Monday, March 26, 2007

New York Press Review: "Pride"

Armond White's review of Pride is the first one by him that we've even partially agreed with in quite a while, but at the risk of coming across as negators we'd like to call attention to its most revealing passage:

Some will dismiss Pride as schmaltz and sentimental, but that diabolical attitude merely prefers noxious, pessimistic fantasies that deny human possibilities.

Whether intentional or not, White has never more clearly stated the parameters of his Manichean cinematic cosmology: schmaltz and sentiment v. noxious pessimism. Those who even question the simplicity of the former brand of filmmaking contain "diabolical attitudes." In the meantime, despite its limitations, a formulaic, oftentimes superficial film like Pride is accorded "uncommon substance."
We understand what White sees in Pride: "It’s the inspirational aspect of Pride that makes it anachronistic now when such lousy films -- Black Snake Moan, I Think I Love My Wife, Dreamgirls and Waist Deep -- reduce the African-American experience to cliches of superstition, licentiousness, minstrelsy and crime." But in getting so excited about the film's "human possibilities" he neglects to mention its rather tame dependence on a host of other cliches. Which invites questions: isn't there a gray area of complexity between sentimental schmaltz and noxious pessimism? And couldn't this area of complexity even exist in the "pop" arena White so loves? Armond's binary logic is critically flawed. It allows for little nuance when he tries to combat the backward cynicism of Hollywood crassness by promoting virtuous films that are equally one-dimensional. His readers, and our movies, deserve better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

New York Press Review: "The Wayward Cloud"

From the very beginning of his confused review Armond White reveals he has no idea how to process the bizarre, provocative experience of Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud. First off, he calls it a "porno musical," a misleading term since the film is a musical about pornography -- its participants, its viewers, and the society it influences with its images -- and not a musical featuring actual pornographic material. Then in the second paragraph he offers a series of contradictory statements:

These [musical] numbers occur in unexpected contrast to the humdrum dailiness that is Tsai's specialty. He introduces his characters as they wander the gray, dull, bizarrely empty city; sometimes walking past each other without recognition—almost refusing to communicate. This reticence is the exact opposite of what movie musicals are about.

Characters acting out fantasies in lavish musical numbers that allow them to express what they cannot in their boring, quotidian existences? Sounds in line with a particular strand of the traditional movie musical to us. But maybe we should wait for AW to explain what he means:

When Tsai follows this dysfunctional union with musical numbers, it demonstrates a changed perspective on human relations. Today, even the romantic fantasies of typical movie musicals are infected with pessimism. The Wayward Cloud isn't a deconstructed musical like the great postmodern Pennies from Heaven. Instead, Tsai reconstructs a classical genre to match the desperation of an era that has rejected musicals' implicit outworn utopianism. For some viewers this depersonalization will make Tsai's vision seem new, perhaps even radical, rather than simply depressive. But it's a coherent vision and unafraid of emotional affect. Tsai dramatizes a new approach to anomie. Linking private sexual thoughts is his way of giving shape to a pervasive loneliness.

Very, very odd. Initially White believes that Tsai "demonstrates a changed perspective on human relations." Then, all of a sudden, he doesn't, an idea implied in White's rejection of others' collective misperception of the film: "For some viewers this depersonalization will make Tsai's vision seem new, perhaps even radical, rather than simply depressive." But then, faster than you can say "muddled," Tsai's vision is new again: "Tsai dramatizes a new approach to anomie."
What in the name of watermelon fucking is going on here? Armond's flying contradictions might very well be unconsciously perpetrated, but judging by the next paragraph, they very well might not. After foolishly drawing a comparison between The Wayward Cloud and Three Times (why, because they're both directed by Asian art cinema faves? If so, that's a pretty weak link), White finally expresses his ambivalence about the film in direct terms, calling it "a self-conscious musical about dislocation -- an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating [sic] variation on Tsai's usual unhappy theme."
But why the reservations? Again the comparison to Hou Hsaio-Hsien's empty formalism, and thus this:

Unfortunately, after the heightened emotional quality of Tsai's musical numbers, he also retreats to distanced long shots and detached framing held so long it drains your involvement. The Wayward Cloud culminates in a marathon copulation scene that unites the three protagonists in desolate joylessness. It cannot be the fault of decadent western pop but of Tsai's own preference for pseudo-profundity. His anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex.

