Friday, December 29, 2006

Cineaste Review/The 2006 Armond Year in Review: "The Black Dahlia"

Throw out "Armond White" during a round of cinematic word association and the director's name most likely called out in response -- "Spielberg" aside -- will surely be "Brian De Palma." No other critic currently working is as attached to his pet auteurs than White, who does an unequaled job of undervaluing their critical standing in order to then overpraise their work, acting more as a cheerleader in failing (or refusing) to chart the complications and difficulties of Hollywood directors whose artistic-political merits just might be less unassailable than imagined. But whatever the shortcomings of his tunnel-visioned auteurism, our man's nearly unconditional love for particular directors (the two mentioned above plus Altman, Boorman, Demme, Techine, Kar-Wai; directors who peaked before the 70s don't count since AW boringly lumps together the canonical: "[Most moviegoers] don't know the excitement to be had from real movies (which is to say old movies)") can often lead to idiosyncratic takes on their films, partisan as they are. The latest AW review of De Palma's The Black Dahlia (we'd provide a link of the review except Cineaste doesn't offer such links on their site, forcing one to buy the magazine) is surely in this idiosyncratic vein, positioning the film as thoroughly political in contrast to other recent neo-noirs, and calling attention to the film's subversive examination of the Hollywood dream machine despite its failings as a well-acted, well-oiled piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the review is also stunningly incoherent -- we can barely make sense of it even after reading the shorter New York Press review of the same film that came out almost three months earlier. Still we'll try to tease out what AW's wisdom by cutting out the non sequitur-laced bullshit that dots his prose:

-- De Palma's sensitivity to the politics/film connection explodes what people think of as the noir genre. . . . The Black Dahlia is De Palma-personal; a consideration of the price paid by folks who live in the Hollywood environment either by working within the filmmaking industry or under the sway of movie mythology.

So far, so sensical. We'd maybe question the term "the politics/film connection" (aren't there many possible conenctions between politics and film?), but when Armond isn't going off the rails one usually lets him glide.

-- [De Palma] shows the political economics of the place by examining the way the cops perform, the civilians subsist, the ruling class rules, and the anonymous besotted dreamers get crushed.

Alright, now let's get to some examples.

-- Moviegoers confronting this strangely convoluted tale need to understand the background of De Palma's art and the movie fascination that led inevitably to The Black Dahlia.

The only thing convoluted here is Armond's review, which at this juncture forsakes analysis for pedantic backpeddling. We understand Cineaste reviews tend to be long enough to provide such breathing space for its writers, but Armond's decision to "school" readers in the history lessons of De Palma isn't one of gratuituousness, it's one of condescension. Read the last italicized sentence again if you don't think so -- the flagrant "need" is a dead giveaway. What follows is a waste of two paragraphs that barely skims the surface of De Palma's "political" background and completely circumvents the complications arising from his representations of women, violence, minorities, etc., etc. At the end of these paragraphs we get this: "To understand The Black Dahlia it is necessary to recognize that De Palma penetrates the Hollywood-noir genre, upending its conventions, emphasizing its social and political bases." Fine, for a repetitious statement. Now let's get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?

-- Bucky and Lee represent the L.A.P.D. as a social agency stressed between the area's racial antagonism and class-based priorities. They're introduced in the midst of a race riot -- not participating in the infamous zoot suit altercation but putting down the unruly sailors and soldiers who initiated it. (Although they arrest one Latino . . . ) Bucky and Lee's allegiances are torn. . . . Their roles in municipal politics are precarious.

Perhaps Armond's rolling with this, but we're not yet sure where exactly. We see how the race riots position Bucky and Lee within a racial quagmire, but how does class enter into it? What classes do the sailors and Latinos come from and how do the police stand in relation? How are Bucky and Lee's allegiances torn? We've been given statements but little evidence to back them up.

-- This is one of the few movies to answer the rarely unasked but fundamental political question: 'What makes a cop?' . . . When the precinct chief is angered by a cop's inconvenient display of scruples, he shouts, "You are a political animal!" . . . De Palma sees every character as a political animal -- and that's the way to see The Black Dahlia.

Treading water. More talk about politics and the film's political awareness but few concrete examples of how this works.

-- As Bucky's career succeeds, his friendship with the platonic couple Lee and Kay rescues him from the blighted habitat of his German immigrant father: Bucky experiences the splendor and respite of Lee and Kay's well-appointed, white-walled bungalow. He's moved up in class, but the higher he climbs, the lower he has to fall.

Finally. But this small nugget -- replete with a mistake ("platonic couple"? Lee and Kay definitely seem to be lovers; if Armond's referring to platonic in the sense of "ideal," then he's off there, too) and a groaner of a last line -- comes at the very end of a lengthy, rambling paragraph that 1) states Bucky and Elizabeth Short are "political animals [that] reflect the different choices available to denizens of the capitalist dream capital" only to 2) return to mentioning De Palma's subversion of noir tropes (with a brief allusion to "character psychology and social history") and 3) mention Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography that brings us into 4) a tangent on Robert Towne's Ask the Dust. Getting dizzy?

-- Bucky is drawn to [Madeleine Linscott] by more than duty; he's fascinated by Madeleine's toying with sexuality as he himself is split between Lee and Kay's sexual arrangement [what happened to "platonic"?]; he's intrigued with the dark side of his own libido and political duty. It's a familar De Palma theme, especially well dramatized in Body Double but [sic] that fantasy film wasn't based on a real-life horror. . . .

