The contrarian fallacy: Armond White vs. the Hipsters

November 30, 2006

The following article is my contribution to Andy Horbal’s film criticism Blog-A-Thon. Visit No More Marriages! for an up-to-date table of contents.

One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.
–The White Negro: Superficial reflections on the Hipster (1957) by Norman Mailer

What’s a rebel to do these days? According to the gospel of Armond White, film critic of New York’s premier alternative newspaper the New York Press, the Hip are the new Square. In review after review, White makes it abundantly clear that hipster is the most insulting label he can think of. In fact, it’s his umbrella term for everything he calls smug, glib, trite, obtuse or smart-ass, which by the way he tends to do quite often. Say goodbye to Mailer’s “psychopathic brilliance” of Hip, quivering with “the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception.” Enter White’s endless tirades against the mindless evil of hipster mentality eroding pop culture, embodied by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Peter “the hipster’s Spielberg” Jackson and any critic empty-headed enough to praise them.

Armond White’s style of criticism couldn’t be more different than that of his NY Press colleague, Matt Zoller Seitz. If this were the X-Men universe, we’d be talking about the militant Magneto (a mutant terrorist with a serious superiority complex, eternally at war with humanity) versus the noble Professor X (a peaceful telepath who seeks coexistence of human- and mutantkind by means of education). While White keeps his ivory tower firmly locked, Seitz has plugged into the blogosphere and founded his very own Xavier’s Institute with The House Next Door, a school of gifted youngsters that embraces respectful discourse and mutual understanding. The militant spends most of his time criticizing his peers, the telepath surrounds himself with them.

White more or less articulated his view of film criticism in Slate’s Movie Club, where he answered Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek as follows:

As for the “art” of criticism: No amount of fancy wordplay can excuse the destructive effect of praising offal like Before Sunset. (That’s not a personal attack, it’s a defense against the injury of bad criticism and poor taste.) I don’t read criticism for style (or jokes). I want information, erudition, judgment, and good taste. Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don’t know what they’re talking about—especially in this era of bloggers and pundits. That’s why a hack like Michael Mann gets canonized while a sterling pro and politically aware artist such as Walter Hill is marginalized. Let me be more blunt: I am not the least bit interested in reading the opinions of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. There, I’ve said it.

Indeed, he said it. It’s one thing to challenge the opinion of others, it’s another to proclaim absolutes in the name of Good Taste. A true provocateur doesn’t hamper by discouraging thought, but stimulates others to think differently. Why is it that some critics judge like punishing Old Testament Gods when their function is not to damn or win souls, but to sharpen minds? A critic’s pen should serve as a whetstone, not a sledgehammer.

Contrarians like Armond White aim to prove that there is something inherently wrong with the limited world view of another, while their actual concern is to establish a few limits of their own. By consistently taking the opposite stand, they reveal themselves as just as much a fashion victim as the hipsters they so despise. While the latter slavishly embrace the latest trend, the former just as predictably oppose it. Both the hipster and the contrarian poses attempt to overthrow a shared enemy: the dominance of mass culture.

Which, in this day and age, begs the question: What mass culture? With the millions of niche markets currently out there, what’s left of it, really? By the same token: Is there still a single definition of hip? In a time where one icon means everything to one subculture and entirely nothing to the next, what is this nonconformist rebelling against?

It’s like everybody’s hip now. It’s exhausting. There’s no discovery. It’s not original.

Those words were spoken by futurist Faith Popcorn way back in October 2005. That was when the L.A. Times published an article entitled Fads are so yesterday, which announced that coolhunting itself, even the whole notion of “cool,” was just a trend. In January this year, Maclean’s columnist Andrew Potter took this observation to the next level:

(The) mass-media ecosystem has disappeared, replaced by the rip/mix/burn culture of the Internet with its blogs and podcasts, in which there is no longer any distinction between producers and consumers. The really interesting bit is not, as Faith Popcorn would have it, that everyone is cool; it’s that no one is. Trends appear as nothing more than brief consumerist shivers, passé the moment they appear (…)

Aha! So, should we be mourning the end of trends? The kids certainly aren’t, argues Potter:

Having never really experienced the tyranny of mass society, they don’t feel any great urge to stand against it. That is why they adopted the word “random” as their preferred term of approbation. The people who have a problem with the death of cool are aging hippies and other stubborn counterculturalists who remain attached to the idea of a mass society and its right-wing agenda of cultural conformity.

Clear enough. But that leaves us with one final mystery to solve: If cool’s out, what is in? Potter explains:

The prevailing aesthetic is not cool, but quirky, dominated by unpredictable and idiosyncratic mash-ups of cultural elements that bear no meaningful relationship to one another. Appreciating the anti-logic of quirk is the only way to navigate the movies of Wes Anderson (Jeff Goldblum in an “I’m a Pepper” T-shirt!) …

Hold on. Quirky? Idiosyncratic? Wes Anderson? Help me out here–who denounced Syriana in favor of Sahara and Transporter 2? Who called the universally acclaimed Nicole Kidman only “moderately talented”? Which critic belongs to the whopping 8% of idiosyncratics that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006) couldn’t get to smile?

Wouldn’t you know it… Armond White is a hipster.