"Pseudo-profundity"? That's it? That's all White can come up with in his criticism of the film's shortcomings (pun totally intended)? Can we at least get some reasons for this pseudo-profundity more substantial than "distanced long shots and detached framing held so long it drains your involvement"? (Waaaaaah, Armond's bored; Waaaaaah, Armond needs his fix of Hollywood "pop.")
Look, The Wayward Cloud is a difficult film. It's at once silly, beautiful, disgusting, obvious, moralizing, beyond moralizing, and frustrating. And it is most definitely challenging. One can either decline that challenge, as did Nathan Lee of The Village Voice in his (as usual) dismissive review, or accept it, as did David Wilentz of The Brooklyn Rail. Or one can, as did Armond, give equal consideration to the film's failures and successes. If choosing this last route one must be especially clear in describing one's mixed feelings about the film, as well as proving the ability to back up those feelings with insightful analyses and ideas that carefully weigh pros and cons. But Armond's review of The Wayward Cloud is full of ambivalent feeling without much thought behind it. There's no insight in what he has communicated to his readers about this film, just flailing musings and halfhearted praises and disapprovals. Even when limning the film's basic themes and structures AW contradicts himself. "I liked this but not this," Armond seems to be saying, without venturing far enough into what Tsai's trying to do, where he goes right and where he goes wrong. "Pseudo-profundity" indeed.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

New York Press Review: "Zodiac"

It's probably fair to say that once you've landed on Armond White's shitlist, it's going to take a solid effort on your part to be removed. This has happened in the past -- Oliver Stone and Todd Solondz come to mind -- but on too many occasions Armond just can't get over the past indiscretions of certain auteurs. David Fincher's Zodiac provides a perfect case, not because it's a sudden masterpiece by an overrated director (AW says he's been wrongly "lionized" even though The Game and Panic Room were deservingly rejected by audiences and critics alike), but because Fincher's doing something different in his latest film and Armond just can't see it. Is the something new successful? Hell, no. But AW should give the man a little more credit than this:

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt provide no definitive answers to the killer’s mysterious identity, yet that doesn’t hinder their prurience. Fincher’s talent? Knowing that violence not only sells, it thrills.

A strange criticism, in that Zodiac isn't particularly violent (three murder scenes that take up roughly fifteen minutes of a two hour and forty minute film), not in comparison to most Hollywood fare and certainly not in comparison to previous Fincher outings like Se7en and Fight Club. And it's not just the film's quantity of violence but its depiction of it -- Zodiac is in ways a thankful departure from Fincher's other serial killer film, Se7en, in refusing to celebrate the murderer and revel in his misdeeds. By concentrating on the realistic, stage-by-stage investigations of the police and newspapermen in the hunt for the Zodiac, Fincher actually drains the potentially titillating story of much of its tabloid allure. But Armond holds to the opposite, failing to properly distinguish Zodiac from Se7en:

Specializing in lurid stories of violence and madness, Fincher taps the zeitgeist. His 1995 hit Se7en was praised by nihilistic critics for its glorying in modern-day grotesques. Audiences were simultaneously appalled and agitated -- a peculiar mix of fear and excitement that initiated the Fincher cult. Zodiac continues this perverse appreciation through a tedious, numbly-paced police-procedural storyline and contrasting flamboyant digital-video technique. The usual artistic interest in human experience is replaced with Fincher’s almost immoral emphasis on film technology (that’s why he is idolized as a modern-day Kubrick).

If generous, one might actually call Zodiac Fincher's most human film, or the closest thing approaching human. This is where the film fails, however, because without his usual bells and whistles ("immoral emphasis on film technology"? Aside from being shot on hi-def digital video, there's little in Zodiac that's so overly stylized or technically gratuitous) Fincher is lost -- he definitely needs a lesson in how to create compelling characterizations. But, man, Armond can't even hint, or accurately represent, that Fincher's at least trying.
We realize close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades, and Zodiac's effort doesn't excuse it from being bad. But Armond's whining invective is out of all proportion to the failure of this film -- ironically, his obsession with Fincher's ostensible appeal to "fanboys" (feminized by White's suggestion that the director gets them "wet") by creating "nerdy, soft-voiced" on-screen male surrogates stinks of the sort of macho bullying at the heart of Fincher's pseudo-anarchic Fight Club. Our favorite moment, though, and the one that exemplifies AW's inflation of Fincher's cinematic crimes, follows:

Problem is: Fincher’s technique distracts from a resolved mystery or narrative closure; it encourages apathy that suggests resolution and absolution are impossible.

