White, Armond 03.16.2014 KDVS 90.3 FM
Justin Desmangles: You’re listening to New Day Jazz, real jazz, real talk, where every month is Black History Month. As many regular listeners to the program know, we have the honor of film and music critic Armond White joining us from his home in New York City. One of the most formidable, and certainly among the most powerfully deciphering, film and music critics to emerge from the United States. The great Armond White. Armond, thank you so much for being generous with your time and joining us this afternoon on New Day Jazz.
Armond White: Thank you, Justin. I am happy to be here.
JD: Now, earlier in the day, as we were preparing for this afternoon’s broadcast and talking about what music we might share, you mentioned to me the music that we were just listening to, that is Chicago’s great composer, saxophonist, Eddie Harris.
AW: Oh yeah.
JD: And the music, “Listen Here.” And this has very special meaning in your own development as an artist and as a writer. Perhaps, we can begin with that. Where does “Listen Here” come in for you?
AW: Well, Justin, I was raised not far from Chicago. I’m from Detroit. And when I was growing up in Detroit in the 60’s popular music was, it was a ferment of popular music. Especially in Detroit, lots of musical artists were at peak creativity. But this is also happening across the country, obviously. And also at that time, as a kid growing up in Motown, and listening to the radio a lot, radio was much more diverse, pluralistic, and you could listen to a radio station and hear music by assorted artists of different genre. So even on an R&B station, or even on a Pop station, in the ‘60s, you’d hear jazz records, like Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here.” And as a kid, for some reason, that record really appealed to me. Harris’ saxophone, it just delighted me to hear. And “Listen Here” was one the first 45 rpm records that I ever bought with my own money.
AW: (Laughs) So it’s always been special to me and, I guess, kind of, in retrospect, just the title itself, Listen Here, lends some explanation to what I’ve always wanted to do in public myself. I’ve always wanted to express my view of things, my feelings about things. Really, as a critic, I don’t even ask people to agree with what I say about a movie. I just want them to pay attention. I want them to listen. So, I thank God for Eddie Harris for coming up with a great record and a song that expressed that, you know: “Listen Here.”
JD: Would you say that “Listen Here” is coming out of the tradition of telling like it is. I mean, that’s part of what we hear coming from the music, and that’s what we hear coming from you. When I introduced you a moment ago, one of the things that I said, and it’s certainly very true, and necessary to underline and emphasize, and that is, you have an extraordinary, powerfully deciphering, point of view that you bring to your writings. It’s very, very rigorous and it’s also highly original. You are able to extract and offer meanings that seem to evade many critics and thinkers today. Is that part of the attitude expressed by this musical tradition, do you feel? Again, I said “Listen Here” is part of telling it like it is. Is that part of what it means for you?
AW: I guess so. I accept that. You know, there’s a saying, we don’t choose our careers, our careers chose us. I never consciously thought about, telling it like it is, I think it is part of the tradition that I grew up in, the Black Gospel tradition, the Motown, and Jazz tradition. And as it happens, the first film critic job I got in New York, when I moved to New York, was for a great black owned newspaper called the City Sun. It was started by Andrew Cooper and Patrice Leed, and it just so happens that the motto of that paper was, Speaking Truth to Power. I didn’t take a job there knowing that, it just worked out that way, because maybe that is all kind of certain kind of Black American tradition. To speak truth to power, to tell it like it is.
JD: That’s exactly right. Now, in thinking about the City Sun, of course I am reminded how true it is, you were speaking a few moments ago about the pluralism or the diversity of radio, back in the day, as well, and I think this could be applied to what was known as the press, or what people simply describe today as the media, being a much more diversified, much more variegated field as compared with today. Because when I think about the unique place that you occupy in today’s world, as a critic, obviously I also have to consider the kind of unanimity of many critics that I would consider to be very formal lackeys or suck-ups to the corporations which own the publications that they write for, or the movie studios that produce the films that they supposedly critique. Or, rather I should say, that the critique has been absent from the criticism. But again, more to the point, where do you see that transitional phase that brought us to where we are now? I mean, obviously, getting back to your original point, there was a great deal more diversity prior to this. When do you see that change happening to where we are now, this narrowing of the field?
