Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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

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

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

ARMOND WHITE: You don't need a Trojan horse. Take the example of Spike Lee. He came from the outside. He got in, and look what he did.

SB: That's what I'm saying! Don't stay in there! Go in there, do your business and run, run back, run out.

AW: He's not your example. Your example is people like Alex Cox, like Wendell B. Harris, like Whit Stillman.

SB: Right. I want a Wendell B. Harris with Whit Stillman's output or better. I want a guerilla, somebody to come down from the hills--

AW: That's a fantasy.

SB: Pull the pin, throw the thing, run out--

AW: A fantasy. Look at somebody like Jonathan Demme. You need somebody who'll be steady, dependable, who understands what the world is, has respect for humanity. That's what you need, not Spike Lee showing off all the things he hates.

SB: I don't use the guerilla analogy to say violent or reactionary--

AW: Well, that's what guerilla means.

SB: Well, this is a different kind of guerilla. A guerilla, a thief, a bandit who...

AW: Bandit. That's unnecessary. That's romanticizing something.... That's unnecessary.

SB: I'm only talking about the way that he moves in relation to the system.

AW: No, let that go. Let that go. You don't need that. Please understand. One of the greatest American movies of the past ten years is Beloved. Ain't no underhanded, sneaky thievery thing about that. It's a mainstream movie made by people with money who were brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and turn that into art. The same stupid critics that didn't like The Landlord when it came out dismissed Beloved when it came out. But you have a culture of criticism that simply doesn't want Black people to have any kind of power, any kind of spiritual understanding or artistic understanding of themselves. That's the example that I think is helpful for you to follow. No need to be a sneak thief. Stand up and say what you believe. Do it. Use the mainstream apparatus to create a work of art that's useful to everybody.

SB: What if I created something that was as sturdy and clear-eyed as Beloved over here in my corner, and then I just brought it into town and said, "Here it is." And the sturdiness and eloquence of it is beyond question, so it holds up as something acceptable to the system on those technical and storytelling merits-- but I made it in a place where I never had to ask for a dime, ask for approval of a certain casting choice, anything. I brought it in and I made it available, and then the only work for me to do is to negotiate the terms by which this thing can remain what it is. Because it's in my hands, my pocket, I can take it away if the terms are not suitable to me. But if it's one of those deals where I walk into town with script in hand or story treatment in hand and nothing made, now I have to negotiate endlessly over all these elements that go into the finished product. If I come in with the finished product, I'm operating from a position of strength.

AW: You're fantasizing. Life is about compromise. Nobody-- very few people come in from the outside and say, "This is mine, everything's gonna be done my way"--

SB: No, "I already did it my way. This is what I made."

AW: So you want your way some more. Set up your own distribution system? You still want your way.

SB: Yes.

AW: It's probably happened once in the history of the medium.

SB: To me, it's worth taking the leap. That's worth taking the leap for.

AW: It's not worth the leap. Consider this: So you present your personal film to the world. Then what you run up against is this culture of film critics who'll do everything in their power to destroy it and get people to ignore it. So maybe it's best for you to start with that, trying to change the culture of film criticism, try to get people to start to realize the politics of film and film criticism, the way they look at movies, and the way they encourage other people to look at movies. Maybe that's the best place to start. It's really very practical and important to try to change the nature of film criticism. The only person who got half of what you're talking about was Orson Welles.

SB: Well, he was always from within-- even when he was dealing with RKO, it was never a situation where, like now, the technology and economics could support him getting away from the world and then he dropping a Citizen Kane onto the table.

AW: I don't understand why you have this fantasy. Stop fantasizing, and get real. Try to change the world the way you can. If you're going to make a work of art, make it, but understand that you're not doing anything in the world... singlehandedly. Everybody has to compromise. But the thing is to understand where you draw the line. Don't just compromise. You negotiate compromise. "I'll give you that but you gotta give me this." Nobody's come in from the outside saying, "This is what I got, I want it my way." They'll tell you to go home, go elsewhere, "get out my face." Look at De Palma, stupid De Palma, with Redacted. He should complain about what they do to his film? Get real, man.

SB: Hmm...

AW: But I'm saying, you don't need to have that fantasy. The heros are people who dealt with the system and managed to come up with great works of art.

SB: Maybe I just don't have it in me. To deal with these people, it would kill me.

AW: It's not going to kill you. Get over yourself. Compromise. (laughs) Nobody ever died of a broken heart.

SB: Not the hearbreak of compromise but the strain of constantly trying to... It's like Spike Lee's story is sort of a cautionary tale.

AW: Well, sure it is, but you don't have to follow his pattern. Follow the Demme pattern. Follow the Wendell B. Harris pattern.

SB: And where the hell is Wendell B. Harris?

AW: What do you want? What do you want?

SB: I want more.