And on and on he goes, further showing off his complete understanding of the De Palma oeuvre by haphazardly bringing up Casualties of War and Greetings for no analytical or critical purpose.

-- There's every reason to view the Elizabeth Short tragedy consistently with our current tabloid involvement with crime and scandals. De Palma uses the past as a political mirror of the present. The issues of sexual exploitation, racial unrest, industry corruption, and police brutality still haunt us -- as much as Short's gruesome remains haunt Bucky. Our modern mortification is symbolized by the stuffed dog Balto that guards the foyer of the Linscott mansion.

Phonograph needle off the record -- we're stopping right there. What the fuck was that? We understand what Armond's attempting, but the way he goes about it leaves significant room for improvement. We'll buy that De Palma is satirizing both tabloid sensationalism and upper class decadence (the latter in the form of the Linscotts), but is it really a "political" act to wag a finger at the buying and selling of lurid sex scandals? Is it also a political act to portray the rotting American aristocracy in the most cliched cinematic terms? As for the stuffed dog . . . wow. We thought it just might be a symbol of the Linscotts' sheltered, ersatz existence, but whatever you say, Armond.

-- A frightening, grinning clown's visage is a motif from Paul Leni's 1928 The Man Who Laughs . . .

You know what, we can't go on. Armond White's Cineaste review of The Black Dahlia is so unwieldy, so ridiculous, so blinded to the film's flaws (only mentioned in passing; the New York Press review blames them on the James Ellroy novel that is De Palma's source material) and inability to follow through on its supposed "political" ambitions, that its thesis gets completely lost. Towards the end White goes into great detail about the Elizabeth Short screen tests and how the film uses them to reflect back to the viewer his or her relationship to the immortality of images and the fame and desire they provoke in their subjects and audiences. What's interesting here is that White thinks this morality play and Bucky's own moral dilemma are portrayed in a politically conscious manner, whereas the Brooklyn Rail's Sarahjane Blum thinks the exact opposite (and most certainly would scoff at White's typically unsubstantiated claim that the film's "careful exhibition of sex and violence . . . entails a feminist consciousness worth further discussion.") Both views about De Palma's glorious mess of a film (which we liked, by the way) interest us, but the difference is that Blum's argument can be followed and understood point by point; White's argument, on the other hand, is a collection of unelaborated salvaging that he takes for granted his viewers will accept wholesale. One more sample just to prove it:

-- No scene better displays the sick side of cinema's appeal than the moment police officers convene to coldly watch Short's foray into mid-century erotica. It's a strange scene of cops watching porn -- a bizarre deconstruction of authority, hypocrisy, and insensitivity. In this precinct, even an earthquake (symbol of a society's moral tremors in Altman's L.A. epic Short Cuts) is observed with nonchalance.

Repetitious, inconclusive, dangling. How does the scene deconstruct authority? Hypocrisy? Insensitivity? For all the words White wastes (thanks for the Altman shout-out, totally necessary), we never find out. Which is a shame, because we thought White's gushing enthusiasm over De Palma's unappreciated genius might yield a kernel of cinematic knowledge. When does the next Spielberg film come out?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

New York Press Review: "We Are Marshall"

Because his review(s) of The Black Dahlia (coming soon) interest us more, and because his ability to click off the critical radar so as to kiss some red state ass has now reached a career zenith, we have decided to forsake a traditional review in order to quickly but carefully translate and summarize Armond White's review of We Are Marshall paragraph by paragraph:

1. AW: Sports rabble-rousers have been a movie staple ever since the first Rocky flick when Hollywood discovered how easy it is to play on audiences’ emotions: appeal to their proletarian sense of justice and inspire ideas of virtue and, most of all, winning.

Translation: An explanation of the structure and basic meaning of a subgenre a month-old koala can understand. Not quoted above: A classic Armondism coined for this subgenre -- Jock Uplift.

2. AW: We Are Marshall proves that Jock Uplift can provide a pretty good template for dealing with social issues, showing how a person’s individual problems fit into a community model. In other words, demonstrating how ideology works—how people come to share and clarify basic ideas about day-to-day living.

Translation: Because it is pure, unadulterated schmaltz, I will find some sort of rationalization to commend this steaming pile of All-American Conservatism via advanced critical language.

3. AW: Although the specifics of this tragedy describe a local community, there’s no escaping that the large-scale catastrophe parallels 9/11: Average people were forced to bear shock, grief, loss, death and a lingering depression. There’s no disrespect in the filmmakers hiking-up the significance of Marshall’s crisis. They are right to do so—making the audience members share the experience, apply it to their own lives and learn something.

Translation: I am the corniest person alive.

4. AW: This movie does something special: It confronts the problem of America attempting to heal itself.

Translation: Culturally specific ritual of football = The symbolic healing process of the entire United States.

5. AW: Director McG, best known for the Charlie’s Angels pop-fests, uses the colorful emotional shorthand of commercials and music videos—a new lingo. McG has gone from no real emotion to dealing with genuine tragedy, but who’s to say he is any less equipped than the rest of us?

Translation: Who's to say the man responsible for discovering a subtle visual vocabulary to compliment the nuanced music of Smashmouth is unfit to convey real-life tragedy and pain?