Or it could be that the Zodiac Killer case has never been cracked. But whatever. Fincher can do no good, relatively or otherwise, in White's eyes.

Friday, March 2, 2007

New York Press Review: "Amazing Grace"

"Christianity Trumps History": this should be the headline for Armond White's naive review of "Amazing Grace." Coming only a week after White's review of "Norbit," in which he unforgivably misses the racist overtones of Eddie Murphy's unfunny "comedy," our man's analysis of "Amazing Grace" is remarkable for never addressing the film's noticeable lack of African characters, the very people the film should somehow represent by directly imparting their stories and struggle. For how much time director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight spend on Pariliamentary procedure and behind the scenes political maneuvering they certainly could have found the room to do so. But instead "Amazing Grace" is a film about the slave trade that features just one African character of any note -- and he's shuttled to the background so that William Wilberforce can stand centerstage in his noble crusade to end the horrible institution in Parliament. Christian ethics fuel that crusade, and White applauds the film's emphasis on Wilberforce's faith. But White should have been clued into the whitewashing of history that supports this Christian hagiography. Whenever an historical film raises its protagonist to the level of infallibilty (see JFK) we're always suspicious. And lo and behold, the story of William Wilberforce and his convictions, it seems, isn't as rosy as the film suggests -- the worst part is that Wilberforce's Christianity contributed to a condescending and dehumanizing understanding of Africans, who were, because of it, only offered partial emancipation. Granted, we don't expect Armond to be an expert on British history (or the history of the slave trade), but just the slightest critical skepticism toward the film's gross negligence of the African experience and/or its halo-crowning portrayal of William Wilberforce might have prevented this lapse. White's desire to champion "Amazing Grace" as a corrective to cynicism -- "What could be bolder than a film that insists upon virtue and dedication today -- an age ruled by political distrust?" -- has fostered in his critical skills yet another blind spot.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New York Press Review: "Norbit" [Vol. 2]

