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
. 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.
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 , 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.
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.
AW: I always got everything I wanted.
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..."
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.PART TWO