6. AW: McConaughey is steadily becoming one of the most reliable and surprising American actors.

Translation: As opposed to unsteadily becoming.

7. AW: Keeping his head bowed, leaning forward when he talks to people, McConaughey combines an egotist’s modesty with Midwestern bonhomie. He’s cadging, attentive and fumblingly seductive—not unlike George W. Bush. McConaughey channels Bush’s deliberateness and stubborn, foolhardy optimism. By offering this idiosyncratic portrait of a local commander-in-chief, We Are Marshall dares present the shell-shocked American public with an alternative idea of leadership. Which public leader myth is true: Giuliani as “America’s mayor” or Bush as America’s coach? And which is the post-9/11 audience willing to accept?

Translation: Simple-minded moral conviction, no matter how calculating or destructive, should be bought as lovable, aw-shucks gumption. Not convinced? Then I'll force you to choose it from the false binary I set up between two uncomplicated media images.

8. AW: By proposing this option, We Are Marshall redefines the body politic in more substantive ways than its pop song soundtrack first suggests. Its restorative sense of nationhood may be unpopular among liberals, but We Are Marshall is good because it’s not propaganda; its regard of healing goes beyond 9/11 to the essence of American character. Listen at the way McConaghey urges a player to “Head-slap the shit” out of an opponent. Beneath its Jock Uplift formula, We Are Marshall is sly, hard-core Americana. It head-slaps the shit out of the divisive Borat.

Translation: We Are Marshall is a 9/11 allegory that's somehow apolitical, ostensibly transcending politics by gathering viewers of all different backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, religions, races, and, yes, political persuasions into its hegemonic fold -- "the essence of American character." See, even though I've refused to qualify what "the essence of American character" is in an attempt to sidestep the ideological ramifications of okaying an elementarily reactionary film's cynical plea to universalism, I nonetheless use it in order to shame anyone who disagrees with me. No propaganda here. No propaganda at all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Armond Dangerous Update: Our First Mention!

The word is out about Armond Dangerous, and our friends at the IFC Blog have done us the honor of calling us their "favorite blog of the moment." We'd like to say thanks, and also give a salute to the IFC Center for recently showing that beautiful new print of El Topo and rocking out with Inland Empire. See it nine times and go the tenth for free -- we're there!

Monday, December 25, 2006

New York Press Review: "Apocalypto"

We meant to write this post earlier, but the holiday season and family obligations stood in our way. Yet how appropriate that we should examine Armond White's review of Apocalypto on none other than Christmas Day, considering two years ago actor-turned-director Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ generated a firestorm of controversy regarding its possible anti-Semitic overtones, an issue renewed this past summer when Gibson was caught in an anti-Semitic rant during a DWI arrest. It's difficult, then, to speak of Gibson's work without addressing its critical reception. White does so unabashedly, getting immediately to it and stating his position on Gibson's detractors in no uncertain terms:

Mel Gibson’s press whipping for The Passion of the Christ was like no other movie vilification seen in my lifetime.

AW proceeds to do a couple of interesting things in following up on this bold opening statement. First, he backs his defense of Gibson's films by referring to and quoting extensively from the pro-Passion approval of Quentin Tarantino. Now, if you're familiar with his criticism you know White's not exactly QT's biggest proponent. While there's nothing wrong or hypocritical in agreeing with somebody one usually abhors, given the vehemence of White's judgments of QT this sure makes for one of the more fascinating cases of strange bedfellows, wouldn't you say?
The second tactic is less amusing and more disconcerting. An example:

Only viciously, politically-biased, anti-art pundits can deny that lately, with these two films, Gibson has been thinking in visual terms and putting most American movie directors to shame.

As Armond Dangerous reader Christopher Shinn has astutely written, "This is not thought, this is not exploration; it is a personal attack on those who seek to view Gibson's last two movies in light of his explicit and implicit anti-Semitic remarks. This is inexplicable for a critic who began his career championing the work of the oppressed." What strikes us as most egregious about AW's track is that even if one were to divorce art from politics and champion Gibson's directorial brilliance despite the questionable messages of his films, the work itself doesn't provide the platform to justify such a leap. After finally attending a screening of Apocalypto we saw hints of what White lauds in Gibson's aesthetic: storytelling as nearly pure visual expression. But that's it, just hints. A bit of Griffith and DeMille comes through in Apocalypto's traditionalist moral universe as portrayed in ornately detailed contrasts between decadent urbanity and harmonious naturalism, in finely realized scenes whose parallel editing structures both masters would have surely appreciated. But Apocalypto is also incredibly simplistic narratively (the last third of the film descends into a numbing and predictable chase) and in its understanding of ancient culture -- just as The Passion crudely (although, unlike Apocalypto, ineffectively) described Christ's final hours to cynically pander to the same audience instincts White harangues in his anti-Tarantino tirades, so does he reduce a dead culture to Hollywood cliches to offer the laziest lessons on human nature. Apocalypto is more thematically interesting in what it says about Gibson's worldview -- his obsession with martyred masculinity and the reactionary longing for a civilization uncorrupted by vices he associates with liberalism (that he's offered the tale as an allegory against the Iraq War complicates matters, though we're still suspicious of this claim for now) -- and contemporary audiences' desire to see it enacted in moving pictures. In his review White betrays a realization of these issues. But rather than address them as open to cinematic criticism and, dare we suggest, anthropological discernment, he spins them as wholly positive traits. Words like "simplicity" and "naivete" are associated with "natural phenomena" and "everyman plight" -- the political ramifications of Apocalypto disappear beneath White's awestruck reverence of Gibson's showmanship, just as the director most likely wants it. Or does White not mind? After all, from all evidence Gibson and White's moral and religious views are very much in sync. Since White confuses criticism of Gibson's politics with criticism of Gibson's film's politics, perhaps he also confuses the need to chastise critics (actually, reviews for both The Passion and Apocalypto were mixed, but has the evidence of a complex reality ever stopped this man from bombarding his readers with generalizations?) with the need to overstate Gibson's talents.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Armond White's Top Ten Films of the Year and Other Favorites

