Why Michael Mann Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is


After walking out of Blackhat a few weeks ago, I’ve been questioning whether or not Michael Mann is a great director, or if he was ever as good as I used to think he was.

I seriously used to be a huge fan of his films. His best (Heat, The Insider, Collateral) were fascinating psychological studies of cops, criminals and TV journalists. He’s been incredibly influential – without Heat, we’d have no Dark Knight, and thanks to the look he pioneered on Miami Vice and Crime Story, he set the standard for production design in network television (a look he largely stole from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.) But lately I’ve become increasingly disappointed with his cinematic output, and his latest film, Blackhat, is proof positive that he’s no longer at the top of his game.

I went into Blackhat thinking that there was no way it could be as bad as Miami Vice, which, eight years ago, gave me the first hint that maybe Mann wasn’t as great as I previously thought he was. Amazingly enough, it managed to be even worse, and since I consider Miami Vice one of the worst films of all time, this means Blackhat is now somewhere on my “all-time worst” list, somewhere above J. Edgar and beneath Disaster Movie. It’s a massively incompetent film that exemplifies all the things that drive me crazy about Mann.

How does Mann drive me crazy? Let me count the ways:


He sucks at establishing characters.
This may be a factor of my ADHD, but whatever it is, I have noticed that, as a moviegoer, if I do not know the names of the characters, or the names of the actors playing them, I emotionally check out of the movie and spend most of it going, “Who are you?” With the exception of Collateral, Mann does this with every one of his movies. The only ways I’ve been able to follow Heat and The Insider have been by writing out the plots on my laptop or in a notebook, which I did when studying his films in my 9th grade Film Studies class. It’s such a pervasive problem for me that I’ve called it “The Michael Mann Problem” for many years now, because the first time I noticed this was while watching his films, and with almost every one of his movies he’s committed this sin. Which brings me to my next point…


He’s too far ahead of the story for his own good.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about exposition comes from the director Charles Crichton: “Get ahead of the audience.” It will always save your ass, but if you go too many steps ahead of them, then they’ll be stuck playing catch-up and won’t listen to what you’re saying – like if they’re trying to figure out the names of the characters. Mann does this in such a way that he assumes you already know the major points of the story, so that he doesn’t have to focus on them. This is what derailed Ali for me – apart from the classic biopic problem of “Trying to cram all the major life events into a movie,” Ali’s failure stems largely from its assumption that the audience already knew everything about Muhammad Ali’s life going in. Therefore, none of the major moments in his life resonated, because they were all rushed over and couldn’t breathe as cinema.


He can’t shoot digital. There, I said it.
For everyone’s praise towards Mann’s cinematography in his last couple movies, I’m here to burst that bubble. Michael Mann has no idea how to make digital cinematography have any majesty or grandeur to it. I’ll let him off on Collateral, because that was a combination of digital and 35mm, and for shooting night scenes, looking a little grainy can be OK. But Miami Vice felt like nothing but pixels, Public Enemies’ muted pallet was so devoid of liveliness that he might as well have just shot the whole film in black and white, and Blackhat is so jittery it might as well have been shot by someone from the Michael J. Fox School of Fine Camera Holding. Stop giving me this whole “artistry with a camera” stuff. I can shoot better, clearer pictures on my iphone. In a world where we have beautiful digital films like Life of Pi and Birdman, he should be ashamed.


No interest in female characters.
Name one interesting woman in a Michael Mann film. I can’t, can you? If you can, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Sure, Mann can get some good performances out of women – Amy Breneman in Heat, Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies, but is there any question that he spends more time focusing on male psychology than on female? The only reason women exist in his films is to provide love interests for the men, and when the men try to save them, he’s usually off his game as a storyteller – the final act of Collateral, where Jamie Foxx tries to save Jada Pinkett Smith from Tom Cruise, keeps it from being an A+ movie and knocks it down to a B+. And the fact that he repeated the exact same male-female dynamic in both Miami Vice and Blackhat – brooding dark guy with sexy Asian lady! – without realizing the shallowness of the relationship in the first place, is just absurd.  I genuinely want to know: if more women were movie critics than men, would they consider Mann the artist that most male critics do?


He doesn’t seem to know what the internet is.
This is a Blackhat-related complaint mostly, but Mann is the latest in a long line of filmmakers recently who seem to have no idea how the internet works or what it does. Yes, the internet and the rise in digital technology is like fire – it can cook your food or burn your house down – but isn’t presenting it as an evil, monolithic thing that anyone can hack into such a cliché at this point? Men Women and Children and Disconnect were laughed off the screen for this cliché, and Blackhat deserves to be too. And if you want a great story about how scary technology can be, watch Black Mirror.

All of this is to say that Mann is proof of the major weakness of the auteur theory: that auteurist critics will try to justify anything a director they like does, while losing the ability to tell a good film from a bad film. Much of this has to do with the fact that, while directors are still alive, it’s hard to do this. Picasso was the greatest painter of the 20th century, but we’re far enough from his moment in history to be able to say where he was good and where he failed. We don’t know how to do that with movie directors – Godard, Hitchcock and Mann being prime victims of the auteur theory. Because Mann has a unique style, and similar themes in all his films, auteurists give him books and long articles praising everything he does. But having a style doesn’t necessarily make you a good director – it just means you have a style. Sidney Lumet never had a “style” that pervaded all his films, because he knew that the style had to change from film to film, and be attached to the content, not independent of it. Mann never detaches his singular “style” from anything he does, and as a result his movies all dissolve into a blur of hyper-masculine B.S. I’ll still like his good work. But as of now, I’m turning in my fan club badge.

Hope: The Great Casualty of Gun Violence

Last year I went to a party for someone in the entertainment industry, attended largely by TV writers.  I left the party feeling angry, not because it was a bad party, but because all anyone talked about was “the business.”  Normally, that’s what I talk about with friends anyway, but this party was different, because it was the day after the Sandy Hook massacre, and not one person there was talking about it.  They were all just common, middle-aged writers asking, “So what’s on your Oscar ballot?”

I get it.  I get that people don’t want to talk about an elementary school shooting at a party.  But in the midst of a national tragedy, it seemed like nobody cared.  Like these people had become inured to it, like, “it’s not my problem.”  I left that party incredibly terrified that I might become like those writers, so involved in my own bubble that no one else’s troubles can penetrate it.  I understand that our empathy must have limits – if we were to distribute it equally among all the people in this world suffering, then our lives would become unlivable.  But I cannot stand that, in this country, the murder of innocent men, women and children is seen as a commonplace thing.  Like, “Oh, another one.”

