Moving Pictures

INTERVIEW: Armond White

A film critic for New York Press talks about the decline of his trade and the need for humanism in today’s cinema.

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Still from Griffith's Intolerance (1916). Copyright Museum of Modern Art.

Despite his prolific criticism on film, music, and pop culture, Armond White is perhaps known best as a provocateur. Thus is the fate of a man who champions critically snubbed movies like Spielberg's A.I. and Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited while routinely bashing critics' darlings like There Will Be Blood for what he calls their "nihilism." That word played a large role in the email interview Splice conducted with White recently, and it gets to the heart of what he champions in cinema. In his weekly reviews for New York Press, White hammers home the idea that Hollywood and contemporary critics pile praise on movies that reject hope and don't actively engage their characters' lives and social conditions. White also rejects the cynicism with which most mainstream cinema approaches religion, and the directionless angst with which it addresses current events. These issues came to a head in his recent essay "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies," which bemoaned the declining intellectual and aesthetic standards in film criticism.

His seemingly contrarian tendencies are offset, however, by a deep love and encyclopedic knowledge of film. Of the many complaints in "What We Don't Talk About," the one I found most poignant was his claim that "Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history." You can quibble with White's taste on a film-by-film basis, but his respect for cinematic history—and his insistence that criticism serve as a platform for larger intellectual and societal consideration—make him one of the most valuable voices in his industry.

SPLICE TODAY: How did you come to film criticism? What were the first movies you loved, and which were the first movies you felt compelled to parse critically?

ARMOND WHITE: Writing about movies has always been a route towards understanding what I've seen—what I've just been through, you might say. So writing about film also includes writing about one's own life and feelings at the time. I learned this is possible from reading reviews that were more knowledgeable and impassioned than most. You know, [Pauline] Kael, [Andrew] Sarris and the general-interest magazine critics of the 60s and 70s who were a more broad-minded, unsnarky bunch than today's shills.

ST: You've been labeled a Paulette [an acolyte of Kael's distinctive criticism style], yet you also studied with Sarris at Columbia. Where do you see their critical meeting point? What did you take from them both?

AW: Despite their rhetorical combat, both were auteurists. Really, that's the best way to make sense of any art form. They were both sophisticated, informed and deeply passionate about movies. As Bertolucci once said, you can only argue with people with whom you basically agree. Renoir, Ophüls, Altman, Godard, Dreyer, Welles-these are basic issues that Pauline and Andrew share. I think of them as my film critic Mom and Pop.

ST: Tell me about your moviegoing habits. You review two or three films a week for New York Press, but how much time of your life is spent in darkened theaters?

AW: I see at least five new films every week in a screening room, often many more. And New York allows one to catch older films in numerous venues from museums to rep houses. I'm always watching movies somewhere.

ST: One word that recurs constantly in your film writing is "emotion," usually in regard to contemporary Hollywood's inability to engage with audiences' feelings in authentic ways. What are some movies, old or new, that you find emotionally engaging and honest? What's the relationship between a film's visuals and its emotional authenticity?

AW: That question demands a huge answer but let's start near the beginning: Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which I always thought of as "the movie of movies" until Altman's Nashville (1975) which wins that appellation for the sound era. Both are examples of rich storytelling, broad narratives that collapse-and-expand into intense, relatable, personal dramas. These epics are also emotionally engaging, no less so for always being visually spectacular. Griffith's wondrous Babylonian steps scene compares to Altman's shot where the widescreen is astonishingly filled with the faces of people watching Barbara Jean sing. And Griffith's climactic courtroom/train montage has its parallel in Altman's extraordinarily complex montage of feelings and rhythm during the "I'm Easy" number.

Intolerance and Nashville can teach you how to watch movies, both grab your imagination by being true to the conflicts that humans go through. Their stories and images are recognizable and that is what art is supposed to be: crafted works that lead us to better understand the world, our selves and others. In fact, you can take that as a synopsis of both Intolerance and Nashville.

Unfortunately, the recent celebration of directors like Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, David Fincher and Neil LaBute propose an unfeeling film culture. Those filmmakers are nihilistic and like affectless directors such as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Achitpong Weesakthel, they prize cynicism above feeling. They are icons for a film culture that disregards Griffith and Altman's achievements of spectacular emotionalism.

ST: You've mentioned the "nihilism" of Van Sant, Fincher, et al in your criticism before, yet I'm still unclear what's meant by that term in this context. Taste aside, what disrespect do these directors show to the humanity of Griffith and Altman's films? In your review of Zodiac, for instance, you make it clear that Fincher values technical accomplishment over character, but Griffith and Altman (and Bertolucci, Godard, and the whole gang you mentioned before) are hardly technical minimalists. So why "nihilism"?