AW: Well, I can almost pinpoint it. I think I observed the change happening in the early or mid 80’s. Probably had something to do with the Reagan administration and the changed ideas people had about, well, the changed priorities that people took on in that era. But, I specifically remember it happening when, uh, around the time that box office scores began to be reported outside of the Hollywood trade papers. Box office scores began to be talked about in the general press. And that really changed a lot. It changed the way the newspapers and mainstream media began to look at movies. And eventually changed the way that reviewers began to regard a film and their role as film critics. And another thing, too, the detrimental effect of Roger Ebert’s T.V. show.
JD: The television shows. Right.
AW: But, I don’t want to get sidetracked into discussing that tragedy. But, um, that certainly had an effect, too. And that certainly was a part of the ‘80s change. When criticism stopped being separate from the film industry, and the change is that reviewers started considering themselves part of the film industry. And they think that their job is to promote movies, rather than to critique them.
JD: Please go on.
AW: And, unfortunately I have to say, with the help of Roger Ebert and his T.V. show, he kind of normalized that perspective, to the point that people now think that is what a critics does. A critic likes things, a critic promotes things, rather than criticize, rather than trying to analyze and understand and bring a sense of history and continuity to the expression, to the analysis of a film.
JD: Bringing history and continuity, yes. That I think is especially missing from today’s criticism. And those who call themselves critics often seem incapable of doing the homework necessary, or have the understanding of the work that they’re criticizing. But, I am very interested in this particular point that you made in regards to this transition, where we see box office scores being reported outside of trade papers. One of the things that resonates with for me is the classic essay among the many works by Pauline Kael, from the summer of 1980, Why Are Movies So Bad, or The Numbers. Because this is a very prescient essay wherein she had written, wherein corporations, or conglomerates was the word she used, were taking over the film industry and people were being recruited out of business schools, rather than the film industry itself, to produce films. And this is part of a larger cultural problem. It’s not just something that happens in the film industry itself, its part of a larger backlash against the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s. Part of the Reagan era is characterized by this corporatization of the media. Is that fair to say?
AW: Very fair. And, of course, when corporations began to take over the studios, they weren’t only taking over the studios. They were also taking over newspapers, television networks as well. All areas of media, and in that way changing the way that people responded to media, the way people used media, the way people thought about it. They thought about in terms of the good of corporations rather than more moral or ethical terms. All about the money. And that became wide spread in the 80’s. At the same time hip hop became popular. Hip hop, as we know, its all about the hustle, don’t knock the Benjamins. That kind of ethic of hip hop, well, not ethic, but tenet of hip hop, which came out of that same period.
JD: And has had a terrifying and egregious, enormously damaging, impact on Black American culture in general, I think we can say.
AW: Yes, well, all culture, too. But yes, of course. And you know, that Pauline Kael essay you mentioned, a wonderful, wonderful piece of cultural analysis. There is almost no other critic like that today. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that Roger Ebert ever did. But Pauline, she always had an acumen for that though. Even though that essay, The Numbers, came out of her particular experience in Hollywood. It was the kind of thing she was aware of, and you notice it in her earlier writings in fact, she had social and political awareness without ever being doctrinaire about it.
JD: Now, I want to talk more about Pauline Kael and the creative cross-pollination, the fertility that has occurred in your own relationship as a writer with her work and with her personally. But before we move in to that I’d like to talk a little more about a subject that has come up here, and that has to do with the use of film and television to broadcast, or in this case we were talking about the Reagan junta in American politics, which included corporations taking over larger and larger shares of the media, being used as a political tool, or a propagandist tool. I think that the spate of films that pretend to address the issue of slavery in the New World, particularly inside the United States, can be accurately described as political propaganda to sort of move away from, or try to actually evade, or un-remember the very subjects that they’re attempting, or pretending, to address. Could you talk to us a little bit about your own thoughts about the recent films? I’m thinking of course about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and then more recently, 12 Years a Slave.
