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.