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.