Armond White"Films don’t fall out of the sky."
Back in 2007 I used to read a lot of movie reviews. Riding the subway to work I would cross check the weeks releases in The Village Voice, The Onion's AV Club, and eventually The NY Press, which is where I found Armond White. If a consensus or hive mind could be felt amongst these publications that reflected the tastes of the day, it was Armond's writings that would disrupt this balance, introducing a (negative) review of Toy Story 3 with reference to Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, or a declaration of Transformers 2 superiority to the Dark Knight. While I was of the mindset to embrace such perspectives, it was amazing to see that there was a platform and audience for such a unique take. It is for this singular point of view that I have continued to return to Armond's writing, and inspired me to ask him for this interview.
How did you get into movies?
I enjoy movies as most Americans do - or used to do. I grew up in Detroit in the sixties and movies were one of the cultural obsessions people had. It was the thing to do.The other night, I was watching “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and was thinking about how in the1960’s a foreign film like that was actually popular- it had a genuine audience(a real audience, not just readers who bloggers and reviewers presume follow their suggestions)who went to see it. Film culture at that period was so widespread people took movies and enjoyed movies seriously.They weren’t just considered as entertainment for young people.
Were you reading film reviews growing up?
I was reading pop music reviews during the late sixties with magazines like Cream, Circus and Rolling Stone. I didn’t really think about writing film criticism until I read Pauline Kael’s "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" in 1968. That showed me that one could write about film and popular culture in a way that involved real thinking and serious responses. One of Kael's gifts was that she was able to describe the experience of watching films in common, relatable terms.
Did you ever want to make movies yourself?
Yes, but not in a direct way. I wanted to make movies of my imagination- an extension of the movies I loved. Also, I didn’t have any access to a movie camera. But we did have a type writer at home, so I was able to write. I started out also as an art student but I found that writing was something I could do better.
Where were you writing?
I started writing for my high school paper. When I went to college, I studied journalism. I also took my first film classes in college- those were of incredible importance in terms of how I was able to learn about cinema, its history and its possibilities. I loved it.
You went to school in Detroit?
I got my Bachelor of Journalism degree in Detroit at Wayne State University. Then years later I went to ColumbiaUniversity School of the Arts, just a year behind Kathryn Bigelow, and studied in the History,Theory and Criticism track.
How did you end up at the City Sun?
Well,I went looking for a job that would use my Master's degree. Not many places use it, but I wanted to be a film critic so that’s what I pursued. The first writing employment I found was at The City Sun.
Could you tell me about The City Sun?
Well, it started in ’84 and it was published until ’96 I believe. Are you from New York?
No, I’m from Vancouver. I got out here around 2007.
So, yes, The City Sun was history by then. But had you been here in the eighties and nineties, you would have felt its impact. I’m not just being nostalgic, that really is the truth. This town took notice. The Village Voice's arts criticism was often just a response to The City Sun.
How did it set itself apart?
The history of black journalism, at least in New York is not illustrious. The people who ran The City Sun, Andrew Cooper and Utrice Leid were serious journalists. They knew that history,and were determined not to repeat its unfortunate patterns. I was fortunate to work there and happy to share in their mission to do serious black journalism.
How did they set out to accomplish that?
The motto at The City Sun was "Speaking Truth to Power." I still believe that’s what a critic should do- think about and analyze power, how it spreads itself and how it’s used in society. For me, The City Sun was the place to begin that kind of exploration because it was a politicized newspaper- it’s one of the reasons people read it.
Because it was a black owned newspaper?
It was a black owned newspaper and when you grow up black in America, you have to be aware of politics and how they function. You can’t escape it, you think about it all the time. That’s what The City Sun allowed its readers to do, to have a politically informed view of the world. So with movies, I didn’t see any point of writing to say if a movie is or isn’t fun. Who gives a damn? What it means and what it says and how it got on screen is what’s important to me.
Would I recognize your writing from like ’84 kind of in comparison to what I would read today?
I think I write the same. You always try to write better, try to improve, but essentially I have my perspective on things. That is the way I have always written. I have no interest in writing movie reviews just to write movie reviews. Certainly I have no interest in writing consumer advice reviews. I want to write about movies to express how I feel about them and to try to understand them better.
It’s your unique point of view.
I want to understand art, culture and understand my responses to it. The platform is to address the public and give them something to think about. The City Sun certainly allowed me to focus on this task and showed me that there is an audience and a place for that in journalism.
You wrote about music as well right?
I wrote a lot about movies and pop music. Just as the sixties were a great time for movies and music, the eighties were a great time for sure. I wrote about Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Madonna… It was also a great period for British pop music soI wrote about The Smiths, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, all the greats who responded to the politics of Punk. And other greats whose names are forgotten but should not be, like The Au Pairs.
You also wrote a book about Tupac, right?