Armond White's recent, seemingly much talked about review of Norbit is dumbfounding in a number of respects. First, White, through critical and rhetorical bullshitting, spins Eddie Murphy's unoriginal, unfunny, and downright offensive caricatures as "explosive," "democratizing," and as existing "on a realistic continuum." What "realistic continuum" would that be? "We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types," he says. By employing that pseudo-populist pronoun "we," AW suggests that viewers should buy into the lazy offensiveness of Norbit without considering that the characters therein are nothing but hand-me-down stereotypes culled from a brain dead American popular culture. The "freakishness" on display in Norbit isn't a creative response generated from "black comics self-consciously relat[ing] to ideas of normalcy," just lowest common denominator pandering: Murphy-as-Rasputia simply occasions typical fat jokes, from shattered beds to water-emptying splashes in swimming pools to bikini waxes. But from the way he writes, you'd think Armond never saw a director use a wide angle shot to grotesquely distort features: "A perfect illustration of [director Brian Robbins'] buoyant sketch-style is the water amusement park sequence where Rasputia appears in a bikini and mounts a water slide." Didn't Mike Judge recently mock this level of devolved anti-entertainment in Idiocracy? Next up: Armond champions the buoyant artistry of Ow! My Balls!
It should be noted by now that White's tone-deaf sense of humor leads right back to his remarkable inability to call out caricatured depictions of minorities because the two glaring critical blind spots are intertwined. White cites the following as an example of the "sly social commentary" contained in Norbit : "When Mr. Wong querulously says 'Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!' it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused." This is not social commentary but the weakest, most cliched sort of observation. Read Armond's statement again: Murphy's "joke" doesn't even deserve to be called that. It doesn't provoke laughter or insight or anything at all save dull recognition (get it? Because both blacks and Jews eat Chinese food!) As for Mr. Wong, what can we say? He's only the most insulting Asian caricature we've seen since Fu Manchu (thanks to Mark Asch for directing us to Walter Chaw's terrific review of Norbit: "[Wong] reveals his dream to be a whaler, making him more Japanese than Chinese, but hey, a slant's a slant.") Ironically, in the film Norbit tells Mr. Wong that the latter's quip about African-Americans "running fast" might be racist, and Wong admits as much -- Murphy tries to deflect similar, potential charges against his lampoonery by literally questioning himself on screen, a disingenuous move that, like the Mr. Wong character as a whole, White fails to catch onto. Neither does our man wrestle with the film's misogyny, which comes forth most clearly when Eddie Griffin's trite pimp character invites two women to work for him and instead of receiving a slap in the face is serenaded with their willing pleas to be his "ho." Nor does he investigate Rasputia herself, the butt of most of the film's humor and disgust, let off the hook by AW with this pretentious, circumventing gibberish: "Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage." She's just one of the nearly unanimous face-pulling African-American cartoons crying out self-hatred in nearly every frame of the film. Like Murphy, White doesn't seem to notice, or care.
What White's done with his review of Norbit is destroy the trust of anyone -- from those hanging on his every word to those casting a permanent wary eye -- who reads his work to look to him for incisive, relevant criticism. There are two possibilities here: either White's critical faculties are far less than stellar in understanding cinema -- how films impart meaning and for what reasons -- or else he has other motivations. If it's the latter, then those motivations are transparent. Maybe we're in denial, but to us there's not a single sentence in this review that feels genuine -- as Victor Lazlo describes Rick in Casablanca, White writes "like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart." White knows his audience, knows the general consensus of the high-minded, left-leaning criticism his readers usually refer to, and frequently goes in the other direction to upset their comfort. This sometimes provides provocative challenges, but more often than not it finds AW taking up positions that seem antithetical to his own intelligence and common sense. That's why in our last post we called attention to excerpts from White's review of Coming to America -- he once could call it like he saw it. But times have changed. When a film like Norbit (see also Napoleon Dynamite, the Farrelly Brothers' atrocities) comes along and provides a perfect opportunity to show he's down with "humanistic" low-brow eye-junk and against the rest of the critical community (and able to name-check Capra and Chaplin in order to do so; remember, he still has to prove his hipster credentials and raise this crap to level of Cinematic Art), Armond takes it. Even though the film, by any serious standard, is hateful. And racist. And unfunny. And shallow. And all the things that would prompt even the most knee-jerk contrarian to confess taste enough to reject it as satire or entertainment. And if our second hypothesis is true, (and we're not sure if it's more or less depressing to imagine than Armond's possible critical ineptitude), then the ramifications are clear: Armond White cares more about how others perceive and react to him than he does about writing incisive, socially and artistically astute criticism. A scary thought.

Monday, February 19, 2007

New York Press Review: "Norbit" [Vol. 1]/"The Resistance": "Who's Coming Out of Africa? The Man Who Lost His Roots!"

Ladies and gentlemen, due to overwhelming popular demand and dependable antagonism: Norbit!
First, some "compare and contrast." Almost two decades ago (July 6, 1988, to be exact) Armond White wrote the following about Eddie Murphy's Coming to America in The City Sun, in a review titled "Who's Coming Out of Africa? The Man Who Lost His Roots!" (later reprinted in The Resistance). Bear with us:

Murphy pretends to bring to pop culture insider details of Black experience: manners and dialects that he dredges up with specious authority, always falsifying or excluding their socio-economic, psychological contexts.
Black politics, Black consciousness, has never figured in the plots of Murphy's movies, but his comic's acumen uses the idea of Black awareness in order to seem truly
Black, up to date. Actually, Coming to America is a betrayal of every instance of politics, history, sex, and ethnic culture Black people have ever known. . . .

