Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Armond White, lead film critic for the New York Press, head of the New York Film Critics’ Circle and presenter of the Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan at the Critic’s Choice screening at ND/NF.
Mr. White is the sort of film critic both popular and occasionally reviled in circles of filmgoers and enthusiasts. Where all film critics might zig right, he zags left. He is as well known for his passionate defense of the art of film criticism as he is for his bombastic reviews of crowd favorites (recently Coraline, Hunger, Duplicity) often declaring “shit” where others might say masterpiece. And vice-versa. Films that he has championed included Meet Dave, Little Man, and most recently, The Transporter 2.
He is also famous for his coining of the term “hipster-nihilist,” a group he faults for many of the ills of American cinema, not-withstanding 2008’s The Dark Knight, a film he panned as “sentinel of our cultural abyss.” As a long-haired, relatively-bearded young-man with no particular religious tendencies, I had more than a thought for my safety as I sat down to speak with Mr. White.
I started off asking him why he chose Metropolitan.
“The same reason I write the way I write,” he told me. “I like individual voices, voices that haven’t been heard and that are authentic. You don’t see a lot of films from the perspective of privileged-WASP-20s debutantes and Whit portrays them sympathetically. It’s interesting to hear a different voice and I think that’s what I provide too.”
I asked him then about the New Directors/New Films festival (“Well, I’m presenting in it,” he told me.) and then is there were any New Directors he admired.
“I don’t know about ‘new directors.’ I like Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite better than Neil LaBute. Jared obviously speaks more from a moralistic Mormon experience, which is interesting and new, than LaBute,who presents himself as a Mormon, but who just likes to see people being awful to each other. I also like Charles Stone III of Drumline and Mr. 3000, some of the best American films in years.”
I told him that I too was a Neil LaBute hater, but that I hadn’t seen Drumline. But when I asked him about Kelly Reichardt or Lance Hammer or Ryan Fleck, he shut them down one by one, as “fakery”, admitting only of Ms. Reichardt that “at least she’s trying to have an aesthetic and hone it.”
Finally, I decided to ask him about a subject which I thought might get a kick out of him: the hipster-nihilist 20 and 30-somethings of the “mumblecore” movement.
“Those guys need to go watch some movies and grow up. There are only so many ideas for a movie. Instead of watching Eric Rohmer and finding some sort of aesthetic, they decide to make movies that are aesthetically vacant and boring. If they were at Columbia, where I teach, they might have learned something.”
“Am I a hipster-nihilist?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. Are you?” he replied.
I admitted I was at NYU Film School and that I also wrote criticism (in fact, that I had met him a couple times before). I asked him is he had any advice to young filmmakers or young critics like myself.
“Don’t make a movie until you’re 40,” he said. “Then, you’ll have something to make a movie about. Of course, rules are meant to be broken. Also, no offense, but blogs aren’t film criticism. They’re a bunch of young people going on about things they’re not ready to talk about. I’ve been writing about movies since junior high. Did that make me a film critic then? No. You can’t put these kids on blogs in the same category as Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. You have to train at it, work at it. Till then, nope.”
And while a part of me felt a little downtrodden, being called “not a film critic”, another part of me saw the value in what he was saying. Because really, that’s what’s so fascinating about Armond White, what keeps my film-school-friends and I coming back week-after-week: even when you don’t like what he’s saying or disagree, well, he’s always got a point.
Our bottle of sake was almost out as I saw Mr. White with a full glass.
“Drink up,” I told him.
“You have to sip sake,” he told me, right after I’d downed a shot.
“Ah, man. Sorry,” I replied, embarrassed.
He shook his head, laughed and raised his glass. “Actually, forget that. Drink sake how you enjoy it,” he said and took his shot.
-Nicholas Feitel, ND/NF New Voice