This weekend, the Isla Vista massacre has brought up all these feelings in me again, only I feel more defeated.  In the nearly year-and-a-half since Sandy Hook, more than 35,000 Americans have been the victims of gun violence.  Let that number sink in for a moment: 35,000.  That’s more than Japan, Spain, France, The United Kingdom, Greece, Australia and New Zealand combined.  The NRA has become the secret benefactor of the American government, constantly pushing for laxer gun control laws so that more people can buy their products and rampage as much as they want.

How can we stop this?  The most ludicrous answers are now taken seriously.  Seven years ago, after Virginia Tech, a Daily Show report focused on one man’s efforts to have teachers carry guns.  But like most satire, it was truer than we gave it credit for: after Sandy Hook, Newsweek headlined a disgraceful op-ed arguing the “good person with a gun can stop a bad person with a gun” theory by David Mamet, of all people.  I’m not saying that Newsweek or David Mamet has much national influence anymore – one stopped writing anything of quality more than twenty years ago and the other is Newsweek – but that any magazine would run such a heinous article based on a belief so rudimentary that even third-graders would reject it, is a devastating sign of the times.

The NRA’s great victory in their attempts at controlling the government is this: they’ve killed our ability to hope.  To hope that things may change; to hope that we may see people come to their senses; to hope that this will go away any time soon.  Nobody should abide this, but the NRA wants us to.  I feel myself, this weekend, turning into one of the writers at that party, caring more about what people think of X-Men: Days of Future Past than debating this point.  But the one part of me that still believes change is possible won’t let me give in so easily.

Guns are our national disease.  We are all connected in some way to these massacres, even if we weren’t directly involved.  We know someone who knew someone, or we have experienced the terror these weapons carry in our own lives.  I have found myself looking at certain people I’ve gone to school with my life, and been terrified that they would bring a gun onto campus.  I should not have to live with that terror.  Nobody should have to live with it.  Yet rather than petitioning for Congress to pass gun laws, most schools will just install mandatory metal detectors, as is done at many public schools.  No school should have a security check – we should be allowed to go there and feel safe.  We should feel safe anywhere.  But NRA-backed politicians feel the only cure for guns is “more guns,” so we have laws like Georgia’s bill, allowing residents to carry guns everywhere they go, or the risible “Stand your ground” rules in Florida.  France does not resort to these rules.  No sensible countries do.  But who says we’re a sensible country?  We allowed five corrupt justices to hand the country over to George W. Bush.

Please be angry.  Please, please, please be angry.  To the #yesallwomen tweeters, I support you.  To Richard Martinez, the father of one of this weekend’s victims, your words to the press were inspiring.  There are moments in human history where rage is what is needed, not complacency.  This is one of them.  Your anger can be a powerful motivator, because, if pointed in the right direction, it can create the possibility for change.

Anger can keep hope alive.

The Searchers and the Myth of Perfection


It’s been in vogue for critics to snipe at John Ford for a long time, from David Thomson to Quentin Tarantino.  I even took shots at him when I was studying film in high school and disbelieved in anything sentimental.  This all changed when I saw The Searchers for the first time, between my sophomore and junior year.  I was resisting it throughout much of its running time: the scenes with the Indian bride are in bad taste (and just not funny), Jeffrey Hunter isn’t much of an actor, the supporting characters can be cloying, etc.  I was ready to write the movie off until the final shot of John Wayne standing in the door, letting his niece Debbie and Martin “Blankethead” Pawley go into the house, realizing he can’t be with them, and walking away for the last time.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of Moses looking out at the Promised Land and realizing he can’t enter – and all of a sudden, all my criticisms of the film became insignificant.

The Searchers has long been regarded as John Ford’s masterpiece, but lately, it’s been taking its fair share of criticism.  Most of these have come from curmudgeons who live to tell you why that thing you like isn’t good.  Ford-basher-in-residence Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere loves to rerun an old column from time to time about how The Searchers drives him crazy.  More to the point, Joe Queenan recently leveled charges of mediocrity at not only The Searchers (for most of the reasons listed above) but also The Maltese Falcon, Breathless, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Animal House among others, arguing for the re-evaluation of movies that are called “great” but may not be anymore.  But Queenan’s piece is marred by his major flaw as a critic: he lacks the ability to dig deep into what he’s arguing about to convince you that he’s right.  Even when I agree with him on what films are still classic, I still think the tone of his article is wrong.  And I think the tone Jeff Wells takes when he attacks The Searchers (and other Ford movies) is also misguided.  The question that these people need to ask is: can a work of art have lots of things wrong with it and still be considered great?  And to that, my answer is a resounding yes.

Look, the quest for perfection is a mug’s game.  Even the works that we consider bastions of excellence have their flaws.  I think Moby-Dick is the greatest American novel of all time.  It’s probably my favorite novel after War and Peace.  This is not to say that Moby-Dick is always great, though.  Sometimes I want to throw it across the room.  There are many chapters that are just Ishmael/Melville talking about whaling, and since I’m never going to go whaling, I really don’t care at points.  But then Melville writes a chapter like “The Doubloon” or “The Symphony” or “The Candles” and all of a sudden, I’m in love with it all over again.  I remember reading an article in one of American Heritage’s overrated/underrated issues, where someone wrote that Moby-Dick was a book no one had ever finished, but Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny was outstanding.  Whoever wrote that obviously didn’t believe that Moby-Dick could be a great book in spite of its boring parts.  When it’s good, it’s better than almost any novel ever written, and you have to acknowledge that, even if you’re not going to read it more than once.

Now, as for the other part of Queenan’s question, does this mean that certain works of art that we once considered great are no longer great?  Yes – and then, no.  Some art doesn’t age well, and oftentimes, it’s the works that are considered daring and bold when they first debut.  Are those works of art great in spite of their flaws?  Maybe not, but they still have be reckoned with.  My friend Jon watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up for the first time last year, and was very disappointed by it.  I have to agree with his assessment: I watched Blow-Up for the first time in high school and thought that apart from the scene where the main character actually blows up the photo, thinking he sees a murder in the frame, it’s pretty boring.  It leads one to believe that the reason the movie caused such a sensation when it came out was because of the three-way scene.  But as much as I dislike Blow-Up, I’d be crazy to try to write it out of cinema history, the way Queenan wants to do with The Searchers and The Maltese FalconBlow-Up’s status has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with what came after it.  I can’t totally hate a movie that paved the way for Francis Coppola to make The Conversation, a personal favorite of mine.