AW: Oh, yes, the awful 12 Years a Slave. I was kind of hoping that after the Academy Awards we could . . .
JD: Bury that one?
AW: Cover and bury it. Maybe we can bury it tonight.
JD: O.K. Let’s do that.
AW: I think I basically agree with how you set this out. But, I would say it this way. One of the many problems I have with 12 Years a Slave, it treats the history of slavery not just as torture porn, or a horror movie, but it also treats it as something that only happened in the past, that is only relevant as history. It has no understanding of the ideas of race that are basic to the understanding of the institution of slavery, or even how ideas about race figure into the socio-economics of slavery. If the film had done that, it could have some contemporary relevance, but it has no contemporary relevance because its simply a look at the past. And I connect that to this fantasy that people have about the Obama administration, the Obama era, as an occurrence of what’s been called the post-racial era. And that since some people think that because Obama is president, that we live in a post-racial era, then the struggles and the tragedy of slavery and racism belong to the past, that we can look at it as the past and not be concerned about contemporary racism today. And I think that’s been the destructive effect of a film like 12 Years a Slave, and why it was then honored by the Academy, because that’s the easy way to think about American experience. To say that all the problems are in the past, that racism is over, that there is a man of color in the White House, and we don’t need to worry about racism anymore. And I do believe that is why so many white people, especially, love that film. In my review of it, one line that I have to repeat here, is that the most racist people I know are head-over-heels about 12 Years a Slave. That unfortunately, sadly, what I have been able to observe. The worst people, the most racist and horrible people, love that movie. Because it allows them to think that they’re not racist, it allows them to think that because they voted for Obama, they’re not racist, and there is no racism. I hate the film for that, among other reasons.
JD: And I would return to that, in as much as I believe, as I have written, and we’ve discussed briefly before, you and I, that part of what has driven, as you were just pointing out, part of what has driven these projects to the award ceremonies and the adulation is not only the fantasy that has been cultivated by the popular imagination that we live in some kind of post-race era, but the image of the president, Barack Obama, has dredged up, if you like, the impulses to revise and correct, or a term I think is useful, un-remember the past. In the same way that a genre like Westerns, for instance, attempt to do the same sort of thing with the native populations of this continent, who were here before the so-called white man. I think that is part of what is driving these projects. Would you agree that that’s true?
AW: I am not sure that I do, Justin. But un-remember is a fascinating term. I don’t think it applies so much to Hollywood, but I think it particularly applies to the way that some misguided black people have responded to these recent slavery films, like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. They’re the ones who are un-remembering. They’re the ones who, for some absurd reason, accept the lame explanations from director Steve McQueen and from director Quentin Tarantino, and the Django Unchained cast, that those two movies have anything to do with the history of slavery.
JD: Which they don’t.
AW: My thinking is that those movies are an insult to the history.
JD: That’s right.
AW: And that when black people accept those films, they are the ones who are un-remembering. And this would even include a film like The Help. What’s being unremembered is the knowledge of black struggle, of black pain that is passed down from generation to generation. And any black person that could accept those ridiculous films, they are the ones who are un-remembering what their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, should have told them. I understand, I’ve heard a lot. People like to say that young black people don’t know anything about slavery, anything about the Civil Rights Movement. And this maybe so, but, I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. Because I, of course, was not alive during the slavery era, but as I grew up, my mother’s and father’s families, who are from the South, what was passed on to me were stories about the Jim Crow era. They passed on that history to me through family conversation. This is just through family. And it’s impossible for me to un-remember that, even when I’m at a movie, or rather especially when I’m at a movie. I can’t un-remember it, but some people want to un-remember it. Why do they want to un-remember it? I guess because it’s so much easier and so hip to accept what Hollywood is selling you. It’s certainly much easier to go along with the Oscars. The Oscar celebration of 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained, and The Help, it’s easier to accept it than to question it and to resist it. And so they don’t resist it. They don’t resist the movies, but they un-remember their own history.
