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.



Anonymous said...

Wonderful conversation, thank you for posting this. I was not familiar with Armond's work, but I will now seek his reviews.

Steve Macfarlane said...

Lumet is an archetypal studio director in style, but that style helped engender some of the more distinct American films of the early 60s.

It's easy to look at what followed (including Before The Devil, which I found overrated) and say so now, of course.

Ed Howard said...

I think the comments on Blade Runner there at the end represent the first time I ever remember agreeing with Armond White.

This was a fascinating interview, and White comes across just as irascible and opinionated as I would expect from his reviews. Great stuff.

William said...

Whoooaaa, Steve. Great stuff. These are conversations I've had in my head about video and film, the big names and the little guys, all of it. White is fiesty. I like it. I was cutting my teeth on J.Hoberman back in the day and I've never really read a lot White's writings but this is some real fantastic stuff.

My feelings echo a lot of the frustrations with Spike, definitely Ridley Scott and Lumet. If I may be so bold, I think what we're looking for in films is sublime and that's all in the details. Some filmmakers are better at serving up those details to an audience than others and I agree that there is a massive agenda in film reviewing. A lot of the stuff I read is tripe. His attitude provokes real critical thinking about cinema and where we're going with it.

I can tell you're speaking from a achingly painful place about what video has afforded us but AW has a different point of view. Great food for thought.

It makes me feel like shit about my own work but I'm still looking forward to part II.

Brian Darr said...

Great interview so far! Love the sharp differences of opinion; sometimes I find myself in your corner and other times his. I wish you'd brought up Robert Altman's the Company, which was on A.W.'s top 10 list the year it came out, as an example of gorgeous images created through digital video. Perhaps Altman comes up in part 2...

Boone said...

Thanks, fellas. Thrilled that y'all are getting something out of it, other than the impression that I'm psycho over this DV issue.

William, if you're talking about your digitial video exploits, don't feel like shit about shit. I say keep making your movies, and faster and cheaper and better. White is a hero of mine, but so is Cassavetes (check the masthead). The latter would have shown us all what to do with this technology, aside from gawk at it like apes at a monolith.

When any of us puts something good out there, I trust a critic like White to revise his assessment.

Virgil said...

He's a narcissist who loves to intimidate others into thinking that their opinions are somehow the result of shoddy thinking, while his are mature and reasoned. It's pure solipsism, and it only works on people the speaker can intimidate or impress into relenquishing their self-respect for their own powers of critical thinking.

How many times in that interview did he tell you that your personal visceral reaction to a piece of art was invalid? Not that he simply had a different reaction, which would indicate some understanding of a world populated by different kinds of people, but that your opinion could not have any merit at all.

What he was telling you about bringing your own expectations and prejuidices to Spike Lee's films is exactly what he brings to Lumet's films. White's obsessions are focused on one particular visual aspect of film, and because he find that to be of paramount importance, he dismisses the rest.

The Color Purple may have impressed him in all the manners he claims, but it's still a Hallmark Card soft focus, cornily acted-cornily-scored piece of Oprah-twaddle. In my opinion. See how easy that is?

Never let any man tell you what to think.

Signore Direttore said...

I think I got more knowledge about film here than I did in a semester at NYU. As well as some support of my unpopular criticisms of Blade Runner and Ridley Scott in general. I hear you on the whole DV thing and don't think you're psycho. White's arguments are strong and compelling which makes it all the more admirable that you didn't fold.
Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Virgil OTM.

You cornered White on at least three occasions into contradicting himself, after each of which he slipped away laterally.

This insistence on a particular "look" in film strikes me as a handicap for a critic, and I have to wonder if it isn't White who needs to "sharpen his eyes." I can imagine him dismissing the first VU record ("but George Martin —") or Jackson Pollack ("real painters can afford brushes, sad but true...")

Anonymous said...

Amen, Virgil.

William said...

Steve - I'm not even remotely ashamed of using DV. I think that my short looked amazing for shooting with, what was at that time, a very good DV camera. My DP came up with some great images but reading this made me feel like maybe I’m not pushing myself hard enough, maybe there’s not enough coming out of me but that’s my nut to crack not his. All I know is I've been thinking about this interview since I read it.