AW: Would you rather that he had not done anything? He made something wonderful, and it's in the culture, and it's up to us to make sure that it's alive in the culture. You're worried about too many things. You can't worry about the future, gotta work with today.


SB: Other than Darjeeling, what was good at the New York Film Festival?

AW: The Rohmer film, The Romance of Astree and Celadon. That was exquisite. I haven't seen everything at the festival. A lot of good stuff. A lot of garbage, too. Lot's of garbage.

SB: Well, I don't want to miss anything good, so--

AW: Make no mistake. Politics are involved. Everybody needs to think about who they are politically and operate accordingly. The problem I see in criticism is lots of criticism is written by people who don't think, don't even know who they are. For white folks it's very easy. They don't have to think about who they are in the world. You remember that line in The Landlord, when Diana Sands says she wants the baby to be raised "white," so he can be--

SB: Raised casual.

AW: --casual, "like his Daddy." That's the problem with a lot of film criticism, a lot of casual people writing, pretending that they know what they're talking about, pretending that they know the way the world works. They're white, they can afford to keep things okey-dokey, status quo.

SB: How did you figure it out?

AW: People have taught me. I always talked to my parents, talked to the people in my union town, a town of working-class people. I learned from Motown. I learned from watching movies.

SB: You learned from Margot at the Wedding, a great film. (laughs)

AW: Yeah, sure. Not from that asshole. (laughs) Part of the problem, not part of the solution.

SB: I ran into two guys who recently interviewed you at the New York Film Festival and they said they were shocked that you liked Darjeeling Limited 'cause they weren't expecting you to. But when I listened to the interview, you threw me for a loop by saying that Wes Anderson was good friends with this guy [Margot and the Wedding director] Noah Baumbach, that he's friends with an asshole. How could you say that? Do you know him? Do you personally know these guys to say that Baumbach is an asshole, Wes Anderson is a good guy, and it's a mystery to you why they're friends?

AW: Look at the movies. That's how I know. You're aware of what D.H. Lawrence said about writing...? Trust the tale, not the teller. So, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, they can tell you what they believe they're about. They can get on a podium and say, "This is what I believe in, this is what I feel, this is what I love, this is what I dislike..." Can't trust any of that. You've got to look at the movie. You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole. I would say it to his face. And, of course, he gets praised by other assholes, because they agree with his selfish, privileged, stuck-up shennanigans. I don't need to meet him to know that. better than meeting him, I've seen his movies.

SB: Well, I reviewed it, and, yeah, there was something of the asshole point-of-view, stuck-up view, but there was something to it. For one thing, he could actually teach this, um, "splat pack," these new horror directors something, because to me it was really a horror film in the visuals and the way he manipulated tensions in every scene, which had a lot to do with loathing and humiliation. Every scene was about people who were not comfortable in their own skin. I did feel that I didn't really like these people, but to me there was some value in that he captured that, uhhh... milieu.

AW: First of all, it's shocking--shocking--to me that he could make a movie with [cinematographer] Harris Savides, and, on his previous film, with Robert Yeoman, and they both come out looking shitty.

SB: Well, it looked like he was pushing for that, especially with Harris Savides, whose big influence is Gordon Willis. There are certain scenes, interiors that are extremely underexposed, kind of milky, which actually reminded me of a couple of shots that I saw in The Landlord.

AW: (laughs) There's nothing in there from The Landlord. Nothing.

SB: Did you see--

AW: Perhaps the lighting, but certainly not the processing. No, not even the lighting. No, no. It was ugly! Did you see The Darjeeling Limited?

SB: 'course.

AW: Did you see The Squid and the Whale?

SB: No, I didn't see that. This was my first Noah Baumbach--

AW: The film looked like Margot and the Wedding. Just like it. So just use that reference. If you can believe that the same man who shot Darjeeling shot something that looks like Margot at the Wedding. That's not art. That's barbarism.

SB: He was aiming for that.

AW: Deliberate barbarism. And it's not that he captures the behavior of a screwed up lot of people. It's that he indulges in it. And, remember, the whole thing is fiction. He created it. He made it all up because that's the kind of stuff he likes to see. That's the kind of stuff he likes to indulge. He's not the first artist in the world to-- look at Tennessee Williams, look at Eugene O'neill. See how they depict fucked up people: Not like Noah Baumbach. There's a difference, an important difference. He's indulging in a particular class, a particular economic class.

SB: But you don't feel that he goes through all that to find some kind of--

AW: No, no.

SB: --feelings between the mother and the son.

AW: Pure bullshit. It's him. It's all about him. He's indulging himself, a fortunate asshole. And because his family is all well-connected people in New York publishing, critics praise him, because, in the end, they're praising themselves, justifying their own bad behavior.