JD: Now, a very similar argument was raised, a very long time ago, by the great educator and one of the giants of American poetry, Melvin B. Tolson, in a review that he wrote of Gone with the Wind. And one of the points that Tolson made in his review, he hated the film, but he understood that there were many black folk who embraced it, and enjoyed it, and though it was a very fine thing. But part of what he brought up in his review, these many decades ago, Tolson again, was that he thought, he speculated, that part of the reason it was embraced by certain blacks was an over eagerness on our part, a kind of zeal that blinded us, simply because we wanted to see ourselves on the screen. That there was a sort of envy involved, and this desire had actually precluded our real understanding of what was being shown. Do you think that Tolson was on target here? I am thinking about it now, because it seems to harmonize with some of what you’re sharing with us this afternoon, this evening.
AW: Well, he’s got a point. But, I’m going to shock you.
JD: Go ahead.
AW: I love Gone with the Wind. That is a favorite film of mine. And, I think I can explain it this way. Well, you know, as my parents, my forebears, the generations before me, as they appreciated American popular culture, they appreciated it with a kind of sophistication. The older people who I know that watched Gone with the Wind, they knew the deal. They knew this was a fantasy. They knew that Mammy was a kind of black woman, she was not all black women. And they enjoyed seeing Hattie McDaniel’s performance. And, I think her characterization, her character, has what academics like to call agency. She’s not just a slave, she’s a singular character, she has her own mind, and she is respected by everybody in that film. She is a stand-up woman, that’s one way of putting it. Black people know that. All the black people that I know who have seen Gone with the Wind, the older ones, understood that and appreciated it. What’s sophisticated about the older generations response to Hollywood movies is that they knew where to draw the line. They knew where it was a fantasy about white America, and they how to read that fantasy. They weren’t fooled by it. They knew it was a fantasy.
What makes me love that film, I share that, I see that it is a fantasy, but I also see that there is genuine truth in Gone with the Wind about a certain aspect of American character. And that is in, it’s in Rhett Butler, but its especially in Scarlett O’Hara. She is one of the great figures in pop culture history because she is unabashedly greedy, self-involved and determined to win. This is something everybody can look at and appreciate, recognize, and probably relate to. Gone with the Wind is an honest film about that. It’s not so honest about slavery, but a sophisticated person knows that. I can’t waste time complaining about Gone with the Wind not being historically accurate about slavery because of course it’s not. But, it’s one of the most accurate films ever, ever, about American ambition and greed. You can learn something about American ambition and greed when you watch that movie.
I would even go so far to say that you can learn more about that from Gone with the Wind than you can from The Godfather. I mean, this is what’s complex about popular culture, it’s not always so simple. It is a complex film. It’s pretty much nonsense when it’s talking about slavery, but it’s got its virtues. And I am aware that there are certain generations of black people that were sophisticated enough to know the difference. That may not be the case anymore.
JD: Yes, you said, they knew where to draw the line.
AW: Yes, yes.
JD: And has that skill to know where to draw the line been somewhat diminished because of a lack of continuity between generations? Or did I misunderstand you there?
AW: No, you got me. Because of discontinuity between the generations, for sure. And also because of the failure and decline of film criticism. Where, among most film critics, black or white, you just talk about Gone with the Wind as a moneymaker, and an Oscar winner, and a romance, and you don’t look at its complexity. Or dismiss it as all of that as well, and you don’t look at its complexity. That I think is a failure of critical thinking. Which we need more of.
JD: And, again, this has become part of the larger cultural malaise that was set into motion by the Reagan-Bush junta in American politics and the corporatization of, not just broadcast media, but also, continuing into this day, the privatization of education, the defunding of arts programs, and so forth.
AW: But don’t leave Clinton out either.
JD: Oh, no. Actually, he was one of the most egregious in that tradition. He was following in the Reagan tradition 100%. He was in lock-step with that. In fact I was, not shocked and amazed, but certainly very disappointed, to see him receive the Image Award from the N.A.A.C.P. Now here was a man who, through the crime omnibus bill, instituted mandatory sentencing for our young people for drug possession and non-violent crimes. Many of those young people still in prison today. And of course this, as Michelle Alexander has written about so thoroughly in recent years with The New Jim Crow, we discover that there are more young black men in prison right now then there were in slavery at the peak of that period in the United States. So, I mean, clearly Clinton had a great deal to do with that.