Yes, re-evaluation comes with the territory.  And yes, sometimes the greatest films, books, albums, plays, are going to disappoint you for not being as good as historians and critics lead you to believe.  But rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, wrestle with it, fight it, and decide for yourself.  If you don’t like The Searchers, fine.  But don’t tell me that it hasn’t earned its place in cinema honestly, and don’t dismiss it for not living up to your standards of perfection.

The 86th Academy Awards, or, Tasteful to a Fault


Seth MacFarlane will go down as one of the most inappropriate Oscar hosts of all time.  His tone-deaf schtick turned the ceremony into a three-and-a-half-hour episode of Family Guy, and I say this as someone who was a fan of his before he became associated with “We Saw Your Boobs,” the most notorious Oscar opening number since Rob Lowe danced with Snow White.

But admit that during last night’s ceremony, as Ellen trudged up the aisles to order pizza for the nominees, you wanted Seth MacFarlane to come back.  At last, you’d have something to actually bitch about on Twitter instead of the thousandth gay joke about John Travolta after he mangled Idina Menzel’s name.  180 degrees from sick is still sick, and that was the problem with the 86th Academy Awards last night: in an effort to purge themselves of last year’s debacle, they played it safe, tried and true.  As a result, I spent the show pretty bored by the majority of it.  The Academy may be honoring films made in the 21st century, but their attitude towards producing an awards show feels out of sync with the best ones today: the Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes.  Those three, for whatever their faults, have managed to be very entertaining these past few years, but the Academy cannot capture their tone.

I’m not going to blame Ellen for the tired, lackluster feel of last night’s show.  Blaming the host for the show’s problems is like killing the messenger.  The real problem that always hung over this year’s Oscars from the start was that Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were the producers.  I always associate the mess of last year’s ceremony with them, because their inability to recognize problems when they saw them (“We Saw Your Boobs”) and egocentric need to turn the show into a tribute to themselves (they produced Chicago, which was endlessly lionized by presenters)[1] sank the evening.  I don’t envy anyone who has to make a show about the big screen excited for sixty-inch TV sets; it’s much easier to produce the Emmys in that regard.  But Z/M tried so hard not to offend anybody that we got stuck with the usual, “noble” ideas that come off badly in execution, like “the year of the hero,” represented by – wait for it – clip packages!  Christ, I am so done with these things invading the Oscar ceremonies.  Even when you show clips that I don’t associate with clip packages (thank you for not showing Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contendah” speech for the zillionth time) they’re still the devil’s work.

As for the musical numbers, well, the Academy has a really spotty history with these (ROB LOWE!  SNOW WHITE!  “PROUD MARY!”  UNFORGIVABLE!) but there are ways to make them entertaining.  I thought Pharrell Williams brought exactly the right tone that the show needed, and lacked at the very beginning due to there not being an actual opening number.  He was young, the dancers were great, and he got the audience involved.  The best award show numbers do this: think of how great Jimmy Fallon was covering “Born to Run” on the Emmys four years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony opening number a few years ago.  But Zadan/Meron don’t even appear to watch award shows, because their dated approach to the show’s songs only furthered the impression that the Academy is stuck in the past.  What is my generation supposed to get out of watching Bette Midler perform “Wind Beneath My Wings?”  We’ve never even seen Beaches, much less heard of it, and when it comes to in memoriam packages, I just want to see the names of the people and move on with it.  The last couple years in a row they’ve blown it by having pop stars come out and sing through it – so at least having Bette sing after the reel was the one positive thing I can say about that moment.


As for the winners themselves, there’s a lot to be happy about, unless you’re David O. Russell.  I felt badly for the whole American Hustle team, who deserved better than they got, but in a strong year like this one, somebody was going to go home feeling that way.  I got 19/24 on my ballot, and had I predicted two more correctly, I would’ve had my best year ever, but I was more than happy to mismark it when Steve McQueen jumped up and down with the cast and producers of 12 Years a Slave, my favorite movie of 2013.  I had thought the Academy would finally overcome their aversion to sci-fi and all things digital by giving Best Picture to Gravity, but they still seem averse to the technology.  The tally between the two big winners of the night was the most lopsided since 1972, when Cabaret won 8 Oscars, including Best Director, and lost Best Picture to The Godfather, and like those two movies, I believe that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are both going to be revered for years to come.

What’s more, the four acting winners redeemed many of the show’s faults with their gracious, and in one case, characteristically crazy, acceptance speeches.  Jared Leto got some flack at the Golden Globes for being tasteless, but last night, I felt he was eloquent and real: his shoutout to his mother was heartfelt in all the best ways.  Matthew McConaughey was…Matthew McConaughey. I mean, seriously, what did you expect?  For me, as goofy as the speech was, it reminded me that I watch the Oscar ceremony for those bizarre moments of spontaneity (and also the beautiful ones, like 20 Feet From Stardom’s Darlene Love taking the microphone.)  Cate Blanchett’s call to arms for the industry to make more films about women was extraordinary, and Lupita Nyong’o, the most openly emotional winner last night, didn’t let her tears give way to her ego, and gave the most moving speech of the night.  I saw her in a Q&A a couple of months ago, and was impressed by her poise and candor on that stage: the audience asked her questions as inane as, “why do you refer it to the soap scene and not the lashing scene?” (referring to the scene in the film where she is whipped by Michael Fassbender) and she said, simply, “I call it the soap scene because if I called it the lashing scene, I would cry.”

Final thoughts: in a close year like this one, I’m going to take up William Goldman’s frequent complaint about the Academy and ask that, at some point, maybe a year from now, maybe ten years, we need to know the votes.  I know, you like to operate with the guise that these things should remain confidential, but they really shouldn’t.  I think you owe it to us to know how members voted, so we can at least begin breaking down the demographics of how people vote, and bring about real institutional change within a group that is largely old, white men.

Enough.  The Oscars are done.  At last, we can get back to talking about movies.

PS Once the Oscars channel posts clips on YouTube, then I’ll include them here.

[1] Interesting tidbit about that: though Zadan/Meron are widely acknowledged to have been the on-set producers of Chicago, Martin Richards, who owned the property, was the only credited “producer” and the sole acceptee of the movie’s Best Picture Oscar.  For his decades-long effort to bring the project he nurtured in its Broadway run to the silver screen, he was not included in that year’s in memoriam package.  Coincidence?