As announced in Indiewire's 2006 Critics' Poll:

Best Film
1. Broken Sky
2. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
3. A Prairie Home Companion
4. World Trade Center
5. Nacho Libre
6. The Promise
7. Infamous
8. Akeelah and the Bee
9. Bobby
10. Running Scared

Best Performance
Toby Jones, Infamous
Paul Walker, Running Scared
Chris Evans, London
Sook-Yin Lee, Shortbus
Marlon Wayans, Little Man

Best Supporting Performance
Laurence Fishburne, Bobby
Daniel Craig, Infamous
Sharon Stone, Bobby
Lily Tomlin, A Prairie Home Companion
Maria Bello, World Trade Center

Best Director
Julian Hernandez, Broken Sky

Best Screenplay
Douglas McGrath, Infamous

Best First Film
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel

Best Documentary
Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!, Adam Yauch

Best Cinematography
Alejandro Cantu, Broken Sky

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Armond Dangerous Update: Links

The furious posting rate for Armond Dangerous having dwindled over the last few days due to unforeseen busyness (not happyness), we've decided, as inspired by an anonymous comment-leaver, to tide over our ever-growing fan base by creating a new links section for Armond White-related web material (also the heading for the section -- see sidebar). There's some good stuff already, including interviews, anti-AW screeds, and even a couple of essays by the man himself, and we plan on adding more with each week. So dig in and fear not -- we'll be back soon with more The Armond Year in Review, new New York Press review reviews, and ongoing readings of The Resistance.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The 2006 Armond Year in Review: "Hostel" and "The Ringer" [By Way of "Match Point"]

2006 in the year of Our Lord began in wrathful judgment, with Our Man doing what he does best: heaping righteous indignation upon the cinematically wicked. The second issue of the NYP in '06 featured this opening salvo in Armond White's dual review of Hostel and The Ringer:

Watch your back around anyone who likes Woody Allen's Match Point.

Unfortunately, due to the hysterical nature of this comment, we decided not to heed White's advice -- and paid dearly for our naivete. While waiting in line for Match Point we were so sinfully desperate to sneak a glance at something -- anything -- from the film that we ended up staring longingly at the cover of the Jan/Feb issue of Film Comment (you know, the one with Scarlett Johansson sopped head to foot in rain). Arousingly distracted, we were easy pickings for the gang of elderly Jewish women who, in an insane fit of violence inspired by having just lapped up Allen's latest vision of immorality like mangy dogs slurping from a filthy puddle, jumped us, beat us silly, emptied our pockets and took everything that spilled out, leaving us with these chilling words: "The innocent are sometimes slain to make way for grander schemes. You were collateral damage."
We somehow still managed to see the film, with both the crones' and Armond's words echoing in our damaged craniums, any previous Allen fandom now circumspect as we mentally referred back to White's review while seeking out Match Point's images for clues to the complete disrespect for law, order, and the very foundations of Western society it obviously fosters in its susceptible viewers. Needless to say, we were quickly assured of White's rightness. Allen's brand of filmmaking is so insidious and seducing in its bourgeois voluptuousness that if we hadn't experienced the strange realization of Armond's warning we wouldn't have been aware that Allen doesn't critique class envy and materialist soullessness in Match Point -- just as he didn't in Crimes and Misdemeanors -- but that he actually promotes those very deficiencies while deceivingly selling it as a Dosteovskian/Dreiserian tragedy. Armond gets it:

Fascination with Allen’s routine murder scenario -- disguised as Wasp-envy -- proves [those who like Match Point would] willingly kill for the same class advantages.

And that's why we need this man, more than ever. We will no longer think of Match Point and Hostel as existing on opposite ends of the cinematic rainbow due to their far different generic parameters, themes, and aims. For now on we will link, no matter the stretch required to do so, Allen's ethical investigations -- taking place within posh settings, and therefore execrable -- with titillating shocksploitation in order to guilt it by association. And then we will revel in the underappreciated hypocrisies of tepid, unfunny gross-out flicks in order to prove our populist credentials. Oh, and we will come down on you if you get in our way:

Fans of Match Point should confess that they are indifferent to brutality, having sunk to the same level as extreme-horror punks.

