In Defense of Film Culture

10/23/2009 4:00 AM |

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.

4 Comment

  • NYFCC should vote on those awards now. It would be interesting. My favorite of 1962 not mentioned/playing here is Mother Joan of the Angels which is a 1961 release but not in USA 1962 (according to IMDB).

    BTW- sad to see this is Karina Longworths’s last week at Spout, really liked her writing. Hope she surfaces somewhere else soon and keeps on doing what she was doing.

  • I agree. And I don’t agree with Armond about her.

    But I do also get where he’s coming from in his general view of amateurism and its being enabled by the web.

  • I went to check out Karina, and Spout has a shitty ad that repeats ad nauseum “CONGRATULATIONS YOU WON!!!” — I mean really loud audio — That’s annoying as shit!

  • FWIW I’ve never seen Armond White compliment any film critic other than Armond White, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris.

    That said, I like White