FEATURES The Play for Tomorrow: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe by Michael Sicinski The Crowd is Dead, Long Live the Crowd! by
By Adam Nayman
The “About the Author” section of Armond White’s new critical anthology does not disappoint. In the space of four short paragraphs, White is identified as “esteemed, controversial and brilliantly independent” as well as “The Last Honest Film Critic in America”; his résumé comprises “auspicious tomes” that are “essential for anyone who loves pop culture.” These collected works, including 1995’s actually essential The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World, affirm that “White practically invented the art of music video criticism.” His Lincoln Center seminars on that topic (a few of which are still viewable on YouTube) are memorialized in language borrowed, humorously if not deliberately, from the opening of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” No less than the Misses Morkan’s annual dance, we are assured, these lectures were “always the cultural highlight of the year.”
All kidding aside—and the question of whether Armond White is kidding, even a little bit, has kept people like myself, who surely have better things to do, up nights for years now—Make Spielberg Great Again ranks among the film-cultural highlights of late 2020, as well as an indirect bellwether of current trends in and around film-critical practice. Assuming that the book’s “Resistance Works, WDC” imprint is a label of White’s own devising, the conditions of the book’s production consolidate its author’s claims of independence while also placing him on a significant new continuum. As our pandemic year limps to a close and the economics of culture writing crumple ever further, a number of significant writers (including a few crucial film critics) have opted—for a variety of reasons, some more clearly or interestingly elucidated than others—to move their grind (or grift) to subscription-based, newsletter-style services such as Patreon or Substack. In the process, a group of unaffiliated up-and-comers and legacy media expatriates have effectively granted themselves total editorial autonomy as well as a more direct line of compensation, cutting out the boss, the editor, and the middleman all at once.
The ensuing social media dust-ups over whether such forms of self-publishing constitute a meaningful form of resistance (that word again) to a compromised, content-driven journalistic establishment or a financially viable end unto itself—or, again, a grift—have been more interesting than adjacent social media debates like whether David Fincher could carry Orson Welles’ viewfinder (yes, but very carefully); the taxonomy for list-making purposes of Small Axe as a number of separate movies or a television show (answer: it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping); or if the late Philip Seymour Hoffman should have been excluded from a list explicitly designed to rank living actors (and which unforgivably snubbed the very-much-alive Michael Shannon). But the larger issue remains unchanged since pre-plague days: the decentralization of film-critical authority. As a thousand flowers bloom on Letterboxd, the disappearance or diminishment of old-guard incubators, institutions (R.I.P. Film Comment), and individual bylines continues apace. A few years ago in Cinema Scope, Mark Peranson interviewed J. Hoberman—then recently cut loose by The Village Voice as its parent corporation finally completed the strip-mining of the paper’s credibility—about this very phenomenon for an article entitled “Film Criticism After Film Criticism.” “What the Hoberman Affair shows,” wrote Peranson, ” is that we are equally afraid that, with the disappearance of print journalism, film criticism threatens to become a Matrix-like simulation of what criticism once was.”
It has been White’s contention that virtually everybody in the field has been living in the simulation for some time now, and that figures like Hoberman—always vying for top spot on The Resistance’s Enemies List with Noah Baumbach and his Mom—represented not beacons but sirens leading readers astray, cinephilia dashed upon the rocks of a godless, Commie hipsterism. “The profession is in dismal shape, fucking dismal condition,” White told Stephen Boone in a memorable 2007 interview with Big Media Vandalism; he was not so much sounding the alarm as humping the identical, ominous minor chord—Kanye-in-”Runaway” style—he’d been playing since the ’80s. Nearly 15 years later, the song remains the same, its refrain deepened by a series of unfortunate events including White’s expulsion from the New York Film Critics Circle (of which he has, of course, three times been chair) after, among other things, allegedly impugning Steve McQueen as a “doorman and a garbage man” and making Annette Bening cry.
Ironically, this excommunication by his peers directly prefaced White’s first-ever hiring by a legacy publication. Since 2014, he has served as the staff film critic for the National Review, a magazine founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, who in his inaugural editor’s note imagined himself and his fellow conservatives “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop!” The affiliation does not undermine White’s claims to be working without a net (at times he has clearly been working without a copy editor), but it does suggest the extent of his radicalization. Whenever I peruse National Review’swebsite—usually on Friday mornings, en route to reading whatever weekly Armond content I haven’t gleaned from Twitter—I notice that Our Bud at the Movies has seated himself far to the right of his critical colleagues.
