Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sweet Lime and "Sour Grapes": Armond White Conversation, Part III

This is the last stretch of a long conversation between the film critic Armond White and this writer. Had fun, learned much. (Earlier installments are here and here.)

STEVEN BOONE: You talked about nightmares. You had a phrase in your review-- I can't remember the review, but I think you've talked about it more than once, where you talk about "the prison of white imagination." You give me phrases like that, you give me reviews like your Shaft review, your Sounder review, which kind of cry out for certain types of films to be made that aren't being made and.... that I almost feel that won't be made unless they're made in the way that I spent a half hour trying to convince you is valid, which is: completely outside the loop but brought into the loop once they're completed, done in this pure fashion. Something along the lines of that Shaft sequel that you dreamed of, which doesn't exist, won't exist, but is needed. It's not going to happen within that system. But, from my perspective, it would be a shame if nobody made the effort, constructing that Trojan horse and rolling it in.

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.

SB: Yes.

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.

SB: Hmm...

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?

SB: 'course.

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?

Grapes of Wrath

SB: Are there any critics who you think "get it"?

AW: Well, there are a lot of people, but very few who are... who are any good.

SB: Give me one.

AW: Can't give you one. (laughs) The profession is in dismal shape, fucking dismal condition.

SB: So you go to this conference [Beyond Thumbs Up film critic discussion at The Coolidge Corner] and you basically find everybody there... irrelevant. Why go? How do you...

AW: Well, you try to be collegial, and you try to find connections where you can, but they're very few. Most of them don't know what they're talking about; don't even know who they are. And yet they enjoy the benefits of mainstream employment. Maybe some fool thinks that this is sour grapes. This is not sour grapes. This is not sour grapes. People don't know who they are. Most people don't know where they're going or what they're doing next. That's how it is in the professional world. People just holding down jobs. And the public accepts this.

SB: So, do they need to read more, or turn off their televisions, or...

AW:Really, anybody who undertakes to write criticism about Noah Baumbach really should be familiar with what came first. Know O'neill and Tennesse Williams first, before you talk about Noah Baumbach. But it's like I said before, you have people who are just happy to promote anything that's new.

SB: But I don't understand. These people are educated. NYU and Columbia and--

AW: Do you have an education?

SB: I went to SVA, but I don't have a degree.

AW: Well, that should be good enough to let you realize that some people come out of school and they come out stupid. So they got a degree. Wow. A lot of lost people have degrees.

SB: So, is it a factor? Say I go and get a Masters in Fine Arts--

AW: You get a Masters in Fine Arts, then you won't get a job as a critic. (laughs) Most editors don't want anybody to know anything. They get people who are willing to accept what Hollywood gives them.

SB: So is it a streamlined process?

AW: You go to Harvard, you're set. That's practically a given. The punk group X, from the '80s, had a song, the lyric is, "Even in loving, it's who you know."

SB: Hmm....

AW: That explains...

SB: That cuts...

AW: ... a lot. That's the truth.

SB: So you thought about that as a young critic and you said-- what was your undergrad?

AW: Detroit, Wayne State.

SB: So you said, "Wayne State's not cutting it"--

AW: No I got my undergrad from Wayne State.

SB: Oh, alright, you got your degree and--

AW: I wanted more. I went to Columbia for my Master's. Met great people there. Better thinkers about film than anybody who's writing criticism currently.

SB: I thought that's where these people came from.

AW: Unfortunately they don't. There is not a single film critic in this country who knows as much about film as some of my fellow classmates at Columbia. Not a single one. In a way, that's why I have the attitude I have, because I know. I know that these people couldn't get arrested in a publication.

SB: Well, that sounds horrific.

AW: I'm sure it's that way in other professions as well. I assume it's that way in others, but I know it's that way in film critcism.

SB: Well, one thing I'll tell you that I do read, and I was never turned onto this until a few years ago... I read blogs. I see some of those people that I think you're referring to, who aren't affiliated with major papers or national magazines but are pretty sharp. I've stumbled onto content on some blogs that's more illuminating to me than almost anything I read in The Times.

AW: Well, that's hopeful.

SB: I mean, they're not making any money, but...

AW: I guess it's hopeful, but the problem is they're drowned out by many other people who don't know what they're talking about, who just can't stop writing. The value of professional film criticism used to be that... it used to guarantee that you'd have people who were educated and experienced and proven in some way. That's not the case anymore. It's just who you know. It's a mess. (laughs)

SB: On that note... (laughs)

AW: (laughs)

Tape recorder off.

This was an informal conversation. For Armond White interviews of a more professional caliber, try these:

Jeremiah Kipp at Senses of Cinema

Filmmaker Magazine: The Critic

BrianDepalma.net Interview

The Wow Jones Report: White on Michael Jackson

To download/stream a Green Cine audio interview with White, click here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Phonies, Cronies, American Ironies, American Gangsters: Armond White Conversation, Part II

Oops, looks like there will be a Part III to this discussion. The last leg of our talk is too reflective of the first part to go here. (Part I right here. More of the White stuff here.)

STEVEN BOONE: I think why I hold onto this notion of poor filmmakers from the 'hood leaping out of nowhere with brave, crazy, visionary films is because some of my favorite reviews of yours... if a young filmmaker can comprehend what these things are saying to him, he could almost take it as his marching orders. I feel like, if I actually finally complete a film, part of my engine will be some of those reviews-- What you wrote about Shaft, what you wrote about Malcolm X, Sounder. You're addressing the artistry of the films, but you're also addressing a certain cultural void, concepts that audiences are thirsty for, I feel. You can call it an aristocratic medium, bourgoise... but I think that people going to the movies are not conscious that they're deficient, but their cynical attitudes have something to do with the fact that they were subconsciously looking for something more, and they're not getting it. And the cynycism builds and builds and builds.

ARMOND WHITE: Well, that cynicsim, I think, is a recent development. It wasn't always like that. Yeah, its a bourgoise art form, but its also a popular art. Back in the good old days-- even before I was born-- Hollywood studios understood that it was a popular art. They felt they had a mandate not just to get people's money. They had a mandate to address the public, largely a public of working-class and immigrant peoples. The movies had entirely different values in the '20s and '30s, and that's... all gone now. So the irony of this bourgoise art form appealing to poor people is a beautiful irony, an American irony. That's what America's about, in a way. That people with money understood what it was like not to have money; didn't condescend to people who didn't have money. Gave them something substantial, something beautiful. That's all gone now. Hollywood's not interested in making Shaft, they're interested in making American Gangster. A nightmare. A nightmare largely because of what it says about our values, as a people. And of course, that's going to breed a cyncial public, because there's no heart in it. To castigate critics again: One of the great American filmmakers is one most critics don't know and never talk about-- they're not even curious about. This guy Frank Borzage. Made movies in the '20s and his peak was in the '30s, when he won two Academy Awards for Best Director. His greatest films are usually about the spiritual struggles of working-class people. Film critics couldn't care less about Frank Borzage. They prefer to make reference to cynical filmmakers, less talented filmmakers, like Billy Wilder, for instance. Even though he's from a different period, really, Billy Wilder is a totem for so many awful film critics. And his movies are nothing but cyncism.