AW: Nihilism has nothing to do with "technical minimalists." Neither does technical mastery ensure any kind of moral complexity. Plainly put, the films of Van Sant and Fincher show that they believe life has no purpose, also denying that people believe in God or search for meaning in life—and that is the fashion of the nihilistic age. It's against humanism, the sensibility that links Griffith to Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Dreyer, Terence Davies, Visconti, Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Julian Hernandez, Wes Anderson and the filmmakers whose work I most respond to.

These days, nihilist filmmakers are routinely celebrated without an examination of what they stand for. Reviewers (many of whom are nihilists themselves) swallow this anti-humanism whole (thinking it excuses Van Sant and Fincher's badly constructed, illogical "art") and then willy-nilly spread the nihilistic philosophy throughout the culture. The end effect of praising There Will Be Blood, Paranoid Park, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is to advance the idea that life is meaningless and that the world is wretched. Nihilists are hip; remember how the Coen brothers made fun of nihilists in The Big Lebowski?

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Robert Altman's Nashville (1975)

ST: You're a professed admirer of widescreen Cinemascope for the "profound aesthetic experience" it provides. And yet, for the aspiring cineaste looking to brush up on his film history, we have little choice but to domesticate the movies and watch the classics on DVD. So what do you make of something like Netflix, which has given more people more access to classic films than ever before, yet which takes away the original context for which they were made. Speaking from my own experience, I watch movies like Barry Lyndon or Contempt or Hell's Angels and while I enjoy them, I can't shake the feeling that I'm getting a sort of bootleg version.

AW: Watching movies on TV is great fun and a necessary method of gaining cultural exposure. But it's TV, not cinema. It's like reading a play rather than seeing it performed. Then you get "literature" or "cinema" in quotation marks. Because, and this must be emphasized, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE CONCENTRATION, IMMENSITY AND INTENSITY OF THE BIG-SCREEN MOVIE EXPERIENCE. When Picasso's Guernica used to be at the Museum of Modern Art, it was a different, greater, experience than studying its reproduction in books. But that's better than nothing. For many years I only knew Hitchcock's The Birds from TV. I didn't know what I was missing until I finally saw it on the big screen. I worry that new generations' TV habits will prevent them from appreciating cinematic values—scale, composition, tempo—when they're enjoying DVDs.

ST: Regarding "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies": You mark the debut of [Siskel and Ebert's TV show] At the Movies as the end of serious intellectual criticism because Ebert's method disconnected movie talk from "moral and social issues." I can't disagree, yet I'm curious where you stand on Ebert the written critic, who values film history and education more than most of his followers in the thumb-fumbling "Consumer Reports" style. I'm reminded of his Great Movies series, or his Overlooked Film Festival, both of which stress a personal, emotional relationship to film and film history, two things you claim to favor.

AW: That TV show, and the superficial way it encourages people to talk about movies, are what really define Ebert's work and it's had a disastrous influence on media and the culture. Ebert's "emotional relationship" to film seems to be primarily financial—otherwise, he wouldn't simplify cinema the way he does. I don't want to overstate this—I already laid out the issues in my essay—but only folly has resulted from Ebert-style film jabber becoming the well-known, widely-defended standard.

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Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

ST: So what are the criteria for a professional critic? Is that title professorial, dependent on some quantifiable measurement like a degree? Where's the point at which an enthusiast becomes a critic?

AW: I don't understand why an enthusiast also pretends to be a professional critic. That may just be a delusion proffered by the Internet where people can express their opinions without being required to demonstrate knowledge, experience or exercise intellectual rigor.

Pick up any newspaper, magazine, or switch on the TV and you'll see that professional journalistic standards have fallen; there are few good models for enthusiasts to follow. Professional journalists everywhere have abrogated their responsibilities to serving the power elite (Hollywood, Wall Street), which precludes any sense of aesthetic taste or cultural education being put in play. Non-thinking professionals might even be more dangerous than non-thinking amateurs.

There ought to be some station between amateur and professional where one can be caring, thoughtful, tasteful and in search of knowledge—to satisfy film lovers without them pretending to be critics. "Amateur" means love, as I point out in a chapter of my book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World. That kind of love used to result in film clubs, rep houses and even film-school pursuits—things that are socially useful and culturally fertile. Ebert made it popular for everyone to want to get in on the Film Critic occupation.

ST: Again, you're merely stating that "amateurs" and "critics" are different, and that one pretending to be the other is insulting to the craft. Undoubtedly so, but I'm still curious (if only for my own professional interest) where the line is drawn. Is it a matter of being professionally published in print, as opposed to an Internet presence? Is it a matter of movies seen, or is it just an I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of thing?

AW: [I'm] not "merely" stating anything; the differences between amateurs and critics are there to be observed. Think about it: professional publication (getting paid for it) used to imply a standard of knowledge and training. Now everybody thinks they can be a movie critic simply because they have an opinion.