Yes. During the 80’s and 90’s I read Melody Maker and New Music Express and was very fond of the way British music press operated. They also were producing books about pop music very quickly- journalistically. I wanted to try that with Tupac and thought his impact was an occasion for it. It’s not that he was my favorite rapper; he wasn’t. But when he was killed, there were strong responses. I wanted to explore, think about it and investigate.
You’ve written extensively about Michael Jackson as well. What inspires you to write about these figures?
Well, that's the basic idea of my first book "The Resistance".There were artists who were addressing political issues and human issues in challenging ways that the mainstream media didn't deal with or showed hostility towards. I’m interested in writing about artists who are intriguing in the way they deal with politics and human experience. Michael Jackson,is a major figure in that regard, probably the most maligned and misunderstood great artist in American history. He deserves to be dealt with seriously and respectfully.
I liked your series about his music videos.
Well, Music videos, during the eighties and nineties, was an important art form. It combined my two passions, pop music and cinema. I used to do a music video show at Lincoln Center, from 1992 to 2007. The last show was called "The Official History of Music Video," where I would select a number of videos I thought were defendable as cinema, as works of art.
What do you think of music videos today?
I think the Muse has moved away from music videos. They’re still being made but they’re not exciting anymore.Music video directors all just want to go to Hollywood at some point.There are some filmmakers for whom music videos are an ideal form and they don’t necessarily make a good transition to feature films. For instance, David Fincher, some of his music videos, particularly "Love Is Strong" for the Rolling Stones, are easily his best work.
How did you get involved in the New York Film Critics Circle?
Well, that’s where my heroes were. Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, John Simon... They were in that group and I wanted to be with them. WhenI had the occasion to meet Pauline and become friendly with her, she was friendly in return and sponsored me in my petition to be a member. I was voted in in 1987and it was just wonderful to be among them. When I became chairman for the first time that was a thrill, too.
What were your goals in chairing the Film Critics circle?
I attempted to bring to that group and the public an awareness of its history. For instance, when I was chairman in ’94, Godard made a film called JLG by JLG. He wasn’t a young man anymore and there was suspicion that he might be dying,and this might have been his swan song. I realized that in the history of the New York Film Critics Circle, he had never won an award.
And he had given you all so much to write about.
Yes. As one critic told me at the time,“Where would we be without him?” So I proposed to the group to give its first ever career achievement prize and give it to Godard- something they had never done before. It was a thrill. My entire time there I tried to make people aware of the significance of film criticism- to make people aware that films should be taken seriously and thought about seriously.
When do you feel like film criticism is at it’s best? When is it at it’s worst?
At its best, it’s personal response and an attempt to analyze how the film works. Articulating your own perspective rather than writing blurbs and press releases. I’ve been doing it for a long time and can tell you that a lot of movie reviews are just regurgitation of the press kit. A lot of people writing reviews perceive it as the glamour the fun of being a movie critic. All that results in are film reviews that are very boring, simplistic and sound alike. I wouldn’t bother to write reviews if I didn’t have something personal or different to say.
I often notice how you zero in towards the submerged ideologies of a film.
You know, I think a lot of times people don’t remember what ideology is. Ideology is everywhere. It’s all around us. Films don’t fall out of the sky. They’re made by people with feelings and ideas and agendas and it’s there in the films. To me there’s no such thing as just entertainment. I’m interested in trying to understand how well or poorly the filmmaker expresses their political and moral beliefs, whatever they are.
A lot of your writing in general railing against a liberalist ideology which a lot of “good films” lend themselves to.
Well, 21st century liberals control the hegemony; we’ve got a predominantly liberal-thinking film culture where the same sentiments are just repeated without much depth. Like this Italian movie screening I went to today, Marco Bellocchio's "China s Near", which was made in 1967. It’s all about a family involved in politics, but really all the characters care about is their own personal sex lives. I was thinking, this is so different from the kind of movies that are made today where characters are rigged to express facile political ideas, without admitting their true, personal concerns.
That sounds like Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. It’s May ’68 in Paris, but most of the movie is about this love triangle. It’s really honest to how the privileged experience politics.
Right. They can afford to skip out of politics when they please. They’re not really committed to anything except their own personal appetites. To me, this is what’s missing in so much liberal filmmaking. It’s just amazing to me to see these rich, overpaid people pretending that they’re struggling filmmakers with social commitments and then every year giving themselves prizes.
You’ve been an outspoken critic of the recent Oscars, particularly 12 Years a Slave and Selma.
Comedienne Amy Poehler, when she was hosting the Golden Globe Awards said it best: “Boy, after seeing 12 Years a Slave, I’ll never think of slavery the same way again.” Like, what did you think it was before? It’s amazing the way liberal critics fell for that movie, as if they discovered slavery, realized it was a bad thing, and they think that’s new. I mean what schools did they go to? What country were they living in that they weren’t aware of it? They’re patting themselves on the back for not previously watching movies about slavery. Congratulating themselves for not being "racist."