Monday, March 26, 2007

New York Press Review: "Pride"

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

New York Press Review: "The Wayward Cloud"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

New York Press Review: "Zodiac"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2007

New York Press Review: "Amazing Grace"

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