Why The Oscars Do Not Matter, or: A Look Back at 1975


Voting has closed.  Price-Waterhouse is counting the ballots.  On Sunday night, we will find out who won the 86th annual Academy Awards.  On Monday, most people will forget who won, except for the people who make it their business to never forget (Harvey Weinstein, I’m looking at you.)  And given the hurt feelings, rivalries, and “How-the-fuck-could-they-ignore-XYZ-but-award-ABC” reactions that will become inevitable over time, I need to remind you guys of something really important:


That’s right.  You heard me.  I, the person who in fifth grade memorized every winner in just about all the major categories, am here to remind you all that these awards do not matter.  Sure, they matter in that it’s fun, and that getting them means you’ll be king/queen for a day, and you have a beautifully designed trophy to put on your mantle.  But seriously, whether or not the person you love, or the movie you love, wins or doesn’t win an Oscar, is vastly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  In order to demonstrate why, I have to borrow from William Goldman’s essays in Adventures in the Screen Trade, so forgive me if this essay sounds like his voice and not mine.

All right, flash back.  The year is 1976.  You have a ballot in front of you for the 1975 Oscars.  There are only five nominees for Best Picture at this time in history.  If you had to choose between these five for the best of the year, which would you choose?

The Man Who Would Be King

Night Moves


The Sunshine Boys

Three Days of the Condor

If you haven’t seen these five films, you should: they are all terrific.  The Man Who Would Be King paired Sean Connery and Michael Caine with director John Huston in one of the most entertaining adventure films ever made; Night Moves is a thriller filled with existential dread; Shampoo, a modern rewrite of the restoration comedy The Country Wife is an underrated gem; The Sunshine Boys is without a doubt the most quoted movie in my family, except for maybe Tootsie; and Three Days of the Condor is one of the best 70s conspiracy films.

So which one of these films won the Academy Award?  The answer: none of them.  That’s right, none of these movies won, because none of them were nominated.  See how much tougher the competition was when you could only have five nominees?  Also, since these movies were left out, it can only mean one thing: 1975 was a really great year.  This can’t be denied when you look at the movies that were nominated:

Barry Lyndon

Dog Day Afternoon



One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Chances are, your memory doesn’t need refreshing on any of these films: on any shortlist of the best movies of the 70s, at least two of them would make the cut, maybe three.  How do you decide?

Cuckoo's Nest 1

In 1975, the majority of voters went for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, making it the second film to sweep the “Big Five” awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.)  At this point in time, we were midway through the American new wave, and it was starting to wind down.  The next year, Rocky would win over Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver, a controversial victory to be sure, but not an unexpected one.  If you look at the five films from 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most hopeful.  Sure, the film ends with a suicide and a mercy killing, but it’s hard not to feel uplifted by the finale, which is undeniably moving.  The previous year, the Best Picture Oscar had gone to The Godfather Part II, no doubt a tragic film, but three of the other nominees were infected with the same pessimism: Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny (the fifth, Irwin Allen’s disaster epic The Towering Inferno, is pessimistic about ignoring fire codes, but not much else.)

Why did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest win?  It had been two years since Nixon’s resignation, and the country was beginning to feel better about itself.  Jimmy Carter would be elected President that year, and he began his campaign as the darkest of dark horses.  When the chips were down, people voted for the optimistic film, and that wave of hope swept into 1976, when Rocky beat the decidedly more cynical Network and Taxi Driver.  So it makes sense that Cuckoo’s Nest would have taken the top slot.


Now let’s flash forward to the 1980s.  There’s a recession, Reagan’s leaving the White House, things are decidedly not better for the country.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting left behind.  Of the five nominees, I think Barry Lyndon would have had the best shot at winning.  My favorite of Kubrick’s films, it’s an epic study of one man who rises to the very top only to be brought down by his own hubris.  The story is traditional, and Redmond Barry, the film’s protagonist, has little to no redeeming qualities, but Kubrick holds you spellbound by the skill of his art and the wryness of its comedy (See it with an audience, as I did recently, and you’ll hear tons of laughs that you may not get from watching it on even the nicest TV.)  So Barry Lyndon might take it all.


Does that mean it would have won in the nineties?  Probably not.  With the rise of media circuses surrounding the Menendez brothers, the OJ chase and trial, and the dominance of the 24-hour-news cycle, Dog Day Afternoon probably would win, and it would deserve to, because not only would the context of the time support its victory, it is a powerhouse of great writing and acting, containing probably my favorite Al Pacino performance.


A victory for Dog Day probably wouldn’t be supported by the climate of the 2000s, with the rise of the internet, Napster, and YouTube.  Given the way the music industry changed so dramatically in those years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Altman’s Nashville took it all, and again, it’s a great movie and would deserve everything it won (I highly recommend getting your hands on the new Criterion DVD of it.)


And today, with the changing landscape of big-budget entertainment, and the fact that almost all the nominated movies this year seem to be about survival, in one form or another, I think Jaws would win.  And do I really need to remind you how awesome Jaws is?  In fact, Gravity winning this year would totally make up for Jaws losing nearly forty years ago.

The point I’m trying to make is simple: while the context of the time would affect which of the five 1975 nominees would win Best Picture, merely losing an Oscar to another film does not diminish that movie’s stature.  Sometimes, it increases it:  Citizen Kane will forever be the movie that lost to How Green Was My Valley in 1941, probably the most-cited case of an Oscar upset.  But I want to discourage you from this kind of thinking, which diminishes the movies that win to increase the status of those that don’t.  How Green Was My Valley shouldn’t be thought of as just “the movie that beat Citizen Kane,” instead it should be remembered as a great and moving film, and one that, if the two films were voted on today, would still probably win again.

Yes, we all have our problems when it seems to us that something was more deserving than another film.  Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong.  But this is all just mindless fun, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously by any of us, lest we should start being condescending towards other people for not sharing our taste.  Robert Altman said it best, when he was nominated for Best Director one year: “I’m not even in the same business as these guys.”  He didn’t say it out of malice, rather, he meant that when you’re up against five guys who do completely different work from you, how can you judge who’s best?  The answer is simple: you can’t.  So when you turn on your TVs Sunday night to see who won, I urge all of you to take a step back from the whole thing, and just relax.

P.S. I know, I know, “How could you vote for How Green Was My Valley?”  I didn’t say I would.  I said the Academy would.

P.P.S. What movie would I have voted for of the five 1975 nominees?  Honestly, I’d leave my ballot blank.  Seriously, how am I supposed to pick?  I love all five! 


I’ve seen twelve of Jean-Luc Godard’s films and I still haven’t decided whether I want to kiss him or punch him.

Last night I saw Alphaville, which is currently running at Film Forum on Houston Street.  Going out at all last night was something of a fool’s errand—New York is blanketed in snow after a bad storm that left five feet worth of it on the terrace of the apartment I’m staying at, and every street corner was flooded.  Going out in bad weather to see a movie that I’d walked out of five years earlier sounds like an even crazier fool’s errand if there ever was one.  But I figured I ought to give Alphaville, Godard’s futuristic sci-fi/film noir hybrid, a second chance.

