ARMOND WHITE: You don't need a Trojan horse. Take the example of Spike Lee. He came from the outside. He got in, and look what he did.
SB: That's what I'm saying! Don't stay in there! Go in there, do your business and run, run back, run out.
AW: He's not your example. Your example is people like Alex Cox, like Wendell B. Harris, like Whit Stillman.
SB: Right. I want a Wendell B. Harris with Whit Stillman's output or better. I want a guerilla, somebody to come down from the hills--
AW: That's a fantasy.
SB: Pull the pin, throw the thing, run out--
AW: A fantasy. Look at somebody like Jonathan Demme. You need somebody who'll be steady, dependable, who understands what the world is, has respect for humanity. That's what you need, not Spike Lee showing off all the things he hates.
SB: I don't use the guerilla analogy to say violent or reactionary--
AW: Well, that's what guerilla means.
SB: Well, this is a different kind of guerilla. A guerilla, a thief, a bandit who...
AW: Bandit. That's unnecessary. That's romanticizing something.... That's unnecessary.
SB: I'm only talking about the way that he moves in relation to the system.
AW: No, let that go. Let that go. You don't need that. Please understand. One of the greatest American movies of the past ten years is Beloved. Ain't no underhanded, sneaky thievery thing about that. It's a mainstream movie made by people with money who were brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and turn that into art. The same stupid critics that didn't like The Landlord when it came out dismissed Beloved when it came out. But you have a culture of criticism that simply doesn't want Black people to have any kind of power, any kind of spiritual understanding or artistic understanding of themselves. That's the example that I think is helpful for you to follow. No need to be a sneak thief. Stand up and say what you believe. Do it. Use the mainstream apparatus to create a work of art that's useful to everybody.
SB: What if I created something that was as sturdy and clear-eyed as Beloved over here in my corner, and then I just brought it into town and said, "Here it is." And the sturdiness and eloquence of it is beyond question, so it holds up as something acceptable to the system on those technical and storytelling merits-- but I made it in a place where I never had to ask for a dime, ask for approval of a certain casting choice, anything. I brought it in and I made it available, and then the only work for me to do is to negotiate the terms by which this thing can remain what it is. Because it's in my hands, my pocket, I can take it away if the terms are not suitable to me. But if it's one of those deals where I walk into town with script in hand or story treatment in hand and nothing made, now I have to negotiate endlessly over all these elements that go into the finished product. If I come in with the finished product, I'm operating from a position of strength.
AW: You're fantasizing. Life is about compromise. Nobody-- very few people come in from the outside and say, "This is mine, everything's gonna be done my way"--
SB: No, "I already did it my way. This is what I made."
AW: So you want your way some more. Set up your own distribution system? You still want your way.
AW: It's probably happened once in the history of the medium.
SB: To me, it's worth taking the leap. That's worth taking the leap for.
AW: It's not worth the leap. Consider this: So you present your personal film to the world. Then what you run up against is this culture of film critics who'll do everything in their power to destroy it and get people to ignore it. So maybe it's best for you to start with that, trying to change the culture of film criticism, try to get people to start to realize the politics of film and film criticism, the way they look at movies, and the way they encourage other people to look at movies. Maybe that's the best place to start. It's really very practical and important to try to change the nature of film criticism. The only person who got half of what you're talking about was Orson Welles.
SB: Well, he was always from within-- even when he was dealing with RKO, it was never a situation where, like now, the technology and economics could support him getting away from the world and then he dropping a Citizen Kane onto the table.
AW: I don't understand why you have this fantasy. Stop fantasizing, and get real. Try to change the world the way you can. If you're going to make a work of art, make it, but understand that you're not doing anything in the world... singlehandedly. Everybody has to compromise. But the thing is to understand where you draw the line. Don't just compromise. You negotiate compromise. "I'll give you that but you gotta give me this." Nobody's come in from the outside saying, "This is what I got, I want it my way." They'll tell you to go home, go elsewhere, "get out my face." Look at De Palma, stupid De Palma, with Redacted. He should complain about what they do to his film? Get real, man.
AW: But I'm saying, you don't need to have that fantasy. The heros are people who dealt with the system and managed to come up with great works of art.
SB: Maybe I just don't have it in me. To deal with these people, it would kill me.
AW: It's not going to kill you. Get over yourself. Compromise. (laughs) Nobody ever died of a broken heart.
SB: Not the hearbreak of compromise but the strain of constantly trying to... It's like Spike Lee's story is sort of a cautionary tale.
AW: Well, sure it is, but you don't have to follow his pattern. Follow the Demme pattern. Follow the Wendell B. Harris pattern.
SB: And where the hell is Wendell B. Harris?
AW: What do you want? What do you want?
SB: I want more.
AW: Would you rather that he had not done anything? He made something wonderful, and it's in the culture, and it's up to us to make sure that it's alive in the culture. You're worried about too many things. You can't worry about the future, gotta work with today.
SB: Other than Darjeeling, what was good at the New York Film Festival?