AW: And let’s not forget his war on black women during his administration. How he threw as many black women under the bus as he possibly could, whenever it was convenient.
JD: That’s right. Lani Guinier.
JD: Marian Wright Edelman.
AW: The Surgeon General. Threw all of them under the bus. So, yes, people need to remember these things and think about it. You know, when you mentioned the Image Awards, I can’t forget that appalling moment when the Image Awards, they gave a special prize to Kerry Washington for her role in fund-raising for Obama, for that ridiculous T.V. series, Scandal, and for Django Unchained. And when Kerry Washington got to the stage to accept her Image Award, she thanked Quentin Tarantino for telling our story. And I thought, you know, like Richard Pryor, what do you mean our? And what makes you think that’s our story? Why would he want to tell our story? She’s completely deluded, and yet, here she is today, as sort of heroine to so many misguided T.V. watchers.
JD: Armond, I would like return now to someone who has meant so much to you and to so many of us. In particular, I know that this is a woman, a writer, a mind, whose extraordinary gifts that she offered the world had a tremendous and very fertile, illuminating influence over your own work. Could you talk to us a little about where Pauline Kael enters your world and how you would embrace her today?
AW: Well, I first encountered Pauline Kael’s writing during those formative years back in Detroit. I came upon her book, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is her second collection of essays, and reading that was a revelation to me. Because I had always been interested in pop culture, I had always been interested in music and movies, but it was only in reading Pauline Kael that I realized that one could write seriously about those things. That being a movie critic of reviewer didn’t simply mean writing either I love it or I hate it, that you could bring yourself to it. Her personal expression in her reviews, her intellectual expression in her reviews, and of course her superb writing style, indicated to me that film criticism could be a work of art.
And, I mean, she’s not the first. The history of literature is also the history of critics who are also artists, critics who put something new in the world by expressing themselves and by analyzing things with fresh language. That’s what a work of literary art is, and Pauline is an example of film criticism as art. That was an inspiration to me. And coming from the Pop and Gospel traditions, I am always interested in trying to speak truth to power, and trying to tell it like it is, and to get people to listen here, about my view, my understanding of the films I see, the music I listen to, why it affects me in also trying to figure out how it all works. And Pauline was the first example of how one could do that, and do it artistically. But she was also a woman with principles. Her principles were also a great influence on me. She paid attention to film history, she paid attention to social and cultural history. That’s all apparent in her writing. And that’s the example I try to follow. I’ve said that so often about her, because it is true, and I esteem her greatly, but I think I also at this point need to say, there came a moment when I had to separate myself somewhat from her. I had to, well, the term I guess is, you have to find your own voice. But its not so much a matter of finding your voice, you have to understand who you are as an individual and write as an individual. And, I know there are a lot of movie reviewers who write in the style of Pauline Kael. It became important to me to be different from her, because I have a different experience from her. And I did know her, it was an honor to know her. When I published my first collection of reviews, I asked he if she would write something about it, for the jacket, and she did. It kind of surprised me, because what she wrote, she referred to my race-based approach to movies. And frankly, I thought, “huh?” Because it wasn’t race-based to me, it’s just the way I see things. But then, the more I thought I about it, I thought, well, she’s not wrong. And that’s one of the things that makes me separate, that makes me different form her and that’s the way it ought to be. Because, I don’t mean to imitate her, I don’t want to imitate her, I have to be myself, and the best way to be myself, I learned from looking at her example of being an individual critic and thinker. She’s a great influence on me.
I was heartened when, a couple years ago, there was a new collection of her reviews. There was also a, kind of trashy, biography of her published at the same time. And that was fascinating to me to behold. It seemed that she was finally getting some respect. She died in 2001, by the way.
JD: Respect. I certainly hope so. But, please go on.
AW: Well, I was going to say, strangely enough, oddly enough, the biography and the collection of reviews were received with a kind of rancor. And it shocked me. Because to me, she’s one of the great American writers of any genre.
JD: No question about that.
