Film critic Armond White.
Photo: Michael Lavine. ST, 2003.
Let’s face it: film criticism isn’t exciting as it used to be. Gone are the days when fans waited expectantly to see how Pauline Kael of the New Yorker would write up Brian de Palma’s latest offering, or how a well-publicized spat — between Kael and Andrew Sarris, say, over the auteur theory — would compel serious moviegoers to take a position and then talk themselves red in the face defending it.
And while positive reviews championing small films continue to be a tremendous and necessary element to the success of “specialty” cinema, the seemingly diminished cultural vitality of film criticism, that is, the lack of debate amongst the critics themselves, is evidence to some that American filmmaking has lost its way as well. And that’s where New York Press reviewer Armond White comes in.
Passionate, idiosyncratic and a natural polemicist, White has made it his business to take the piss out of the directors, films and critics he feels are overrated, pretentious or ethically corrupt. This past fall, in a cover-story diatribe against the New York Film Critics Circle’s protest over Jack Valenti’s awards-season screener ban, White accused his fellow journalists of “being manipulated by publicists as never before,” and of falling prey to “a shabby display of greed,” among a host of other ethical transgressions. The article prompted a (level-headed) rebuttal by critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times and several angry letters to the Press from Circle members, including one from one of White’s most frequent targets, Entertainment Weekly writer Lisa Schwarzbaum. (“It is idiocy like this, wrote Schwarzbaum, “that wrecks White’s own reliability as a critic, week after week.”)
Even his most vocal opponents will acknowledge, however, that White’s reviewing style is unique. His unrelenting tone of moral seriousness, caustic dismissals of some of today’s filmic sacred cows and obsessive championing of such relatively “unhip” films as A.I. and Femme Fatale has earned him detractors but also a sizable cult following (which includes, admittedly, this writer). A long-time champion of the music video format, White will often pass by the current cinematic cause celebre and devote an entire column to a video he loves (recent favorites include Lucacris’s “Stand Up” by Dave Meyers and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” by Mark Romanek). He’s also become known for his unlikely compare-and-contrast reviews, pairing such incongruous works as Chen Kaige’s Together (loved it) with Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (hated it) or David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (didn’t like it) with Justin Timberlake’s song “Cry Me a River” (loved it).
Filmmaker: Why did you take such a vocal position in the New York Press chastising the New York Film Critics for condemning the MPAA’s screener ban? Don’t screeners make it easier for critics like you to do their jobs?
Armond White: Film criticism has been corrupted, and we shouldn’t make things worse by getting involved in an industry that’s skewed. We need to step outside it. We can comment on it, but not get involved with it. My whole point was that the Critics Circle should not make a statement about screeners. They should simply stay out of it, and see movies the way they were meant to be seen. This then takes the discussion to another level about the aesthetics of film reviewing. We are obligated to see the movies the way the public has to see them. If not, then become a DVD reviewer, don’t become a film critic. The New York critics have been corrupted. And the L.A. critics are of course corrupted. They’re just too close to the industry that maybe they don’t know that they’re supposed to be separate from. They think they’re a part of the industry. Well, I’m not part of the film industry, I’m a journalist. I’m not involved in that dispute. And to preserve journalistic integrity, I have to stay apart from it. It’s sad and aggravating that my colleagues don’t understand this basic fact of journalism. There is an ethical issue at stake, which has been forgotten.
Filmmaker: Do you think American film criticism has declined in quality over the past several years?
White: There have always been people who do it better than others. But today you have many, many more people practicing it and fewer people who actually know what they’re doing, know what they’re talking about. And that’s a problem. I truly believe there are a lot of people writing criticism who don’t really care about it, who could just as happily be writing about any other subject. It’s just a job. And because they don’t care, they are willing to go along with hype. Film critics are no different from anyone else — people are corruptible. Because they don’t care, they don’t apply much thought to what they do; they just have superficial reactions. That’s why I think the discourse on film in media and in film culture tends to be superficial and power-oriented. Free passes are given to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and David Lynch. It’s a Rupert Murdoch world, a Tina Brown world, and those folk are not interested in art or philosophy or humanity — just money and power. So they’re going to hire critics who are also interested in money and power.
Filmmaker: What do you feel makes a good film critic?
White: First of all, knowledge of the subject, and that’s become increasingly rare, I am sorry to say. And you have to care about the subject. And then you have to care about writing well. And writing well is always a struggle. You struggle to say it right; you struggle to say exactly what you mean. Also, you ought to be honest about the things you write. Say what you really mean. So mainly, I guess those are the four things: know the subject, care about the subject, write well about the subject, and be honest.
Filmmaker: What would you say to critics of yours that think maybe you are contrary for the sake of being a contrarian?
White: I’m not a contrarian at all. I don’t accept that term, and don’t like when it’s applied to me either. Probably that means that more people will apply it now than ever. I believe what I believe, and I respond to movies the way I do, which is typically not the way most people respond. And it’s not the way most people respond because I think I care, and most people don’t. Most critics, and probably a lot of viewers, could take movies or leave them. I care about cinema. I think it’s important. I take great pleasure from it. And I don’t think I’ve ever said anything about a movie out of meanness or indifference. A good movie can help you to understand your humanity better, and others’ as well. And it’s not a matter of being contrary. There’s a lot of garbage out there! And it irks me when garbage is praised as something else, so I feel like I have to say so.