Does he really think Fincher, Lynch, Mann & Co. aren’t pushing the limits of digital video? What!?! Everything he says about David Lean is true but is that it? Is that where it ends? Personally, I think The Conformist is where it ends but hey, that's just me.

What rubs me the wrong way is this strange hierarchy of filmmaking that AW turned this interview into. The poor have other things to do? WTF? I think if Cassavetes was still around he would have thrown down with White to be honest. Him or at least one of his disciples like Seymour Cassel or Timothy Carey (that's quite an image).

Then there are points where I totally agree. I think Ridley Scott is very, very overrated. I saw Blade Runner at the Zeigfield recently and thought, “gorgeous.” I'm a huge fan, I can't say it any other way, of Alien. He does have an eye for pretty things but I feel like I’m being bludgeoned sometimes especially with the more recent films. His body of work feels hollow.

I don’t want this to be an AW bashing session (I’m sure he’s so used to it he has rhino skin) because I think a critic like that serves a very important purpose. They are all valid opinions because they are his but beyond that he makes you question your own values as a filmmaker, film audience member or even a fellow film critic. That is his value. Yes, he agitates but it’s obvious that he cares deeply about the art form that we all care about very deeply. That is where true art takes us and if you are agitated, well, you care as much about this art form as he does because you’re willing to defend your film stylings, influences, tools and tastes.

Boone said...

virgil: "Never let any man tell you what to think."

Okay, but only cuz you told me to.

Easy, brother. I tend not to give kneejerk responses to kneejerk, blanket accusations. I wasn't there to trade insults with Armond White but to have a conversation. Not an interview, a conversation. Intellectual big dick contests don't interest me at all. I'm no close friend of White's, but I know him through his work enough to expect comments like "you need to sharpen your eyes" -- and to push past them to the real content.

And The Color Purple is the one creative project Oprah's been involved in that is definitely not mere Oprah-twaddle.

See? I came up with that one on my own.

Virgil said...

He's someone you've read for a long time, and you treated him with respect and humor. That shows your maturity and humanity. I'm reacting to his disrespect for you, the filmmakers, and the moviegoing (and making) public.

Also: "Only cuz you told me to"---well played.

Boone said...

Did some thinking on Ridley Scott:

He was once was far from a hack. Alien, Blade Runner and even Legend are distinct visions. Like Terry Gilliam, he is a maker of worlds who, when dealing with more quotidian subjects, becomes clumsy, shows far less passion, reverts to formulaic hackery. Matchstick Men and American Gangster, for example, are oil-slick TNT network movies, with some premium cable adult content thrown in. Scott was once a Josef von Sternberg for Cinefantastique readers, but since Thelma and Louise it seems he's tried to "grow" into a more utilitarian, self-effacing storyteller. This attempt has made him seem a hack. You'd expect his American Gangster to be a voluptuous, overflowing '70s fantasia, but it's no more than diverting TV, full of false moments and superficial characterizations. When he goes back to building teeming otherworlds instead of pretending to know something substantial about this one, he can probably take the hack cap off. (Same goes for Gilliam, who is no good with terra firma, unless time travel, distant history, mythology or some or other fantastical element is in the mix.)

Vadim said...

Man, Armond drives me off the walls, but I applaud your ability to not take the bait and keep going — even if you're obviously far more invested in him than I am, you drive him into a number of seeming contradictions that haters like me can pounce on.

So far, I've agreed with him on 2 counts: the white privelige Darjeeling problem and Blade Runner. Otherwise, I still think he's insane. Great work.

Comb & Razor said...

wow... this is a great exchange! i don't know the last time a conversation about film--or for that matter, about film criticism--gave me so much to think about.

like most folks, i find White intriguing, perplexing, maddening... but the portrait presented here kind of provides a human context for his views. but it hasn't done much to change my perception of him as a contrarian for the hell of it.

i have to sorta agree with Virgil that it seemed at some points that he was trying to intimidate you, but i think you held your own.

i'd say he's mostly right about film being a bourgeois art (not about hip-hop being one, though)... even though i use DV, i'm acutely aware of the fact that it IS a compromise and the minute i can afford to shoot on film, i probably will.

i think a lot of the excitement over technologies like DV tend to put process over product: sure, it's easier to make a film now, but are we making better films?

frankly, i'm a bit cautious when people start talking about "democratizing" art... maybe i'm some sort of elitist, but i don't want it to become too easy for just anybody to make a movie... somehow i believe that that only leads to a general lowering of standards.