SB: Hmm...

AW: The New York Film Critics Circle had a program of films at the Musuem of the Moving Image two years ago, showed Borzage's, um.... can't think of the name of the film. But it was from the '30s, which was his greatest period, and, uh, none of my colleagues came to the screening. I noticed very few young people at the screening. It seems to me that they're not interested anymore in movies that offer the general audience a substantive, humane vision. Just not interested. And that's... that's awful. And the thing with Borzage, what he stood for is what you see in movies like Sounder and in Chameleon Street, in Beloved. Nowadays, critics castigate Stanley Kramer, for The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, as if those were shameful movies. They're not at all. They're much more craftsmanly than Sidney Lumet. Kramer's a much better filmmaker than Lumet. But because Lumet's movies are genuinely ugly and cynical, they prefer that. They laugh at Stanley Kramer. There's nothing to laugh at in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It's quite a serious film. It's a heroic example of mainstream filmmakers dealing with an issue that's important to everybody, regardless of class, and doing it with as much professionalism and artistry as they knew how to muster-- and you feel it. You feel it. There's a reason Sidney Poitier was the number one box office star in 1967. Not because the movies were great works of art, but they were great works of popular culture. They spoke to what was important to people, and not cynically. that's all gone out of the culture now. You make a movie that addresses the popular audience respectfully these days, you get laughed at, the way critics are laughing at The Darjeeling Limited. That's horrifying.

SB: Right, because my personal reaction to The Darjeeling Limited... it did reach out to me, across-- It made me confront some of my own prejudices, my own close-mindedness to a certain extent when it comes to people of privilege. These guys, these three rich assholes, who are used to a certain sense of entitlement, and here they are in India, on some kind of pilgrimage, with all of that baggage. That film, to me, functions in the same way that you say Borzage's films functioned for poor people. All that stuff aside, it said to me, none of us can help what we were born into, but we're all-- or a lot of people are-- basically just trying. We're trying. Working with the situation that we were born into. The brothers don't get along. There's a lot of reasons for that, a lot of which won't even be addressed in the film, but we know it, through the compositions and the performances, the way Anderson unfolds the story. It reaches across the line and makes it human.

AW: Well, it's like you wrote to me in email, you said it has the most beautiful image of a baby you'd ever seen, and I'm glad you isolated that, because it's true. I think I felt that when I saw that image, but I didn't articulate it the way you did. That's... You hit it. And my God, how critics can look at that and dismiss this movie! What world are they from? Because that's the essence of what that film is about, recognizing the beauty of humanity. I spoke to some stupid person about it, and I said, "Don't you have siblings?" They said, "I have to have siblings to understand that movie?" I said, "It would help." If you've ever had a loving, aggravating relationship with anybody, you ought to be able to relate to those brothers are presented in that movie. That's the beauty of being human!

SB: It's only going to reward someone in that way if they're someone who watches films... sequentially. They have to watch. Watching shots unfold, one footstep after another. Each cut has a certain impact, relates a certain story--

AW: That is the way we watch movies. All that nonsense about "quirky" is just that, nonsense. You watch the scenes unfold, the shots follow each other, but basically you're watching human beings behave. You either relate to that or you don't. People have outside ideas about Wes Anderson and what he does, and they're letting that get in the way of what's up there on the screen. What's on the screen isn't difficult at all.

SB: Not at all.This one forces me to go back to The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, films which I've tried to watch on DVD-- didn't catch them in the theater. I kind of went with the argument that his films are like these precious doll houses, and I couldn't warm up to them for some reason the way I did Rushmore and Bottle Rocket. Now I have to see them again.

AW: And these are very prejudicial accuastions to make against the films, because every filmmaker's making doll houses. So?

SB: Like, what's wrong with a doll house?

AW: Exactly. Actually, it's true of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It's just an ugly, collapsing doll house.

SB: I also sense some self-consciousness in the reactions, since a lot of critics come from a similar background as these three privileged characters. So there's a little bit of, "Oh, this is ugly."

AW: Some people say, "Oh, it's white boys in India!" Now they're concerned about watching white boys for two hours? Now?

SB: Yeah, exactly. And I've had white people look to me for validation on that point. They're shocked when I'm like, "no, if I'm gonna see white boys in India, I want to know who these guys are." Anderson doesn't shy away from real behavior.

AW: Well, it reminds me of the stupid criticism of the films of Whit Stillman, like The
Last Days of Disco
. They complain that it's a film about white people, just about white
people. Oh, now you're concerned about "just about white people"? What about when 90% of the movies that come out there are only about white people, that's okay. When they finally get a filmmaker who understands what race and class mean, they complain. Actually let me put it better: When they get a filmmaker who understands what white privilege means, then they complain. Filmmakers who just accept white privilege as the natural order, that's fine. Let's celebrate that and throw some Oscars at it.

SB: Kind of ignore the whole fact of it.

AW: "White boy." That's not a criticism of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman. They understand the white world. You think they understand that Ron Howard is a white boy? That Steven Soderbergh is a white boy? They don't even think about that. The same goes for Spike Lee. The laughable irony about Spike Lee is he's always getting good reviews. I've enjoyed this circus for many years. His movies always get good reviews, but come the end of the year when critics give their ten best lists, his films are nowhere to be found. They're all playing that game, "oh, yes, we're open-minded, we're liberal. We love Spike Lee because he's a cantankerous Negro." But they really don't give a shit about his movies, when it comes down to it. Happens all the time.

SB: Putting their vote in?

AW: Yeah. Nonsense.

SB: I finally saw this year a film which my ex-girlfriend used to beg me to watch whenever it came on cable, a film called The Landlord. Superficially, you know, just passing through the house and glancing at it on TV, it seemed like some kind of cheapjack, sort of upscale blaxploitation. But when I saw it at Film Forum, I was floored. And I was shocked that it was kind of passed off as this minor kind of first film, way in the shadows of Altman films, Coppola films, all those '70s-- but to me it's one of the bravest, most adventurous films of all time, stylistically, but also in terms of where it was willing to go.

AW: Welcome to an understanding of the way film culture works; the ideology of film culture, which is run by middle class white people, who only want movies that flatter them. Those are the only movies that get talked about. The Landlord is not by any means an obscure little film. It was released by United Arist. It had stars in it. Critics just chose to ignore it, over the years.

SB: I mean, just for the way the movie exploded when Lous Gossett had that mental collapse and was chasin Beau Bridges around with an axe-- that hit me where I live.

AW: Well, it was a rich cultural period. People would make movies like that. They're not doing that anymore. That's part of what I mean by criticism being worse than the movies, because critics are less in tune now with films like that than they were then.

SB: So you've run the New York Film Critic's Circle.

AW: Mm-hm.

SB: You're in the critical establishment. You're, like, one of the faces of the critical establishment. And you maintain that this is a middle class, upper class, bourgoise art form. How do you live with that?

AW: By recognizing that there is such a thing as racism, recognizing that white supremacy is operating in most of our institutions... and knowing it, and not forgetting it. But also, being raised as an open-minded person, who values James Baldwin as well as D.W. Griffith. I do.

