In November 1962, days after the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, members of The Newspaper Guild, seeking improved wages, went on strike against the Daily News�€”and then a month later, against New York City's other major newspapers. The strike lasted until the following March, and although life goes on, even when you can't read all about it, the annual New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) Awards did not.
Enter New York Press film critic and current NYFCC chair Armond White, who is known, some would say notorious, for his strong opinions. White argues that 1962, which the NYFCC never got the chance to honor, is "equal to Hollywood's fabled 1939." To prove it, White has arranged a series of 1962's greatest films, which will play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music beginning today. Then, as now, many foreign films were not screened stateside for years after they were made, and so the NYFCC program is a selection of movies that were first released in New York during 1962�€”allowing for dark horses like Michelangelo Antonioni's 1957 tearjerker about an itinerant laborer, Il Grido.
There's no doubting 1962 was an unusually good year in film history. It was a year in which the Oscar went to an old-fashioned epic, Lawrence of Arabia, but also the year when Manny Farber published a seminal essay mocking the predictability of the Hollywood factory and championing what he coined as "termite art." It was a year when foreign upstarts like Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais were nipping at the heels of aging Americans John Ford and Howard Hawks. The short list of famous movies that were eligible for BAM's series but that won't be playing is astonishing, and includes: Birdman of Alcatraz, Divorce Italian Style, L'Eclisse, Gypsy, The Hidden Fortress, Last Year at Marienbad, Lolita, The Manchurian Candidate, Mutiny on the Bounty, La Notte, Through a Glass Darkly, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Yojimbo.
White talked with the L last week about the NYFCC's lost year, and about remarks he made at the recent Hamptons International Film Festival. White has long been outspoken about what he sees as the corruption of film culture by television�€”just look at his withering review from this summer of Star Trek. White is also troubled by what he believes has been a decline in the respect accorded to film criticism, for which he blames, among other things, internet dilettantes.
A couple of weeks ago, on a panel at the Hamptons, you said you were proud to be a "professional" film critic. You also said that you were not impressed with "bloggers" and with other writers�€”including, specifically, critic Karina Longworth�€”who write for the web. What is it that you object to about online writing? And what does this have to do with your mission as the chair of a "professional" organization like the NYFCC?
It's funny you say mission, because I feel it as a mission. And the mission is to restore some respect and recognition to the profession of film criticism. Because I think it has lost some respect with all the changes that have happened in media recently, where journalism feels that its role is no longer to report and analyze or critique, but to support and promote Hollywood. And as critics, that is not our job, it is to be critics. To interpret and then to explain to our audience. So I want to restore some of the old standing that criticism used to have.
Are you lumping together everyone who writes online? Or put another way, do you see people who write online as inherently part of this problem of lowering standards? Isn't it possible to write well online?
It should be possible. I regret that there are so few examples of it. Instead, what I have seen on blogs is a lack of professional standards. I see a lot of personalized attacks. I see a lot of wishy-washy thinking about film. I don't see any understanding of movies. I see a lot of love expressed for movies�€”but to me that's just worthless. A child can have love for something without understanding; without being able to articulate or to scrutinize. I don't see a lot of professionalism on the internet.
Print journalism needs to be better [too]. But at least, usually, in print journalism it starts with being professional. Professional meaning someone pays for it, because it's worth being paid for. You don't need expertise to get on the web. You can be a hobbyist rather than a professional. And I take this profession seriously, so I don't respect hobbyists, beyond their American right to be a hobbyist.
But I don't call that criticism. It's not like I read something online and go, "ewww, it's online." I'm talking about the content that's online. I'm talking about people who have their own websites, just because they want to, not because they've learned anything about journalism or writing or thinking, or not because they've learned anything about movies.
Let's change the subject from today to 1962. Looking at a list of films released here that year, it's striking how much the international art film was penetrating American popular culture, taking its place alongside Hollywood's more familiar output. Were you aware of this trend at that time?