Even Allen’s “sophisticated” audience is inured to such basics as emotion, soul, empathy. Hostel features vomit as ejaculate, pus as blood and butchery as fun. As with Allen, it’s just means to an end, a disavowal of humanism for the pleasure of killing. These movies can’t be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

But they can be blamed on craven audiences and their base, putrid souls, swarming movie theaters like maggots and doing unto us what we would never do unto them. We should have listened to Armond. We should have watched our backs. Luckily, we're now Armond-baptized -- we've learned our lesson and and have even been saved. At the very least, we'll never go to the Upper West Side again.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

New York Press Review: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

One reads Armond White's latest review, of Will Smith's "triumph of the human spirit" plea for an Oscar, The Pursuit of Happyness, and wonders in amazement how this could be the work of the same critic who also defends the conservative, capitalist fantasies of Spielberg and Gibson. But then one thinks back only three posts ago to White's "Places in the Art" article for Film Comment in 1984 and considers that White, like any critic, has his strengths and weaknesses, and that these might be informed by the fact that he's a religious (we're guessing, but pretty sure) homosexual (ditto) African-American. That's certainly not to say, in a stereotypical vein, White's critical reactions are predictable; rather, we can be sure his unique background makes him absolutely sensitive to particular subject matter and its cinematic representation more so than the average white heterosexual secularist (or even the average white attuned liberal film critic). One of those subjects is the African-American experience, and AW's Happyness review provides profound insight into a fellow African-American's misunderstanding of that experience as it pertains to nobody but himself. From what we've seen of Smith's previous efforts (and by the way, we, like Armond, are shedding our auterist skin for a moment to recognize that Smith is of such star power as to be the veritable creative force behind the projects he chooses to produce and act in, as in this case), it's clear the Fresh Prince has easily adapted to the structures and designs of the powers-that-be: if he ever had to adapt at all. We'd list his filmography and its overriding conservative theme, but we don't want to insult you. Unless someone sees it otherwise -- and of course we love debate -- we think most people would agree that Smith's take on the African-American experience is far from representative or progressive. So we agree with White. But unlike our look at his Inland Empire review yesterday, we won't spend as much time on this one, partly because we haven't seen Happyness and don't plan on shelling out eleven bucks to be granted that privilege (the theatrical trailer before Casino Royale gave us more than enough sense of this likely piece of dreck), and partly because it's so much more fun to pick Armond apart than to praise him. Nonetheless, some highlights:

[The Pursuit of Happyness is] yet another product of the Hollywood system, but this time with a personal message: I got mine, get yours.

. . . it has a pre-set, benign vision of privilege and luck -- a capitalist’s notions of grace.

. . . it cleverly sneaks-in [sic] bald-faced capitalist faith (and its concomitant indifference to the history of slavery and institutionalized racism) under the guise of sweetness and willpower.

Will Smith implies that the cities are now conquerable -- the Chris Gardner story is merely a brick in that public monument Smith is building to himself. Worse,
The Pursuit of Happyness suggests that the drive for success is what defines Americans. In other words, Smith is no longer merely a figurine fronting the Hollywood institution; he now owns a piece of the plantation.

Damn. Not only insightful, but well-written. Are we dreaming?!
If you noticed that we've included no room for a take on AW's dual review of Bergman Island and My Dad is 100 Years Old, fear not -- we'll be on top of it next week after we've spent time recuperating from a busy week and checking out those films at Film Forum.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New York Press Review: "Inland Empire"

On the eve of the new issue of the New York Press Armond Dangerous will take it upon itself (ourselves?) to not fall too far behind our man's weekly output. We have a whole year and career's worth of reviews to sneak up on, tackle, and pound into tender, black and blue pulp, so our desperate sprint to surprise Armond at the corner of 2006 and 2007 begins now. We still haven't seen Mel "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" Gibson's Armond-approved (we know that much) epic Apocalypto, but we've been familiar with David Lynch's shape-shifting Inland Empire since feasting our eyes on it at the New York Film Festival and are well-equipped to counter AW's muddled review.
Because this take on Inland and Lynch's new artistic direction exemplifies White at his boorish, self-righteous worst. It starts off harmlessly enough, likening the film to a sketchbook -- not a bad comparison given Inland's disparate, fragmented, piece-by-piece assemblage. Then White makes his true critical intentions known:

We've already seen similar sketches in such recent Lynch films as Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. That means the most fascinating thing about Inland Empire is the degree to which Lynch's personal cosmology (deliberately disturbing, if not off-putting figures and devices) has become an accepted—and expected—part of contemporary film culture.

Ah. As he does so often when confronted with cinematic experiences beyond his reassuring "pop" island, White flips the mirror around to ostensibly gauge a general critical reaction and then position himself in stubborn opposition. As we'll see, that position is incredibly shaky. Onward:

Since Lynch is releasing Inland Empire himself . . . it's clear that he has no shame about repeating himself. Lynch obviously depends on a devoted audience that is interested in his continuing oeuvre and the twisting of his mind. (These viewers are not perturbed by obvious silliness such as the rabbit-like characters who pop up here.) The film's gloomy title is an art-student's invitation to project: Come visit unreachable, far-off places; journey through someone else's egotistical labyrinth. As Dern's Nikki disintegrates into her newest film role as Sue, the adulterous murder mystery may possibly reflect back on Nikki's own professional and private crises. Still, Inland Empire must be taken in a relaxed attitude as Lynch's in-joke, a psychotic, Bosch-like doodle. It seems designed to confound newcomers as much as to delight devotees.