These days, it seems, Armond White is to the right of just about everybody: William F. Buckley, Michael Medved, James Woods, Jon Voight, Kayleigh McEnany, Darth Vader, Diamond & Silk, whomever. Hence the self-consciously provocative title of Make Spielberg Great Again, whose cover art of a circa-Reagan era Spielberg wearing an L.A.P.D. baseball cap is a virtuoso piece of semiotic trolling, conjuring up you-know-who in phraseology and imagery while retaining plausible deniability as a stock photo. No less than John Ford’s eyepatch or Alfred Hitchcock’s lopsided silhouette, Señor Spielbergo’s suburban-casual headgear synechodizes a mythic directorial persona, which in his case has always been—and will eternally remain—that of a great popular (and populist) entertainer. The irony that the most commercially successful American filmmaker of all time’s most ardent and consistent critical defender over the past several decades (or at least up until the 2012 release of Lincoln)has been a critic so committed (at times with great conviction and breathtaking acuity) to interrogating the ideology of mainstream entertainment is as worth taking seriously as Spielberg himself—and not just as patient zero for the blockbusterization of the New Hollywood.
For a critic like White, always searching for—and thus unsurprisingly finding—signs of decline that vindicate his last-angry-man rhetoric, Spielberg has always been a useful tool. It could be argued that the director of Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), and other popular landmarks is the one American director since the ’70s who has obliged every viewer and critic, no matter how casual or serious, to have an opinion on both his output and his impact. Few filmmakers’ careers are as associated with paradigm shifts: over the years, Spielberg’s movies have been significant pivot points in the histories of movie marketing, merchandising, and special-effects development. What better way for White to distinguish himself from the blurbers and quote-whores propping up mainstream moviemaking, as well as oppositional figures like left-leaning Spielberg-hater J. Hoberman (and, of course, his “Hobermoles”), than to claim both factions are united in missing the point?
“Spielberg’s exceptionalism parallels American exceptionalism,” White writes in the introduction, leaving the matter of his own exceptionalism unstated (that’s what the Author’s Note is for). The patriotic assertion here is more complex than it seems. For Make Spielberg Great Again’s interventionist thesis to work, one not only has to buy into its subject’s excellence, but also into the idea that it plummeted during a fallow period in US politics concurrent with the presidency of Barack Obama. Obama is perhaps the only person White despises more than J. Hoberman (or Noah Baumbach and his Mom), and his influence is described as being immeasurably greater on Spielberg, to the point of crippling his artistry and corrupting his core principles—his “ecumenicism” yoked seamlessly and consistently to sophisticated commercial instincts and state-of-the-art technique. “Spielberg’s avowed fealty to liberal politics has not only hobbled his miraculous ‘touch’ but prevented him from openly embracing the values implicit in [ex-]President Donald Trump’s optimistic campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’…[His] best chance at renewed popularity is to retrieve that unifying vision and Millennial moviegoers (perhaps future moviegoers) wanting that unity.”
Calls for unity from a critic whose go-to move is the instant vilification of anyone not on his particular wavelength are, of course, dubious; ditto accusations of “partisanship” from someone drawing a paycheque from the National Review. While there are undoubtedly potentially rewarding conversations to be had about the radical rightward tilt of self-styled truth tellers and how easily principle metastasizes into performative shtick (Exhibit A: Twitter), the psychology underlying such contradictory postures sometimes boils down to, “I know you are but what am I.” When Armond White’s criticism is at its destabilizing best, that taunt gets reversed onto the reader as an enigma and a challenge: “I know what I am, but who are you?” For me, reading White regularly for almost as long as I’ve been writing professionally has been a way to test my own principles and prejudices (without ever absorbing White’s own). What’s most interesting about Make Spielberg Great Again—and what makes it a vital read—are not its ideologically jerry-rigged conclusions about its namesake as a casualty of liberal partisanship, but the way its 50-plus selections, drawn from a variety of publications including college newspapers and semi-obscure journals and websites as well as Film Comment, The City Sun, and, of course, the New York Press, trace White’s own real-time evolution as a critic, one whose bristlingly anti-establishment mandate has remained consistent even as the ideological and industrial foundations of that establishment—in film culture and beyond—keep shifting beneath his feet. It compels as a portrait of a brilliant, voluble writer holding his ground, standing athwart history and shouting, “Fact is!”
