At a time when blurb advertisements and media hype seemingly control the review process, New York Press writer Armond White’s thoughtful, provocative criticism allows readers the opportunity to interpret films as more than just entertainment. Emerging from the significant literary trails blazed by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, White reflects upon the possibilities of a medium rich in ideas, emotion, and self-reflection.
Born and raised in Detroit, White moved to New York to attend Columbia University in 1980, where he received his Masters in film history, theory and criticism. He has since taught classes in cinema studies at Columbia, Fordham University, and Long Island University. Before writing for New York Press in 1997, White wrote for The Nation and for 12 years (1984-1996) was Arts Editor of the now-defunct The City Sun.
Currently a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, White is also the author of two books, The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World (1995, Overlook Press) and Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur (1997, Dimensions). White has contributed chapters to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (2000, Cambridge University Press) and Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman (2001, Intercollegiate Studies Inst). He is also the co-editor of a quarterly publication, First of the Month, which deals with contemporary cultural issues.
White’s socio-political interpretations of cinema as an art form have generated some controversy, particularly his bold interpretations of Brian De Palma’s despised Mission to Mars (2000) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), where he remarked, “It dares viewers to remember and accept the part of themselves that is capable of feeling.” White and I used these two films as a starting point for discussing the current state of movies, video technology as an inferior alternative to film, and the public response to foreign cinema.
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Armond White: I was so angry the other day watching that infuriating TV series Inside the Actor’s Studio. Debra Winger was the guest, and she made this off-the-cuff, snide, stupid statement: “A good critic? That’s an oxymoron!” I thought, “Oh, you asshole. You’re a good actress, but an asshole.” I was much happier during a Q&A with Irvin Kershner, where he said something much more intelligent and valuable about the relationship between a filmmaker and a critic. He said that he read Pauline Kael because she helped him to see his films, which is what I feel a good critic should do for a filmmaker and for a viewer. To help the viewer to understand the film better, or to see more than they might have seen on their own. I believe film criticism has its own legitimate place as a literary art form.
Jeremiah Kipp: Why is there a gap between the filmmaker/actor and the critic? There’s very little dialogue between the two.
AW: I think it’s partly just conventional wisdom that critics are automatically antagonistic toward artists, and that’s not true at all. It’s ignorant that some people think about it otherwise. Sadly, many people do.
JK: Sometimes you’re in the position of defending the filmmaker—as you’ve done in your reviews of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Mission to Mars, where it seems like many critics were out to get those films. But the audience response is another matter. When I saw A.I., people were laughing hysterically at the conclusion. At an NYU screening of Mission to Mars, I heard that the students went completely nuts jeering at the screen. What was it about those films that disturbed those viewers?
AW: One of the interesting things in writing about the movies is that it’s a popular art form. You always have to contend with the popular response, the immediate response, and not necessarily a thoughtful response! That’s exciting, though. There’s a lot of energy and spontaneity in that. The downside is that sometimes there is no thought in that response. That’s what a critic can be good for: making the difference simply by having the propensity to reflect rather than simply respond.
There’s a lot of response to convention, which I trust is the case with what happened at NYU with Mission to Mars. Even though they may have been film students, their film watching skills were dull. Since Mission to Mars required them to think and work a little more than they’re used to, they found something they simply weren’t prepared for. That’s a sad commentary on film institutions today, but it’s typical of popular movie going. People like movies, I guess. They enjoy them. But 100 years later they still don’t appreciate them as a visual art form, which is what it primarily is. People’s ideas are dictated by Hollywood conditioning, though. They still think of movies as stories, but they’re not.
JK: People seem to be responding more to the media hype than the movie itself, which was the case with The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999).
AW: Yes, I agree. But at the NYU screening, I don’t think that they could have read anything about Mission to Mars beforehand except maybe on the Internet. I saw it at a critics screening; at that point, I hadn’t read anything about the film, but I noticed many critics had the same smart assed, derisive response. The critics don’t know how to look at a movie, and they want every movie to be like the one they’re familiar with. They wanted Mission to Mars to be Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) and it wasn’t, so they rejected it.