Filmmaker: How did you get started in film criticism?
White: Growing up in Detroit, I used to go to movies a lot. I used to draw cartoon panels — at the time I didn’t even know what a storyboard was, but I figured it was the closest way to making my own movies. And then I just never had the wherewithal to make them. But I did have a typewriter at home, and I started to write about things that needed to be interpreted. Later, I discovered that there was such a thing as film criticism.
Filmmaker: You went to Columbia graduate school for film theory. How did that inform your perspective as a critic?
White: It absolutely changed my perspective on film. There was an instructor there, Stefan Sharff, who apparently had worked with Eisenstein, and he taught a class where he would show films and literally analyze them frame by frame with a stop-projection projector. Sharff always said that a good director can compose images and edit images in a way that makes meaning, whether or not there was dialogue. One of his favorites was Hitchcock. If you ever watch a Hitchcock film on television, or DVD, just turn off the sound and follow it. It wrecks nothing if the sound is taken away. It even becomes better. That class was a revelation. I guess it informed my beliefs, my certainty that film is above all a visual medium: the images need to be interesting, the images need to say something, or else it’s not a film. It’s television or something else, a play. But it’s not cinema.
Filmmaker: When you were studying, was there any critic who specifically inspired you?
White: Oh sure. My very first inspiration was Pauline Kael.
Filmmaker: Are you a “Paul-ette”?
White: I’ve never called myself a Paul-ette, though she was my first inspiration. But I’m not a Paul-ette because we agree on a lot but we disagree on a lot too. So I’m not a follower, but I’m a big admirer of hers. And at Columbia, one of my professors was Andrew Sarris, and I’m also a big admirer of Sarris. I think they’re both important. I dismiss their differences with each other, because I see where they blend. And I got a lot from both of them.
Filmmaker: What was it about them?
White: With Pauline, it was her willingness to go against hype, even back in the ’60s. Hype always existed, now it’s just more pernicious than ever. But she was willing not to swallow it or follow it. And that impressed me. With Sarris, I loved his love of movies, which was a sophisticated love of cinema. He has a huge knowledge of film seemingly at his fingertips, and it’s not a buff’s knowledge, a geek’s knowledge, it’s a sophisticated artistic appreciation.
Filmmaker: Are there any filmmakers or films, either American or international, that give you hope?
White: Well, you get excited when you see stuff all the time. I do. I was very excited by George Washington, by David Gordon Green. I was very excited this year by this movie Porn Theater, although the director who did that was probably in his 40s or 50s, There are probably some others who just aren’t coming to mind right now.
Filmmaker: Maybe I can go name a couple of filmmakers for you and you can tell me what you think. Claire Denis.
White: Well, she’s not an up-and-comer; she’s a veteran by now. I like her work quite a bit. I think her point of view is always inquiring, and she’s also a good technician. She doesn’t buy convention in any way, and she has a political perspective, which I think is always helpful. I like her work.
Filmmaker: What about Gaspar Noé?
White: He’s a fraud, a deliberate sensationalist. And he’s not serious. So I think his films may be outrageous in terms of violence and sexuality and a pretend social perspective. It’s just all shock, but without the moral conviction of a Surrealist from the 1920s.
Filmmaker: Wong Kar-wai.
White: Stunning, brilliant work. I feel sometimes it’s intentionally obscure, but I don’t care. That just means you have to work with him, which is a good thing. But he’s got one of the best pair of eyes since Godard. And I find all the work of his that I’ve seen fascinating. He keeps cinema alive because he’s not making his movies in a conventional way, which is good.
Filmmaker: Wes Anderson?
White: I think I like his sensibility. I love that he works in wide-screen. I love him for that. That’s the format I prefer. I’m always excited to see wide-screen films. It just seems to make it a little more special. The image is big and embracing. And he’s got good craft and sense of humor. He seems to care about people and the image too.
Filmmaker: Alexander Payne.
White: Very intelligent kind of filmmaking. Also concerned with humanity. I kind of think of him in the same way I think about Whit Stillman. They view human beings within a social context, and a different social context than Hollywood tends to offer.
Filmmaker: Sofia Coppola.
White: [Grunts] She’s probably a nice girl, but put it this way: as a filmmaker, she gave a great performance in Godfather III, which I defend, seriously. But so far, I don’t have much use for her.
Filmmaker: What about Paul Thomas Anderson?
White: He’s like a benign Gaspar Noé. I think he cares about cinema, he’s just a small fry. He wants to be Altman and he wants to be Alan Rudolph, and I know why: those are good examples. He’s just not there. I don’t think he’s got an original bone in his body. It’s kind of unfortunate, because I think he cares about making movies.
Filmmaker: Todd Solondz
White: I used to not like Todd Solondz, but Storytelling won me over, and it even made me think more positively on Happiness. I don’t think he knew what he was doing with Welcome to the Dollhouse, however. I think Storytelling is a great movie, and Happiness was getting there.