AW: And I was alarmed that contemporary critics have no regard for what she achieved. Then I had to think about that, and I realized, well, it makes sense. Because the things she believed in as a critic, as a woman, as an American, as a Jew, are no longer believed in by most people who write in the media these days.
JD: I think you really hit it on target there. Because, for listeners who may be unfamiliar with Pauline Kael and some details of her biography, to emphasize the point that your making here, that is to say, again, your point that her values and what she brought are no longer so well received or recognized in the contemporary culture. This also has to do with the fact that this was a woman who was a single mother, who raised a child on her own in the San Francisco Bay Area, who didn’t actually achieve what America describes as success until she was well into her 40’s. It wasn’t before that she actually made a living as a writer. And I think that these were factors that characterized her ability to be so courageous and take extraordinary, what people today would consider immense, risks. You know, injecting not just her personal opinion, but her life experience, and the urgency of her emotional and intuitive experience. I remember seeing an interview on Writer’s Workshop, the television show that used to be on PBS, back in the day, you might remember, and somebody had said that she was an emotional, intuitive critic. And she just got so, not angry, but irritated, saying that, no, in fact, these are among the most carefully reasoned reviews. That this was just sexism, basically, to try to sideline (her) work. Do you think that that is part of it, too?
AW: Oh, yes. That always has been part of it, but it’s worse today. As proven by the disregard for this recent anthology of hers. And it’s also worse today because independent criticism is not respected. The norm is rather to promote the film industry, you know, to promote products rather than to analyze and to actually critique things. It’s all changed. It’s like that Bob Dylan song, Idiot Wind, how everything’s gone upside down, as a matter of fact, the wheels have stopped. That’s what’s become of journalism, and especially film criticism these days. Or, as Biggie Smalls would say, things done changed. (Laughs) So, it’s all changed. Pauline’s not respected anymore, independent film criticism is not respected anymore. Just sell product, promote product, be a shill.
JD: Now, in speaking about your work, I had shared a great joy in being introduced by you to the film La Notte, by Michelangelo Antonioni. I was familiar, somewhat, but really still in the infancy of my understanding of what emerged from Neo-realist filmmakers. The Italian filmmakers, people like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini. I had seen some of Antonioni’s films, but this one was new to me. In the review, which was actually talking about a separate film, you said had La Notte been offered in 2013, it would have been the best film of the year. Could you expand a little bit on that and what you noted in Antonioni’s film in that review, I believe it was from January?
AW: La Notte was one of the films Antonioni made in the 1960’s. It’s part of what is referred to as a trilogy. Starting with a film called L’Avventura, then La Notte, and the third film is called The Eclipse, L’Eclisse. And in those films he examined mankind’s spiritual condition. In La Notte, it’s the story of a married couple, and a night that they spend at a party wherein they recognize the things that they no longer share as part of their marriage. They realize a kind of spiritual distance, between themselves and with the people they know, the people they work with. And this is, you know, it’s not a happy topic, but it’s true to human experience. And for me, the great thing about Antonioni is, he’s from that era when films were thought of as works of art not just as product to sell popcorn, but as works of art. And so, when you look at something like La Notte, or any Antonioni film in fact, it’s visually superb. Just in terms of images alone, it has meaning to it, but visually it’s astonishing. Anybody who actually looks at a film like La Notte will immediately understand that cinema is an art form. It’s not a time killer, it’s not something you go to for escape, necessarily, it’s an art form. The film is so beautiful. It’s in black and white. The black and white is ravishing looking, but at the same time it conveys meaning about human experience. That’s what’s so amazing about it to me. There were some good films in 2013 but none better than La Notte, and I think that was worth saying and trying to point out to people. We should also go back to see old movies, older films I should say, not old but older.