AW: The Rohmer film, The Romance of Astree and Celadon. That was exquisite. I haven't seen everything at the festival. A lot of good stuff. A lot of garbage, too. Lot's of garbage.
SB: Well, I don't want to miss anything good, so--
AW: Make no mistake. Politics are involved. Everybody needs to think about who they are politically and operate accordingly. The problem I see in criticism is lots of criticism is written by people who don't think, don't even know who they are. For white folks it's very easy. They don't have to think about who they are in the world. You remember that line in The Landlord, when Diana Sands says she wants the baby to be raised "white," so he can be--
SB: Raised casual.
AW: --casual, "like his Daddy." That's the problem with a lot of film criticism, a lot of casual people writing, pretending that they know what they're talking about, pretending that they know the way the world works. They're white, they can afford to keep things okey-dokey, status quo.
SB: How did you figure it out?
AW: People have taught me. I always talked to my parents, talked to the people in my union town, a town of working-class people. I learned from Motown. I learned from watching movies.
SB: You learned from Margot at the Wedding, a great film. (laughs)
AW: Yeah, sure. Not from that asshole. (laughs) Part of the problem, not part of the solution.
SB: I ran into two guys who recently interviewed you at the New York Film Festival and they said they were shocked that you liked Darjeeling Limited 'cause they weren't expecting you to. But when I listened to the interview, you threw me for a loop by saying that Wes Anderson was good friends with this guy [Margot and the Wedding director] Noah Baumbach, that he's friends with an asshole. How could you say that? Do you know him? Do you personally know these guys to say that Baumbach is an asshole, Wes Anderson is a good guy, and it's a mystery to you why they're friends?
AW: Look at the movies. That's how I know. You're aware of what D.H. Lawrence said about writing...? Trust the tale, not the teller. So, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, they can tell you what they believe they're about. They can get on a podium and say, "This is what I believe in, this is what I feel, this is what I love, this is what I dislike..." Can't trust any of that. You've got to look at the movie. You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole. I would say it to his face. And, of course, he gets praised by other assholes, because they agree with his selfish, privileged, stuck-up shennanigans. I don't need to meet him to know that. better than meeting him, I've seen his movies.
SB: Well, I reviewed it, and, yeah, there was something of the asshole point-of-view, stuck-up view, but there was something to it. For one thing, he could actually teach this, um, "splat pack," these new horror directors something, because to me it was really a horror film in the visuals and the way he manipulated tensions in every scene, which had a lot to do with loathing and humiliation. Every scene was about people who were not comfortable in their own skin. I did feel that I didn't really like these people, but to me there was some value in that he captured that, uhhh... milieu.
AW: First of all, it's shocking--shocking--to me that he could make a movie with [cinematographer] Harris Savides, and, on his previous film, with Robert Yeoman, and they both come out looking shitty.
SB: Well, it looked like he was pushing for that, especially with Harris Savides, whose big influence is Gordon Willis. There are certain scenes, interiors that are extremely underexposed, kind of milky, which actually reminded me of a couple of shots that I saw in The Landlord.
AW: (laughs) There's nothing in there from The Landlord. Nothing.
SB: Did you see--
AW: Perhaps the lighting, but certainly not the processing. No, not even the lighting. No, no. It was ugly! Did you see The Darjeeling Limited?
AW: Did you see The Squid and the Whale?
SB: No, I didn't see that. This was my first Noah Baumbach--
AW: The film looked like Margot and the Wedding. Just like it. So just use that reference. If you can believe that the same man who shot Darjeeling shot something that looks like Margot at the Wedding. That's not art. That's barbarism.
SB: He was aiming for that.
AW: Deliberate barbarism. And it's not that he captures the behavior of a screwed up lot of people. It's that he indulges in it. And, remember, the whole thing is fiction. He created it. He made it all up because that's the kind of stuff he likes to see. That's the kind of stuff he likes to indulge. He's not the first artist in the world to-- look at Tennessee Williams, look at Eugene O'neill. See how they depict fucked up people: Not like Noah Baumbach. There's a difference, an important difference. He's indulging in a particular class, a particular economic class.
SB: But you don't feel that he goes through all that to find some kind of--
AW: No, no.
SB: --feelings between the mother and the son.
AW: Pure bullshit. It's him. It's all about him. He's indulging himself, a fortunate asshole. And because his family is all well-connected people in New York publishing, critics praise him, because, in the end, they're praising themselves, justifying their own bad behavior.
SB: Well, I've been working here 15 years, and I've definitely met people from that... class who have so much tension and resentment within their families. I just took the film as sort of true to their reality. A lot of pent up hostilities, a sense of entitlement. He's holding up a mirror to that. I did feel that he was trying to show that underneath all that they're still trying to kind of inch toward the light, that as much as they try to distance themselves from each other, they end up kind of crashing back into each other, holding each other up.
AW: In a way, I guess you could say that's why he's friends with Wes Anderson, because they're both doing the same thing. Look how one does it, and look how the other does it. Which one edifies you?
This was an informal conversation. For Armond White interviews of a more professional caliber, try these:
To download/stream a Green Cine audio interview with White, click here.