SB: Well, I've been working here 15 years, and I've definitely met people from that... class who have so much tension and resentment within their families. I just took the film as sort of true to their reality. A lot of pent up hostilities, a sense of entitlement. He's holding up a mirror to that. I did feel that he was trying to show that underneath all that they're still trying to kind of inch toward the light, that as much as they try to distance themselves from each other, they end up kind of crashing back into each other, holding each other up.

AW: In a way, I guess you could say that's why he's friends with Wes Anderson, because they're both doing the same thing. Look how one does it, and look how the other does it. Which one edifies you?

Grapes of Wrath

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

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

SB: Give me one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AW: Do you have an education?

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

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

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

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

SB: So is it a streamlined process?

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

SB: Hmm....

AW: That explains...

SB: That cuts...

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

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

AW: Detroit, Wayne State.

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

AW: No I got my undergrad from Wayne State.

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

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

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

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

SB: Well, that sounds horrific.

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

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

AW: Well, that's hopeful.

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

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

SB: On that note... (laughs)

AW: (laughs)

Tape recorder off.

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

Jeremiah Kipp at Senses of Cinema

Filmmaker Magazine: The Critic

BrianDepalma.net Interview

The Wow Jones Report: White on Michael Jackson

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


Ryland Walker Knight said...

I saw _Margot at the Wedding_ recently and came out thinking more like AW than I realized. I kind of despised the "milieu" of _Squid and the Whale_ and when that trailer for _Margot_ came on in front of _Darjeeling_, despite making me laugh a few times ("I punched them."), I thought, "again?" But I went to the movie anyways out of hope* that I was wrong about the guy being hateful and insulated (and because I knew I wouldn't want to rent the S-O-B). Sadly, I walked out thinking, "Jesus, why is this guy so hateful and insulated? How could he have co-written _The Life Aquatic_?" I didn't think it was ugly-looking, though. Just ugly feeling. Effectively ugly? Not quite. However, I think it's better than _Squid_, but only because it foregrounds how these people are choosing their words (or not, or failing to choose their words), which has become a preoccupation of mine, I admit. Which leads me to this...

The most illuminating (yet not quite damning) mirror I found in this installment of your conversation is AW asserting that most people don't know themselves enough to write anything (I assumed he wasn't just talking about film criticism, that it could be applied a little broader). I find solace away from that stance by thinking about how Wittgenstein, among others, characterizes philosophy as a kind of therapeutic enterprise. And because I find that film criticism (or any writing, or any _thing_, really) offers a kind of philosophy, it's comforting to know that I will continue to improve my writing along with my life. This is not to say I do not stand behind all that I've written up to this point; I do. Rather, I embrace my constant evolution: I will say that I'm still learning what kind of criticism I want to write, and how I want to write it, in the kind of life I want to live, and how I want to live it. If there's anything I've come to know it's that my interests in language are better addressed in works like _John from Cincinnati_ and Preston Sturges, even _No Country for Old Men_, than in _Margot_ because those other three offer a definite affirmation of being in the world. (This can be achieved in negative, too: see _TWBB_.) One might argue the same for Baumbach's film, I guess, but it's a tenuous thread. I'd have to see the film again to firm up my argument, and I don't think that will happen, so all I can say is this: the picture ends focused on Nicole Kidman (still a selfish wreck), and not Jennifer Jason Leigh (somebody capable of loving an oaf in spite of himself). Maybe I'm selfish but that's just not something I want to spend that much time with. Still, I did, by writing all that, and I did laugh rather frequently. I don't think it's a waste of a picture, just an ugly feeling picture.

Which is all to say that, as much as I trust he has lived a full life of reflection and independent thinking, maybe even Armond White doesn't know himself as much as he may think he does. Heck, can we ever? This past summer I wrote this: "I am drawn to films I will not know fully, just as I will not know myself fully." And I still stand by it, because as much as I think I understand _John from Cincinnati_ or Preston Sturges there will always be something else for me to uncover. Now, to finish up some thoughts on that newest Reygadas picture...

*That's another weird thing: why we keep going to movies because we hope they'll provide some kind of, uh, something... something like an epiphany? a hope that each new movie will be brilliant? There's a weird religiosity to film, right? Clearly AW is arguing for _his_ beliefs.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Damn, that got long. And I still didn't say how much I appreciated that last image, you sly sonofagun. I appreciated the whole conversation. He's a smart dude, and clearly not as much a curmudgeon as people make him out to be. Just, you know, adamant and unabashed. Two admirable things. So long as you have the smarts and the know-how to back them up.

Boone said...

Nice insights, Ry. Yeah, Baumbach definitely seems to identify with Kidman's character over Leigh's. And he had no idea what to do with Jack Black's character, aside from make a fool out of him. He even disrupts the movie's relatively subtle tone to show Jack Black crying like a baby into a phone after he f-ked up the wedding.
As I said, I enjoyed the movie as a horror flick. It shifted tensions and points of view like a good pressure-cooker Knife-in-the-water thriller-- and smirkingly acknowledged as much in the tense/silly confrontations between Margot's family and the white trash neighbors. Reminded me of Larry Fessenden's Wendigo.

