Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shine On You Crazy Armond

Of all the film critics I read on a regular basis, few make me want to crumple up said publication into a tennis ball-sized wad, shove it into my mouth, spit it out, and jump up and down upon it, than the New York Press's Armond White. A contrarian among contrarians, White's reviews typically combine the cheap baiting tactics of the most attention-starved internet message board troll, and the nonsensical rantings of a mental patient plagued by visions of malicious gnomes. Most tiresome of all is his continuous one-man war on so-called "hipster cynicism" - pictures that suggest a dark side to human nature (There Will Be Blood), families (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), and economic poverty (The Wrestler), while championing lowbrow horseshit like Norbit.

In addition to his just plain wonky taste in flicks (his recent year-end "Better Than" list concluded that Transporter 3 > The Dark Knight, RockNRolla > Slumdog Millionaire, and CJ7 > Wall-E), White is guilty of just about every fallacy in film criticism, from continuously damning certain filmmakers no matter how much they mature (David Fincher) and rigourously defending others no matter how low they sink (Luc Besson), to explicitly stating that anyone who might like a film he dislikes is a complete moron. In his own mind, he doubtlessly sees himself as a Richard Matheson-inspired Last Man on Earth/Messiah type, ranting from his high tower at the mindless zombie hordes that they should be rediscovering Eric Rohmer's films or buying tickets to the latest Tyler Perry Jesus-fest, rather than killing their brains with the help of Tarantino and Todd Haynes.

And what's more, most of his arguments are just as easy to poke holes in as wet tissue paper. After recieveing numerous complains that he never reviewed Wall-E during its initial run, and that it seemed a little cheap to simply write it off as "ugly, end-of-history cynicism," Armond went on to damn it a little more in-depth in his review of Coraline. That film, he insisted, along with Monster House, Persepolis, and Waltz with Bazshir , elevated the medium of animation, wheras Pixar's recent efforts maintained its status as a "babysitter's ghetto." Mr. White doesn't go into why he feels compelled to call a teriffic depiction of the ups-and-downs of family like The Incredibles, or a beautiful tale of personal achievement and artistic integrity like Ratatouille "ravishing junk." He does, however, take a lot of time call out Wall-E on its apparent cynicism: the notion of human beings reduced to hover chair-bound sloths, leaving our planet to go to waste.

I've got to wonder- does Mr. White not believe that we are slowly destroying this planet? Does he not believe that Americans are natural resource gluttons, when the cold hard evidence proves that we consume staggeringly high percentages more than other countries? The roly-poly spaceship inhabitants of Wall-E are a caricature of ourselves - they aren't meant to be taken literally, but they do have their basis in what we can see if we look right out of our windows. The reason that Wall-E ends happily is because, duh, it's still a kid's movie. They're not going to end a kid's movie with "so, eventually, you'll get like wicked fat, and you'll die. The end." The bulk of the film still carries a powerful ultimatum for young and old alike to get off our asses and take care of this planet. The fact that Wall-E looks to the future, whereas Coraline looks to the past with its Grimm Brothers-inspired plot and reassertion of dependency upon one's parents suggests that Mr. White is probably uncomfortable with the reality on his doorstep butting heads with his militantly rose-tinted worldview.

The Press's Feb 11-17 issue contained White's review of Gomorrah - a recent Mafia pic/art movie from Italy - where he once again falls upon the same hackneyed "wasn't as good as such-and-such-a-film" rhetoric, this time with pathetically laughable results. Gomorrah, he asserts, is weak tea compared to The Godfather. Holy shit, really?! Stop the muh'fuh'in' presses. A recent crime film that just came out in select theaters is not as good as a movie that almost everyone agrees is one of the two or three greatest films of all time. Taking up a full page of newsprint to say this makes about as much sense as writing an op-ed about how water is wet. I haven't seen Gomorrah yet, but imagine if you asked me "Hey Jack, how was My Bloody Valentine 3D?" and I said, "Psshaw, it wasn't no Casablanca, that's for darn tootin'." You'd probably, and correctly, think I was an asshole, even before I preceeded (as Crazy Uncle Monkeyshit does in the same issue) to compare Luis Bunel to Nacho Libre and mean it as a compliment.

So why the hell do I keep reading the guy? Every Wednesday I skip merrily home from work and pick up the New York Press from the news kiosk across the street with the blind glee of a puppy bounding toward and eight-lane highway. And I only read the Press for Armond's reviews (and for Tony Millionaire's comic Maakies): Lord knows that the sophmoric gibberings of Josh Bernstein only come in handy for me when I run out of lavatory paper. So why do I keep reading this guy if he pisses me off so much? Could be a lot of reasons. First and foremost is his steadfast defense of Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, two of the critical consensus' biggest mainstream-auteur punching bags - he even summed up exactly my own feelings about the not-great but still hugely underrated Black Dahlia. The second is the sheer outright hilarity of some of his most nonsensical writing: his reviews for Hellboy: The Golden Army and Hamlet 2 actually made me wonder if he had scrawled them while drunk, which is to say nothing of his assertation that the terrible C. Thomas Howell vehicle Soul Man predicted Obama's presidency, nor his long-running man-crush on Jason Statham.