The good news: Alphaville was nowhere near as bad as I remembered.  Eddie Constantine gives a good tough guy performance as Lemmy Caution, the film’s detective.  He also has a wonderful scene with Hollywood character actor Akim Tamiroff at the beginning of the film, where they debate where society is heading.  Filmed in newly restored black and white, the movie is a visual marvel, as most of Godard’s films are.  However, what drove me nuts about the movie five years ago still drives me nuts today: its soundtrack, with an oppressive minimalist score, beeping noises that make me cringe in my seat (I associate them with my alarm clock) and a gravelly computer voice that narrates the movie from passages of Jorge Luis Borges are aggravating in the extreme.  That and Godard’s excess philosophizing doesn’t help at all.  Philosophical discussions in film can be exhilarating, like when Marcello and the Professor talk about Plato’s myth of the cave in my favorite film, The Conformist,[1] but there, a strong visual correlative articulates Marcello’s inner dilemma.  When Godard’s characters talk about philosophy, the camera just sits on them and indulges their often-sophomoric level thoughts on life.  Alphaville is awash in these scenes, as are many of his later films, which frustrates me, because when I first discovered Godard, he immediately became my favorite director.

I first saw Breathless in ninth grade Film Studies.  It was the last day of class before winter break, and we had nothing to watch, so I said, “Let’s watch Breathless.”  We had seen a clip of it a few weeks ago and I was intrigued.  The movie rocked me in a way few movies have, with its improvisatory feel, its rapid jump-cutting, and the utter coolness of Jean-Paul Belmondo.  I had never seen a movie that radiated such coolness in its energy and sexual appeal (I even had a crush on a girl two grades above me solely for the reason that she looked like Jean Seberg).  From that point on, I was obsessed with Godard, crime films, the 60s, and foreign films.  Now, eleven films later, I’m not quite sure how I feel.  The highs have been very high: Contempt, Pierrot Le Fou, Band of Outsiders.  The lows have left me aggravated and jilted: Le Petit Soldat, Weekend, and his insufferable King Lear, in which his performance is so amateurish that he makes The Room’s Tommy Wiseau look like Marlon Brando.

The best way to describe my relationship to Godard is by examining my favorite of his films, Vivre sa Vie.  I’ve seen it twice now, and taken friends to see it.  It’s my favorite Godard film because it embodies my whole relationship with him: I think a lot of it is wonderful, and a lot of it is awful.  Anna Karina’s performance is outstanding throughout, and her exuberance in scenes like this one is infectious to watch.  Try watching this scene and not smiling.

Now watch this scene, later in the film, and try not to writhe with boredom.

Karina’s take to the camera at 8:42 speaks for me.

So what am I still searching for?  I’ve sworn off Godard numerous times, only to find myself coming back for more, mostly to the work from the 60s, and seen more movies of his than those of Renoir, De Sica and Truffaut combined, three directors I love with few, if any reservations.  It all depends on whatever movie of his I’ve seen most recently.  God knows if I loved Alphaville, I’d write a “Godard is awesome!” column instead of a more melancholy piece like this.  However, walking out of Alphaville the first time led to the best compliment I’ve ever received.  A few months after doing so, I commented on Roger Ebert’s blog with thoughts similar to the ones I’ve posted here.  The next week, discussing Godard’s newest film, Film Socialisme, he wrote, “A critical comment by Jeremy Fassler was affectionate about his sometime hero.”  Praise like that is hard to come by–it almost makes sitting through King Lear worth it.  Almost.  

Maybe Mick Jagger said it best, after working for him on Sympathy For the Devil: “Godard is a fucking twat.”

[1] Two facts.  One: the Professor and his wife in The Conformist have Godard’s address.  Bertolucci, an avid admirer of Godard’s, couldn’t wait to show him the film.  When he finally did, Godard scribbled a note before walking out of the screening room that said something to the extent of “You must fight against the forces of capitalism!” which angered Bertolucci so much he threw it away.  When asked why years later, he said, “I had reached the stage in my career where the wish to communicate was no longer a sin.  Godard hadn’t.”

Death of The Master


From left to right: Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond in Death of a Salesman.

Fucking drugs, man.  Fucking drugs.

In all his performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman revealed his inner turmoil, which makes for the greatest acting.  It’s one thing to hide under the character, it’s another to reveal yourself through him.  Even in the smallest roles, you felt a connection with Philip Seymour Hoffman.  When I saw him in Boogie Nights get rejected by Mark Wahlberg at the New Years party, I wanted to reach through my computer screen and hug him.  I wanted to do the same even when he played characters who were morally compromised.  The amount of heartbreak he could put into something as simple as singing “On a Slow Boat to China” in The Master is something that will stay with me forever.

One of the greatest experiences I’ve had as a theatregoer was seeing him play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols.  My Dad had been in Charlie Wilson’s War a few years prior, and, while on set with Mike and Phil, had mentioned to them that I was reading the play for the first time.  They both started talking about how it was their favorite play and how they wanted to do it someday.  I dreamed that, when the time was right, I would get to direct Phil Hoffman as Willy, but seeing Mike Nichols do it, I felt no regrets—how could I, when you see someone you love give the performance you dream of?

While I plan on having a mini film-festival this week to watch some of my favorite performances of his (Almost Famous, Capote, The Master) and ones I haven’t caught up on (The Talented Mr. Ripley), the only thing I’m going to be able to think about is the performances I’m never going to see him give.  Think about how great he would have been as Falstaff; Hickey in The Iceman Cometh; James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (he had played Jamie ten years ago on Broadway); Buddy Plummer in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies—I doubt the dancing would’ve been easy for him, but I’m sure his “Buddy’s Blues” would’ve been terrific.  And that’s where I get angry with him.  All hard drugs are equally life-ruining when abused, but heroin, his addiction, seems to be the one that robs us of the most great artists: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Chris Farley.  It’s the one that seems to have a mythos around it linking it with creativity.  Hoffman’s death should end that mythos, but chances are it won’t, because the problem isn’t just heroin, the problem is addiction itself.

I look on addicts with a combination of scorn and sadness: scorn because they are destroying themselves a day at a time, and sadness because they’re unable to save themselves from themselves.  It’s a disease that no doctor can cure you of.  Sure, there are rehabilitation centers, experimental therapies, and anonymous groups, but the only person who can stop you from being an addict is you.  My Mom can speak about the evils of addiction with more authority than I can—she is the child of alcoholics, and her family tree is riddled with the disease—but I’ve known people who were alcohol and drug addicts, and cannot understand their refusal to quit in the face of everyone telling them to do so.