The first warning signs arrive when White states Lynch is "repeating himself." Those who think Lynch is merely treading over the same comfortable ground (if ever comfortable in the first place) with Inland must have, we can imagine, hallucinated a more linear, less experimental narrative while viewing the film so it could compute. Inland's complete disregard for convention is related to but far afield from the Orphic genre-bending nightmares of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and a critic that can't spot the former's radical aesthetic departure needs to get his or her (but his, really, we're talking about Armond) eyes examined. As to whether Lynch "depends" on a devoted audience, our cynicism isn't so advanced as Armond's to believe Lynch wouldn't do (as he has done) whatever he wants according to his singular artistic temperament. But are his devoted followers not perturbed by the "obvious silliness" of the rabbit family? We're not sure how obvious it is in the first place, since this very odd -- even for Lynch -- element of Inland seemed to us more unsettling than anything else. And we still haven't gathered a consensus as to what Lynch's fan base collectively thinks about it. But unlike White, who we guess doesn't know himself, we haven't made such presumptions.
The paragraph's worst presumption, however, is that the film "must" not be taken seriously. Why not? Every tactic White has so far used to relegate it to minor status won't wash and, judging by White's inability to meet a work of art on its own terms when it steps outside the boundaries of "pop" (except in special cases, like late Godard), we suspect this a move designed to get the critic off the hook of analytical responsibility.
White's next volley is to charge that Inland's digital video images "[look] like crap." We don't fully agree, although there is something to say about the general inferiority of dv to film, but fair enough. It's the next passage that absolutely kills us:

[Lynch] wants to hijack movie audiences and take them to the lesser realm of gallery installations and home-sketchpad-digital whimsies. But does the willingness of critics to gallery-hop make our film culture more sophisticated than in periods of truly revolutionary and controversial film aesthetics? Are we smarter because we don't question Lynch's confounding mannerisms the way critics once foolishly scoffed at Alain Resnais' magnificent Last Year at Marienbad or Ingmar Bergman's Persona? The real enigma of Inland Empire is how it seduces critics who ignored Julián Hernández's very beautiful and artful Broken Sky; they lack the confidence to see what's wrong when Lynch is simply being wacky as in Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

"Hijack." We remember White similarly employing the word "destroy" to describe the objectives of Lars von Trier in his review of The Five Obstructions. Such wild accusations make a name for Armond as a take-no-prisoners flayer of charlatans, but they also make for lousy criticism. Maybe it's our hipster naivete, but we refuse to attach filmmakers we dislike to such insidious aims -- to do so betrays a breakdown in critical skills, substituting finger-wagging for analysis. And again, White supposes readers automatically agree with the values he never qualifies. Even if Lynch does want to take audiences to the lesser realm of gallery installations and home-sketchpad-digital whimsies (just so we're all on the same page, Inland Empire was blown up to film and is being released theatrically), why is that realm necessarily inferior? White never explains his reasoning, so we remain in the dark.
But the main problem regarding the above passage is the confident presumption of an ignorant or short-sighted critical consensus. If you know your Armond, though, you know this sort of presumption is a regular occurrence. The hilarious thing about it apropos Inland Empire is that the film has garnered a host of different reactions and seems headed toward a much more unsure critical fate -- it's far too strange and alienating for the likes of Entertainment Weekly and only just interesting enough for even a Lynch supporter like J. Hoberman. But acknowledging that even devoted fans might be split about the film and the various paths Lynch has taken throughout his career (for example, us: we love Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, the Twin Peaks series and movie, The Straight Story, Mulholland but feel ambivalent about Wild at Heart and Lost Highway for reasons close to, but more complicated than, the ones Armond sets forth) would be to acknowledge an untidy critical landscape (and who says critics who like Inland ignored Broken Sky? Can he name just one?) impossible to make into a hegemonic monster. Instead, it's a veritable windmill.
The next paragraph discloses what has by now been apparent: White wants more pop to compliment Lynch's snap and crackle. That was the beauty of the Twin Peaks series, he says, until it got out of control with the weirdness. Finally, a good point -- we similarly wish that Inland had a bit more to hang onto character- and narrative-wise. But Armond somehow associates Lynch's freak-outs with a harmful artistic direction taken due to the influence of unnamed critical enablers. Let's only in passing call attention to his ridiculous, unsupported claim that The Straight Story and Mulholland were "unpopular" (they were actually his two most critically and financially successful projects since Twin Peaks, but whatever) and highlight this nugget of wisdom:

Lynch’s retreat into the arcane of Inland Empire betrays the revolution he almost started. Having already established his high-art credentials (receiving carte blanche that is denied even Matthew Barney), Lynch doesn’t run into the problem that his surrealist rival Brian DePalma faced with The Black Dahlia. Critics expect DePalma to follow Hollywood narrative conventions despite his constant subversion of them, while Lynch is permitted to make capital-A art. Fact is, Inland Empire’s conceptual obscurities are less enthralling than the latest DePalma and Barney.

Funny that White should bring up the facts. Fact is, we should support all artists receiving carte blanche and being able to follow through on their visions without interference. But the fact that Lynch apparently can (and does so independently, now distributing and marketing Inland himself) has no bearing on de Palma, who still chooses to play the Hollywood game. And critics are not the ones responsible for dolling out money or restricting artistic freedom.
Poor Armond -- his beloved de Palma will always be misunderstood while Lynch shucks about among the gallery-crowd, betraying "pop" principles (he showed so much promise with Eraserhead, which clearly demonstrated his adherence to a conventional visual language) and blocking the appreciation of more deserving filmmakers. In his review's last paragraph White (begrudgingly?) admits Lynch to be of talent and interest, but sees Inland as just falling short:

Here, an overworked Dern walks in and out of corridors, drawing rooms, soundstages, continents and time as if she and the maestro know exactly what they’re doing without divulging their intentions to the audience. It’s moviegoers who must compromise their entertainment standards.

