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.


Christopher Shinn said...

I may differ from the writer(s?) of this blog in that I think Armond White was once the most important critic in America -- trenchant, compassionate, and truly autonomous. There was always an uninterrogated perverse streak in his writing, but it only flared up on occasion, and I accepted it as the "remainder" of any great artist -- an unconscious element that cannot be integrated into an overall scheme of thought, that is split-off and essentially harmless, that does not destroy the overall intent.

That has all changed. I am convinced that Armond White's perverse streak has overtaken and infected what was so precious about his thought in the '90s. I wrote a letter to the New York Press to this effect this week; they published it in a brutally edited form which distorts its logic. I am reproducing it below in the hopes of adding to the dialogue about film criticism in America. We need great critics more than ever -- just as much as we need great art.

The edited version of this letter inexplicably is not available on as far as I can tell; but it's published in this week's print version.

* * *

To the editor:

Longtime and careful readers of the New York Press will know that I
have long defended Armond White in these pages. I am sad to say that
with his review of the latest Mel Gibson movie, I will no longer be
reading him. The slow degradation of White's capacity for critical
thought I began to note a few years ago is now complete.

In this review he states, "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." 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.

But this is only the latest in a long line of perverse statements from White that show a total lack of concern for the voiceless. Two of the most jarring for me are from his New York Press reviews of Michael Winterbottom's "The Road to Guantanamo Bay" and R. Kelly and Jay Z's collaboration "The Best of Both Worlds." He writes of the former that it is a "whacked-out piece of anti-American propaganda" that "condemns the US military for treating al-Qaeda suspects worse than the Taliban brutalized the Mideast." This implies that the US military is somehow justified in its brutality due to the supposed greater brutality of its enemies -- Geneva Convention and human rights be damned. Of the latter's critical and commercial failure, White writes, "Kelly's legal
and underage-sex troubles had flared so red-hot at that time, not even his prodigious talent was able to piss away the backlash." (To
understand just how appalling this statement is, one needs to know
that the sex trouble White alludes to was a video of R. Kelly urinating on an allegedly underage girl -- hence the otherwise
illogical "piss" reference.)

This is not criticism -- it is pathological narcissism rationalized in critical language, an arrogance that speaks to no one, opens up no new lines of thought, begins no new dialogues. Immature
anti-establishment positions like these aren't trying to speak truth
to power -- they aim to mock the concerned, embarrass the sincere, and intimidate the weak. To have seen such a great mind as Armond White's fall to such a pitiable low is one of the great tragedies of New York's cultural life.

Christopher Shinn
Lower East Side

The Resistance said...

Thank you for sharing in full what the New York Press inexplicably truncated. We agree with the points made in your letter, and have been just itching to get to White's Apocalypto and Road to Guantanamo reviews in order to voice similar concerns. A thought, though: we're still figuring out how this whole blogger thing works, but perhaps you might be able to post your unabridged letter on the site directly. If you wish, keep us informed as to whether you know how that might be accomplished. In the meantime, we'll be exploring the still-critical side of Armond in his latest review of The Pursuit of Happyness.

Christopher Shinn said...

I don't think I can post anything on your site directly, since you control it. But you should feel free to copy my letter and post it as a separate entry on your site, if you see fit to do so.

I also want to take a moment to tell you how thoughtful your critique of AW's Inland Empire review is. You locate the "healthy" strands of his critical thought amidst all of his distorted thinking. I may have given up on AW, but I am excited to see that you'll be "rescuing" what is still vital in AW's thinking, as a part of your larger critique.

Anonymous said...

Christopher Shinn,

What does Anti-Semitism have to do with Mel Gibson's APOCALYPTO? Have you seen Mel Gibson's last two movies?

-Steven Speilberg

Corey said...

I have just happened upon your blog and I enjoyed your insightful critique of Armond White's review of IE. Your points are too true, but I just wanted to take a moment to say that these kind of statements and this kind of biaised, vague, and poorly-positioned reviews are rife in popular media. The points you have made towards White are the same kind of points I want to make about almost every newspaper and magazine review around! I know little about this Mr. White but by the sounds of it he is meant to be on the forefront of film analysis and has quite a reputation, so I see the significance both of your blog and of the IE review critique, but nevertheless, Mr. White seems to me but a player in the cultivation of philistine, Leavisite, old-hat critical understandings of texts that these media are so damn good at. The real tragedy is that these people get paid.

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