SB: James Baldwin, who, by the way, had some harsh things to say about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. He's actually the one who kind of put me off to it.

AW: Well, you have to see everything for yourself, of course. He had his opinion, which is fine, but he was wrong. Thank God he wasn't a film critic. (laughs) He had some great things say about the movies, race and American society in general.

SB: One thing that ties you to a guy you have a lot of criticism for, Michael Moore, is that he seems to have a lot of animosity for people who don't, um, mind their neighbors, in a way. In Sicko, his whole thing was, "We're all in this together," and that the health care system is dysfucntional and not helping people largely because people don't have enough of a generous attitude, understanding that it is only to your benefit to think about the next man, the man to the right of you, the man to the left of you. That's what I took away from the film, and it kind of jibes with your whole attitude about how people producing pop culture should approach their work. Be mindful, be humane. So I'm trying to reconcile these two notions--

AW: Well, but Michael Moore is a phony. He doesn't have any black people in his organization. You know he's done nothing for his hometown of Flint, Michigan...? He's a phony. I think it's as simple as that. But he's also--

SB: He hired my cousin as a camerman.

AW: Well, how long did that last?

SB: I don't know. He shot part of Sicko. Um, and I think he worked on Fahrenheit.

AW: Hmm, that's not what I been reading. Go to his office. Ain't no black folks.

SB: But does he have to hire Black folks, for you to feel--

AW: Yes, yes he does.

SB: (laughs)

AW: There's a great line in Public Enemy's Can't Truss It: "Beware of the hand when it's coming from the left. " Can't trust it. Lefties talk a good game, talk all this liberal shit, talk it but they don't walk it.

SB: Now, in your reaction to Michael Moore, you sound extremely patriotic, almost in line with the neocons. What is that? What's going on there?

AW: Only stupid people think that. If you read me closely, you know. I'm afraid people expect me to have predictable, kneejerk responses to everything. When I don't, they don't know what to think. What a crazy reduction, to say, "If you don't like Michael Moore, you must love the American administration."

SB: How do you feel about the administation?

AW: That's me. That's for me to feel. I don't need to broadcast it. You know, I take these movies as they come. And if there's not enough truth in them, if there's not enough art in them, I'm gonna dis 'em. Doesn't mean anything to me that Michael Moore claims to be on the left. So what? He made a shitty movie. A badly argued film. I have to like his movie because he believes in health care? No.

SB: You have to like his movie because he puts across, in a compelling way, this sentiment, that, as Americans--

AW: I wasn't compelled--

SB: --as Americans we have a common interest and have to come together and look after each other. You're saying that he's full of shit, he doesn't believe that at all.

AW: Nah, I'm just saying that as far as whether that has anything to do with making a film valuable, I don't know. You can take that awareness that he presents... and two dollars... and get on the subway. Americans need health insurances, so what? Big fuckin' deal. That ain't news. He really hasn't done the hard work of an artist, which is to let people recognize their humanity and the humanity of others. In this period in particular, he doesn't do the hard work of making people recognize how most everybody acts out of self-interest.

SB: Hmm...

AW: To me, that is the real...

SB: Hmm...

AW: That is the real thing that undercuts all of Fahrenheit 9/11. You know the old saying, when you're pointing a finger at somebody there's ten more pointing back at you? Because he's all about selfishness. He likes to point fingers at other people.

SB: But I think he gets the job done in Sicko because he made me feel the hurt and desperation of people who are about to die because of some loopholes and technicalities in health insurance policy.

AW: You needed a movie to feel that?

SB: I didn't need a movie to feel that, but we could use a film like that.

AW: To me, that's not the issue. Of course it's terrible that people don't have sufficient health care. The real issue is, why don't we? To me, the real issue is that we don't because some people make more money this way. He doesn't deal with the people who make more money and how satisfied they are with it. That is something tha liberals have in common with neocons: They're living well. It's a joke to read reviews of Michael Moore movies written by people living in condominiums. They believe in all this liberal stuff, and they're just packing the money away. Elvis Costello's great line in Green Shirt, "You can please yourself, but somebody's gonna get it." Michael Moore never gives you that reality. Everybody's out to please themselves, but somebody's got to pay for it. Health care is the tip of the iceberg.

SB: He's naming names, identifying political figures who take huge--

AW: Stop pointing to political-- Stop pointing to the obvious people, and to less obvious people, um, like the folks who run the MTA. Pocketing away money in an obscene fashion. They're doing it because they don't give a shit about their fellow man.

[EDITORIAL S.O.S.: Okay, this isn't the first time in the conversation Mr. White and I slammed into an obvious, glaring contradiction in our respective lines of argument and kept on trucking, but this one is collossal, and mutual. Had to hit PAUSE here. How can either of us talk so much smack about humanism and empathy, only to engage in the same kind of cynical finger-pointing we both deride? Sometimes within the same sentence! I'll take the blame. I was exhausted, just came off the night shift, wired on caffeine. My dog ate it.

The real question for White at this moment was, "If people in condiminiums are responsible for such solipsistic, self-serving film reviews, why do you trust them and only them to make movies worth watching?" Another good one would have been, "What self-interest do you act out of? How much of your personal culpability in our problems as a people do you allow into your work?" Those were the questions, but I didn't think to ask them. Something along those lines was stirring in the following exchange, though.]

SB: Who are these movies for? Who are movies for?

AW: They're for selfish people who can go enjoy their summer homes. They can see something like Sicko and feel good about it.

SB: No, I mean all movies.

AW: Oh, for everybody, like I said about the '30s and Borzage.

SB: What do you feel is your responsibility as a critic to your readers, and what do you think you're doing for them?

AW: To give them things they won't get anywhere else, to put it simply. If you help people understand who they are in the world, then they're on their way to independence, rather than being slaves to capitalism.

SB: Do you feel that there should be films that gather up into sort of a loose movement?

AW: No, not necessary. People been through that, doesn't work. I also love to be suprised by films that help you understand what it is to be a human being, something like Nacho Libre. Something critics were quick to dismiss, "silly movie." They never got Jared Hess anyway, really. Napoleon Dynamite surprised all of them. Didn't surprise me-- well, it did surprise me, actually, but I realized what I was looking at. They don't want movies like that, that are about being a human being in the world.

SB: The praise of Napoleon Dynamite that I read was really superficial. But then I caught it on cable and was surprised at how rich it was.

AW: You didn't read my review, didja?

SB: I did not read your review. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) See? That's why I'm doin it!


Monday, December 10, 2007

"In a world that has The Darjeeling Limited, Sidney Lumet should be imprisoned!": A Conversation with Armond White, Part I

I stumbled upon Armond White's work 15 years ago, as an obsessive young reader of the radical black newspaper The City Sun. In the middle of the weekly whose motto was SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER was a movies/arts page that spoke truth to the powerful careerists and cynics in Ho'wood, New York and all other cultural capitals. The column on that page was written by White, and it was something to see. Amidst articles exposing dirty cops and racist politicians sat White's full-page combination jeremiad/reverie. White cursed and bemoaned callous, empty filmmakers (jeremiad); lavished heartbreaking prose upon flicks and filmmakers he found visually keen, mindful, humane (reverie). In a Brooklyn paper that served an audience mostly accustomed to Old Hollywood, Denzel movies, blaxploitation and kung fu, White wasn't afraid to spill a thousand words on the latest, arthouse curio or foreign classic.