JK: But people were saying that The Blair Witch Project was unconventional and new. That no movies had been done like this before.
AW: That’s an uninformed response, though. It had a novelty aspect to it and had to be appreciated only in that way. They mistook novelty for originality, creativity, and competence. But people still think of movies as entertainment, as simply a way to tell a story with dialogue rather than accepting the emotions through images. That’s the essence of cinema.
JK: Speaking of the essence of cinema, I’m reminded of working in a library when I was a kid. We had access to a lot of foreign films there. I rented La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), not knowing anything about it other than that the video box cover looked lively and interesting. I was struck by it from first image to last, and was very surprised when I got older that it’s in some ways considered inaccessible. I was wondering what movies informed you when you were growing up?
AW: Well, you know, I remember seeing La Dolce Vita when I was a kid back in the ’60s. At that time, television was quite different. Growing up in Detroit, we had our regular and local TV stations but since we were right across the river from Windsor, Ontario, we also had Canadian television. I got a good assortment of movies from TV, and in fact that was the first time I saw La Dolce Vita. Foreign films were more popular at that time. Dubbed versions of foreign films would show on television.
Like you, I was just a kid. I didn’t really know what was going on in those films, but they were fascinating. They were intriguing to me in ways I fear kids don’t get from those sorts of films anymore—though I could be wrong about this. It was a different world from the one I grew up in, and primarily an adult world. That was a wonderful thing for me, to be able to look at the adult world and want to be a part of it. Seeing La Dolce Vita and 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963) was a big deal. It affected and helped further my interest in film, and I hope gave my interests a more mature basis. I didn’t simply want movies about clowns and puppies, for children. I wanted movies about sexual adults—or glamorous adults. I may not even have known what sex was, but that world was pretty, and glamorous, and appealing. That was an early response to cinema.
Of course, I had the appropriate child’s taste, too. I grew up loving the Disney version of Babes in Toyland (Jack Donohue, 1961); though I can’t forget many years later when I set my nieces and nephews down to watch it. I told them how wonderful it is and that they were gonna love it. (laughs) Throughout the whole thing, they kept turning around to me saying, “This is corny!” And I said to myself, “Oh shit.” So that blew up in my face. Maybe every generation of kids have things they respond to. I did like those films, but watching adult films suggested that here is a different world, a world you’re growing into and may become a part of.
JK: Do you think that might be one of the reasons you responded to A.I.? It is a child who is looking at the adult world, but also the adult world looking back at children.
AW: Oh, probably so. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a sentimental attachment to my own childhood, as most people do. I also hope I don’t give it more weight than I ought to. But I understand it. It’s just a part of human experience, something that everybody has, and certain people understand it better. That’s a part of the problem with people’s appreciation of Spielberg—particularly A.I. They devalue what childhood means and don’t give it any serious consideration. They think if you make movies about childhood experience then they are trivial, which is a misconception because A.I. is about the profound aspects of childhood. That children are able to perceive desires in the human psyche that never die. I think people aren’t ashamed of that if they own up to it. That’s not all that A.I. is about, but to me that’s a large part of its power.
JK: It seems like Spielberg can’t get a break. When he does movies about children, the accusation is that he’s sentimental or naïve. But when he makes movies about adult themes and subject matter they say that he’s biting off more than he can chew.
AW: Partly, it’s that old fashioned problem of people thinking movies about issues are more important than movies about feeling. Andrew Sarris pointed out this problem many years ago. Spielberg is often the victim of that. When he makes movies about World War II, many think that is serious and profound. When he makes movies about family life or childhood life, they deride it and think it’s inconsequential. I guess you could say that’s a philistine response to art, that art’s only important when it’s about issues.