“Cars and movies are probably the two most identifiable American phenomena of the century,” Write begins in the first piece reprinted in Make Spielberg Great Again, a 1974 review of Spielberg’s feature debut The Sugarland Express for the Wayne State student publication The South End. Even as an undergrad, White had a knack for grandly nationalistic pronouncements (the automotive metaphor makes sense for a kid from Michigan). The young reviewer is in thrall to Pauline Kael, echoing her observations in The New Yorker about Spielberg’s facility for choreographing vehicles in motion (a descendant of Welles and his large-scale toy train set), but without her habit of denigrating other critics to make a point. A year later, opining on Jaws in a piece entitled “The Fanged Failure,” White deviates from his idol’s affections for Spielberg’s carnivorous, all-consuming blockbuster masterpiece (she was, of course, more correct), but adopts her rhetorical tactic of name-checking-slash-name-calling, ridiculing Time Magazine for its “cover-story-cum-press-release” and alluding to a thick coating of “media sludge” lubricating the movie’s popularity.
Cultivating a stance in one’s early twenties as a bulwark against hype is a laudably longstanding practice, but it takes time to mature into a true iconoclast, and the pieces here dated to the early ’80s are comparatively less adversarial than the ones that follow. It’s fascinating to read four consecutive essays on The Color Purple (1985) written over a period of 30 years, and see the shift in emphasis from Spielberg’s artistry and ambition in adapting Alice Walker’s novel to the perceived inadequacy of the film’s mainstream reception; by the time of Amistad (1997), which gets five entries, the ratio of praise to condemnation has grown even more lopsided. The longest and best of these, “Against the Hollywood Grain,” captures White at a kind of polemical peak, tossing Haile Gerima aside in the first paragraph in favour of what he calls Spielberg’s “righteous blood spilling,” linking the image of Djimon Honsou’s Cinque digging a nail out of a slave ship’s floorboard first to a devastating Public Enemy lyric (“blood in the wood and it’s mine”) and then to D.W. Griffith—a daring juxtaposition given Amistad’ssubject matter. Leaving aside the easy joke about a political hardliner citing a movie called Intolerance (1916) as a personal favourite, White’s attempt to rewrite film history in lightning—privileging Griffith’s “social passion” over his Ku Klux Klan advocacy—is persuasive because of his nearly unparalleled ability to plunge repeatedly into a particular movie’s aesthetic space and then pull out to provide a panoramic context. If White admires Spielberg’s ecumenicism, it’s because at his best he evinces a similarly effortless blend of reference and reverence for pop-cultural texts; when he rails against the perceived elitism of his peers (even from the pages of Film Comment, which published “Against the Hollywood Grain”) it seems to emanate from some honest (and essentially Kaelian) place about not rigidly differentiating between high and low.
I first encountered White’s writing in the early 2000s, when the internet opened him up to a wider readership than the smaller-circulation New York publications where he’d found a niche. His notoriety within my particular peer group (mostly twentysomething males seeking online footholds in a print-based business) stemmed from the question of White’s “contarianism,” which he denied repeatedly. For me, at least, keeping up with Armond and the small-scale chaos left in his wake (including a pseudonymous blog called “Armond Dangerous” and a parody Twitter account) was a proposition somewhere between fandom and surveillance, mixed with curiosity and revulsion about the myriad contradictions of a reactionary patriotism that was, if not born on 9/11, then definitively unleashed. How to reconcile the tender sensitivity of White’s writing in July of 2001 on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and its “spiritual view of human need”—the yearning powerfully conveyed by Haley Joel Osment’s controlled but guileless performance as a futuristic Pinocchio whose longing to become “real” becomes fulfilled in death—with the open contempt he displayed going forward for other films and filmmakers and the writers who dared to celebrate them? The answer, of course, was not particular to White but at the core of caring deeply about cinema, the possessive and protective urges we have over work that moves us and the frustration that occurs, no matter how deftly and democratically we mask it, when it fails to inspire similar feelings in others.