Everywhere else in the Black press, entertainment articles seemed to function as PR posts for "our" popular artists. Segregation lives and flourishes in the publishing industry. This makes for a weird kind of siege mentality-as-status quo among Black publishers. Hence, aside from the gossip-mongers, nobody at Essence, Ebony/Jet or The Amsterdam News wanted to be caught making negative comments about, say, Spike Lee. Ah, yes, Spike: The first White review that struck me blind from the light was his appraisal of Spike Lee's would-be masterpiece, Malcolm X. He ripped it apart.

I remember standing in a bodega on 125th Street in Harlem, reading White's X review start-to-finish, agape in my X-cap, baggy jeans and knee-length Public Enemy t-shirt. White had scraped up against all the frustrations I couldn't articulate after seeing Malcolm X in the kind of anticipatory cold sweat I wouldn't experience again until The Phantom Menace came out. As I would with George Lucas's requiem for The Force, I had walked out of X sick with disappointment. Scenes that were so vivid and suspenseful in the Autobiography of Malcolm X were stilted and stingy-hearted in the Lee adaptation (a further corruption of the James Baldwin screenplay Ho'wood had desecrated two decades earlier). While Oprah and everybody's mama were hailing X as a "powerful" triumph, White saw something like the truth. I was hooked.

After The City Sun folded in 1996, White moved to the New York Press and didn't change his discordant tune. At the Press, and in his popular presentations of music videos for museums and festivals, he picked up his loyal, devoted crowd of haters and admirers. His rep: taking all mass culture (from a 3-minute Timberlake ditty to a Gaumont-produced auteur opus) as seriously as others would address dirty bombs; defying almost unanimous nationwide critical response to this or that "masterpiece" or "failure"; defending popular artists as artists (Spielberg and De Palma mostly, but also Bernie Mac and Michael Jackson); evaluating works from a deeply humanist perspective.

So, I dig the cat. But, thankfully, our conversation in late October was not all boring, flatlining love. In fact, White called me out several times ("You need to sharpen your eyes, my brother!") and dissed (if not by name, by NY Times affiliation) another favorite of mine, his ex-Press colleague, my friend and editor at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz.

I hope the following faithful Mametesque transcript explains why, in person, White's attacks come off downright charming. He delivers them serenely, with a smile that says, only half-jokingly, "This is for your own good, brother."

The Status Quo

STEVEN BOONE: You just got back from a festival?

ARMOND WHITE: No, I was at a conference. The Coolidge Corner in Boston, they're interested in film criticism, so they got a grant from the Motion Picture Academy to sponsor a conference on the state of film criticism. So they contacted Cineaste magazine to co-present the conference, and they invited up a number of film critics to talk about criticism. The conference was called Beyond Thumbs Up, though actually we never got to…

SB: That issue?

AW: Whatever it is that title suggests. Never discussed “thumbs up.”

SB: So what did you get into?

AW: Everything. There were three different panels, but they all ranged. They ranged from discussing Wes Anderson to discussing television, and then there were Q&A’s for the audience.

SB: Was there any screaming? Anybody get punched out?

AW: No, everybody was polite. Very civil.

SB: Well, that’s a good starting point. I guess you talk about this stuff all the time, but where is film criticism? Is it in the same place as it ever was, or—

AW: Oh, no, it stinks. (laughs) However bad movies are… criticism is worse! It’s gotten worse because people who call themselves critics have ceased to be… critical. I fear that they feel it’s their duty to promote Hollywood.

SB: You really think so? That most critics feel like Hollywood servants? Or is it that they’ve been… hoodwinked?

AW: Well, you can speculate on the reasons why, but I think that, from the reviews that I read almost everywhere, it’s like they feel their mission is to transcribe the movie for readers rather than interpret or critique it. I think that’s useless, frankly, because you can’t do a better job of transcribing movies than advertising. So if that’s what most critics are doing, then they’re just furthering the advertising, or as its commonly known, repeating the hype.

SB: And you’ve addressed this many times. But why has it—at least from my perspective—why does it seem to have accelerated, coincidentally, with the current administration? The last seven years… It just seems as if commentary is even more in line with corporate agendas than ever before. Okay, there was a steady progression toward this, but it seems to have gone into overdrive in the last few years.

AW: But why are you going to blame that on the administration?

SB: I don’t blame it on the administration, but certain things happen coincidentally, conveniently—

AW: Coincidentally? Well, then leave it at that, because many things happened in recent political and economic history, not just presidential administrations.

SB: But the current administration does represent a huge move toward privatizing virtually everything—

AW: Well, you’ve got to ask yourself who started all that, because Bush didn’t start it. Clinton started it. And Clinton continued it. Of course, nobody wants to say that.

SB: No, no, I’m 200% with you on that, but it almost seems as if it was never so naked, never so unapologetic as it is at this point. It’s as if the last seven years have been about kind of pulling everybody into lockstep with the program. People that you wouldn’t even think would go for this stuff are going for it now.

AW: That’s odd to me that you put it that way. You say “the administration,” but most critics, to me, hate the administration. How can they be in lockstep since they profess to hating everything the administration stands for? But the reality is, in what they write, they’re as capitalist and corporate as they could possibly be.

SB: I don’t sense as much hate. I see a lot of lampooning, a lot of mockery. When you pinpoint a lot of film critics, cultural critics, writers in this, uh, club… it’s really a matter of style that they’re having problems with. They really don’t question things like preemptive wars…

AW: Well, they take the stance of the status quo. They like to keep things as they are, because they personally benefit from things as they are. That’s what I see.

SB: How much compromise have you had to do? What’s the scorecard? Of what you’ve written, how much of what you’ve really wanted to say has gotten out there?

AW: Well, put it this way: I don’t work for The New York Times. They don’t want what I do. I have to work for a place that wants what I do. It’s not about compromise. It’s really about if a publisher or publication wants what you do. The New York Times knows what its doing when it hires people as film critics. It hires people who will present The New York Times agenda. And there is one. They don’t hire people because they’re great writers, great thinkers or great critics. They hire people who will fit with their program.

SB: And what is their program?

AW: You read it and tell me what their program is. They don’t want someone who knows their stuff. They don’t want what I do.

SB: But you’ve written for The New York Times!

AW: Not a lot. You can count the times I’ve been published in The New York Times on one hand.

SB: Some book reviews, some--

AW: Never on film. That door is closed to me.

SB: And yet that’s your best strength. You’re pretty good with music, but wouldn’t you say film is your best foot forward?

AW: Well, I love writing about both. But film is a very powerful industry. To write about film somehow you seem to address something that almost everybody is interested in, that everybody takes personally in some way. So to write about film is really a very powerful privilege. The New York Times understands that. They make sure that nobody’s going to write about film who doesn’t agree with the editorial board. I’m talking about The New York Times, the paper of record, but its worth realizing that its not—

SB: The whole record.