Boone said...

Vadim: When you and I met and spoke briefly at the NYFF, I got the impression that you take movies as seriously and personally as White does. For my greedy eyes, that's value enough to keep reading somebody. I can live with anybody's insanity if it provokes and instructs.

C&R: I believe it is now very easy for anybody to make something that looks like a movie, but that doesn't trouble me one bit. It bugs me out when people fret over a "decline in standards" that techno-democracy might cause. What standards, exactly? I just reviewed National Treasure: Book of Secrets, one of the worst movies ever made, but highly representative of current Ho'wood "standards."

I find it ironic that people express caution about the mini-DV and YouTube wilderness-- mostly on blogs and internet message boards. Should we remove those forums because they have lowered writing standards? Should we charge $100 per Bic pen to make sure that writers mean business? Should Final Draft software be licensed only to guild members?

I go to Times Square and I'm assaulted by corporate graffiti everywhere, but people have a problem with plain folks adding something to this chorus/cacophony.

Look, democracy in cultural production always yields to a meritocracy in cultural consumption. Tastes are so bad right now not because of democracy but because of the hegemony of a few small-minded, deep-pocketed businessmen. From the Golden Era moguls to today's TV-cultivated development execs, the problem has always been rich dweebs telling us what to look at and how to look at it. The "markets" they're enslaved to are only their 20th century values coming home to roost. (Insular Hollywood (1910-1966) instilled in us these cheap dreams that globalized Ho'wood (1966-Present) now says we want in our heart of hearts. The bill of goods gets resold.

If it weren't for techno-democracy, this article wouldn't exist and we wouldn't be having this discussion right now. Why shouldn't we dive into filmmaking with the same abandon?

I guarantee you, the percentage of know-nothings wielding a movie camera in Ho'wood is equal to or greater than the percentage of know-nothings shooting on the weekends in their backyards. The illusion of hierarchy and "professionalism" must be smashed.

Shoot your movie, but don't go about it as if you're on a farm team looking to be recruited by the Yanks. To wax Armond-ish, only fools think that budgets are what separate the heavyweights from the lightweights.

Comb & Razor said...

I guarantee you, the percentage of know-nothings wielding a movie camera in Ho'wood is equal to or greater than the percentage of know-nothings shooting on the weekends in their backyards. The illusion of hierarchy and "professionalism" must be smashed.

Shoot your movie, but don't go about it as if you're on a farm team looking to be recruited by the Yanks. To wax Armond-ish, only fools think that budgets are what separate the heavyweights from the lightweights.

hmmmm.... i'll definitely chew on that, man...

lemme go read the rest of the interview first, though!

Anonymous said...

There's a short interview with Armond White on my blog.

Jim Higgins said...

This reads less like an interview and more like an argument. Boone does so much talking we miss out constantly on hearing White's thoughts. There are numerous sections where Boone just goes on and on, often with difficult to understand statements like saying a scene "breathed," to which White gives a terse answer. Instead of Boone exploring why White thinks a certain way, he frequently goes off explaining his thoughts on a subject. I don't mind reading a conversation between two interesting people but White is the interesting one here. Boone's comments are often not well-thought out and he spends a lot of time just defending himself.

White makes some great comments about image quality. There are interesting things being done with video these days but you still can't get the clarity and sharpness of film with it. Also, we have been inundated with digital video effects for years that look plastic and fake. It doesn't mean that people shouldn't use digital video, it's that we shouldn't walk around saying they acheived equality.

Boone is right to point out movies that use the medium very well, like he does with "Iraq in Fragments." But, for example, the film "Primer," is a tour de force and has amazing performances and an excellent script -- still, it doesn't change the fact that the movie looked like shit and suffered because of that.

I also agree with White's comments that Spike Lee is at his worst when he veers away from realism and into caricature.

watch movie online said...

I enjoyed most of the movie except for the implication that Indian women are "easy" and that children are "so many," its OK to have one die just to add drama to plot.