It is for this reason that I revere White’s pieces on a series of 21st-century Spielberg movies that I have no strong feelings for myself. “Refugees and Searchers Go to the Movies,” published in 2005 for the excellent blog First of Month—co-founded by White and described on its homepage as “the only leftist publication [that could] be read at Columbia University and Rikers”—burrows inside War of the Worlds (2005) with termite-like tenacity and emerges with a moving (and, again, persuasive) juxtaposition of images of homecoming in the coda to Spielberg’s mega-budget remake and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), wisely identified as the inspiration that so many members of the director’s New Hollywood cohort have been chasing all along. “By the end of the movie, Spielberg clarifies the personal consequences of the ugly act that Ray [Tom Cruise] was forced to commit, acknowledging what all the movie brats from Scorsese to George Lucas to Paul Schrader and John Milius have been reluctant to admit about Ethan Edwards…although they celebrate intransigence, they don’t face up to the discomfiting reality of John Wayne’s hard man…[Ray] must stand outside the American home, a civilian-soldier whose humanity and psychic well-being have been sacrificed.”
There is true grit in this observation, and White’s attraction to such “hard men”—including Eric Bana’s tormented assassin in Munich (2005)—surely reflects his own lone-gunslinger persona in a period where his politics, always present in his work but refused as a point of conversation in interviews, were so at odds with those of his colleagues. (Like a Western hero, Armond can only exist outside of his community.) The shift from Bush II to Obama meant that instead of feeling compelled to defend the country’s political establishment against seditious, cynical filmmakers (take your pick of criminal offenders, from PTA to Zodiac-with-a-‘Z’) and “discourteous discourse,” he went on the attack; the explicit allegiance between Spielberg and Obama—first as (re)-election-year allegory in Lincoln and then as White House Correspondents-dinner satire in the video short Steven Spielberg’s Obama (2013)—was a bridge (of spies) too far. There is something apt in White’s observation that Spielberg’s popular dominance has receded, as even a ready-made hit like Ready Player One (2018)—a noisy, juvenile, and extremely interesting movie that serves as a spiritual sequel to the use-your-allusion style of 1941 (1979)—failed to scale the box-office heights of its predecessors. But as he makes the case for Spielberg as an increasingly ephemeral presence in movie culture, his own critical grip loosens; instead of parsing ideology, he’s denouncing it. Reviews of movies like The Post (2017) adopt the resentful tone of a spurned lover (see also White’s rejection of Kael deity Brian De Palma’s Bush-bashing Redacted , although the jokey xenophobia of Domino  seems to have brought him back on board); by the time he’s accusing Spielberg of “a deliberate attempt to alter (or in post-election left parlance, to ‘resist’) the popular spirit of times” and invoking the spectre of “mean-stream journalism,” a term borrowed from his beloved Morrissey (oh, and quoting Paul Joseph Watson), the truth-teller has entered his own private echo chamber.
It’s hard to tell if the title of Make Spielberg Great Again is intended wistfully—as a signifier of irretrievable loss—or if White believes, with the same de-ironized certainty that informs so much of his work (a quality not to be confused with humorlessness, because the man can be very funny), that by challenging his subject he can help to facilitate a resurrection: the Second Coming of a godlike cinematic redeemer. (Dare we dream of that golden day?) It also probably doesn’t matter. The separation of church and state between filmmakers and critics since Kael’s heyday, when she palled around with John Cassavetes in between pans and reportedly told Sidney Lumet that her job was to “tell him which way to go,” is paradoxical—online, writers and directors regularly commiserate and clash and slide into the DMs in variable conflicts and confluences of interest, but the possibility of a Spielberg-sized director being truly shaken or chastened by a Tweet (or even a New Yorker review) feels elusive. There’s something to be said for quixotic quests, though, and the windmills of White’s mind when it’s churning away have the kind of gale force that can sweep you up and carry you. This vanity project is also a holiday-season gift that keeps on giving; I’m happy that I bought it with my own money.