I'm simply questioning what drives people to be critics these days. Are they discovering themselves, exploring the art form, or just eager to join the hype machine? When so much writing on film (in print or the Internet) is all in lockstep, all the same, bandwagon opinions, you have to wonder why people bother to do it. Is it merely diary entries or merely opinions without a background of study, experience, self-examination?

Strange that it's only in regards to movies that publications don't insist on education, knowledge, [and] training. Architecture, dance, classical music critics usually have an in-depth background. Thanks to the Internet, "film critics" pop up overnight. These "critics" then align themselves with the most fashionable, mainstream figureheads. (And I don't mean Sarris and Kael—there are new gangleaders now.) It's Fan Club-ism with intellectual arrogance.

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Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003)

ST: Which contemporary filmmakers do you esteem? Do you have oppositional recommendations for those filmgoers who enjoy Cronenberg, Van Sant, and Fincher? You've recommended Jeff Nichols' recent Shotgun Stories to those who thought There Will Be Blood was profound, for example.

AW: I'm impressed by the films of Charles Stone III, Jared Hess, Chen Kaige and Julian Hernandez. As for recommendations, how's this: Instead of Cronenberg, try Lubitsch's The Merry Widow. Instead of Van Sant, try Borzage's No Greater Glory. Instead of Fincher, try von Sternberg's Dishonored.

ST: Ironically enough in light of our earlier question, none of those are available on Netflix.

AW: Those plugs were just to mess with you, but I seriously esteem them, recommend them and consider them major works, let alone antidotes to Cronenberg, Van Sant and Fincher. And if not those exact titles, then any films by those directors will do. (Well, for Borzage you gotta be careful about the later films, but his 20s and 30s work is all great.)

Netflix is not the world. I believe the three titles above are all available on VHS in the New York Public Library system (that's where I periodically rent Dishonored); maybe [your city] is as lucky.

ST: What was the impetus behind your magazine First of the Month? Is it a way for you (and the other writers) to bridge disparate interests in longer articles than traditional print media allow? Like your recent essay that brings in Spielberg and Morrissey to comment on the pop wistfulness of Springsteen's new recordan article like that speaks to your insistence that criticism is a "a route towards understanding what I've seen," even more so than your film reviews for the Press.

AW: I'm fond of pop music, too. That's why I was thrilled to write about Springsteen's Magic for First of the Month, a publication started by friends and myself. There's just less opportunity to write about music since New York City gets about 10 new movies a week. I want to get back to writing on music video and pop music more often—mix it in with movies the way I used to. First of the Month is intended to review culture and politics with more dedication, honesty and from imaginative points of view that you can't find in the mainstream media.

ST: Speaking of Spielberg, you've been a vocal proponent of his recent work, specifically Munich and A.I. His movies continue to rake in money, and his "serious" stuff like Munich is routinely given good, if not entirely ecstatic, reviews, but what do you think has led the critical community to dismiss him as a mere "entertainer"? He seems to me the closest thing we have to a modern-day Howard Hawks, working in a variety of different genres and with an eye towards dependably well-made films rather than cinematographic flashiness.

AW: What's wrong with technical flashiness, especially when it has meaning and is connected to feeling? Spectacular Emotionalism, remember? Spielberg is another descendant of Griffith. The Spielberg topic brings us back to nihilism vs. humanism. Spielberg is a humanist; he stands for everything nihilists don't believe in: history, emotion, beauty, humanity. He's not Van Sant or Todd Haynes whose films represent The Void—affectlessness, ugliness, narcissism—all those things that fascinate teenagers who are just learning about the world and smart-asses who are infatuated with being "hip."

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Alfred Hitchock's The Birds (1963)

 
ST: Not to harp on the Ebert bit, but you mention in "What We Don't Talk About" that he hasn't contributed a worthwhile critical idea to the intellectual film community. What do you see as your guiding critical idea or principle?

AW: I was brought up by people who thought for themselves, which is also what I treasured in Pauline and Andrew. This distinguishes me from critics who don't, who look at movies as if it is their obligation to promote the industry rather than the art form.

There is no formula to being a film critic, just openness and the ability to recognize
to perceiveartistic expression. I am unembarrassed about applying social consciousness to reviewing. I'm always interested in relating film art to the popular audience and identifying what unites and uplifts us as opposed to speaking for insiders and elitists. I am not an insider and don't want to be. (Logrolling film cliques are a problem that the Internet, ironically, has only exacerbated.)

I strive to be honest, write well, and look for beauty and emotion and revelation. That's my fifth sentence to begin with "I" (to quote a well-known movie) so let me just conclude, it takes hard work.

ST: Can you recommend a film?

AW: There are innumerable recommendable films but I would indeed commend a couple books to your attention: Deliberate Speed by William Lhamon and Mythologies by Roland Barthes. Every pop culture enthusiast should know them.

DISCUSSION
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