Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"The Resistance": "Class Clowns" [AW on WA, Vol. 1]

It seems like months since we last posted on our own creation. Sadly, due to an accumulation of work we've had to pay less attention to Armond Dangerous of late, forcing it into a relative state of neglect: there's a new New York Press out today containing three AW reviews, and we didn't even get to write about either of last week's. In other words, we're falling behind. We knew going into this project there was a strong possibility this would occur from time to time, though, and we're proceeding undaunted.
We're also using our lack of attendance at current Armond White-reviewed films to return to the pages of "The Resistance" -- it struck us after attending a ton of the "Essentially Woody" series (which only last week ended its run at Film Forum) that a couple of articles from AW's book explore the Woodman's films in depth. Now, from recent reviews of WA's films it's clear Armond not only hates the director with an intensity we find out of all proportion to the work in question but also that he doesn't even understand what Woody's doing. How else to explain Armond's complete misreading of Match Point's intentions, blaming the success-motivated immorality of the film's protagonist with Allen's and his audience's own values? This disingenuous critique had us in a wary frame of mind regarding two Woody-heavy (hehehe) articles Armond penned back in the day, the first entitled "Class Clowns," an article on WA's Radio Days and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle for the March '87 issue of Film Comment; and the second (to be analyzed soon) entitled "Simi Valley Aesthetics," a September '93 article for Film Comment on the Rodney King verdict and the decline in Americans' ability to interpret images, where The Purple Rose of Cairo is worked into the thesis.
"Class Clowns" gets some things right regarding Radio Days and the trajectory of Allen's work up to that point. Observing that in Radio Days "[t]here's no pretense, as in Hannah and Her Sisters, about the experience Allen is capable of authentically delineating or the lifestyle that infatuates yet eludes him," Armond contends that after the career pinnacle of Annie Hall "it was as if Allen made a gentleman's agreement to avoid being Jewish or, as a last resort, to satirize and patronize it" and that the films he shot until RD "were WASPier than films by the WASP, John Avildsen"; RD represents "Allen's return to what he knows" and is thus "a moral and artistic breakthrough." There's no mistaking RD's very different understanding of American Jewish identity as compared to most everything else in Allen's oeuvre, and what Armond calls the "homey/urbane dialectic of Radio Days, where ethnic foundations are regarded as respectfully as cosmopolitan expansion" can be seen in the film's contrasting milieux, of working class Jews dreaming through the WASP fantasies decimated via mass media (radio plays, game shows, etc.) and the behind the scenes fakery of pop culture where stars transform their own reality (often ethnic into WASP) to structure and promote these fantasies. In AW's words, "[Allen] understands his relation to the WASP world through a nostalgic but not nebulous reconsideration of its media-sanctioned allure." But one also senses White doesn't like anything messier as when between Annie Hall and Radio Days . . .

. . . Bergman and Fellini became touchstones for Allen, who wanted to make serious non-Jewish art so badly that in remaking Fanny and Alexander as Hannah [and Her Sisters], he misinterpreted Bergman's view of the Jew: an outsider and purveyor of magic who saves the WASP hero; Allen turned Bergman's Jew into the death-plagued insider whose infertility is cured by the WASP family! Perhaps working through that perversity allowed Allen to come back to his roots in Radio Days. He keeps the Jewish and WASP worlds separate, alternating memory with fantasy.

Armond does a few things here to reveal his hand, i.e., his complete misunderstanding of American Jewish identity and how entertainers have expressed that identity through humor. First, he passes over the strong possibility that Bergman's Jew is more of a cliche than Woody Allen's onscreen persona. Second, in saying that Allen "misinterpreted" Fanny and Alexander he unfairly blames (and himself misinterprets) the director for working in a proud Jewish tradition of ironic, self-deprecating comedy that allows the outsider (Allen almost never plays an insider in his films -- even within "insider" academic, intelligentsia worlds he remains dislocated and alien) to subvert uprightness and authority. That doesn't mean Allen's films don't often end up extolling upper-class privilege, but it also doesn't mean that they do so at the expense of their creator's American Jewish identity or his own individual character -- when Allen refuses to keep "the Jewish and WASP worlds separate," that's when the messy confusion, and often the hilarity, of colliding ethnic identities suffuses his best work (and even a "non-Jewish" comedy like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is sweet and funny without the galvanizing effect of such collisions.) When White suggests that confusion -- or "perversity," as he calls it in his skewed analysis of Hannah -- needed to be worked through for Woody to "come back to his roots in Radio Days" he either disregards or discredits the Jewish roots essential to the humor so inseparable from most WA comedies. White's oversight comes through in the very first line of "Class Clowns": "No one ever asks Woody Allen for a deeper accounting of his Jewishness; the needling voice and profile seem enough." What about the funny, Armond? Couldn't that be why so many people consider him a quintessential Jewish comedian and comic director? Sad to say, but it may be our man lacks an appreciation of Jewish humor and its ability to foreground and make absurd the difficulties of adapting to Protestant American society:

Once a stand-up comedian, Townsend chafes at the fact of ethnic stereotypes his Jewish colleagues often accept; he doesn't share their sense of ironic projection (which is what built Hollywood), where identity is submerged in other characterizations and your responses are detached. This detachment, the source of most media cliches and inauthenticity, has consigned ethnic groups to buffoonery or villainy on screen. Jewish filmmakers rarely subvert it even for themselves, which doesn't mean they are above swallowing and believing stereotype; just that they are reluctant to deny it . . .


[Townsend] digs at ethnic cliches to avoid the Groucho-mask compounding Woody Allen used in Take the Money and Run; that film accepted the established contrivances of Jewish comedians as their spiritual essence, and for Allen this was as much intellectual pretense as ethnic naivete.

And further on:

Unable to assume that making movies will automatically raise him in society, or speak well for his people, Townsend is forced to follow the modernist practices that have occassioned the best movies of the past thirty years.

It's insulting that White ignores a seminal tradition of provocative Jewish comedy (Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols) and names as his only other specific examples of Jewish films or filmmakers, aside WA, playwright Neil Simon and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It's also insulting that White can't comprehend the Groucho masks worn by Virgil Starkwell's parents in TTMAR as silly send-ups, as well as an homage to a legendary Jewish comedian, of the television convention of blocking out scandalized countenances (Allen's parents and older generation Jews appear with some regularity in his films, opposing the idea that he "shields" their ethnic identity.) But most insulting of all is the supposition that social- and class-conscious Jewish humor is the exception to the rule, whereas "A Black filmmaker can take nothing for granted." No filmmaker worth his salt can, of course. But luckily for those Jews who control the film industry -- just come out and fucking say it if you think so, Mr. "Which is what built Hollywood" -- they can raise themselves in society through the movies that submerge their ethnic identities, rather than make those identities the comedic sites of warring individual, cultural, and entertainment concerns. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that our last, sarcastic sentence, the essence of which Armond imparts in his analysis, cannot possibly tell the entire tale: throughout Hollywood history the conflicting forces at work for Jews both in front of and behind the camera have been incredibly complex, and they've produced as many subversive heroes (the Marx Brothers, Ernst Lubitsch, Eliot Gould) as effacing betrayors (those producers and studio heads for whom Jewish representation was forbidden and elided in their films.) All of which is to say that if Armond's smart enough to recognize the insidious values propelling the comedic persona of Will Smith and the progressive ones inspiring the renegade rebillion of Melvin Van Peebles, then he should also recognize the conflicted, not fully complacent, nature of Woody Allen's persona and project, not to mention the plethora of paths -- from honorable to "inauthentic" -- available to the "Jewish colleagues" his criticism pigeonholes. Except in "Class Clowns" Armond doesn't.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The 2006 Armond Year in Review: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. This aphorism has been reconfirmed for us while still in the nascent stages of Armond Dangerous, as evidenced by recent readers' comments -- when we take our man to task we're charged with malicious intent (including "hijacking") and when we agree with him every once in a while we're accused of letting Armond White off the hook. Which leads us to think of another aphorism -- you can't please everybody -- and the sense that our inability to pander maybe, just maybe, means we're on the right path.
But what of the suggestion that we must pick Armond apart even when we like what he has to say? That's a fair criticism, and we'll try harder in the future to look at "good" reviews as thoroughly as we do for the ones with which we have problems. But in our defense, things usually aren't as clear cut for us they were with the Dreamgirls review. Take what will surely one day be considered classic Armond -- his enraged review of the gargantuan smash comedy Borat. Read it? Okay. Now, after taking a moment to digest the humorless invective ("Borat is not funny -- except, perhaps, to 13-year-olds or people who imagine Cohen’s targets (that is, other Americans) as mortal enemies") and the childish name-calling that places him on an equal level, at least according to his own standards, with his object of derision (“'Ethnic-Cleansing' humor," classy), recognize the validity of what Armond's trying -- and we emphasize the word "trying" -- to say. Like his prose or not -- we personally detest the rant-style -- he's one of the few film critics in America to wonder at (via railing at) the political one-sidedness of Borat. That doesn't make the film any less funny, nor does it excuse Armond's starchy attitude toward satire that can't be redeemed by sickly-sweetness a la Napoleon Dynamite (that he can roll with Bunuel shooting the Pope in The Milky Way but not the broad-side-of-the-barn torchings of Borat we can only figure as a product of Armond's "real movies = old movies" equation that plays it safe regarding the Canon; his love of recent Solondz we're still working on); but it does make for a polemical questioning of what exactly audiences and critics alike found so affirming in Borat. Of course, Armond's ungenerous slant has Borat pegged as "divisive," even though people offended or turned off by the film are clearly not culturally marginalized or split apart from fellow Americans by its success. If that's the case, where was White for the Larry the Cable Guy movie? Nonetheless, Armond's criticism is that the Borat phenomenon reveals a strand of deep-rooted condescension and superiority among American liberals who lapped up the film's hi-jinks. Buried somewhere beneath his frothing vitriol, Armond's point may very well be valid. But we wish White could see how the film's nastiness might very well come from a healthy, collective feeling of resentment and exasperation of one political persuasion toward another. No rule states that pop culture -- or, for that matter, humor -- must be a "unifying force."