Obviously, attending an Eddie Murphy movie is nothing like attending a Black awareness rally. There's ethnic self-loathing and humiliation throughout
Coming to America. Murphy's consciousness is the kind that is completely detached from political action. He's a casualty, I would guess, of that period of arrested social advancement for Black people -- the aftershock of the civil rights movement -- the 1970s. In that period the predominant Black cultural figure was not a politician or demonstrator but the superficially, stereotypically ethnic icons of Blaxploitation movies and television sitcoms. As part of the TV generation, Murphy doesn't connect being Black with social injustice or political struggle. For him all Black life is vaudeville. . . .

Take this ignorance and insensitivity and add it to Murphy's undeniable talent for mimicry, his comic timing and wit, and what you get is a showbiz atrocity. As a showbiz kid, Murphy has adopted the "Black consciousness" of white ideology: Murphy sees and comments upon Black people, life, and experience in ways and terms that the mainstream readily understands and that, I fear, make Black people tolerable to whites so that they won't be surprised by Blacks and won't have to fear them or respect them.
Unlike Richard Pryor, Murphy does not make humor about how we are all foolish, ambitious, shy, neurotic, horny, greedy, and human. He confirms how Black people really are the stereotypes their enemies have always claimed. This may be New Age Blackness, which accepts denigration by others. After all, one does not make movies that gross an average of $75 million . . . by appealing only to the interests of a minority audience.

And now, only last week in the New York Press:

It’s not the ethnic and gender stunts that prove Murphy’s ingenuity. He has learned (perhaps from Jerry Lewis’ example) to place his gift for mimickry [sic] in an appealing context. Norbit takes place in a fairytale setting, an All-American burg called Boiling Springs that combines the small-town settings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (the name Norbit is no doubt derived from Eddie Bracken’s Norbert) for a spoof on American gentility which Murphy then integrates with explosive caricatures. It’s a democratizing impulse, less hostile than the Wayans Brothers’ satire Little Man but not far from that underappreciated film’s skepticism about American complaisance. Both Norbit and Little Man express how black comics self-consciously relate to ideas of normalcy. Here, Murphy’s gender/ethnic split embraces a sense of freakishness because Norbit, Rasputia and Mr. Wong are all, also, on a realistic continuum. We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types. . . .

It’s significant that Murphy has moved past the family quandary of
The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (where he was at his most brilliant) into an area of sly social commentary. When Mr. Wong querulously says “Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!” it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused.
Murphy responds to post-Dave Chappelle self-insult comedy with a better, more experienced sense of self-awareness (that is, self respect).
Norbit is the meek part of Murphy, yet he wears a perfectly spherical Afro (like the teens in TV’s “What’s Happening”) that is like a halo of blackness—a nostalgic affection for his own youth. And don’t get angry at Norbit’s attempt to off his ogre-wife; its precedents recall Walter Mitty performing the Martha Rayes scenes of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Not misogynist, just a funny function of a frustrated id. Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage. Dig the name, Rasputia. It’s a satirical ghetto moniker that brilliantly suggests a blinkered awareness of the non-black world; a joke worthy of Murphy’s terrific animated TV series “The PJs.”

How the mighty have fallen, not only in terms of basic sensitivity but in terms of critical insight. And this from the man once considered the leading African-American film and culture critic. Sad, really. If any current Armond White review demonstrates the self-willed blindness he's effected in order to place himself in uncomplicated opposition to the critical majority, no matter how weak his own reasoning or how off the mark his points, this is it. We'll talk more about it later.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

New York Press Review: "The Good Shepherd"

We know, we know. We'll talk about it later.
We finally got to see The Good Shepherd, a very good film -- a little too proper for our own personal tastes but still an engrossing account of the CIA and one man's descent into emotional callousness for its cause. Going back to Armond White's review of the film from approximately a month ago we saw that he perfectly describes how Robert De Niro generates empathy for Matt Damon's aware but self-effacing anti-hero while also exploring the complex motivations behind involvement in something as bureaucratic and bizarre as a secret government agency (although AW does skimp on the issue of racial exclusivity, which he barely acknowledges as "privilege.") But for one unforgettable moment Armond succumbs to the temptation for a cheap shot and consequently lapses into classic frothing mode:

This may be the boldest movie characterization of the year because it defies the snarky, anti-American, self-hatred and nihilism and distrust of Bush-bashers, also known as Borat-mania.

Sigh. And you wondered why we were away for so long?