“That man is an artist,” Wendell B. Harris once said to me, of film critic Armond White. I was trying to set up an interview with Harris about his long-neglected film Chameleon Street, the 1990 Sundance Grand Prize winner that should have led to a brilliant career. The film, and Harris, virtually disappeared in the 1990’s, his brief appearances in Out of Sight and Road Trip notwithstanding. Critics mostly saw in Chameleon Street a colorful but fumbling amateur effort. White saw a masterpiece, championing the film in the Film Comment essay “Underground Man” and referring to it as a measure of artistry in other reviews. So perhaps Harris had self-serving reasons for calling a mere film critic an artist—one hand washing the other. I would be inclined to agree if I didn’t see what White saw in Chameleon Street (basically, a low-budget peer to Orson Welles) or what Harris sees in White (a film critic as influential as his mentors, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris). Armond White counts as an artist to me because his best work carries the power of art. It teaches audiences and artists how to see, feel and imagine more deeply.
Of course, anyone familiar with White’s column in the NY Press (and the hate mail it regularly generates) knows that he is more often described as stone crazy. Or, “batshit crazy.” Or simply, “insane.” Just as often, exasperated readers and colleagues refer to him as “contrarian for the sake of being contrary.” He does position himself in diametric opposition to virtually every film critic on earth. But does that make him crazy? A rebel for the hell of it? No: The best White writings agitate, scold, flail, balk, intimidate, insult and weep for the state of the world. But they’re not an act. They give movies and pop culture a messy, personal reaction. (Hence this messy, personal appreciation.) Though he writes in a kind of crisp, omniscient-sounding voice, White’s work expresses heartbreak at most folk’s refusal to make/let culture enter their hearts/minds and change their lives/worlds. He’s a grandiose dude.
Here are ten fragments from White’s writing that I’ve wanted to frame and hang on a wall—and which make him count as something greater than a successor to Kael and Sarris. Sarris imported and bottled French auteurism for American cineastes. Kael humanized film criticism and brought filmmakers down to earth while proselytizing movie love. Both changed Eurocentric film culture irrevocably. White is out to change the world. Embedded in his reviews are the means to topple Ho’wood hegemony and the critical orthodoxy that keeps audiences expecting so little of movies these days. That’s crazy. That’s art.
“The problem for all of us is developing a less egocentric response to cinema. The transference of identity that people of color have always had to make at the movies is just the kind of theoretical, hypothetical leap of faith, pledge of fellow feeling that Hollywood filmmakers now refuse to return.” (“Hollywood Burning,” The City Sun, March 8, 1989.)
White is responding here to Mississippi Burning, a film about the notorious Schwerner-Goodman-Chaney Civil Rights massacre told from the perspective of two righteous white F.B.I. agents. In one paragraph he elucidates the central heartbreak of Black moviegoers that James Baldwin tried to pin down in his book The Devil Finds Work: For Ho’wood, Black folks are a burden and a marginal presence in even their own true stories. The makers of Bulworth, The Constant Gardener, Last King of Scotland, Freedomland and Blood Diamonds should have consulted this review. Writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) seems to conceive his projects with White’s admonition in mind, but with a warped sense of “Black” morality jamming the works.
“Suppose the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree (who has gained gravity and skill he didn’t have back in 1971, but here is relegated to a smiling old-codger cameo), had reprised Shaft and brought with him some reflection on the past 30 years of racism, police brutality, ghetto nihilism? Paul Newman captured such depth in reprised roles of The Drowning Pool and Twilight. But Hollywood doesn’t allow black artists to create such continuity and exploration. Jackson takes over the Shaft franchise simply to deracinate and dilute it.” (“Shaft,” NY Press, July 12, 2000.)
This is one of many White observations that I would like to force-feed Spike Lee, John Singleton, Craig Brewer, Quentin Tarantino—any filmmaker recycling blaxploitation and other “trash” genres. Why reach into the past only for style and attitude when there are riches of pop culture/social wisdom to be reaped? But there’s a more practical lesson here, too. Ho’wood routinely botches remakes, sequels and adaptations by a literal-minded focus on recycling “proven” formulas. That’s why, instead of an Alien sequel that follows the indelible Ripley character on some other adventure that doesn’t necessarily involve aliens, or one that features the creatures menacing some other plausible, interesting set of characters, Ho’wood forces both elements together across an increasingly ludicrous run of sequels (the great, gorgeous Alien 3 notwithstanding). Instead of trusting that we’d enjoy watching the loveable Rocky Balboa in an expansion upon the original Rocky’s Philly neorealism, Stallone forces the old man back in the ring. White’s coulda-shoulda scenarios provoke my own, and show up the stingy imagination and social vision in contemporary mainstream films.
