Whitewatching: Armond on Pauline Kael’s legacy

"You know I'm right, hipster."

For those of you who have been wondering what the heck happened to Armond White (his last review in the New York Press was published on August 24th), I believe I’ve found him. (And by “I’ve found him” I mean that somebody else found him, and I was lucky enough to catch the link they provided.) It seems that White has been busy writing for City Arts. No need to ask which city. It’s obviously New York, New York, the only town that matters culturally — ask any New York film critic. His most recent feature articles was a panegyric on his mentor/idol, Pauline Kael, whom White describes in his first sentence as “America’s most distinguished film critic.” The retrospective is prompted by a recent New York Film Festival panel and a couple new books on the infamous maven. White asserts, in his inimitably imperious style, her continued relevance to film culture:

“Kael’s revival is propitious because there are now generations of people who don’t know what criticism is. They’ve pacified themselves sucking Roger Ebert’s thumbs, unaware that an honest, intelligent response to art (and not just movies) has nothing to do with numbers, grades or tomatoes. Desperate for groupthink, not Kael’s educated individuality, millennial mobs see art (and that includes movies) as less important than consensus; movies become fashion statements or confirm one’s status. Audiences have lost the feeling for revelation and challenge that vital pop art once regularly provided.”

Coincidentally, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis recently had a back-and-forth on Kael over in the NYT. Once again, Scott finds just the right words for Kael’s legacy, and inadvertently supplies an epitaph that would apply just as equally to White himself:

“You will search Kael’s collected work in vain for a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles. The Library of America volume is an anthology of hunches, prejudices, preoccupations and reactions. But that is what makes it so lively, and what makes Kael such a thrilling and vexing writer even now, when the particular movies she wrote about have either faded into semi-oblivion or been granted safe passage into the canon. She will not lead you to correct positions, but she is an example of the right way to do criticism, which is with everything you have.”

I’ve read quite a bit of Kael. She strikes me as the kind of person who would unblinkingly call you a blockhead for disagreeing with her and airily dismiss your protestations seconds later when you point out that you were echoing a principle she had articulate with fiery conviction only a few years earlier. As Scott says, her criticism is utterly alive, even if it is often infuriating. But I’d rather be angry than bored. White has this to say about Kael in another article:

“We are obliged to follow Kael’s best instincts and oppose, as she did, the herd mentality and overweening hype that ignores and overlooks the actual content of art. I’m OK with appreciating Kael’s writing as literature, but I cling to it as thinking.”

The most fundamental mistake people make about Armond White is the assumption that he’s in the game sheerly for notoriety. He’s not. He’s in it because he honestly believes that he is The Last Sane Man, and he will do whatever it takes to make his voice heard, even if that means being shrill, overzealous, and arrogant. He wants people to confront their own assumptions, and if it takes nigh-schizophrenic tautology to make that happen, so be it. White is frequently dead wrong (or incoherent), but like Kael’s, his writing is vivacious and informed by an uncompromising, scintillating intellect. There are few film critics who take such over pride in their own passion for the medium, and frankly, I’m glad that I finally found where White has been roosting. Here’s hoping he doesn’t jump ship again too soon. I have a bit of catching up to do.

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

10 responses to “Whitewatching: Armond on Pauline Kael’s legacy

  • Craig Simpson

    Well, we disagree on White. He used to be a better writer, but in recent years I’ve found his Mad Libs-style prose borderline sub-literate. Combine that with qualities of general boorishness and dishonesty (his lies about his writings on Baumbach, his about-face on “The Hurt Locker”) and there’s nothing I find worth reading, so I don’t.

    Kael is more complicated, and I often find myself in the position of defending her, which is strange considering I find much to dislike. It’s become fashionable to cherry-pick a couple of critical remarks from an overall glowing Kael review and pretend that the entire review was negative. (See Glenn Kenny on “Taxi Driver.”) Her writing had energy and nuance and those qualities are missed in film criticism today.

    What I didn’t like was her rigid, intractable view of what a good movie should be (“Movies are about giving pleasure,” yawn), her dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it approach to debate. Paul Schrader said that you couldn’t agree with her too quickly or you lost her respect, but if you disagreed too strongly or too often she dismissed you from her sacred inner circle. Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek are a pair of former Kael acolytes who are immeasurably better writers than White, but whenever the missionary impulse takes over their work I tune out.

    • mjschneider

      I like both Zacharek and Taylor quite a bit. And I get the disrespect for White’s style, since there are many, much better film writers out there. I just find his absolute inflexibility to be fascinating, and I do find a lot of what he says to be genuinely insightful. I think the weaknesses you described (or, rather, Schrader described) with Kael have been exacerbated by White in his own writing. I dig Kael’s passion. If she were still writing, I’d probably be a regular reader. The fact that a lot of what she said was baffling in its arrogance and presumption is part of what makes her intriguing to me. I’m not sure why it is that these writers fascinate me, but they do. Maybe I just like the fact that they’re out there on a limb, spitting into the wind that threatens to tear the branch off the tree. I wouldn’t call it “brave,” per se, but it’s a little bit mad, and I guess there’s a bit of a visionary streak in that kind of madness.