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

New York Press Review: "Dreamgirls"

Alright. We've now settled in at Armond Dangerous, having answered our backlog of comments (the ones that needed answering, that is), spoken our piece on the Armond White reviews we felt needed a challenge, and even tackled that silly "Better-Than List" that got everyone all in tizzy. Now it's time to get happy. Sorta.
At first we were in complete agreement with Armond's review of the atrocious Dreamgirls but couldn't understand why he was all worked up about it. Then we learned the extent to which people -- friends and co-workers as well as critics -- actually love this piece of garbage. And we were shocked, not so much that anyone could give a pass to the horrendous representation of music and history that Dreamgirls puts forth (if Forrest Gump proved anything it's that the American public will readily pay to view its own belilttlement), but that moviegoers -- you know, people who attend movies -- enjoy the barrage and din that Bill Condon and company pass off as entertainment. In other words, we're flabbergasted that human beings with functioning eyes and ears actually like Dreamgirls.
So this is one of those moments where we fully sympathize with AW's alarmist response to both an individual film and the general state of film culture (especially after seeing a near-double bill of Kansas City and Jazz '34, two films that at least respect the unbreakable bond between life and art.) "Sure," writes White, "Dreamgirls is basically a confection, but its core is soul-rotting." Amen. There's pretty much no moss- and slug-covered stone AW leaves unturned regarding Dreamgirls, so we'll just leave the terrific lashings to his prose except to point out the best line in his review: "Condon zips past the styles of the era without feeling (characters step out of a recording studio into—uh, oh—a race riot)." That's Dreamgirls in a nutshell, probing into the intersections of pop music and social change only as far as it gives itself the appearance of authenticity and a servicable background for the undistinguished, synth-drenched, Broadway-bland numbers that only allude to the feeling of the real-life moments of musical bliss that supposedly provided the film's inspiration. We love that White can point out and mock the Dreamgirls' pretensions in a single sentence -- it's the critical equivalent of a well-rocked solo.

Monday, January 8, 2007

New York Press Article: "Better-Than List"

Long live hyperbole!
Yes, it's the beginning of January, the time when critics and pundits look back on the calendar year that was and pronounce stern judgment on the feats, flops, and fickle trends defining the cultural landscape. And who better for such a seasonally predictable task than Armond White, that wonky bullshit detector always ready to take out films both deserving of demotion (Babel, ugh) and those really just a speck on the ass of badness, if bad at all (Three Times), comparatively placing in their stead the overlooked (yes, we admit, nobody talked of Broken Sky) and the facetiously-pretending-to-have-been-overlooked (World Trade Center).
Look, we're a little amazed and nervous that relatively so many people are interested in our take on Armond White's "Better-Than List." We don't want to let our readers down, but as we've pointed out before, we have little interest in lists -- they're reductive and calcifying, and, as Andrew Tracy, Mark Asch, and others have duly noted, they bring out the worst in a critic like White prone to the sort of extremist positioning that while temporarily incendiary really provokes little critical thought in the long run. So if you're interested in thorough analysis of the films White mentions we suggest searching for his original reviews. Not that the "Better-Than List" doesn't contain some veritable LOL moments, as when Armond:

-- subtitles his article "The 2006 smackdown [Jesus Christ, what is this, a wrestling tournament?] deflat[ing] this year's hype-bloated productions" and then lists among his cinematic correctives World Trade Center and A Prairie Home Companion.

-- says about Broken Sky, "Julian Hernandez's existential love story proved Mexico held the heart of cinema in 2006," even while failing all year to mention Carlos Reygadas' tremendous Battle in Heaven. Not a fucking peep.

-- earnestly pens these words: "But Oliver Stone's film was a great act of empathy and facilitated catharsis. Those who saw it were healed . . ." Even only a week into January this is the Armond White quote of the year.

-- ends his comparison of The Promise vs. Letters From Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers with, "It's 'The cinema I love" vs. 'The cinema I don't want.'" Wouldn't that make a perfect title for a career-spanning anthology of White's writing?

-- counteracts Army of Shadows with non-retro Changing Times. Aren't seemingly similar but qualitatively different films being juxtaposed? (Oh, and we think AW meant " . . . critics and audiences running away from the political present, seeking the moral clarity of WWII" instead of "the safety and security of WWII." The second World War probably wasn't too safe and secure for that many people, but what do we know?) Something tells us Armond failed to bother with the film event of the year, if not decade: the Museum of the Moving Image's screening of Jacques Rivette's legendary thirteen hour-long 1971 magnum opus Out 1. White's loss.

All in all, some good, unintentionally funny stuff -- we needed a frivolous offering after the heaviness of the last three postings. Armond, we can always count on you.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Armond Dangerous Update: The Fast and the Furious/New York Press Review: "Children of Men"

Things here at Armond Dangerous are moving fast and furious. Not only are we receiving more comments than ever before and having a difficult time responding in kind (don't worry, Mark Asch, we'll get to you soon), we're also receiving more notice. Why, just last week The Reeler gave us a major holler and then, with the release of the new Press and Armond White's "Better-Than List" therein, did so again yesterday.
But The Reeler and others (such as GreenCine Daily and Mr. Asch at the L Magazine) who want to hear our say about the "Better-Than List" will have to wait a bit -- we just attended Children of Men for the second time Wednesday evening, and since the film is fresh in our minds we'd rather look at Armond's New York Press review of it. This is one of those cases where we don't quite know what to make of AW's decision to review a film after most critics sent out copy. Of course, critics can write about films whenever they want to (Jean-Luc Godard once suggested -- to Pauline Kael, no less -- that critics might think of reviewing films while they're in production), but Armond does this often, and sometimes we wonder if it's in order to gauge a critical consensus and then form his opinion in reaction to it. This is pure speculation, but we know others have wondered the same. Anyway, White's opening paragraph:

Alfonso Cuarón is not a virtuoso, although his Children of Men style might convince the politically obtuse that a decorative illustration of their social alarm is a visionary achievement. Below the garish surface of this paranoid fantasy lies political antipathy -- not the sort of soulful detritus of Tarkovsky's Stalker tableaux or Spielberg's hallucinogenic War of the Worlds, but Cuarón's cheap specialty: fashion. By distorting contemporary social fears into facile apocalyptic imagery, Children of Men does little more than rework the ludicrous, already-forgotten V for Vendetta.

Just because it stuck out to us, we'd like to address White's use of the word "hallucinogenic." Where were the Press editors on this one? According to the American Heritage Dictionary "hallucinogenic" means "a substance that induces hallucination." Does AW mean to say War of the Worlds causes its viewers to see or hear things that don't exist? We haven't learned of anything like this happening with Spielberg's film, although it would be pretty neat. We're pretty sure Armond meant "hallucinatory," which means "of or characterized by hallucination," instead of "hallucinogenic" -- it's probably a minor mistake, but it says a lot about the Press' editorial overview and White's tendency to play fast and loose with language.
White establishes in this opening paragraph what he thinks of Children of Men's aesthetic: a "style [that] might convince the politically obtuse that a decorative illustration of their social alarm is a visionary achievement," "below the garish surface of this paranoid fantasy lies political antipathy," "fashion," "facile apocalyptic imagery." In other words, shallow filmmaking imparting false ideology. How does this work?