A lot of people have been writing on Facebook that Hoffman’s death was a waste.  It was, in that it didn’t need to happen.  It could’ve been prevented if he’d had the courage to stop himself.  Looking at him, I’m reminded of a quote from Goethe: “A human life remains of value not because of what we leave behind, but because we arouse and inspire others to action.”  Hoffman should not be respected in any way for his substance abuse.  It wrecked his life, and it wrecked the lives of his girlfriend and the three children they had together.  But we’re lucky that we have his art, which is going to inspire actors for years to come.

Fucking drugs.

The Difficulty of Translating Plays Onto Film


Recently, my Dad and I eagerly watched our screener of August: Osage County.  Both of us had seen Tracy Letts’ play on Broadway—I loved it so much I went back and saw it twice in two days.  It featured riveting ensemble acting and a script of terrific one-liners, creating what was, for me, a theatrical experience unlike any I have ever had.  So I had reasonably high expectations for the movie.  But if I had never seen or read August: Osage County, I’d have a hard time believing, based on the movie, that theatregoers and critics deemed it such a great play.

So why does August fail as cinema?  The blame can be assigned in many directions.  One person who deserves the brunt is Tracy Letts himself, whose adaptation, while close to the play, cuts out several parts that deepen the characters’ relationships.  One is director John Wells, who directs the film like a Lifetime movie, with the actors pitched at high histrionics at all times.  It’s as if Wells never knew that the play was just as funny as it was dramatic, and scenes that drew huge laughs on stage aren’t mined for comedy.  The lack of a strong guiding hand sends the actors adrift, particularly Meryl Streep who, given to her own instincts, performs the role of alcoholic matriarch Violet Weston with none of her requisite grace and subtlety.[1]  But the big question is this: why did August: Osage County even have to be a movie, if there was nobody who could make it a cinematic experience?

The question of why some plays can translate to film and some can’t has always fascinated me, since I’ve spent most of my life closely observing in and partaking in both.  I had to write an essay on this in ninth grade, and I even posted it on my first blog (you can find it deep in the recesses of blogspot—I’m not going to link to it, unless you want to see the journalistic equivalent of refrigerator drawings).  We studied A Streetcar Named Desire, Michael Almareyda’s film of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and many more to separate the two mediums.  I argued that they were similar, since their focus was both on narrative.  But, as I saw more movies based on plays, I realized that narrative is never enough.  To translate a play onto film, you have to take advantage of the cinematic medium.

What do I mean by “take advantage of the cinematic medium?”  I just think it has to live as film.  A play has to be adapted and reshaped.  It cannot literally just be the play, unless it’s a towering masterpiece like A Streetcar Named Desire or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both of which translate seamlessly onto film with only minimal cuts.  But some plays, in trying to become cinematic, lose the intimacy that made them great.

A good example of a play which tries, but doesn’t quite gel on film, is Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Dancing at Lughnasa.  I feel a deep connection to this play about five Irish sisters, their African missionary brother, and the son who narrates the play in flashback, in large part because I played the son in my senior year of high school.  The movie, adapted by Frank McGuinness, takes advantage of the camera and “opens the play up” so that we see more locations than just a ramshackle country house, adding scenes and characters that are only referred to in the play.  The famous dancing scene, where the five sisters leap into a spontaneous jig, was moved from the middle of the play to the climax of the film, and much of the son’s narration is cut.  It “works” as cinema, from that standpoint, but the drama of the play dissipates, and what was powerful on stage becomes melodramatic on film.  Does the camera erase the big emotions of theatre?  Not entirely—Marlon Brando’s cry of “Stella!” is as famous a piece of film acting as any—but Brando knew when to be big and when to scale it back.  When actors are just big all the time—as the Lughnasa and August actors are—the results are closer to TV.

So what makes a great transition from stage to screen?  It all comes down to how you present the story.  To paraphrase William Goldman, adaptation requires being faithful without being literal.  For this reason, Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of Amadeus is my favorite movie of a great play.  Shaffer’s play is inherently theatrical: it uses chamber theatre narration, characters playing multiple roles (often in the same scene!) and other devices that work best on stage.  When Forman made it into a movie, he told Shaffer, “You must give birth to your child a second time.”  Apart from expanding the narrative to include Mozart’s father, a character not featured in the play, Amadeus re-tools its theatricality in a cinematic way: rather than just have Salieri narrate to the camera, he narrates to a Priest, not featured in the play, who acts as our audience surrogate.  It also takes advantage of showing us the full spectacle of Mozart’s operas, with full production numbers—something which couldn’t be done on stage.  By making the play a separate entity from the film, Amadeus becomes a different but equally satisfying experience in both mediums.

Ultimately though, it’s tough to argue that “the play was better,” especially when you’re talking to people who didn’t see the play on stage.  If people enjoyed August without having seen the play on stage, fine.  But it’s sort of like not reading the book before seeing the movie—those who read it have an entirely different perspective.  And just as some books don’t need to be movies, some plays just don’t need to be either.  If August’s reputation as a play sags over the next few years, it’ll be because of the entirely unnecessary film.

[1]I highly doubt the Academy voters who nominated her for Best Actress (and Julia Roberts for Supporting) even saw the movie.  They voted for her because she’s Meryl Streep, and she’s the greatest actress alive—but even the best batter can strike out.

Best Picture Winners: The Best of the Best


I have spent much of my life in a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards, as I think anyone who loves film has.  For me, growing up in Los Angeles, and with parents who are members of SAG and the WGA, winter doesn’t mean snow and tinsel, it means advance movie screenings, Q&As and DVDs (Last year, when my Mom was on the SAG nominating committee, we got literally everything).  What’s more, my interest in film was piqued largely through the Oscars—starting when I was in sixth grade, the Academy, for their 75th anniversary, did a retrospective of every Best Picture winner.  It took a year and a half to screen all seventy-five movies, but I was there almost every week.  I literally watched the medium evolve from The Broadway Melody (the first screening, as they were busy restoring the first winner, Wings), to the most recent winner at the time, Chicago.[1] 

Now that the 86th Oscars are upon us, I think it’s only appropriate to go through what I think the best winners are—and a couple of my least favorites.  Mind you, I’ve seen every winner except for two that I haven’t finished, Cimarron and The Greatest Show on Earth, so I’m not going to analyze those.  And I’m not going to waste space in this column bashing movies just because they beat movies we like more, with one exception.  Yes, I know you’re still mad that Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas.  It was twenty years ago.  Get over yourselves.