AW: It’s not the authority. It’s just a powerful organ, but it’s worth knowing that it’s not an authority and not the highest critical thinking. It seems like I’m picking on the people at the Times, but that was the truth before they got there. It remains the truth.

The Resistance

SB: I must confess, I never bought your book [The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World]. I borrowed this copy from one of my editors.

AW: Why didn’t you buy it?

SB: (laughs) I can explain! Well, I’ve been reading you since 1992, in The City Sun. When the book came out [1995], I went to the bookstore—probably this building—and opened up the book and said, “Well, I’ve read almost all of this stuff.” As a poor student, I wasn’t going to buy it. But what I overlooked then was a whole section of stuff that I had never had a chance to read, from 1984 to about 1991, '92. It’s a strange area, because—did you start in ’84?

AW: I started at The Sun in ’84, yeah. I’ve been writing criticism all my life.

SB: Well, early on, I’ve only just now learned… I knew that you liked Do the Right Thing, but I was amazed at how generous you were toward the film, which I loved. And then how sometime around Jungle Fever your opinion of Spike’s work and his intentions either changed or… what happened?

AW: Nothing changed. If anything changed, he got worse. I didn’t change. What’s not included in The Resistance is what I wrote on She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. The first Spike piece in the book is on Do the Right Thing, which happened to be a great film. In my opinion it’s the film he was put on the planet to do. Everything else is more like School Daze: Wack.

SB: This kind of gets to the heart of what I believe, that people are their films-- when people get a film made more or less on their own terms or at least get something of themselves out there. I take from a lot of your reviews that you’re evaluating the films the way you’d evaluate a person that’s coming at you. If they’re untrustworthy, if they’re stingy-hearted or narcissistic, it comes out in the film. The strange thing for me is—and I have a ton of problems with Spike—how can the same guy make such a generous, searching film like Do the Right Thing and then make all this other cynical… crap?

AW: Well, Do the Right Thing is a very cynical film.

SB: But you gotta admit it has heart. When Da Mayor is sitting on the stoop and all the neighborhood kids are humiliating him, basically. He curses them out, and they all walk away. I’ll never forget, because I was in high school when I saw this in the theater. Spike cuts back to a shot, the same composition that had all those kids, except now it’s just the one girl standing there in the right side of the frame. She’s staring at Da Mayor in silence, like she’s not down with this whole party. She sees what the audience sees in Da Mayor, that he should not be treated this way. That’s a moving, empathetic moment that I have trouble reconciling with a lot of other stuff that Spike, um, palms off on us.

AW: I don’t remember it that way. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so I would probably do with going back and checking. But as I remember it, that shot of the girl was not compassionate. In that shot she was looking at a pathetic old man.

SB: Well, now I gotta go back to it, because as I recall, she was embarrassed. Ashamed.

AW: It’s possible that she expressed a number of feelings. I seem to remember that one of those was pity, which makes sense, since young people are stupid—stupid about the older generation. But I’d have to go back to it. But Spike is a cynical person. That’s in all of his films.

SB: In almost all of Spike’s films, from Do the Right Thing up to, say, Clockers, there has always been a moment that resonated with that scene with Da Mayor. A little bit of generosity straining to get out, under all these layers of opportunism, cynicism, sloganeering, stuff like that. That’s the problem I always had with this guy. So many influences and pressures seemed to take him away from what was more of a pure place.

AW: Well, you’ve got to be careful. This is a problem I see in a lot of criticism. Sometimes critics take filmmakers to task for not doing what the critic wants them to do. If he’s an individual and an artist, he’s going to express himself, not express you.

SB: I don’t take him to task, just identify things that resonate with me, things that I jibe with.

AW: But he’s not required to jibe with you, but what you can criticize is if he’s being true to life, true to human behavior. That you can rightly critique and analyze. You don’t have to like what he’s saying. I don’t like what I take to be the messages in Do the Right Thing, but I think it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking and social perception and spleen… The quotes at the end from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are a cop-out, the heroization of Mookie is nonsense… but a lot of that represents the way the world really was in 1988. It represents that period with a lot of vigor. That’s its value as art. In later films, his reflection of real life lessened. But he had his one moment. It happens. We’re dealing with pop culture. It happens. Some musicians only got one song, some filmmakers only got one film in them. In that sense, you could make an analogy between Do the Right Thing and George Washington. Both are great movies of “that” moment. It would be wonderful if those directors went on to make more films that were equally valuable. They may not, but we can’t deny that they had a moment. Great moments.

SB: Now the mirror image of your take on Spike’s films is your take on certain Spielberg-produced films in ‘84. The next year you saw The Color Purple. You had a lot of problems with him as a producer but then The Color Purple comes around and knocks you out.

AW: Well, the period covered in The Resistance was for me a fascinating period. That’s when things were in tumult. People were discovering—mainly through hip hop, I think—discovering how politics could enter the arts. It was fascinating to see how people like Spielberg and Morrissey and Public Enemy and Spike Lee would wrestle with politics and their personal passions. The public had to wrestle as well. Nothing was certain. The films and music were exciting because these artist were dealing with it, not taking anything for granted. And The Color Purple, in a way it was a jerry-built film. You could see Steven Spielberg trying to make sense of all the issues in that novel and what it means in the culture and cultural history. He’s working with his own artistry, trying to figure out how to do those things. I think that’s always implicit when he says he could not have made Schindler’s List without having first made The Color Purple. In a way you can think of The Color Purple as a sketchbook. My god, what a powerful and beautiful sketchpad it is. It’s not a perfect film; doesn’t need to be. It’s got the moment in it. It’s got the ‘80s in it, as much as Do the Right Thing does. You can see John Ford in it, you can see Alice Walker in it, you can see Zora Neale Hurston in it, you can see Douglas Sirk in it. All those thing he’s trying to deal with in expressing his awareness of black and female experience.

Digital Resistance

SB: Why would you put a cap on it [the book], 1984-1994?

AW: That’s just one of my nods to John Reed. Ten Years That Shook the World. Gotta have a hook for a book. (laughs)

SB: The ten following years, how would you encapsulate them?

AW: Well, things have changed. That moment of political and artistic discovery has changed. It’s changed the way hip hop has changed, become more corporatized, more cynical. That ’84-to-’94 was a period of discovery, and then we move on—or, rather, we go forth.

SB: Now, you’ve had your problems with digital filmmaking, as did I. But then the technology evolved to the point where I could see certain films and not detect any kind of obvious digital video deficiencies. I saw Iraq in Fragments last year at Film Forum, projected in 35mm. If no one had told me that the film had been shot with a $3,000 camcorder by one person, I wouldn’t have believed it. This is amazing to me. I don’t know why there’s no jubilation and madness in the streets about this. For me, this means I can pick this camera up, go out and make film images as I please, without investing $100,000. I can make a film the way one can write a poem or draw a sketch. So, in this climate I’m waiting to see great films coming from all angles, everywhere, from strange places. And yet it seems like there’s even less left-field, stray stuff. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, the typical venues, distributors that present arthouse independent films. Maybe some mumblecore stuff, but I’m not being surprised. What’s happening?

AW: In that sense, what’s wrong with mumblecore? That’s what people choose to do with the available technology. Aren’t they allowed?