JK: And yet the very thing some critics deride in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) is later praised in the substandard Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001).
AW: It’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Spielberg can’t win. My favorite example is when E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial came out in 1982. E.T. is an extraordinary film, and the wide response to it at the time was remarkable because people weren’t ashamed to recall their childhood or adolescence from that movie. A pretty special achievement. But the very next year when War Games came out, which is a by the numbers, conventional, unimaginative John Badham film, I read some reviewer saying, “Even better than E.T.!” That’s what they went on to say about Cocoon (Ron Howard, 1985). How on earth could they think that? These people don’t understand Spielberg at all! Clearly they can’t see what’s special about Spielberg’s themes or his craftsmanship because they take him for granted. Spielberg just keeps getting better. E.T. is wonderful, but A.I. is great! And it’s got precious little to do with Kubrick, because Spielberg’s art has matured—it’s become even deeper and subtler, and now he’s an even better filmmaker.
JK: You teach at Columbia, Fordham, and Long Island University. Are there specific courses, or is it general film theory?
AW: I taught a course called Men, Women and Cinema, as well as classes on ’70s road movies, ’80s and ’90s independent film and film noir. As with any instructor, the films I choose are the ones that reflect my interests and tastes. They’re also an attempt to give students a sense of the particular genre’s history.
JK: Different critics who have taught have different responses toward the students. Andrew Sarris basically said he thinks the kids are all right (i.e., aware of film history and how to read a film), and others have been more skeptical.
AW: I guess I would amend that and say, “I hope the kids will be all right,” because I worry. But I understand that in a way I was no different. Ultimately, everybody has to be taught. That’s what school is for, and my interest is to expose students to things that they might not ordinarily see on their own. That’s exciting to me. Trying to perpetuate cultural continuity is an important thing, and that’s part of what education is for. I’m excited every time I teach, to introduce kids to ways of thinking about movies and looking at movies that they aren’t used to. That’s been the comment of most of the students when the course is over. That they haven’t looked at movies this way before, but now they would. And that makes me happy.
JK: When you were developing your voice as a critic, what was your response to Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris?
AW: Surely, Pauline was the first and biggest influence. When I went to film school, one of the instructors I had was Sarris and he also became a major inspiration. He’s a critic who is passionate about films and knows a lot about them. That passion, that encyclopedic and firsthand knowledge of film, is largely missing now. But I should also add that after being influenced by them, you have to say, “I am different.” That’s crucial, because who needs another Pauline and who needs another Sarris? If you don’t have something distinctive to say, don’t bother! The interesting thing, the only thing worth reading, is a point of view that is different and has not been in the world before. Since I came along in a different era than Sarris and Kael, there are things that are interesting to me and to a film readership that wasn’t true in their day, and I suppose I have a more politically minded perspective on film. That’s probably the first big difference I have with them. It’s good to be your own person.
JK: Let’s talk about how you’ve gone about fusing film art and your own politics—you’ve chosen to write about Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in that context.
AW: Let’s start by distinguishing between being a film critic and a reviewer. A reviewer is someone who decides whether it’s enjoyable, whereas a critic is one who concerns him or herself with the ideas and aesthetics in a work of art. In my effort as a critic rather than a reviewer, I think there’s more to say about every movie beyond simply whether or not it was entertaining. Part of that is trying to observe and be specific about the content of the film, the way it affects me, and the way it affects society. When I write about Jackson or Washington or Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989), to me it’s natural and automatic to deal with racial and class representations. Sometimes those movies appall me. But it’s interesting to hear the personal response that easier, more accepting critics have. In the case of Michelle Pfeiffer, they say: “Isn’t she wonderful, isn’t she gorgeous, what a thing!” Or with Jackson and Washington: “Aren’t they striking? Aren’t they fearsome? Aren’t they dynamic?” But they never examine or explain why they have these responses.