Here, Cuarón uses the canniest youth bait -- focusing on the near-future.

Huh? How's that? We're not sure what age demographic White is referring to with "youth," but we know "near-future dystopia" films like Strange Days and Gattica flopped across the board. And did Spielberg "use the canniest youth bait" by "focusing on the near-future" in Minority Report? Without following through on this statement, AW goes on to explain Children of Men's machinations:

Instead of the cartoon jokiness that vitiated V for Vendetta, Cuarón caters to cynicism about global conditions. Those who felt that the world slipped away from them after the 2000 presidential election and later with the events of 9/11, will see their dread visualized here. Journalist Theodore Faron (caffeine-haggard Clive Owen) embodies their fear and sanctimony as he traverses the trash-strewn, gang-filled streets of Cuarón's London, walking past neo-concentration camps, evoking WWII or Bosnia or the United States-Mexico border—take your pick. He's witness to sly evocations of both al-Qaeda terrorism and Homeland Security crackdowns, and underground rebels abduct him and ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore)—who may be either illegal-immigrant freedom fighters or fascist henchmen. But then Cuarón adds a sanctimonious twist: a mock virgin-birth by a Third-World woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), whose delivery and protection becomes Theo's neo-white man's burden. You can't get more Lefty sentimental than that.

Ugly ending, echoing the same one-liner that capped the previous paragraph. A good review doesn't necessarily have to be smoothly written, though, and Armond makes some good points. Or does he? We're not sure how Cuaron "caters to cynicism about global conditions" any more than Spielberg (since White's the one comparing Children of Men to War of the Worlds and Minority Report) caters to the public's fear of large-scale catastrophe and of government surveillance. Both filmmakers seek to create cathartic, thought-provoking entertainment inspired by traumatic events and controversial issues, only the latter gets the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions while the former is deemed opportunistic. In fact, the word "cynicism" seems somewhat inappropriate in this context considering one of Children of Men's themes is how "faith" wins out over "chance." Granted, it's a simple theme, not incredibly well-developed, but it still offers a vague hope against the vague cynicism White suggests. The ostensible evidence supporting this suggestion is that Children of Men visualizes the dread of "those who felt that the world slipped away from them after the 2000 presidential election and later with the events of 9/11." Alright, but how? Armond ticks off a list of the film's evocative imagery, making it sound jumbled and not thought-out. Which it very well might be -- a solid case might be made for that -- but AW never spells out how except to throw out the adjective "sly." Earlier another adjective, "sanctimony," was used to describe Theo and, presumably, liberals whose qualities he embodies, but no explanation is made as to how this is so, no examples of Theo's behavior or worldview being provided. The description of the film's blatant Christ symbolism as "sanctimonious" is perfectly apt, however, which got us on Armond's side for a moment until he blew it with that "neo-white man's burden." How is Theo's redemptive heroism any more of a "white man's burden" than Ray's in War of the Worlds? White yet again fails to back up his statements.
Now, we understand that due to space constrictions reviewers don't always get a chance to expand on their ideas. But a little more than half the page on which White's piece ran in this week's Press featured a production still from Children of Men featuring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore -- including the enormous pull-out quote and the margins, White's review takes up only about a quarter of a page. Did the Press force this short review on Armond (who also got a full page spread for the "Better-Than List") or did Armond just phone it in? We'll never know.
And we'll never know -- unless he chooses to elaborate on it elsewhere or at some late date -- what exactly Armond means when he describes Children of Men's aesthetic as "resembling the surreally distanced, uninterrupted viewpoint of a videogame." Which videogames? Certainly not first-person shooter videogames (which Elephant mimics at one moment in order to make a connection to the fps games the teenage killers play at home) because the film's celebrated long takes are not pov shots. The long takes' panoptical surveys -- with action occurring on multiple planes and often disappearing beyond the scope of the lens -- would only resemble videogame aesthetics for the most unsophisticated and -- dare we say -- cynical viewer. For one thing, the moviegoer cannot interact with the image in the same way a videogame player can -- an obvious point that White conveniently ignores. For another, the film maintains spatial integrity in presenting and exploring its realistic environments, an integrity that stands in sharp contrast to the comic book nonsense of V for Vendetta, the film that Armond White compares to Children of Men without properly explaining thier distinctions. It seems to us that Elbert Ventura of Reverse Shot has far more interesting points to make in this regard:

It's somehow telling that two of the best films of the year are defined by death and the long take. Both Children of Men and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu capture man's dilemma eloquently, pinning him to his environment without the respite of a cut. Tracking death—of one man in the former, of the human race in the latter—both movies express with unique power the inescapability of the physical world. This anxiety about the world we live in is further illuminated by a pairing with a natural partner: V for Vendetta. An incendiary piece of agit-pop, that film stages its call for revolution in a recognizable dystopia, much like Children of Men does. Ghosts from our pixilated nightmare populate both: detainees in black hoods, snarling dogs in prison camps, martyrs calling for revolution. V for Vendetta's irresponsible politics finally complicate its critique. Children of Men, on the other hand, charts a path to the future that looks depressingly familiar. Cuarón makes us see how we can get there from here.

The last lines (especially "depressingly familiar") would only seem to confirm Armond's ideas about liberal "sanctimony" even as they go against his point that "Children of Men never explains how the world got this way and so its dread is convincingly sophomoric." In one sense, White is right here: Children of Men's scenario -- that women for eighteen years haven't been able to have babies -- doesn't account for the details of civilization's decline into anarchy and, in Britain, an isolated police state. This insufficient understanding of the causes of "social collapse," one might argue, proves Armond has unmasked "Lefty sentiment" which wants to see its worst nightmares and thus its righteousness about the "exagerrated state of the world" realized and confirmed in the most simplistic cinematic terms. But when Ventura states Children of Men's aesthetic "express[es] with unique power the inescapability of the physical world," he complicates this notion by giving deserved credit to Cuaron's directorial approach. What sort of entertainment is Children of Men? The film's violent and decayed surroundings (the film begins with a terrorst bombing, with a person stumbling out of the wreckage burnt and armless) surely aren't meant to be experienced in the conventionally thrilling way V for Vendetta's superhero fantasy is. If anything, Children of Men has much more in common with a blockbuster like War of the Worlds, a big-budget film steaming with death and despair. If wanting to be honest with oneself, one would recognize that these films, while trafficking in the sort of "thrill-ride" format palatable to mass audiences, sternly question that mass audience's relationship to spectacle by creating a realistic experience of violence, death, and survival. That's a responsible, perhaps even "political" strategy far from the "game" pejorative Armond levels at Children of Men.
But White dismisses this line of inquiry, upset as he is over the film's political iconography:

The political antipathy of Iraq war protestors and War on Terror skeptics is what drives this pretentious action flick. It panders to a decadent yearning for apocalypse as if to confirm recent fear and resentment about loss of political power.

Iraq war protestors and War on Terror skeptics don't corner the market on a "decadent yearning for apocalypse." Audiences of all stripes have for decades been getting their eschatological jollies from films Left, Right, and in between. But if Armond White despises Children of Men because it alludes to contemporary issues from a liberal perspective, that's his business. In failing to critically evaluate the means by which Children of Men boldly does so, however, he not only cheapens the discourse on a genuinely provocative, if compromised, film, he also fails to generate a cogent discussion on the ways in which cinematic aesthetics, politics, and representation actually work.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The 2006 Armond Year in Review: "Final Destination 3"

Sometimes it's almost too easy.
Never have we spotted a more perplexing case of critical schizophrenia than Armond White's lauding of Final Destination 3. Six years earlier White panned the first Final Destination in the following terms:

Sadly, I realize there is consensus for this type of flippancy. Conversely, the consensus blindness regarding Mission to Mars indicates a cultural crisis. The new teen thriller Final Destination gets flip about death, as Mission to Mars does not. Director James Wong uses the new shock f/x of Super Real Catastrophe seen in the car accidents of Meet Joe Black and Erin Brockovich to jolt rather than insinuate fear or reveal squeamishness. The plot of a psychic teen Alex (Devon Sawa) trying to outwit fate becomes a series of Rube Goldberg death rallies, staged bluntly, not cleverly. When Alex's classmate (Ali Larter) recalls her father's death, it's a bland recitation without being strange or evocative like Phoebe Cates' in Gremlins. And though minor characters all have the names of movies figures associated with horror films -- Lewton, Browning, Wiene, Schreck, Hitchcock, Chaney, Murnau, Dreyer -- it's fake sophistication, disgracing a grave, poetic tradition.