SB: Well, can I see something from a more diverse selection of people?

AW: That’s got nothing to do with technology.

SB: No, nothing to do with technology, but what I’m saying is, the technology is right there—

AW: The technology has always been there. That’s part of my problem with the enthusiasm so-called critics have with video. “Wow, now everybody has access. It’s all democratized now.” Nonsense. The same thing was said about 8mm forty, fifty years ago. “Now anybody can make movies. We don’t have to have to hold 200 pound Mitchell cameras. You can get this little Bolex and hold it in your hand.” That didn’t mean you were going to get radical visions from everywhere.

SB: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

AW: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced--to know-- how great photography can be. So don't give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don't want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I've seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don't want anything less.

SB: Right, but--

AW: That's not prejudice, that's preference.

SB: Well, let me get a little more specific about it. Gordon Willis could have taken a consumer Sony Hi-8 camera and lit something the way that he lit... The Landlord-- which was amazing, the use of shadows, underexposure, soft lighting. All that stuff would not register on something that was finished on, say, Hi-8. The technology now has moved to where that kind of work can be rendered effectively. That's all I'm saying, not that this is great because amateurs like Joe Blow can just push the button and get something amazing. It's going to look as horrible as anything else. But if you do the kind of work that Gordon Willis does, it's going to be translated effectively when its transferred over to a presentation medium that most people are used to-- 35mm, HD... So I'm waiting for those Gordon Willises from the ghetto and everywhere to emerge.

AW: As you wait, I suggest that you not hold your breath. But I'm not waiting. I don't want to wait.

SB: At Tribeca, there was a documentary called Chops, about young jazz musicians in high school bands, that literally put me in tears-- to see how brilliant these ordinary kids are, playing Ellington and all these super-sophisticated riffs... I'm waiting for these kids to emerge with a camera in that way. Everything is there. They have YouTube, they have online tutorials to show them all the rudiments of lighting. They can even go to Yale Film School online because they have a whole free site that teaches them about film art, composition, lighting. Everything is there, everything is in place for somebody really original and skilled to emerge.

AW: Well, I'm not buying the hype, Steve. I am not seeing, I have not seen a quote-unquote "film" shot on video that can match a film shot on film. I simply haven't seen it. This recent Jonathan Demme documentary on Jimmy Carter-- it's beautiful. It makes me think that eventually digital video will improve to the point where the image is capable of beauty, that's as beautiful as film. People like Jonathan Demme and Wim Wenders, they know what they're doing and they care about how they light stuff, whereas people like Richard Linklater, who doesn't know what he's doing, doesn't really care, so he'll grab a digital camera and say, "look, high resolution," but it looks like crap.

SB: Well, most people would push that to the side--

AW: I'm not talking about pushing to the side, because that's what we got coming at us nine times out of ten. As beautiful as digital video films like The Man from Plains are, they're not Beloved, they're not Wings of Desire. The technology is not there yet. When it gets there, I hope, as a critic, my eyes will be open enough to see it. But right now, it's just not there. No point in me speculating about when it will be there when there are still artists working in film. There are still people who make a movie that looks like Broken Sky on celluloid. That's still going on, and that's worth paying attention to.

SB: I saw--and these are not great films but horrible commercial films--Superman Returns. I saw Click. I didn't know anything about these films at all in terms of production, but later I learned that they were shot on the latest generation digital video cameras. Recently at the New York Film Festival I watched Blade Runner, which, of course, was shot on film but there it was projected in HD. Other than the lack of scratches, dirt and "cigarette burns," I could not distinguish it from a pure film image. I think it's there. I think that people who can afford to shoot celluloid--and yes the image is, to me, at this point, marginally superior--because they can afford to, they do it. But the triumph for me is that poor people who want to make a film can make films, and they can be beautiful. I don't know if you've seen Iraq in Fragments. This guy, this one guy, with one camera and one microphone... It was the most beautifully shot film that I saw last year. A year of amazing, beautifully shot films.

AW: I've seen it! I've seen it! And I'm afraid that I have to say to you: You need to sharpen your eyes, my brother. Uh-uh, uh-uh.

SB: Maybe it didn't have the resolution, the image was not as sharp...

AW: But what do you care? You got stock in his company? What do you care about the technology? It's all the same: You want to find a result that is beautiful.

SB: Not technology. I care more about it as a filmmaker who--

AW: Now, wait a minute. You said you want to be a film critic. What is it that you want?

SB: Um, the answer is "both." There are certain things that I want to say, certain types of film criticism that I can only express in film. There's a couple things I want to say.

AW: Alright, why don't you get your priorities straight? Because this is a well-established art form that has standards. You-- no one should lower their standards just because there's a new technology. And if you can't see the difference between Iraq in Fragments and Broken Sky, then you got some more studying to do. You and whoever-- this is not a personal--
SB: I haven't seen Broken Sky.

AW: You and whoever. You gotta train your eye better. These things are not the same. To me this is part of the hype that comes right out of Silicon Valley and that guy Walter Murch, the lies he perpetrated through The New York Times, starting with the restored version of Touch of Evil, saying that film and video are approximate. No they're not. And it's sinful for him to suggest that.

SB: But these are matters of degrees and small--

AW: Not small. Real. To me, it matters. It matters!

SB: To me, next to the potential that film has to move from an aristocratic medium, where rich people make films and poor people watch, to one where poor people make films-- and, yeah, why should poor people make films? They should be worrying about surviving... I say poor to say relatively less fortunate American citizens, for example. To represent their individual view of the world-- personal view, not political view, not advocating for--

AW: But that's always been so. I mean, you're not hearing me. When 16mm came along, it made for the possibility of filmmaking becoming... more democratic, let's say. More afforable for people who weren't millionaires. Same with 8mm, same with digital video. But what you need are people who think like artists, people who won't be satisfied with a substandard image, and that's what you got now. A genuine artistic sensibility is going to strive for the best, not just go into digital video because it’s available. Not good enough. What, because you shoot on digital video, that doesn't means it's going to be good. Shoot on 35mm, doesn't mean it's going to be good.

SB: Right. But what I'm talking about is, if I want to make a film right now, with my night job and a little bit of savings, I can do this. I don't have to go to investors, I don't have to compromise a thing. I'll go with you, for now, on the point that video is not film, not as beautiful as film, but it's beautiful enough that a person who knows how to light, knows how to compose, knows how to edit and has a vision of the world can get something done that will really affect people and make some of those cultural seismic shifts that you refer to in your book.

AW: Not necessarily. Depends on the person, doesn't depend on the technology.

SB: I'm talking about those who have been bottled up--

AW: Ain't nobody been bottled up. I've you've got something to say, you will find a way to say it. And it might not be in film. If you can't afford a camera, well, there are other ways to be an artist. Not every painter started out as a painter. Not every writer started out as a writer. Find a way to get those bottled feelings out. So don't put your hopes in the technology. And also understand that filmmaking is a bourgeoise medium. It's the art of the middle class. Poor people got better things to do. But if that's your goal, then become middle class and get it. Don't think you can stay in the working class and do it, because you can't.