White says "compromise," we say "meet halfway." White, due to a delusional belief in a wrongheaded critical consensus and his need to valantly stand outside it, refuses to walk through the worlds Lynch has created. His is a dishonest position, built on faulty assumptions and leading to nonsensical conclusions. We see through his illogic. And we plan to journey into Inland Empire again and again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Critiquing Our Critic

We here at Armond Dangerous aren't big on lists. This isn't an ice skating competition, it's art, and the ranking of expressive aesthetic works just doesn't do justice to their complexities as cultural products and creative statements. In that regard we're casting a wary eye on Time Out New York's "Critiquing The Critics" article, yet another serendipitous signal for the start of our blog but ultimately an unsatisfying exercise in cinematic simplification. Sure, we agree with some of the the panelists' collective decisions, especially in placing Village Voice hero J. Hoberman in the top slot, although others are downright loony (cinephobic Anthony Lane at number four!?!?!), but our main gripe is with the perfunctory format -- ratings instead of analysis, one-line, unattributed quotes instead of an illuminating dialogue about the possibilities and responsibilities of criticism. Armond White hit at number thirteen out of fifteen, but there's little constructive criticism in this placing. What makes him better than the unforgivable Rex Reed but worse than bland Stephen Holden? Time Out provides little insight into our man (at least Mark Asch's short critique of AW in the L gives one something to chew on), only reaffirming Armond Dangerous' commitment to actual in depth criticism. Of our critic.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"The Resistance": "Introduction" and "Places in the Art"

How strange it was to begin Armond White's The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and immediately read these words: "Determined to oppose the standard of journalism by which writers unwittingly support the system of privilege and oppression that hires them and constructs middle-class public opinion, I approached Film Comment editor Harlan Jacobson with the idea to permanently change my byline to 'The Resistance.'" We swear we had no idea about this -- that's the same name we chose to ironically -- knowing full well his oppositional tendencies and the title of his collection of essays and reviews -- "resist" Armond! An irony on top of an irony, and perhaps a good omen for the launch of Armond Dangerous.
Beyond this terrific coincidence, though, the introduction to The Resistance is a little fuzzy. After reading it, we still don't understand exactly what White's critical approach is, at least by his most direct self-assessment of it. He freely throws around generalizations and refuses to define his terms, and when it comes time to explain his righteous appropriation of the potentially explosive "resistance" as a one-word ethos for his criticism, he fails to come up with a new or exciting call to arms: "Resistance meant defying the standard 'objective' approach to art as innocuous entertainment. Resistance was also evident in artists who changed the norm of popular entertainment by making it reflect the country's variety rather than some conformist fantasy." Alright, but vague and certainly nothing new, even in 1984, when this collection starts. We can think of about a dozen critics occupying different places on the scale of relevance who also defied or defy "the standard 'objective' approach to art before, during, and after our man's time. Armond tries to set himself apart by first referring to his status as an African-American critic and then emphasizing his interest in and ability to trace the social and political ramifications of popular culture. Which is fine, except White makes exaggerated claims here in order to increase his importance, such as this doozy:

In 1984 Jesse Jackson ran for president of the United States, and I began writing for The City Sun. Both auspicious beginnings, they announced the most significant change in popular culture in three decades -- specifically, a new moment when Black Americans asserted their ideas in the political arena.

In this statement there's the questionable term "new moment": is AW saying that a change had come in the form of Black Americans for the first time asserting their ideas in the political arena in 1984, which of course isn't and wasn't so, or is he saying this was a new expression of such an assertion? We never find out, and our man leaves himself open to charges of misunderstanding history. And that's not even mentioning the self-inflating comparison between a presidential run by an African-American -- an enormous, publicly visible stride -- and his own initial Kael-heavy scribblings in a now-defunct newspaper.
Then there's the latter tract. We understand the importance of any cultural moment in history, but overvaluing one so as to increase the currency of criticism during that time seems foolish and unnecessary. Armond loves the 80s: "The Resistance chronicles cultural changes since 1984, the year Hollywood -- the institution representing America's consciousness -- woke up to the reality of nonmainstream expression." Woke up? Really? Nonmainstream expression had never infiltrated Hollywood before 1984? Never? The 60s fell into some cinematic black hole of irretrievable influence? We won't cite the mountains of evidence to counter this claim, simply because it's a waste of energetic typing and we're guessing most discerning readers can immediately smell the wrongness of Armond's hyperbole and know why it stinks.
Anyway, Armond's intro goes on to explain the thrill of his encounter with what he considers seminal 80s artists and works, from Spielberg to Morrissey to Charles Burnett to pre-Mo' Better Blues Spike Lee. There's a distancing from the "school of ecstatic culture writing" and a proud proclamation that "I tried -- always -- to search out and interpret the political secrets and emotional value of artists expressing themselves through resistance aesthetics." He charts the rise of African-American artists (although lets slip another brow-furrowing remark with, "It was a marketplace where third-world filmmakers competed with Hollywood" -- uh, what marketplace was that?), the cultural prominence of hip-hop, the urgency of his aesthetics-as-sociology approach -- all are thinly sketched. Perhaps it's unfair to thusly criticize an introduction, but one can't help notice, given AW's track record, a penchant for assuming the reader's agreement with his viewpoint and then not backing it up.
"Places in the Art" is another animal entirely. It's the first esaay in The Resistance, a fifteen and a half page manifesto of sorts on then current Hollywood representations of African-Americans, first published in the December 1984 issue of Film Comment. It's also too sprawling and complicated an essay to sufficiently discuss in a posting we originally wanted to keep at palatable length (so much for that!), but the basic idea is to deflate or else take to task the flawed portrayals of African-Americans, their struggles, and the issue of race in America as rendered in such middle-brow fare as Places in the Heart, Moscow on the Hudson, An Officer and a Gentleman, and A Soldier's Story. The contributions of Sidney Poitier, the films of Martin Ritt, and the persona and Purple Rain project of Prince are all singled out for their ability to resist -- that's right -- trite characterizations and simplistic understandings of society, and instead forge ahead with pride, intelligence, and astute reasoning with their truer visions of racial relationships and identities. "Places in the Art" is, dare I say it, the best piece we've ever read by AW, a full realization of the ideas only briefly alluded to in The Resistance's intro and an understandably upset voicing of African-Americans' invisibility or else problematic marginal roles in post-Poitier Hollywood. One great moment:

Usually present onscreen only as stereotype or efficient caricature, a black character is often hard to react to. Is the gang of punks in Dressed to Kill threatening -- apart from being Black? Is the film's screaming cleaning lady a comical Black hysteric or just simply frightened? In King of Comedy is Diahann Abbott a thief because she is Black or because some other motivation was left on the cutting-room floor? Are the killings of Frank McRae in Red Dawn and Scatman Crothers in The Shining plot necessities or racist conveniences? The stunted history of Black presentation in movies confuses most interpretations when the characterizations are sketchy or incidental. The past conditions us to have prejudiced responses that disrupt a film and make suspicious some filmmaker's [sic] intentions.

All pertinent inquiries. While White misses or fails to address certain points, most notably in his too ecstatic -- gotta practice what you preach -- celebration of Purple Rain and Sparkle at the expense of ignoring what it might mean that two of his rare endorsements of progressive representations of African-Americans might be construed as "African-American as natural song-and-dance man (or woman)" stereotypes (and the puzzling sentence "The objectification of performance in this setting seizes and vanquishes the aesthetic problem of beauty and appearance -- the last frontier of movie acceptance" and its subsequent explanation just doesn't cut it), for the most part his analysis is a still-needed commentary on how far not just Hollywood but also African-Americans working within the industry (his calling out of post-Live in Concert Richard Pryor and movie idol Eddie Murphy is spot-on) had and have to go in providing adequate depictions of a people that even at the end of 2006 remain the big screen's most conspicuous absence.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Do the White Thing

No, no, no, the title of this inaugurating post isn't a terrible pun putting across some pernicious racial agenda (although we readily concede our name is a terrible pun putting across absolutely nothing) -- it's actually an opening battle cry announcing the completely cinema-related intentions of Armond Dangerous, the new blog dedicated entirely to, as our subtitle puts it, "parsing the confounding film criticism of Mr. Armond White." Our goal is to gain a better understanding of this pop culture-minded, provocative, reactionary, often writing-impaired critic currently penning head-scratchers for the New York Press. Film- and culture-wise, who is White? What is he getting at when he admonishes critics (often labelled "hipster" or "smug") for unthinkingly lauding films with political agendas while he unabashedly defends the Bush administration from artistic attacks? How does he reconcile the hatred of one of his starred auteurs, Jean-Luc Godard, for another of his favorites, Steven Spielberg? Is White for real or fucking with his readers when he draws polemic lines in the sand such as his now infamous challenge: "It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans [Mission to Mars] does not understand movies, let alone like them." Is White the most courageous African-American critic at work today, or a moral conservative unwittingly selling-out to the system he rails against? Or is constructing such binaries an insufficient way of attempting to unravel the mystery of Armond?
Thus, our blog: we can't say we really like the nasty, superior tone and frequent sloppiness of White's writing, but it's damn fascinating and sometimes even possible to agree with. An incisive look into its rhyme and reason may not only make sense of the contradictions of our man's work, but perhaps even illuminate the contemporary state of American film criticism, the mainstream and intellectual strands of which White vehemently opposes or "resists."
Armond Dangerous will operate accordingly: once a week, after the New York Press hits local newstands, our blog will be updated with an analysis of the latest Armond White reviews or articles. This means, of course, having to obtain an informed opinion by watching a ton of the absolute crap (The Cat in the Hat or Little Man, anyone? Anyone?) White contrarily adores and champions, but we're that hardcore in our commitment to this project. The site will then devote the remainder of the week to catching up with White, going into the NYP vaults, scouring old City Suns and Film Comments, thumbing through The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and deepening our approach to all things White. So stay tuned and drop a line -- Armond Dangerous is as much a forum as a blog, and participation and communication is encouraged. God knows we'll need some help cracking this nut. No pun intended, of course.