I didn't realize it [then], I was a child. I realize it in retrospect. In point of fact, I came to this realization, I discovered 1962, just through my regular passion as a film buff, a term I don't like to use. But I started out as a film buff, as many do. And like a lot of film buffs, in idle time I make lists just to construct and to jog my memory. And in making lists of certain years, I realized the list of 1962 was growing. And growing and growing and growing.
And also I had a book that collated all the awards from the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Academy Awards, the New York Times ten best, the Time magazine ten best. And I perused the list and I discovered in those list that there were a lot of fascinating films in 1962. These lists didn't necessarily overlap, either. I thought that the films that were released just in America in 1962 were an amazing assortment of great films. So I discovered it almost by accident, but not by accident. I discovered it through a form of film criticism scholarship. I would call it that, rather than buff.
Since you were only a child at the time, are there any films from that year that were particularly memorable for you, and are any of those films in the series?
In my memory, a movie like Lawrence of Arabia loomed large. And although I didn't see Lawrence of Arabia until years later, it was still a fascinating thing to me. There was this idea of it that existed in the culture. Back in those days, you would rarely see a film clip on television, and the clips from Lawrence were always amazing. I remember my sister went to see it and she brought back the souvenir program, and that was a fascinating object for me.
Yes, Dr. No was the biggest grossing film of 1962. It is not, however, included in the series? Are you not a Bond fan?
Oh, great Bond fan. But as you know from the list of 1962 films, there are so many great films we couldn't possibly show even half of them. And given the realities of budgets and the practicalities of what prints are available, we had to select from that list of great films. [BAM curator] Jake Perlin did a great job of hunting down prints and finding what movies were available. I thank him. But not every movie we wanted was available. But Jake and I also wanted to have a selection of films that would be varied, but also more importantly that were great films, whether they were art films or pop films.
Which films did you want to show that were not available?
One thing that I really wanted to show, but that just wasn't available, was an omnibus film called Boccaccio '70. It's available on DVD. I first saw it on the late show. Growing up in Detroit the late show would show foreign language films. But dubbed of course. And I would frequently watch Boccaccio '70, which had shorts by Fellini, Visconti, and De Sica. European producers were big in that era, and as Andrew Sarris used to say, they would make movies for their mistresses. Apparently, the guy who produced Boccaccio '70 thought it would be commercial to name a film after Boccaccio and to have stories that were bawdy in a Boccaccio sense without necessarily having been adaptations.
Four things I was really excited about showing: One was Lawrence, one was Jacques Demy's Lola, one was Boccaccio '70, and the other was Long Day's Journey Into Night. Just couldn't get a print of the latter two.
Obviously, many of Demy's later films�€”The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, for example�€”are more revered than Lola. Do you have a particular affection for this one?
I do. I think none should be more revered than Lola. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is more avant-garde, but [Lola] has to do with what we learn about life from movies. Actually, put it this way, it has to do with what we expect from life because of movies.
The series includes two John Wayne films, Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Hawks's Hatari! Among the trends you can see in 1962 is that Wayne was still one of the biggest stars on the planet, and that although Westerns were still very popular, the genre itself was becoming passé.
The fact that you have John Wayne alongside Anouk Aimée [the star of Lola] shows you the richness of the culture. The culture was moving fast, but it was truly alive, it was a vibrant culture. You had all these innovative currents coming from Europe, and you also had the Americans, the Hollywood Old Masters who were ending things up, but they were still potent. They could still make great movies.
You've said that you want to revise film history with this series. What do you think we might be able to get out of comparing the film culture of 1962 to the film culture we have now?
Number one, that film culture is not TV culture. You really do need to see these films on the big screen. We'll have a panel discussion on the day that we're showing Lawrence of Arabia, and that might be the ultimate example. That is not an experience you can have on television.
In that sense, we have to return to the old way of appreciating movies�€”not as something you see on DVD, not as something that you watch on television, or even on an iPod. You need a big screen. A lot of these films in the series are, in fact, CinemaScope movies. CinemaScope is the best, it's an open arm embrace. That's genuine cinema, or rather, by 1962, that is what cinema had become.