Those are personal responses—and I have personal responses to those people, too—but I think it’s only honest to say what those thought responses betoken. It betokens a kind of political and racial experience that one has in society and that one brings into the movie theater. So, say so! If other critics took that position and were absolutely honest, you’d have some shocking, shocking reviews of Samuel Jackson because then they would be expressing the kind of buttons Samuel Jackson pushes rather than simply reacting. I hope that’s what I do when I write about these films. If I react, I do give a reason. Not many critics do that. They could, but they don’t.
JK: You’ve said before that a critic has a certain obligation to reminding his or her readers about the roots of cinema.
AW: Absolutely. As a baby cineaste, there was nothing more thrilling than reading Pauline or Andy Sarris because as they mention a film or make a reference to a film, you find there’s nothing more exciting than searching that film out and finding it to be as wonderful as they suggested. That’s an ongoing process. You go back to Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916) or Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919) or True Heart Susie (Griffith, 1919), and there are still wonders there to behold. I like to think that if people saw that stuff they wouldn’t fall for 40 Days and 40 Nights (Michael Lehmann, 2002), Serendipity (Peter Chelsom, 2001), Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), or Black Hawk Down.
JK: Are there any critics you seek out right now, or do you prefer not reading them and staying in your own space?
AW: Read other critics? Not really. I won’t say I don’t read interesting things here and there, because I do. But then it’s sometimes difficult to cultivate one’s own separate response. I always use the old Bruce Springsteen example. During an interview, he said he doesn’t keep up with popular music because he was so busy trying to make his own. Coming out of Springsteen’s mouth, that did not sound arrogant. I’d like to say it in his way. I do see interesting things here and there, but a lot of times it’s infuriating for me.
JK: You’ve remarked that movies are looking more and more like television, losing touch with the power of Cinemascope. Is that because some filmmakers are moving from the music video arena to movies?
AW: What it really says is TV is taking over everything. In some sense, our culture has lost a certain amount of wonder, and a lot of that wonder was connected to seeing an image bigger than you. Now, because of the ubiquitous nature of television, people are satisfied with the smaller image and the box frame. Commercially, that has carried over into filmmaking. I think Martin Scorsese said in a Projections interview with critic Gregory Solman that most filmmaking has to be made with the eventual TV market in mind; so fewer filmmakers work in Cinemascope. They know it has to show on TV later.
To me, there’s nothing more wonderful than a Cinemascope movie. It just expands in front of you. I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) on television ever since I was a kid, certainly more times than I can count. I practically know it by heart, but I never saw it on the big screen before three years ago when it played at Film Forum. It was a whole different experience, bigger and better. Its pop art aspects, which are simply its cinema aspects, became profound when I saw it on the screen. It was never visually profound on television. It’s always fun and exciting—but bigger than I was, it became a profound aesthetic experience. I remember when I saw the trail of fire at the gas station, the three still shots of Tippi Hendren watching the fire move, I do recall that some people screamed because scenes that big are terribly moving. You kinda gotta yell. When you see it on television, it’s “Yeah!” But when you see it on the big screen it’s “Wow!” There’s a difference.
I think that our culture has lost an appreciation for the big screen images, and in some ways have lost an appreciation of what movie art is. I mean it’s inevitable with DVDs and home video that these movies will be seen on a box on television, but nothing beats the big screen. That doesn’t necessarily have to be action, if you look at the way Bergman uses faces, or the way Altman or Preston Sturges film crowd scenes. I feel that’s part of what’s responsible for [the poor reception of] Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998), because people weren’t used to seeing faces shot that way. I think 30 or 40 years earlier, when people saw the way Dreyer or Bergman shot things, they were more accustomed to it. With Beloved they said, “What’s that mean?”
JK: People refer to Robert Altman in speaking about Paul Thomas Anderson, who is at best a thin appropriation of Altman. I guess they are only really looking at the surface, saying, “Oh, there are crowds in these shots,” rather than what is being done cinematically. I don’t know why that is.