Movies doomed to never top their posters #2

November 25, 2006


You need to love this, don’t you?
The hard evidence, courtesy of DVD Talk:

Take a good look at the DVD cover art for Evils of the Night (which is taken from the film’s original poster) and you see the definition of an exploitation film. We see a buxom blonde whose blood is being drained from her body by tubes as skeletal hands reach for her and a quartet of skeleton-head aliens look on (as the cousin of the Millennium Falcon flies past). Of those things, only the buxom blonde appears in the film. Don’t be fooled by the trashy goodness that this movie promises. This movie gives bad movies a bad name. (…)

The “aliens” are simply actors in silver outfits, with the females wearing crazy shoes. The “spaceship” is just a disco light ball being lowered through the trees. (…)

The bulk of the movie takes place at night (hence the title) and for the most part, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. (…)

Most films of this ilk typically fall into the “so bad they’re good” realm where one can perform a Mystery Science Theater 3000-like commentary to the movie. Evils of the Night is so pointless, boring, and difficult to see that its ponderous nature will scare off even the hardest fan of trash cinema.


David Lynch Folds Space: mind-origami at 24LiesASecond

November 16, 2006

I realize we’re not exactly prolific at 24LiesASecond (The House Next Door we ain’t!), but when we do publish something, we try to make it worth the wait. Today is a joyful day…


When Bob Cumbow, author of Once upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone and Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, emailed me a few months ago with a new idea for a 24LiesASecond essay, tantalizingly titled “David Lynch Folds Space,” I went nuts! Gone was my contributing-editor cool, and up jumped a drooling fanboy.

As a teenager – I was thirteen at the time – I found Lynch’s Dune (1984) as puzzling as anyone who’d never read Frank Herbert’s novel. Nonetheless, the concept of “travel without moving” as explained by Princess Irulan in her opening monologue, always made perfect sense to me. Why cross all those light-years from galaxy to galaxy when you can simply fold the distance? You can’t, of course… but the idea just seemed so obvious, so right!

Bob’s plan to apply the very same concept to David Lynch’s work was a stroke of genius (Mel Brooks didn’t call Lynch the Jimmy Stewart from Mars for nothing!) and we had lots of fun speculating on the subject in our email correspondence.

An excerpt from David Lynch Folds Space: Because He Is the Kwisatz Haderach!:

Folding space consists in bringing two spatial points together by collapsing the space between them, thus eliminating the need to move from one to the other. Dune’s “explanation” of travel without movement, of the folding of space, is a sly announcement of not only the vision but the technique that David Lynch brings to the screenwriter’s and film director’s art.

So early in Lynch’s career, in only his third feature film, we have a pseudo-scientific articulation of the artist’s unique way of seeing the world, and of remaking it. For folding space is a near-perfect metaphor for the way David Lynch makes movies.

For a mind-bending trip to the epicentre of Lynchian logic, read Bob’s whole article at 24LiesASecond. If you like it, don’t hesitate to drop a note in its dedicated thread at the 24Lies Article Feedback forum, or comment on it here.

Come wander with me

November 9, 2006


The spirit of René Magritte haunts this mesmerizing commercial for the Dutch insurance company RVS. If I ever find out who directed this, I’ll plan an assassination to take over his/her job. The song Come Wander With Me is from Jeff Alexander, sung by Bonnie Beecher, lifted from an old Twilight Zone episode. Very nice.


Most of you will have seen the cut-down version by now (without the clown): The latest Sony Bravia ad, directed by one of my favorites, Jonathan Glazer, who once more shows a penchant for channeling Stanley Kubrick. Like the previous Bravia film, this was all shot in-camera, as the following behind-the-scenes documentary will show you.


And just because I think you guys deserve it: Here’s a a taste of Mike Figgis’s arty sleazefest for lingerie house Agent Provocateur. The four-part series Dreams of Miss X was shot in night vision and stars Kate Moss in very little clothes… Hello? Are you still here?

Embarrassing Movie Posters #7

November 6, 2006


Anticipating 300: Pixels will blot out the sun!

November 1, 2006

When I read Frank Miller’s 300 a few years ago, I very much doubted if this graphic novel could ever be successfully adapted to film. Not because the story was too vast and complex to survive the translation, in a way Neil Gaiman’s intricate Sandman saga is; or too outrageously blasphemous like Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. No, simply because of Miller’s virtuoso use of extreme comic stylization within a historical framework.


Nevermind that we’re talking about the ancient battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas and his personal guard of 300 Spartans held off an army of one million (give or take) Persian warriors in a narrow gorge. Faithful reconstruction my ass! This is Frank Miller’s tall, mythical take on the historical event, existing in a universe all of its own. The swollen hyperboles, the ferocious violence, the supreme machismo and glorious heroism–it all worked to great effect on the page. Any attempt to approach this material in a less stylized manner, I figured back then, would make it seem utterly ridiculous.


That was before Robert Rodriguez pushed the envelope of comic book faithfulness with his film version of Sin City (2005). Doubt turned into hope: Here was a movie that dared to stray from the medium’s inherent photorealism with expressive lighting, a digitally controlled color palette and (most importantly) all-CGI-backgrounds. The method proved so flexible that it even allowed the makers to match each shot of the film to every drawn panel in the comic. From the moment it was announced, I realized it was a wise move to follow a similar route for 300 (2007). And judging from his surprisingly solid remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zack Snyder is just the man to pull it off.

Last month my hopes were rewarded by an awe-inspiring teaser trailer. Apart from the stunning imagery (watch this comic-to-screen-comparison to get a sense of how much Snyder sticks to Miller’s vision), this trailer excels at what the comic medium is incapable of showing: actual movement. Anything is possible now… Hear my inner geek roar!