JD: One of the aspects of the film, and this can be said of many other films by Antonioni, I believe, you mentioned the others in the trilogy, is that there is a very fine balance, a balance that is off-kilter and sometimes strained, between mixed-emotions within the characters themselves. There’s always a tug and pull, but it’s completely authentic, and they’re always coming from an authority within the story, even though the emotions are mixed. There is no clear line ethically or morally, in their lives. That seems to me to be territory that Hollywood, anyway, I haven’t seen too many of the recent films from outside of the United States, is very afraid to approach. That is, the ambiguity and mixed emotions that often come with our own personal, spiritual biography or search for meaning. The people in the film La Notte are very torn apart by the effort to reconcile the mixed emotions within themselves.
AW: Yes, I agree with you. You know, this new restoration of La Notte that just came out on DVD, that I was reviewing, has some slightly different sub-titles by the way. For years the sub-titles that I was familiar with for La Notte, the opening line it is, a man who says, “how shall I live?” Which is a basic question and that’s essentially what I think the film is about. The characters in La Notte are trying to figure out, how do we live? What’s important to us, how do we get through each day, or each night. How do we do it, and what is the proper way for us to do it. In pursuing that question, Antonioni reveals his characters ambivalence and the ambiguous quality of life. That’s why it’s great.
I got to tell you, when I saw the new restored DVD of La Notte, two days later I went to a screening of the Kasi Lemons film Black Nativity. I was so angry. I was so angry I can’t even put it into words. Because I thought, this is not even the same medium that Antonioni was working in. It’s such garbage. It’s so far from art, so far from the truth of human experience, especially the human experience that Langston Hughes knew when he wrote Black Nativity. It was infuriating to sit there and watch that. I found it totally unacceptable and it didn’t matter to me that it was directed by a black woman. She wasn’t up to snuff, she didn’t have the necessary standards. That’s what I am bringing to film criticism, that’s what I hope all movie goers bring to their own film watching. We have standards. Standards should be based on the good art that we know from the past that we were raised with. We shouldn’t drop those standards just because there’s a new product on sale.
JD: Now, we’re running very short on time, and again I want to express my gratitude to you for being so generous with us this late afternoon, early evening in New York. But, before we leave, could you offer a few words to our listeners about American Hustle, which was a film that you wrote about at the end of last year.
AW: Well, not that I care about the Academy Awards, but I guess the Oscars are a convenient way to get people’s attention about movies. So, among the nine films that were nominated for best picture by the Academy, I felt that American Hustle was the only one that was decent or the only one that was any good. I thought it was a very good film. The title could also be American Ambition. You know rappers have that phrase, don’t knock the hustle? That’s a song from the first Jay-Z album. So people understand about American hustling, they understand about American ambition. The director, writer, David O. Russell, was one of the few contemporary filmmakers to really get the kind of, well, like the Antonioni movie, David O. Russell gets the spiritual distress that lies underneath American ambition and American hustling. All those characters, they put themselves through all kinds of changes, because they’re trying to achieve money, satisfaction, recognition from some other person. To me, that’s what makes it a very good movie, as well as being, you know, pleasingly acted by the entire cast. It’s about something real and recognizable.
JD: I believe, in the review that you had written about it, you also talked about the visual style of the film being especially persuasive and well put together. Is that right?
AW: Well, yes, it’s not at La Notte level (laughs), but thank God it’s not at Black Nativity level either. But David O. Russell, you know, cinema, movies, the art of moving images, David O. Russell knows how to make images that move. The film has terrific pace. So, it looks good, it can be watched with pleasure. At the same time, you’re getting insight into character, and that doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens in that movie.
JD: And it’s a story that we need to know.
AW: Sure. You know, like Pauline once said about a film, that the best part of a movie is when you can look at a character who may, on the surface, be totally unlike you, but you recognize yourself in that character. For me, I understand that in terms of American Hustle. I am not a white person from Long Island, but I look at those characters and I understand what they’re going through, and why they’re doing the sometimes ridiculous things that they’re doing. What they’re searching for.
JD: Well, again, Armond, thank you so much for being with us and I’m looking forward to having you back on the program later in the year.
AW: Sure, that would be great.
JD: It’s been a wonderful conversation, man. I am very much looking forward to continuing our discussions.
AW: All right, Justin, I’d love to do it again.
JD: You’re listening to New Day Jazz. Real jazz, real talk, where every month is Black History Month.