Without further ado, my ten favorite winners:

10. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Some people think this movie has dated, but it’s been one of my favorite films since I saw it in middle school.  A lot of reasons I love this film are personal: this was the movie that opened the floodgates for me to see whatever else I wanted, since my parents figured that after seeing the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture, nothing could be off-limits.  Another was that Jon Voight came to introduce the screening, and as he left, I ran out of the theatre and got to meet him and have a really sweet conversation with him.  He signed my program “Jeremy, what a pleasure to hear you speak of our work, may you achieve all your dreams.”  Another is that I have gone as Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character, for Halloween, with my friend JJ as Jon Voight’s Joe Buck.  But apart from the personal reasons, I love the imagery of New York in the 60s, before Disney came in and prettified the city.  I love the handheld camera and the improvisatory feel of the film, especially Dustin Hoffman’s classic “I’m walkin’ here!” moment, which never fails to get applause from the audience.  And what’s more, it has so many simple moments which never fail to touch me.  My favorite is when Joe meets the woman at the diner who says, “Welcome to Miami.”  It’s a simple act of kindness and in the context of everything Joe’s been through, it’s one of the few times someone’s just been nice to him.  I wish it wasn’t the only gay cowboy love story to win Best Picture, but we’ll get to that later.

09. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

My parent’s favorite movie, this three-hour film about veterans returning home from WWII is almost unthinkable today.  If it was made, it would be on television, since no one would think a story like this could hold an audience’s attention for so long.  But this intimate epic captures America at its most vulnerable, when we were getting out of troubled times and had to readjust to normalcy.  Like Midnight Cowboy, its emotions are never thrown in your face: director William Wyler’s subtle touch makes every moment real, from Dana Andrews revealing to his wife that he’s unemployed, to my favorite, when Fredric March comes home for the first time and keeps the kids quiet so that his wife won’t know he’s there.  The sequence, done in one shot, is a master class in how to evoke emotion from simplicity.

08. Annie Hall (1977)

This is the movie that most people think of when they hear the name Woody Allen, and there’s good reason for it.  It’s brief (ninety minutes), filled with one great line after another, and probably did more for women’s fashion than any movie since Bonnie and Clyde.  What’s more, Allen gets relationships dead on in this film.  Breaking up is one of the hardest things in life, especially when it’s with someone who we know is great, but we’ve reached a dead end with.  Believe me when I say I have broken up with a girlfriend using the words “what we have on our hands is a dead shark”—and the fact that she didn’t get the reference probably made my decision to break up easier.[2]

07. Unforgiven (1992)

It’s not perfect—there are a couple of performances that just don’t cut it (the problems that come with shooting in Canada), but Clint Eastwood’s summation of the west is more than just a great western, it’s one of the best American films of the last twenty years.  It seems at first like just another, “Oh, the former outlaw has to go back in the game” kind of films, but it goes deeper than that, into being a meditation on good and evil.  The performances from Eastwood, Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for his role as the corrupt sheriff Bill Daggett) and Morgan Freeman are superb, as is the now-famous finale where Eastwood rides into town to confront Hackman.  It must be seen in a movie theatre to be believed, since its cinematography is so beautiful.

06. No Country For Old Men (2007)

A companion to Unforgiven in many ways, since it’s also a statement on good and evil, and what it means to be a man in modern-America.  The Coens’ neo-western is also a statement on why the west itself is dead: Josh Brolin’s loser husband-turned-outlaw fancies himself John Wayne.  Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s unforgettable killer, is the black hat who makes Liberty Valance look as intimidating as Dumbo.  And in the end, it turns out that neither of them win—sheer dumb luck gets in the way.  Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff stands for us, as he can’t make sense of the level of violence the characters commit, nor the complex machinations of the plot.  Apart from all that, it’s also a hysterically funny movie at times: the Coens know how to do black comedy better than anybody.  The first time I saw this film I was perplexed by it, and upset by its lack of a conclusive ending.  Upon seeing it again, I realized what a masterpiece it was.  More than any other film on this list, this is the one that needs to be seen twice to really understand.

05. The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, which no doubt had an influence on Mad Men fifty years later, plays beautifully today: I can watch it over and over and never tire of it.  Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are perfectly matched together, and their chemistry is always entertaining to watch.  Fred McMurray is also great as the piece’s villain: along with Double Indemnity, it is his finest work as an actor.  There isn’t much I can write about this movie that hasn’t been said elsewhere, since it’s such a favorite film of many who work in the industry today.  I’ll just give the last word to Wilder, who said, “We had the right actors.  It worked.”

04. Amadeus (1984)

I’m going to keep this brief, because I’m writing about this film in a column that’ll go up later this week.  Needless to say, this is my favorite adaptation of a great play for the screen, since it truly re-invents its source material for the screen rather than just trying to film the play.

03. The Godfather I and II (1972/74)

These two movies have to be paired together, since they’re so of a piece that I can’t split them apart.  It’s one of the greatest cinematic tragedies, on a level with the best of the Greeks and Shakespeare.  I guess the big question is, which one do I love more?  It depends which one I’ve seen most recently.  When I’ve seen Part I, it’s my favorite, when I’ve seen Part II, that becomes my favorite.  I love them both for different reasons: Part I for its action sequences, Brando’s work, and the tragic arc of Michael’s character.  Part II stands out for me because of its flashbacks, and not just De Niro’s scenes.  Maybe my favorite scene in either movie is the climax of Part II, when we see the family get together to surprise Vito Corleone on his birthday.  The moment when they run offscreen and yell “Surprise!” to an unseen father, leaving Michael alone, is the essence of the two films: the son whose father is always going to haunt him, and through his own machinations, will always be alone.

02. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’ve seen this movie six times and have never been bored by it.  Even as a kid, when I didn’t know what was going on towards the end, I was captivated.  You can only see this movie on a big screen—not even the best blu-ray player can capture it in its full splendor.  Peter O’Toole’s performance—legendary.  Some might say it’s the greatest ever put on film, and I’m not going to argue with them.  The more I watch it, the more I learn from it.  There’s no other movie like it, and it could never be made today, so I am grateful that it was ever made at all.  Once is better than never.

The best: Casablanca (1943)

This is a pretty easy pick, all in all, as I consider Casablanca the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, even above Citizen Kane.  The reason is simple: Hollywood used to make a movie a week, fifty-two movies a year.  The people who made this film took it as an assignment, but approached it with professionalism.  None of them thought their story was going to resonate after seventy years, much less be the movie that summed up an entire era of movies.  When the old studio system worked, it gave us movies like this, which were not only supremely entertaining, but also had deep things to say about life and death.  It’s fair to say that Casablanca is probably the most beloved American movie of all time.  Hyperbole?  Not at this point in time.