“Nothing has changed in [Spike] Lee’s work since Stanley Crouch, in The Village Voice, notoriously branded him an “Afro-fascist” except now, in Bamboozled, Lee’s hectoring has joined Crouch’s conservative view, ridiculing and lambasting the wayward actions of pop-culture magpies, rappers, actors, liberal-activists. All the ’controversy’ that attends each Spike Lee film works against any radical or progressive effect they might have. Get on the Bus, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled are all easily slotted (and forgotten) as big-budget agit-pop-movies regularly praised by The New York Times assuredly don’t agitate anyone. The way the media and academia join Lee’s annual bandwagons prevent notice of any less media-canny artist from affecting public discussion. And this is the degenerating effect of money and power: to preserve the status quo, to keep racial and political discussion in the control of the major studios and media outlets.” (Cineaste, March, 2001.)
Six years later, the ascendancy of cynical entrepreneur-artists like Jay-Z confirms this view of a media approval system that excludes true Black visionaries. Even hip hop mavericks like Kanye West, Common and Mos Def wind up as commercial pitchmen or sidekicks in Ho’wood films. (Kanye’s nervousness while muttering the plain truth about George Bush on live TV said it all. He probably sensed millions of dollars flying out of his pockets.) Six years later, and 30 years after filmmakers like Bill Gunn and Charles Burnett seemed to augur an African-American New Wave comparable to the white one, there’s no such thing. Through the decades, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and the gang enjoyed a critical and commercial response equal to their stature. Their Black counterparts are still off in the margins, dismissed, forgotten. It’s nice that Killer of Sheep had a successful resurrection this year, but Norbit nihilism rules the day.
“Everyone’s estimation of A.I. will depend on their interest in childhood mythology. Will they accept that Spielberg–from The Sugarland Express to The Color Purple, from Hook to Amistad—is the one filmmaker to sustain the link between fantasy and moral reckoning? Start with the film’s audacious ad copy (“His love is real. But he is not”). It sets A.I. apart from Hollywood’s mostly antipathetic films. Rather than indulging religiosity, as Spielberg’s antireligious detractors charge, the movie phases into and through religious parallels toward a spiritual essence. Every image (whether a deceptive heavenly orb or Gigolo Joe’s facial planes resembling David Bowie’s trompe l’oeil makeup in the Blue Jean video) forces us to question the authenticity of things and feelings. Each part of David’s journey through carnal and sexual universes into the final eschatological devastation becomes as profoundly philosophical and contemplative as anything by cinema’s most thoughtful, speculative artists—Borzage, Ozu, Demy, Tarkovsky. So what if the project came via Kubrick? That’s both a red herring and good fortune. Moments that Kubrick would have made cold and ugly are surpassed by Spielberg’s richer truth—and that’s as it should be. It’s Spielberg’s distinct sensibility that makes the difference. Rejecting the cynical trickery some people prefer in drama, his A.I. is equal to Kubrick’s finest work.” (NY Press, June 29, 2001)
A.I. is just one of those tests I use to separate the blind from the sighted. Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved a review like this and the one it got from A.O. Scott in The New York Times. White goes Scott one better by placing Spielberg in a context most highbrows would find outrageous: For them,” Ozu, Tarkosvsky, Spielberg” might as well be “Tolstoy, Joyce, Clancy.”
“In a perfect movie culture, Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé would be a major story in such women’s publications as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Essence, Jane and Mademoiselle—who knows, maybe even the front page of the Times’ Arts and Leisure. But as our film and media culture operates, the American institutions of female empowerment will not bother with the issues raised by Sembène.
Moolaadé follows, with everyday matter-of-factness, the story of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a Senegalese woman who opposes the traditions in her society that restrict the role—even the voices and sexuality—of women. Shouldn’t this matter? Unfortunately, the only female experiences that American feminist critics and journalists attend to are those represented by middle-class and primarily white women. This problem isn’t simply racism, but also the plain bad taste that automatically elects fraudulent, inhumane, anti-male filmmakers like Jane Campion and Catherine Breillat as standard bearers; thus leaving serious, world-class artists like Sembène ignored.” (“Miss the Right Thing,” NY Press, October 12, 2004)
A typical bold-stroke indictment of a whole political group that seems unfair at first glance. But invite your Ivy League feminist intellectual friend over to watch Ice Cube’s The Player’s Club or Two Can Play That Game (two films White cites in this review) and peep her reaction.
“’It is man that we need. A look caught with surprise can be sublime.’ That’s Robert Bresson quoted in Babette Mangolte’s The Models of Pickpocket (showing at Anthology Film Archives), a documentary exploring the mystery of Bresson’s art by interviewing the performers of his 1959 film Pickpocket 43 years later. Mangolte investigates the processes that made Bresson’s films distinctive, but her inquiry into the phenomenon of film acting is a pop-art coup. It dovetails with Bernie Mac’s remarkable performance in Mr. 3000. Comic-turned-actor Mac intuitively and instructively reveals a mutual sensitivity to the dilemma of a public figure fighting for his place in history. With Pickpocket, Bresson gave its principal actors Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green and Martin Lasalle a form of immortality. First called “interpreters,” then “models,” they all feel that their lives were changed by working with “Monsieur Bresson.” Leymarie carries the memory into his work as a genetics researcher, Green became a professional actress and Lasalle pursued various career options as actor, painter, gardener, always haunted by Bresson’s influence. Each performer admits how they “gave” themselves to Bresson. Years later they understood his dictum, “When the model is free of all intentionality, his expressiveness is adequate for the filmmaker.” This is not just a high-art command; one gorges on the honest and authentic humor of Mac’s characterization.” (“The Black Natural,” NY Press, September 14, 2004)
Bernie Mac is the one-man answer to virtually all of Ho’wood’s problems, but aside from Mr. 3000 director Charles Stone III, few in showbiz really see this man’s potential. How else to account for his wallpaper status in three Ocean’s movies? His TV show was cute, but Mac belongs on the big screen, front and center. Tough, nimble and symphonic in his range of expression, he deserves a comparable range of roles. Articles like “The Black Natural” force me to put away the blinders that make us automatically reject popular entertainers like Mac, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tyler Perry as complicated—that word again—artists.