If a filmmaker can't show much generosity and fairness, he'd better at least have some rhythm and pitch. That's enough to get me by, sometimes. (People didn't dance to Dr. Dre all those years because of the uplifting lyrics. The beat carried you through the muck.) But Baumbach's groove is not enough to make this film linger past a movie season.

In conversation, AW just seemed to be the same smart-ass kid he probably was when he started. The great failure of this article is that I never asked him for details about what it was like being a young Black film critic from Detroit in Woody Allen's New York and Reagan's America. I have some idea about that, but his specific answers probably would have been as vivid a sketch as Chameleon Street.

Underground Man, White's 1991 Film Comment piece praising Chameleon Street, is about as close as you'll get in print to looking at White looking in the mirror: "William Douglas Street appears exceptional to the same degree that American society shows itself to be restricted. his extraordinary efforts stem from a barely controlled psychological distress. In the era of yuppies and buppies, this chronic overachiver is the unmistakable product of racism. Street doesn't fight the power so much as struggle to subdue the tension he feels as an outcast, disenfranchised person."And, earlier in the piece: "Street the chameleon is a subversive with a proper, smiling, acceptably middle-class appearance. His 'criminality' stems from his unstoppable ambition. His instincts are on the loose and unpredictable, refuting social positions of class and race. And that makes him a truly dangerous man."

Also consider that White, filmmaker Wendell B. Harris and his real-life subject, the virtuoso con artist W.D. Street, are all from Michigan-- Harris from Michael Moore's hometown, Flint; White and Street from Detroit. Not to mention Detroit-born film critic Elvis Mitchell. Something about Motown. I'd like to get all these characters in a room and listen to the explosions.

William said...

One thing that strikes me about White is this search for humanity in the films that he sees and reviews. How can he legitimately seek humanity in a film if he can't get over the technical shortcomings?

You didn't get into it with him but I'm curious what his take on Cassavetes is. He made "films." He also went blind trying to fix sprockets on a broken 16mm camera at 3 o'clock in the morning just to get his hand-made films made. The acting gigs paid for that. JC (that's funny) went on record saying that he was not a technical director, he had no interest in it. He was more interested in emotion. Some of those films looked and sounded awful. Faces, which I truly love for its pure energy and verisimilitude is ugly as hell technically speaking but it's not why I keep going back to it.

Do you need a bankroll to capture humanity on film? Don't misunderstand me, I think the irony here is we have all this equipment to go out and do it but the reality is studios couldn't give a shit. Those kind of filmmakers will never really be taken seriously by the industry. They will always be on the fringes and that's fine unless you are interested in growing as a filmmaker with technology, audience and skills. Paul Schrader said that Cassavetes "never made that next step." That could be true for many reasons but I think evolving as a filmmaker is important, AW has a point here. You can't evolve and you certainly can't do it alone. So you can break into the system and try and make it work for you or not. If it's important enough you will fight for it even if it takes twice as long.

Again, great work. It's important to shake people up every now and again.

Anonymous said...

Armond liked The Science of Sleep and Shortbus, which were both technically dreadful-looking movies.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I just posted on part II of the interview before reading this. It's gotten me even madder.

I'm very glad that you called him out on his proclamation of Baumbach as an asshole, and I'm infuriated by White's response. Does he honestly, truly believe that he is fully capable of judging Baumbach as a human being based on his movies? For a purported "humanist," that's mind-blowing. It's just insane. I respect White in some ways, but I really think he's a raging asshole, and I wish he'd stop talking about humanism, because he sure sounds like a misanthrope to me. He loves himself, though; that's about the extent of his humanity.

Anonymous said...

"And because his family is all well-connected people in New York publishing, critics praise him, because, in the end, they're praising themselves, justifying their own bad behavior."

This whole section of the interview really pissed me off. Perhaps Armond should just come clean about his hatred for Baumbach, which is entirely rooted in his rocky past with Baumbach's mother.

Next time you see him, be sure to ask him about their radio appearance together years ago.

Wow Jones said...


For those interested, there's a blog that covers the Armond White book, "The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook The World".

For those who don't know, the book is a collection of Armond White essays that cover the years 1984-1994.

here's the link:



BennyAnders said...

Fuck Armond White, some talentless black fag is upset that all he could ever be was a film critic that nobody cares about. He lacks significance

HHH said...

This guy is a FUCKING retard, I've read all of tennessee williams, and O neil which he says is a pre req to criticize Noah, and I loved Squid and the Whale, and Green Berg, I would not give a shit if this man died. I plan on banning him from my film screenings to.

Steven Boone said...

^Whoa, headline news: Hou Hsiao-Hsien disses Armond White!