Yet regarding FD mark three:

Director James Wong displays genuine cinematic inventiveness. Having obviously studied DePalma [sic], Wong makes good use of screen space and split compositions, and times the chain-reaction, fatal-accident relays with snap and gallows humor. The Final Destination series is all about spectacle—the only thing we know this side of death—which means its violence is stylized, where so many other youth-targeted movies . . . present it with tactless brutality. Final Destination 3's unexpected visual wit—it is a live-action Road Runner cartoon—distinguishes it from those grind-house flicks, making it fascinating and defensible as pop entertainment.

If this isn't an about-face . . . Even were one to defend this bizarro self-contradiction by pointing out distinctions between the first FD and the third (of which there are practically none) that our man remains brilliantly sensitive to, well, that wouldn't help because AW now seems to approve of the entire series. Not only that, he's favorably comparing the third to his immortal De Palma, whereas before he contrasted Final Destination's "flippancy" about death with Mission to Mars' "emotionalism." Did director James Wong spend countless sessions between FD installments studiously viewing MtM (a la Orson Welles obsessively watching Stagecoach while making Citizen Kane) in order to properly infuse the franchise with De Palma's moral gravity?
Consciously perpetrated or not, what Armond's flip-flop tells us is that the man might want to have it both ways. When Mission to Mars gets unfairly bashed he runs to the rescue by chiding the culture and media at large for ignoring its humanism in favor of titillating exploitation like Final Destination; when the FD series fades (relatively) into the cultural background he backs it so as to offer a "surprising" reading of its b-movie subversiveness to combat high brow critiques like A History of Violence and Match Point, as well as real titillating exploitation like Saw and House of Wax. But Armond's switcharoo is also a moralistic move:

And here's where Final Destination 3 takes one by surprise. It rejects cool for comic horror. That may sound like the flip of Munich, but it's still essentially humane because it recognizes dismay as an honest response to death. Sensitivity comes through in the reflective moments when teens Kevin and Wendy (Ryan Merriman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plot to cheat death. These innocent-looking highschool seniors have witnessed the decimation of their classmates at an amusement park and then await—and attempt to outwit—their own fates. One clever scene announces the presence of the Grim Reaper with the image of a Ramones bobblehead doll. This connects with a student's brave boast that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, man," which is made prior to boarding a rollercoaster (the film's first scary set-piece). Pop-Nietzche [sic -- is AW or the Press to blame for these embarrassing typos?] and pop-nihilism have been swallowed whole without real comprehension by the characters. In permitting audiences to see the irony of its protagonists' youthful flippancy being expressed moments before they die, Final Destination 3 offers a message.

According to Armond, FD 3 warns its audience and its audience's on-screen surrogates not to be so damn flip about death. It's almost as if Armond offers FD 3 as a corrective to the first two films' lack of self-reflexivity, except that he doesn't explicate any change in the direction of the series from film to film. He also seems to like his moral instruction served cruel and unusual:

Despite its domino-effect game quality, the film startles us into awareness about modern culture. It'll be hard to top the comment on sexist consumerism and teenage narcissism made in the sequence where a tanning salon bed becomes a sarcophagus. Its climactic image—a phosphorescent close-up of a nude hottie in eyeshades, her mouth open to scream and her tongue pierced with a sex stud—is like a Polaroid snapshot capturing contemporary degeneracy. It's eerily fatal and fantastic—a death-fixated version of a Warhol silkscreen.

So now we know: "contemporary degeneracy" equals tanning. And the lurid punishment of female sexuality so essential to the reactionary strand of the horror genre in which FD 3 thoughtlessly (but extremely effectively) participates equals an "awareness about modern culture." What's sad is that Armond connects FD 3 to Munich via their similar goals of "preserv[ing] human values" and "want[ing] audiences to be appalled at violence." Munich's complex (although often problematic) (re)presentations of violence as spectacle might warrant such words, but given FD 3's simplistic moralism we're not as willing as AW to twist ourselves into critical knots in order to give this film such heft. Especially after we felt the exact opposite about its nearly indistinguishable predecessor.