But no, the real reason I have this silly love-hate relationship (or more of a love-hate-hate-hate relationship) with Armond White is because the guy, shithouse-rat crazy he may be, is intelligent and always fiercely honest. In a field where most film criticism is little more than "the acting is very strong" or "it could have been a reel shorter here or there," Armond White is one of the few who really consider what popular entertainment means. Even though I disagree with him, like, 85% of the time, I keep reading him for the ones where he gets it right. And when he does, boy does he ever. So thank you, Armond White, for keeping film criticism interesting and colorful, at the very least. Keep on shinin'.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Masked and Anonymous

The tempestuous juggernaut of thirty-odd trillion fanboys continues to rage on over the fact that The Dark Knight failed to score a Best Picture nomination. My sympathies go out to them - I think Nolan's picture is superior to all of the nominated films, though I'm much more annoyed at the befuddling snub of The Wrestler. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about another film starring the Caped Crusader from way back in 1992: Tim Burton's marvelous, twisted fever dream, Batman Returns. Much less universally loved than Nolan's second outing, but for my money, the most fun and consistently interesting superhero movie ever made.

What is fascinating to me about the film is that most fans' criticisms are indeed exactly what I like so much about it - chiefly, that Batman isn't really the central character, he's really just another weirdo who dresses up in a costume and goes prowling around at night. His behavior is shown less as a duty to the citizens of Gotham City than an unfightable urge - a fetish, even - that he is powerless to stop. Given the success of 1989's Batman (a solid and enjoyable feature, if only that), Warner Brothers gave Burton the proverbial keys to the castle in directing the sequel. Having behaved himself the first go-around, this time he and Heathers scribe Daniel Waters fashioned a baroque tale of coded sexual deviancy; a work of deranged pop art that examines what a strange and kinky thing it is to be a masked vigilante.

It's not only the most debauched film that ever had a McDonald's Happy Meal tie-in, but also, probably, the most mature and psychologically rich film of Burton's ouvre. Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and the Penguin are not alienated schoolyard kids like Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka and Pee-Wee Herman; they are adult outcasts. Danny DeVito's wild, Pied Piper-like Penguin is a hedonist, sexually and otherwise, and a man who believes in his own life as a Dickensian underdog tale. Years of being surrounded by clannish fellow outcasts and circus folk, watching the beautiful people from afar, has given him the false impression that he will be able to fit in with them. Christopher Walken's Max Schreck, on the other hand, is a bully who seems to find pushing people around, male or female, to be a greater thrill than any sexual indulgence.

Bruce and Selina, on the other hand, are victims of deep-rooted repression. This is most obvious in Selina's case: a post-women's lib career gal who is still relegated to making coffee and enduring humiliation from her cheauvanistic male superiors. Her uniformally pink apartment is full of stuffed animals, dolls and other goody-two-shoesy knick-knacks. It looks like either a little girl's bedroom or somebody's grandma's house, but either way, a sexless purgatory. When Selina is literally pushed too far (out of a window, by her boss,) she is reborn as Catwoman: a Hyde/Id/Venus in Furs uberwoman who is the culmination of all Selina's withheld longings over the years.

The scene in which Selina goes berserk and destroys her apartment after her “rebirth” ranks with some of the best of Douglas Sirk: a pitch-perfect marriage of camerawork, editing, Danny Elfman's drivingly-maddening score, and Michelle Pfieffer's performance (indeed, she would never be this unbridedly perfect ever again.) Shoving her teddy bears down the garbage disposal and covering the walls with black spray paint, she searches through her closet for the only thing that isn't oppressively dainty – a black PVC raincoat – and begins to fashion it into her unabashedly dominatrix-styled catsuit. Her subsequent midnight prowlings include beating up a rapist, then berating his victim for her self-imposed helplessness, and whipping the heads off department store mannequins (man-made emblems of female domesticity) and disrarming a couple of mookish security guards (a symbolic act of castration.) Her ultimate decision to partner up with the Penguin to frame Batman seems motivated by little more than the fact that Batman appears to be the biggest, toughest alpha-male on the block.

As played by Michael Keaton, however, Batman is really anything but. He relies on his gadgets in this film even more than Adam West with his anti-shark spray, spending most of his screentime inside the Batmobile or seated at the Batcave's computer. Wheras Christian Bale played Batman as a singular-minded crimefighter for whom the Bruce Wayne persona was a mere put-on, Keaton is the opposite: a nebbish, shy doofus incapable of relating to other people. He puts on the Batman suit to make himself feel like a big strong man, but deep down, he is really just Bruce Wayne. This is why the relationship between him and Selina Kyle doesn't work out: because she is a true deviant, a creature of the night, and he's just a bookworm who pretends to be one because he is incapable of a normal romantic relationship.

It's pretty easy to see why comic book fans don't like this version of the Caped Crusader: most people want to see their heroes doing the right thing for the right reasons, not Freudian weirdos trying to work out their sexual hangups. But I, for one, am fascinated by such explorations, if there's a gifted auteur like Burton at the helm. Christopher Nolan gave the fanboys the Batman movie they had been waiting for all their lives – a film that treated the inherantly ludicrous premise of Bob Kane's comics with the intricacy and nuance of a great detective thriller. But Burton opted instead to explore the twisted allure of masked crimefighting, especially among the more shut-in set. Rather than give the fans what they want, he held up a grotesque funhouse mirror to them, and needless to say, not many of them were comfortable with what they saw.