And just a few of the least distinguished movies to take the top prize:

Cavalcade (1932/33)

It’s hard to believe Noel Coward wrote this wooden drama about an English family’s life from 1900 to 1933.  It’s so hackneyed as to include scenes where the young lovers go, “Nothing will stop us now!” and then the camera reveals they’re on the deck of the Titanic!  However, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you should watch it so you can see the way it has influenced decades of British drama.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I don’t get pissed when I think about Rocky beating Network, Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, or How Green Was My Valley beating Citizen Kane.  But The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour biopic of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, beat one of my favorite movies, William Wyler’s subtle masterpiece, Dodsworth.  And for that, I can’t forgive it.  Also, IT’S THREE HOURS!

Going My Way (1944)

I’ve written about my issues with this movie elsewhere, but it’s just a film that really fails to speak to a modern audience.  I think it also bugs me because I associate its director, Leo McCarey, with the most unsparing and unsentimental of classic films, Make Way For Tomorrow, which inspired Ozu’s Tokyo Story, so any time I see him direct something sentimental, it doesn’t feel right to me.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

This bloated travelogue is symptomatic of what was wrong with Hollywood during the 50s: they relied too much on spectacle to keep audiences in the theatres and away from their TV sets.  It also doesn’t help matters that it’s based on an equally boring book, which I seem to be the only idiot to ever have read.  However, it’s not a total loss: Victor Young’s score is beautiful, and Saul Bass created an ingenious end titles sequence which recaps the entire movie.  Watch that instead and call it a day.

Crash (2005)

I know, I know, it’s too easy to pick on this film.  And the acting is very good in it, I’ll admit.  But its simple, sentimental answers to complex problems is irksome and its repetition of the same note over and over tiresome.  However, I think the reason Crash is the worst movie to win isn’t because it’s actually “the worst”—again, the acting keeps it from being a total burnout—but because it won out of anti-gay prejudice, and that’s forever going to taint it.  It’s also not just because it beat Brokeback, the most obviously gay-themed of the five nominees, but the fact that the three other nominees had them too.  After all, Capote was about a gay writer, Munich was by a gay writer, Tony Kushner, and as for Good Night and Good Luck, we all know what George Clooney’s hiding…

[1] While I may not have voted for it, the symmetry of this series starting with a musical and ending with a musical has made me ever grateful for Chicago winning the Oscar that year.

[2] Also, continuing in my tradition of dressing for Halloween as characters from film, my high school girlfriend and I went my senior year as Annie and Alvy.  It was definitely better than my Ratso Rizzo costume, which nobody got.

Why Armond White Is Not a Contrarian


Just this week, the New York Film Critics Circle chose to expel Armond White from its ranks, due largely to his heckling of Best Director winner Steve McQueen during the awards ceremony last week.  White reportedly called him “an embarrassing garbageman and doorman,” and while he has denied these charges, no one who was there doubts he did it, since he has notoriously heckled winners and presenters at past NYFCC ceremonies.  Some might say that Armond White’s voice is necessary in film criticism, that he’s a “contrarian,” and that he helps us understand why movies that are perceived as great, are actually garbage.  But I want to dispel that myth once and for all: Armond White is a bully with little taste, and he does not deserve to be labeled a contrarian.

The word “contrarian” gets thrown around a lot, especially in the age of the internet, where anybody with an opinion automatically has a forum for it.  But think about what a contrarian does: a contrarian challenges your opinions not so much to get you to change your mind, but to ask why you think the way you do.  Christopher Hitchens is the best example of a contrarian: even when I didn’t agree with him (and I frequently didn’t), he used his power of persuasion to challenge your presuppositions.  You always knew where Hitchens was coming from: he had a love of knowledge and the Socratic method, and he wanted people to re-examine their reasoning on that basis, rather than having blind faith in something outside themselves.  Contrarians exist in the arts, too: the playwright Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, Domesticated) is a provocateur par excellence—he’ll say some things because he wants to drive you crazy.  But Norris uses his words to make you, the listener, think, “Why did I have a knee-jerk reaction to what he said?”  Norris’s mastery of this form has made him one of the leading playwrights in the United States.

Armond White would like to be the Christopher Hitchens of film criticism, but the problem is that his writing lacks the power to get anyone (at least, me) to change their mind.  His pre-established biases towards and against certain filmmakers allow us to predict his reviews before they’re even written.  It was almost a given that he would hate The Social Network, as White openly hates David Fincher.  It’s also a given that he would praise anything with Adam Sandler: his review of Jack and Jill was so absurdly over-the-top in its praise for a movie that most people hated led The A.V. Club to publish an article with the headline, “It’s Time For Armond White To Explain Why Everyone Is Wrong About Jack and Jill.”  White’s writing, in these reviews, isn’t trying to speak to us, it’s trying to speak over us, garbled by its loudness and confusion.  And when he writes his annual “better than” lists, where he justifies why movies we didn’t see are better than the ones getting Oscar nominations, he makes it impossible for us to disagree, because, chances are, the movies he praises were barely released and impossible for us to find.  I hate when critics do this—it gives them an air of “I know more than you do.”

Even when he tries to praise talented directors, it still sounds like he’s got something to prove.  In an interview with Steven Boone, a fine writer and critic, White talks about how disappointed he was tat more people didn’t go to a retrospective of the films of director Frank Borzage.  The problem is, his praise for him comes off of his hatred towards Sidney Lumet, whom he calls an “ugly” and “cynical” filmmaker shortly beforehand.  It’s one thing to like the films of Borzage, but the way White does it, it makes him seem like he’s the only person who knows the truth, which is not only that Borzage is better than Lumet, but that film critics only care about one of them, since Lumet speaks to their cynicism and Borzage is more positive.  To which I can only say, if you don’t respect the man who made 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and countless other great movies, you shouldn’t be writing about films. 

If White tries to challenge our taste by forcing us to re-examine Adam Sandler and Sidney Lumet, why doesn’t this make him a true contrarian?  Ultimately, it isn’t just the fact that his taste is bad—it’s that there’s no love in his attempt to persuade us.  As it is with all criticism, positive or negative, the attempt must come from love and not hate.  I can criticize a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street for everything I find wrong with it, but I can only do it effectively because I believe in the talent of the people who made it, and because I wanted to love what they were doing.  White’s persona comes from a hatred towards an establishment that he feels has always rejected him: therefore, he gives himself the authority to knock it down whenever possible.  But in doing so, he has become less critic, less contrarian, and more troll, because the writing of all trolls, no matter how well-informed, always comes down to a three-word subtext repeated over and over again: “Look at me, look at me, look at me.”