber called white elephant art is to “treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prize worthy creativity.”

The term white elephant is typically associated with a gift that no one wants. Historically, the term originates with a less-than-desirable gift because the particular gift is more expensive to maintain than it was actually worth in value for the recipient.


In his essay, Farber described John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a termite performer. The idea was that termites feed on what’s around them and Wayne acted as a “counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life” of the John Ford film.

Termites can live for years in a piece of dead wood. If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a termite colony, Wayne was perhaps the Worker termite who assisted his less anchored termites in digesting. I don’t know what happens when the termites are done or if they are ever done feeding on the piece of dead wood. I imagine a piece of dead wood that no one but the termites know is hollow the way I imagine John Wayne on screen as a big body among shadows and silhouettes.

Termites communicate using taste and touch as opposed to sight and sound. Some nests of termites are difficult to study because they seal themselves so tightly into their self-sustaining environment that is it hard to gain access to them. Certain types of termites can even hollow out a tree trunk without causing a mark on the surface. Farber had an uncanny knack for pinpointing exactly how a film was or was not operating. Perhaps because Farber was an artist himself, he was especially suited for film criticism since film comprises a number of different artistic disciplines all of which Farber seemed comfortable discussing.

Farber opens his essay with a discussion on painting. His use of referencing other mediums in his film reviews, which he so often did, could be seen as detours in getting to his point, which makes sense since Farber seemed to appreciate films which were often comprised of a series of detours. Likewise, when discussing a film Farber did not seem particularly fond of such as Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, he could manage to write what was essentially a montage, which illustrated his craft as a critic; the ability to write eloquently and cinematically about a piece of art he found frivolous. Farber treated film criticism as a total art form.

“Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes—laughter, death, putting out a fire…”

Just like Farber could see craftsmanship for what it was even in a film he disliked, he could also see clichés and trickery in cinema he was fond of, and sometimes it was hard to tell how Farber even stood on a particular film. Farber noted that the dialogue in Antonioni’s La Notte was “sophomorically one dimensional” and that the film often included beautifully rendered shots simply “to fill the time interval,”. Another characteristic that Farber noted of white elephant art was its need to fill every moment of screen space with style and overfamiliarization.

Farber believed this overfamiliarization with what a film was about removed the tension of a film, flattened everything and was equivalent to just a bunch of punchlines, which he related to pornography in its need to get to a goal and stay there. In resorting to this, the film lost any chance of finding a unique shape for itself. One of my favorite lines of Farber’s essay is in reference to Jules et Jim, which Farber described by saying:

“As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.”

For years, I had trouble articulating why I did not like the Truffaut classic and Farber nailed that the film knew what it wanted to be from the get go and would not allow itself any alternate paths. There are no anchors in Jules et Jim to hold on to. Perhaps like Farber, I am more interested in cinematic moments that stand out from a single film versus a series of moments within a film that are all weighted equally.


Once when I was a kid, my mom paid a circus clown $5 to let me ride an elephant. The elephant wasn’t white, but standard circus-gray and it was the smallest elephant of the bunch. Still the circus employee tried to pile as many of us onto its back as possible. The elephant was displeased, frustrated even, and returned almost as soon as he left with us. Our ride did not last very long and no one was given a refund.

Farber was more interested in a continuous flow of quality cinema than a momentary novelty. He believed the quality all white elephant filmmakers had in common was fear: a fear of destroying its own structure from the inside out.

Farber ends his essay discussing the film, Ikiru. He saw the Akira Kurosawa film as summarizing what termite art aimed to be: not dwelling on a moment, but instead keeping speed, and moving forward. So many films have an unforgettable moment and linger too long in that space—almost patting themselves on the back for having gotten there. Termite art keeps moving forward “…forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed,” keeps burrowing even if it doesn’t know where it’s going. Termite art keeps moving forward especially if it does not know where it’s going or how long it is going to take to get there.

The friend I subletted my casita from said he thought it would take years before the termites made a real dent in the structure of my home. “It’s kinda sad actually when you really think about it,” he said. I hope I never see a termite here. I want to pretend that they are not here, working their magic. I don’t want to think about if or when the casita will collapse. I would rather just keep moving forward; thinking about carpenters who appreciate destruction because it gives them something to keep working on.

Cathy de la Cruz is a first-year candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona.

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