  • Craig

    I get that. For me, a big part of what separates them is humor. Armond is never, ever, in a million years funny, while Kael was always funny. (Zacharek and Taylor can be pretty funny, too.) Her review of “Rambo II” ends with a bizarre detour into the film’s novelization, which Kael reports as including a detachable form to order the weaponry from the movie. “I can hardly wait for my set to arrive,” she quipped. Armond’s more of an Old Testament prophet, or at least that seems to be how he sees himself; his claims are so specious, though, that anything he says is strictly apocrypha.

  • Satish Naidu

    I think, in this age where quite a few prominent critics turn up bland stuff, Armond White is, if not anything, at least interesting. Like for instance – Ebert claimead in his SALT review there’s nothing there to review, while White dropped his usual political bombs. White is one of the few critics I did constantly read.

    And thank you Matt, I have been looking for Mr. White for a while now.

    I have read precious little of Pauline Kael, and some of her opinions have arrived at my laptop only through the filters of Jonathan Rosenbaum, and some other essays, most notably the New York Time Out piece. But I do read Stephanie Zacharek regularly, and although she’s often capable of outright brilliance (her last paragraph on Martin Scorsese in her review of GANGS OF NEWYORK a fine example), she is more or less bland with a critical strategy that is increasingly redundant these days – attacking the plot and an obligatory dish at the “style”.

    Guess I need a provocateur or two..

    • mjschneider

      White has his own formula, too. Maybe not in terms of structure, but he does tend to hit the same themes in each review. The thing that I think irritates a most people (not necessarily professional critics or those who are cineliterate) is that he reviews a piece of forgettable, studio season filler with the same straight-faced depth he might apply to Resnais. Every film is that important to White, and it hacks folks off when he takes a seemingly innocuous piece of family popcorn like Toy Story 3 and ransacks it for not addressing its issues with materialism adequately. Most T-meter critics don’t bother with that kind of depth, and if they do, they typically side with the majority. I do like that he shakes things up.

      I also understand the opposite view, though, the one taken by other professionals or cineliterate geeks. White relies very heavily on unfounded presuppositions and ad hominem arrogance as much as he relies on observations actually taken from the film. Between ticking off the cineliterati and the average Joe, White has arrived at the supremely ironic fate of being the one critic almost nobody takes seriously even though almost nobody else takes movies as seriously as White does. It only contributes to his “prophet in the wilderness” worldview.

  • Craig

    I’ll circle back to my original point: White is a terrible writer. Decent at one time, but over the past decade or so, absolutely hideous. I’m completely serious about his “Mad Libs” prose: I even wrote a post a while back that illustrated it: http://themanfromporlock.blogspot.com/2009/06/armond-white-reviews-my-breakfast.html

    Look, I dig shock value as much as anyone, but I’ve also found time and again in life that those who pose as Tellers of Deep Truths are among the least trustworthy individuals around. And who cares about bombs when they’re dropped so boringly?

    • mjschneider

      That’s fair enough. I’ll be the last person to argue that he’s a great writer. I just find his personality to be compelling enough for me to take his Mad Libs prose style in stride. It’s probably the reason why his writing itself doesn’t bore me. It’s probably even unreasonable of me to make an allowance for a compromised writing style just because I enjoy his persona. I think you’re right when you say that Tellers of Deep Truths are among the least trustworthy individuals around. I don’t know if I trust White so much as trust White to be himself.

      I realize that I probably seem a bit evasive about this, essentially admitting that you are being logical and correct while still not joining with you in writing White off, even though reason would dictate that I should. I know that it’s pretty lame to up and say that this is simply one of my blind spots and that I don’t care to correct it. That would be a very reductionist way to put it, but it’s close to the mark. White’s weaknesses as a writer bother me. I don’t like that his writing is often indefensibly bad, and that his argumentation sucks. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I would love nothing more than to savage viewpoints expressed in such a manner. It bothers me that I don’t understand my own motivations very clearly where it comes to my appreciation of White. Maybe because I’ve read his earlier, better stuff. Maybe because, every once in a while, he still hits it out of the park. At any rate, my gut and my head are still duking it out over what to make of White, and while I do think I have some rational reasons for remaining a fan, the poor, inconsistent quality of his writing is a pretty fatal flaw. For that, I don’t have an answer.

      I remember reading that breakfast review. That might have even been how I found your blog in the first place. You don’t need to convince me that White’s writing could use some fine-tuning. What I really need is for someone figure out why the hell his frequently substandard writing isn’t a dealbreaker for me!

  • Craig

    I’m in sort of the same position on Kael herself, semi-defending her against perfectly reasonable friends eager to dismiss her. I feel this way despite having read about the new biography claiming that she conned a UCLA professor out of the idea that became her “Raising Kane” essay. (In other words, she didn’t just steal research; she stole BAD research.) Sorry if I put you on the spot.

    It’s really the comments to my post that make it for me.

    • mjschneider

      You didn’t put me on the spot. After all, I’m the one that made the post rejoicing in finding him again. It is incumbent upon me to justify my excitement. The fact that I can’t is probably just a bad reflection on me. I can live with it.

      I don’t know a whole lot about Kael’s life outside of her writing. I’ve read “I Lost It At the Movies” and “Afterglow,” as well as several other things she wrote, but for some reason, her activities outside her reviews are a nebulous blur to me. It wouldn’t surprise me if she stole bad research. She’s still a vivacious writer.

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