“This pseudo-Third World indie [Maria Full of Grace] is actually full of crap. An anti-Homeland Security tearjerker, the story of a Colombian supermodel type puts a twist on illegal immigration. New motto: Give me your bored and materialistic—especially if they have no gag reflex. James L. Brooks’ Spanglish exposes all that nonsense “humanism” with an immigration and integration story that honestly questions the values of L.A.’s soft-headed and wrongheaded liberals. His complex view of family love and social commitment shows the difference between compassion and condescension. Funny and remarkable.” (“Dirty Dozens,” NY Press, December 28, 2004)
This hit job on Maria Full of Grace indirectly explains why “pseudo-Third World” indies like Amores Perros, Y tu Mama Tambien and City of God astonish with their cinematography but are about as revolutionary as a Banana Republic ad.
“Combining a pop-culture echo chamber and Oedipal fun house, the mind of Wes Anderson is fixated on adolescent nostalgia. That’s his charm. It’s a vision that also strikes chords of longing that resonate in the now-complicated parts of your adulthood. That’s his depth. Because Anderson can put this paradox on the screen—with funny characters, irresistible music and ebullient images—he stands as the most playful and poignant of the American Eccentrics. His flamboyantly titled new film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou beats this year’s good work by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees) for sheer effervescence. It is the most idiosyncratic, intimate and appealing of the bunch.
“This is Anderson’s big one—his 8 1/2 and his Moby Dick. The problems of power, fame, creative freedom and domestic upheaval that perplex celebrated filmmakers once they arrive at a place of eminence and choice are addressed through the career of Steve Zissou, an oceanographer-filmmaker (played by Bill Murray). The Eccentrics don’t like to admit their privilege; it’s part of the middle-class advantage most filmmakers enjoy. But that awareness saturates every opulent, comic frame of The Life Aquatic. Anderson doesn’t take privilege for granted; he basks in it, scrutinizes it.” (“Yellowy Submarine,” NY Press, December 7, 2004)
Condescension works both ways—up and down. I’ve battled a personal prejudice against rich/middle-class kids all my life. Spoiled, self-absorbed, decadent and weak, goes the stereotype. As an adult, I’ve met some real ones who seem to have problems I could identify with. Imagine that. It’s so cool that White, a son of old school, working-class Detroit, could develop the sensitivity to distinguish between the hollow falsity of American movies that claim to ignore class barriers (but really just ignore the underclass) and the transcendence of filmmakers like Anderson, who sing that nobody can help what they’re born into; that most of us mean well; that affluence earned or inherited weighs upon the soul as heavily as poverty. Why is this important? See #10.
“Certainly America needs some Black film critics—not a moonlighting Ivy Leaguer prof with the right bloodlines, a rock-n-roll refugee with a credible hairdo, or even an ax-grinding freelancer but someone (this may sound radical) who knows film. That’s never been a high priority in the media, but nothing beats it. What too often replaces knowledge is a parochialism (critics trapped in their own backyards) and hack journalists ready to buy whatever’s being sold.
“Reviewers don’t need to be omniscient—sensitivity will do. But that’s not guaranteed by race either. It’s an ongoing emotional and intellectual process that can make a Daily News review more perceptive about Chameleon Street than any of the Black monthlies, or that makes The City Sun and The New York Times celebrate the 1986 Brixton comedy Black Joy when most other reviewers in town look away, consigning a remarkable film on diaspora culture to the land Hollywood forgot. Given this record, a generation of new Black filmmakers badly needs a generation of film reviewers who are not enslaved to Hollywood orthodoxy… If there are filmmakers with the guts or inspiration to put a frame around their individual view of the world, like Wendell Harris, or attempt creating their own syntax like Julie Dash with Daughters of the Dust, it may require a compatible critic who has a cultural head start to accurately describe the effort. This is too crucial a period in American cultural history to be left to fools.” (“A New Wave Ebbs,” The Village Voice, June, 1991)
I keep looking to the bottom of that article for a dotted line to sign my name in blood.
“Does the Wayans family realize that the concept behind Little Man, their latest collective project, makes it a near-classic comedy? Director Keenen Ivory Wayans and his performing brothers Marlon and Shawn are notorious for childish impudence and sarcasm in such hits as Scary Movie and White Chicks. But in Little Man, dealing with their habitual irrepressible immaturity unleashes something poignant. It makes this silly, lightweight film almost deep.” (“Knee High,” NY Press, July 19, 2006)