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September 02, 2014

Armond White: Our Culture Became Split Into Two Americas in 2004

Interesting essay from White, though others make some points against it (with varying degrees of merit).

Decades of Hollywood’s and the news media’s chasing after uneducated youth, fostering an undiscriminating market (disguised as populism), have finally paid off with a culture in which nothing is learned or remembered. Nothing is valued past opening weekend, and the cultural fragmentation that sorts moviegoers by age, political proclivities, race, and gender cannot be mended by taste or education. All entertainment now reflects our political division.

How did we arrive at this abyss?

Think back ten years: In the spring of 2004, there was the media’s lynch-mob excommunication of Mel Gibson and his film The Passion of the Christ, soon followed by the Cannes Film Festival's ordination of Michael Moore’s anti–G. W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. These events proved the effectiveness of pre-release hype, furthered acquiescence to cultural authority, and discouraged social unity. This was a moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and political shift -- a break and a decline.

Through these two films, religion and politics -- topics one had never argued about in polite company -- became the basis for categorizing moviegoers as members of factions. Beliefs and positions calcified. Passion became a red-state movie, and Fahrenheit became a blue-state movie.

That turning point may also be where the canard of calling for a "conversation" (about race, sex, violence . . . take your pick) began. The need for such "conversation" stemmed from the disorienting wallop of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Pundits collectively responded by saying, "Nothing is the same," which meant that people whose livelihoods were made on directing popular opinion were irreparably hard-hit. Self-absorbed, they lost their ability to think straight or fairly. Ironically, post-9/11 "conversation" (essentially, "Let me set the terms for you") started with a priori conditions that prevented most people from reacting to Gibson's and Moore's movies with anything like independent thought.

Attacks on Gibson's film had begun several months earlier, with The New Yorker's smear campaign besmirching the filmmaker's character. This tipped off the liberal press to torpedo the film’s upcoming release and alerted them that the film deserved no respect as a work of art or expression of faith...


Blunt attacks on sensitive matters formed a pattern of intolerance from media normally expected to be cautious and respectful (even when not fair). Journalistic ethics were trashed, and formerly assumed rules of public dialogue and cautious conduct fell by the wayside. Even worse, reviewers' hostility had a disturbing air of anti-religious bias; their snide rejections incited a mean collective contempt that deepened schisms in our ongoing culture war.

Meanwhile, White writes, they were happy to excuse the various deceptions in Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 as forgivable in the context of a Larger Truth.

I don't know what the hell to make of Armond White. When I first began reading him (musta been about 15 years ago), I thought he was a Black Radical Cranky Deliberately-Contrarian Film Critic.

Now that I see he has a strong, if idiosyncratic, conservative strain in him as well, I see him as a Conservative Radical Cranky Deliberately-Contrarian Film Critic.

His piece is worth reading, but he links his summary of the most political films since 2004. Very often with Armond White, I do not know if he and I saw the same movie. He seems to go out of his way to say things which are completely unsupportable:

2) The Dark Knight (2008) used the Batman myth to undermine heroism, overturn social mores, and embrace anarchy.

What? Are you on crack? First of all, the Nolan Batman films presented Batman as squeakily-ethical creature, a man forever questioning what is Good. He was not the bent psychotic that came into vogue in the 80s and 90s, but rather the most upright Lawful Good Paladin you could want. Superman is frequently called The Big Blue Boyscout. In Nolan's films, Batman was The Big Black Boyscout.

As for "undermining heroism" -- what? Because the film attempted to address, in an exploratory, questioning way, how far we should go as far as surveilling society in order to protect it?

Because Batman lies at the end and takes the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes?

What a strange sort of "undermining heroism" -- Batman's sacrifice is deliberately and unambiguously Christ-like. I could see attacking the film for stealing Christ's Salvation and giving it to a made-up comic book character (by Batman's sacrifice, Harvey Dent's sins are redeemed; Batman takes on all the sins of Gotham into his person, because he's the only one strong enough to bear them), but not for "undermining heroism."

I could go on about "embracing anarchy." White does know Joker was the Villain, right? He knows Batman actually defeated the Joker by resisting and proving false the Joker's evangelizations in favor of chaos, right? *

9) Knocked Up (2007) -- Judd Apatow's comedy of bad manners attacked maturity and propriety.

You lost me at "everything you just said." Does White understand that flawed characters often begin as flawed, then mature through a movie to become less flawed? And that the character at the end of the movie is supposed to be the one we admire, not the one at the beginning?

Yes, in Knocked Up, Seth Rogan begins as a pot-smoking, jobless, aimless, footloose fratty manboy who has no interest whatsoever in being a father.

But the film shows, get this, the actual likely biological consequences of casual sex (to wit, a pregnancy). Which is something that many cultural critics on the right frequently urge. The physical act of sex does not end when the violins go up and the lights go down; very often it takes another nine months to gestate.

And Seth Rogan ultimately gets a job and proposes marriage to the woman he's fathered a child with.

Why? Because it's the right thing to do. Because it's what a Man does.

I don't understand what planet he's living on to claim this film "attacks maturity and propriety." Seems like the entire film is specifically about championing those things (well, mostly the maturity part, but, by inference, the propriety part as well).

I don't see how White can claim that Batman "embraces anarchy" and Knocked up "attacks maturity" unless it is his position that a film that shows any bad behavior, even to criticize it, is guilty of glamorizing bad behavior.

But how could he believe this? This is the most base, dunderheaded sort of "criticism," of the kind that got the book The Giver banned for supposedly "promoting" statist control and forced euthanasia. (Spoiler alert: the book begins in a statist, euthanizing society but the hero, get this, rebels against it and shows it to all be a horrible lie.)

It's like he just goes out of his way to be Completely Wrong half the time.

Sonny Bunch has his own thoughts about the essay.

One thing I would say: the criticism that this cultural schism didn't really start in 2004 is just silly. White speaks of 2004 being a watershed, a turning point, an inflection point, not of it being the very first sign of a bifurcated culture, ever. I think it's wrong to claim he means that, then criticize him for "cultural amnesia" in making the error that he didn't really make. (He does however seem to err in claiming the calls for a "national conversation about X" started in 2004; as Jesse Walker points out, that phrase began in the nineties with Clinton's call for a "national conversation on race." But maybe that's just Armond White inserting something into his essay which is Completely Wrong, so that you remember you're reading Armond White.)


* By the way, I didn't even like this movie that much. I was myself a contrarian, far preferring the first "Batman Begins" and finding the Dark Knight too long, too overblown, too serious, too dark, and too.... insistent upon itself.

But promoting anarchy and undermining heroism? Good Lord no.

If anything, the film was far too pro-tangerine. Parts of the plot barely even made any sense due to this pro-tangerine bias.


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posted by Ace at 05:51 PM

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