SB: That's exactly the delusion that I'm suffering from, that I can stay poor, I can make films and I can sort of lob them at the tower, in a way.

AW: No you can't. Take the example of Spike Lee. Take that to heart. You can't. Poor people don't make films. They've got other things to do. They can certainly make music. They can certainly write, and that's sufficient.

SB: Why? Why not? That hurts me, that upsets me. Why can't-- why can't-- I'm looking to the left and to the right of me and I'm seeing young kids making music with portable digital tools. The rise of hip hop-- turntables and mixers, samplers, cheap equipment--

AW: Well, hip hop has become a bourgeois pursuit as well.

SB: Right. So let's go back to that pure place where it started.

AW: Can't go back brother.

SB: Let's revisit--

AW: Nobody's painting in caves anymore, either. Can't go back there. But you've got paper and pencil. If you're an artist, that's sufficient.

SB: I'm depressed. (laughs)

AW: Don't be depressed. (laughs) Just accept what it is and make the most of it.

Working Class Cinema

SB: What was your background? Were you born poor? Middle class?

AW: I've always been a rich kid.

SB: Rich kid? Wow.

AW: Born with a silver spoon in my mouth.

SB: Really?

AW: I always got everything I wanted.

SB: Wow.

AW: This is what I chose. (pause) You buy that?

SB: Not at all.

AW: (laughs) No! I'm from a working class background. I'm from Detroit. Great city of Motown and the automobile industry, where the working man knew he had rights. That's where I come from. But that gives me the understanding that cinema is a bourgoise pursuit. And I enjoy them, but I understand where they're coming from. You have to think about what you want, and then about, is that what you really want to do with your time, your abilities. Are you content to make a dress? Or a blanket, or maybe a shawl or a tapestry? That's a beautiful thing. That's art. The same thing can go for filmmaking, videomaking. But if you talk about you want to address a large audience, that's another thing entirely. And as a film critic you can decide if you want to review Hollywood things or if you're going to review the handmade tapestries, the handmade dresses. Or the YouTube films that people do in their home labs. As a critic you should decide which you're interested in.

SB: I guess what I take issue with is this compartmentalization. Shouldn't culture be an all-over thing? Not just a top-down thing?

AW: Well, it is. It is. You can write whatever you please. You can do whatever you please. But you should never mistake the modest means of a home filmmaker-- to say that those aesthetics are equal to the aesthetics of a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker or a 35mm European filmmaker, African or Asian filmmaker... Not the same.

SB: I'm going to put your quote there beside Chameleon Street. It's a cheapjack film. It's also one of your and my favorite films. Where does that film fit in?

AW: Wendell B. Harris didn't make that film to show to his friends. He made that film to address the world. He knew the medium that he had to use to address the world.

SB: Well, that's what I'm talking about!

AW: You're not going to address the world with your little digital video filmmaking. The world doesn't care. The world isn't interested in that. You want to change the world, use a language the world understands. You can try to change the world and make it understand, but good luck.

SB: Right, but that's the same prejudice that was held against Chameleon Street by critics in the mainstream press. I remember a Washington Post critic really savaged it. He said, "This is not a film. This guy has a lot of interesting ideas, he's a colorful character"--

AW: So now we're back to what we talked about before, about The New York Times, and it goes for The Washington Post as well. People chosen to review movies for the Post also don't necessarily know what they're talking about. They're simply the person that will further the Washington Post's ideology: Only the Hollywood way of doing things is acceptable.

SB: But isn't your resisting this idea of a working-class cinema kind of supporting the Washington Post/New York Times kind of agenda, not to reach out to into the—

AW: No, because I'm not prejudiced against Chameleon Street.

SB: But it sounds as if you're prejudiced against a new Chameleon Street, sight unseen, shot on mini-dv somewhere.

AW: I only have a prejudice against a movie that is not as intelligent or as imaginative as Chameleon Street. I don't want to see penny-ante work from anybody. Just because it's shot on digital video by a sincere person does not mean it's worth my time.

SB: Not sincerity. I'm talking about artistry, craft, everything that Chameleon Street was and more. But the aesthetic argument is less important to me than the accessibility, the range of expression that's possible because somebody does not have to pay $5,000 for enough film to shoot for the week. They can pay ten dollars for a cassette.

AW: Are you listening to me, though? Take the example of Chameleon Street. Wendell B. Harris found a way. And he found a way without saying, "Look at me, I'm poor, take me seriously!" That don't work. That's not what Chameleon Street is about. It's about, "I got something to say, and I am joining the tradition of Orson Welles and von Sternberg and Godard..."

SB: Absolutely.

AW: "..and I can do it." And he did it! Had nothing to do with cost.

SB: Don't mistake me for being anywhere outside that camp. Chameleon Street reminded me so much of Welles. The narration, the dialogue--

AW: Things that had nothing to do with cost. He didn't shoot that on 16mm or 8mm. The important thing is that he knew what he was doing. He didn't use accessible technology as a crutch. He demanded of himself that he write and perform something that was worthy of public attention.

SB: And I don't think it serves as any sort of crutch, because, as you say, bottom line, if you don't have it, it's not going to come off and nobody's going to pay attention. Whatever his tools were, they couldn't be seen as a crutch. I see Hollywood filmmakers as having more of a crutch. Hollywood films, Indiewood films that have absolutely nothing to say. All of these films, beautifully shot, beautifully shot. That's their crutch. They have incomparable technical values but they’re impoverished in terms of ideas, in terms of any kind of vision. They have more of a crutch than somebody attempting to do as Wendell did.

AW: Yesterday I saw a David Lean film called Madeleine, made the year after he did Oliver Twist. You ever see his Oliver Twist?

SB: Only pieces.

AW: You should see it. That's what the medium is capable of. It would be easy for me to give you the example of Citizen Kane as the technological height of cinema, but David Lean reached the same heights with movies like Oliver Twist. Really, you can't go any further. Kubrick never went any further. David Fincher hasn't even gone that far. That kind of visual acuity is as high as this art form can go. But people don't know. And they take it for granted if they think for one minute that digital video is comparable to film. It ain't. I want critics everywhere to go back--go back to school, in some sense-- to understand what this medium really, truly is. I feel nine out of ten of them don't, and what they have to say about movies is pretty shameful.

SB: To me it has more to do with non-linear editing than digital video, because nowhere do I see the level of editorial craft that you would have seen in the past. Seamless coverage, making six shots feel like one... Everything is--

AW: I think critics are to blame because they've let the standards slip. They need to remind people but they don't, because they're too eager to sell what's new.

SB: Everything now is on the level of Saw and Hostel in the way that the image is put across, the sound mix... Everything, whether it's a Fall prestige film or a romantic comedy. Everything is heavily underscored, smothered in this over-processed subwoofer noise that's constant. Big generic scores. Doesn't matter what the genre is. It was almost a shock to see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead or even Lumet's previous film, Find Me Guilty-- kind of a throwaway film but just to see a film that moves that way, in those classical rhythms, those kinds of scene transitions, that kind of patience. Those master shots. You don't see this anymore.

AW: Uh-oh. (laughs)

SB: What?