AW: It’s bizarre for me, too. I sort of understand that every generation has to have its own film artists and visionaries and point-of-view. The problem is these people didn’t grow up watching Altman when he was making those great ’70s films and those very interesting ’80s films. Paul Thomas Anderson might indeed seem new to them, and some have said they prefer him to Altman. I take it to be simply a matter of fashion, a generational thing. What speaks to you from your time? That’s legitimate for people to feel that way, but not legitimate for critics to feel that way. Critics need to have a sense of film and theatrical history. History has been devalued, and in many people’s cases history has never been learned.
Certainly, one of the instigators has been Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and the Tarantino phenomenon, where the interest in pop culture has lost its seriousness. People simply enjoy pop culture for its hipness, reducing film noir to violence and attitude, never understanding that the film noir movement was a moral one, expressing a real disenchantment with the world, expressing the existential condition. David Denby symbolized the problem very well when he praised Pulp Fiction, saying Tarantino understands French New Wave conventions. What he doesn’t say is that Tarantino does not understand New Wave conviction. He may be quoting Jean-Luc Godard and Breathless (Godard, 1960) all over the place, but he doesn’t understand what they were doing, or that those movies were moral inquiries! Tarantino doesn’t understand it, his generation doesn’t understand it, and critics like Denby don’t understand it! But we’ve got to bring the light.
JK: Interesting how people’s attitudes toward foreign films have changed. In the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed more fashionable to discuss them. But that’s not the case now with filmmakers like Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont. I don’t know if this is oversimplifying, by saying that in the ’60s and ’70s we were open to questioning authority and ourselves, but now we don’t want to question anything.
AW: That’s probably true. I was watching Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970) the other night, and it made me think that all those movies from the ’70s, the American Renaissance, were made by filmmakers who were disenchanted with the institution of Hollywood filmmaking. They tried to discover things about American life by approaching filmmaking differently. 30 years later, people don’t have the same disenchantment for whatever reason. They have more interest in money and possessions, they like the convention of Hollywood storytelling and TV information dissemination, and they aren’t interested in challenging anything. So the movies aren’t inquiring about anything either, for the most part.
The interest in foreign films works the same way. Why should we be interested in what foreign filmmakers are doing when we’re American? When we have it all? We’re sufficient unto ourselves, so who cares about the rest of the world? I think that attitude is reflected in our culture, and that’s too bad. When foreign films were more popular, it denoted that America was more open minded about other cultures and other ways of being. It’s remarkable that there was a period when foreign films were sort of popular—back when there was that whole industry of dubbing. I’m not such a stickler that I think people need to read subtitles, because there was a time when they didn’t and they got the point anyway. That’s a wonderful thing to me. Sometimes I think, wow, what a difference it might have made if a dubbed version of In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) had played shopping malls. That might have changed the world by changing fashion. That would be a beautiful thing, but the culture is not geared that way anymore.
JK: Something I found encouraging was seeing a line all around the block for Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001). I’m surprised that film has become the thing to do, at least in New York City.
AW: I’m sure part of that is that it’s set in England. If Altman had made that exact same movie in America as he did in Kansas City (1996, Altman) and A Wedding (Altman, 1978), it would have been ignored and not achieved all the Oscar nominations. And those films are better than Gosford Park, although I love Gosford Park very much. But it’s his American sensibility that makes him a great filmmaker. I’m surprised and heartened that it’s done well, though. It’s great to see people going to see a serious film, especially seeing an older audience in attendance. Usually, you walk by the theater and see all these kids, but now you see all these grown-ups lining up. That’s certainly a phenomenon in a way.
JK: Switching gears, why do you think digital video is embraced as a popular art form?
AW: It has to do with the change in technology and the change in corporate philosophy. I guess we’re gonna have to get used to it, but today it’s an absolutely inferior visual format. There’s also that crazy fallacy that people think video is cheaper, when you spend just as much money in making the 35mm transfer! You might as well spend the money on film and wind up with a better looking product. Part of appreciating films is the visual beauty of them, and a lot of video transfers are not pleasant or exciting to look at. The image is degraded in a way. There’s a power to the image of film in movies like Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1946), and In the Mood for Love, to name just three, where the quality of the image inspires you to reflect, think, and feel more. Nobody’s quite done that with video yet. Once they do, the argument will cease—but until that time we should argue vigorously against it.
JK: Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda have been using video lately. How do you feel about their recent works?
AW: The better the filmmaker, the better the results. I wish none of them would use video, but Godard does an interesting experiment with Elegy of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001) where the video is in color, the film is in black and white. It deliberately addresses the way people think about watching color and black and white, as well as how they watch video and film. I think he understands that film is film, and video is mainly for television. Still, there are moments from Elegy of Love that I would like to see again right now. I don’t know if I’d like to subject myself to Godard’s political heckling, but there are images in it that are unforgettable.
JK: There’s an argument that video is great for actors because they can just continue rolling and rolling. It allows them to discover interesting things that might happen in their performance. I don’t think Cassavetes would be so indulgent. He was far more precise. But what are they really trying to do? It’s lazy and inattentive to the image!
AW: Hey, before digital video there was that invention called the rehearsal. I think lazy is the word. I was watching one of those A&E Biographies about Vivien Leigh, and there was a horrifying story that Kim Hunter told about making A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). She told the story as a way to praise Vivien Leigh, but it also made Elia Kazan sound like a sadist. She described how she and Vivien Leigh were doing a scene, and Kazan kept telling them do it again, do it again, do it again. Kim Hunter said she was very upset by the way he was reacting, so she asked Kazan, “What am I doing wrong? Is there something you want me to do that I’m not doing?” And Kazan said, “Oh, you’re doing fine. I want to see how many times Vivien Leigh can produce a tear on the same note every time.” Jesus, that’s cruel! But it also made me think that if you’re really a good actor, you don’t have to depend on catching happenstance. You’re able to produce the effect. Scratch that idea that actors need many takes to keep going. That’s a false notion.
JK: What was the genesis of your publication First of the Month?
AW: A group of writer friends (Charles O’Brien, Stanley Aronowitz, Benj DeMott) and I got together with the belief that there wasn’t a publication addressing the culture in a way we liked. We wanted to deal with politics, art, and events that other so-called serious publications weren’t doing. Often, when you think about the established literary and political magazines, they leave out popular culture and non-white culture. We didn’t want to do that. There was the need for something different, so we embarked on trying to provide that difference. It’s been troubled, but we’re determined.
JK: When did it first come out?
AW: I believe the first issue came out in ’98. We had spoken about it, thought about it, planned it for several years before we got the first issue off the ground. The four of us really come out of different alternative journalistic efforts you might say. And I guess it’s in common from our era of mass, corporatized media that in order to say something different on a regular basis, people need to start their own rather than depend on Viacom and Time Warner and The New York Times. You can’t depend on them and you can’t trust them either. Start your own.
JK: Is the website updated monthly?
AW: Pretty regularly. We figured that was a way we could find a wider audience.
JK: What is your circulation? Is it just in New York?
AW: Oh, no. It’s not just in New York. We found a distributor, so there are printed issues that are sold in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington. On both coasts. That’s part of what we wanted to do also—not simply be New York based, but to address national interests. We want to expand even more than we already have.
JK: So you’re based on the old fashioned collective idea.
AW: Yes, just the four of us. All the money goes toward putting out the next issue. None of us make a living from it, which would be impossible at this time. In fact, the first several issues were distributed free at libraries, museums, campuses, and bookstores. We’ve begun to get some advertising and sell subscriptions. The plan is simply to make the publication itself viable. So far, we’re published on a quarterly basis. Once we are out once a month, as the title suggests, then you’ll know we’ve more or less realized our dream. That’s our goal.