AW: Uh-oh. Cuz now you're talking about one of the most slovenly filmmakers in the history of the medium! Don't mention that man in the same paragraph as David Lean! We're not on the same page at all. Sidney Lumet has never known what he's doing. And let me put an end to that discussion by saying, this is the man who made The Wiz.

SB: (laughs)

AW: Now we can talk about something else. (laughs)

SB: But did you see Before The Devil Knows You're Dead?

AW: I saw that garbage.

SB: Yeah?

AW: Utter garbage. Looked like shit.

SB: Tell me why.

AW: Why? You can't see half of it, because there are no color values in it. It looks like garbage.

SB: So it needs color values.

AW: It needs light!

SB: I think you're about to walk out. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) No, no. I'm trying to come up with an analogy... It just... needed somebody who knew what they were doing. He hires professionals to shoot the actors and the dialogue, that's it. As a film maker, he doesn't know what he's doing. Never has.

SB: To me, it moves in a certain way, visually it moves--

AW: What are you talking about? It's a mess! It has no rhythm. All those flashbacks. A mess!

SB: I wasn't getting into the flashbacks--

AW: It's an attempt at some kind of Tarantino time-split--

SB: That, to me, was just an older filmmaker trying to be in vogue but he was way behind. What I'm saying is, in the individual scenes, there was the simple pleasure of watching them play out without being crowded by the usual jumble of elements attempting to underscore or sell a moment. A simple pleasure. At this point, films are about trying to sell you a moment at every turn, to the point of even using title graphics. I just saw 30 Days of Night. It comes on like an Excedrin commercial. These floating graphics fly around and give you the premise of the film right away.

AW: Well, with Lumet, his only gift is that he can keep an actor in focus as he says his dialogue, simple as that. He doesn't know how to shoot the scene, does not know how to compose a shot-- never has. Not in any interesting way. But he certainly knows how to keep actors in focus as they say their dialogue. He's been plying that trade for 40 years. He's not a filmmaker. He's still directing live TV. Ever see his film of Long Day's Journey Into Night? Great film because it's a great play with a great cast. He kept his camera focused on those great actors saying that great dialogue. That's it.

SB: What I'm getting into is more scenes that... breathe.

AW: I don't agree that they breathe.

SB: Okay, we're sitting here talking. Most Hollywood films today, of all different genres, are hectic, and I think it's a factor of editors that have been trained on non-linear editing systems, so that I'm talking to you, it instantly cuts to me, you're talking to me, it instantly cuts to you. A frenetic back and forth, and there's no attempt to vary rhythms. Everything is either extremely hectic or fake verite camera jostling.

AW: Well, that comes from television.

SB: I don't disagree with your assessment that Lumet's work feels like live television from the '50s, but guess what? Live television from the '50s, to me, if not ideal, is more cinematic in rhythm than what we're seeing today.

AW: No it's not. And don't ever say that again. (laughs) Live television in the fifties is live television. It’s not cinema. Lumet cuts on dialogue, Steve! He cuts on dialogue! There's no breathing in a Sidney Lumet film because he doesn't use the rhythms which which people communicate. He cuts on commas and periods.

SB: What's happening in contemporary films, to me, is that you have exactly that, except in overdrive.

AW: Sometimes it’s appropriate, given the subject or the temperament of the filmmaker. Some people can do that. Not every film does that.

SB: To me, it is the status quo.

A; Well, you need a better example than Lumet. What about The Darjeeling Limited? In a world that has The Darjeeling Limited, Sidney Lumet should be imprisoned!

SB: (laughs) But if you throw him in jail, you gotta throw, like, virtually everybody making films in Hollywood. They enter first.

AW: Well, of course, most films are dismissable, too. But you don't need to go to Lumet, go to Darjeeling Limited. That's rhythm. Every shot belongs to Wes Anderson.

SB: Right.

AW: A Sidney Lumet movie could have been directed by anybody. No personality. That's an 83 year old man who was always a hack.

SB: I guess I'm saying that yesterday's hacks show up today's hacks.

AW: I don't agree with that. I'd much rather watch a film by Michael Bay than one by Sidney Lumet.

SB: I don't think of Michael Bay as a hack in the strict sense. Stupid, maybe, but--

AW: Then what are you talking about when you say generally Hollywood films? Cuz generally Hollywood films look like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Sopranos. If you want to talk about what has changed things and ruined the culture, its not the current administration, its television.

SB: Of course.

AW: It's fucked things up. It especially fucked up the critical profession, because people can't tell the difference between television and movies anymore.

SB: We're absolutely on the same page there. But Michael Bay, what that guy has is-- there's something to him when it comes down to certain lyric interludes or whatever. He's invested in every shot in a similar sense that you say Wes Anderson is.

AW: Well, in that sense he's more of an artist than Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott's a hack as well. The television visual sense. That's why Blade Runner doesn't hold up.

SB: Oooh.

AW: Of course. It's television. It was impressive for a moment, like, uh, June of 1982 to July of 1983. Then everybody copied. There's nothing in Blade Runner now that's impressive. Nothing.

SB: (staring in disbelief)

AW: Easily imitated, cuz Ridley Scott's a hack!

SB: The cinematography, the production design.

AW: Art direction, not film direction.

SB: You mean all that shining spotlights through the slats, the rain--

AW: Yeah, its garbage now.

SB: Wow.

AW: He's a hack. He's a gifted hack, in the sense that he does have an eye for beautiful things-- no, not beautiful, pretty things. Trained in television. Michael Bay has surpassed him.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Love of My Life

by Steven Boone (part of the Close-Up blog-a-thon)

I am in love with Cabiria, a woman who does not exist. How did this happen? A few clues:

1.) Federico Fellini's masterpiece is not the phantasmic 8 1/2 or the flashy La Dolce Vita. It's Nights of Cabiria (1957), his modest, eloquent film about a woman looking everywhere for love and what can only be described as God's grace. She finds it in small, ecstatic moments but is slow to recognize it.

2.) Fellini gives us a character that virtually no one in the world of the film takes seriously, appreciates or even likes. Cabiria is a short, loud, testy street prostitute. But through the camera lens and Giulietta Masina's performance, she's the most adorable, precious thing on earth. Whatever she does for a living, the film makes it indisputable that she's a good, guileless soul.

3.) Critics tend to focus on how Masina's broadly emotive performance is an homage to Chaplin and the great silents, but she takes Cabiria to a place of naked desperation that even Erich von Stroheim never reached.

4.) Whenever Fellini wants to give us a cheat-sheet glimpse into Cabiria's heart, he goes to a medium close-up. Only at the very end does he unleash one of the deadliest tight close-ups in cinema.

5.) While most films associate "sexy" with hostility, narcissism, chic nihilism, high fashion, sculpted beauty and cheap romance, Cabiria's sexiness flows directly from her compassion and sensitivity.

Fellini: "Cabiria is a victim, and any of us can be a victim at one time or another. Cabiria is, however, more of a victim personality than most. Yet even so, there is also the survivor in her. This film doesn’t have a resolution in the sense that there is a final scene in which the story reaches a conclusion so definitive that you no longer have to worry about Cabiria. I myself have worried about her fate ever since."