Movies

The Year Armond White's Historical Perspective Broke

A film critic offers a strange take on recent American history.

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I know very well that you don't read Armond White's articles to be convinced by them, and I feel a little silly taking up my pen to argue against something he wrote. Still, his latest piece for National Review is bizarre even by his gloriously strange standards, and I feel compelled, as though mesmerized by some magickal Troll Crystal, to debate it.

It's called "The Year the Culture Broke." The year in question—the time, White tells us, that partisan division finally overtook the country, as "no-longer-impartial media used their prominence to drive those who disagreed into quiet but resentful enclaves"—is 2004.

No, really:

THIS IS WHEN IT ALL WENT WRONG.
Newmarket Films

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.

I included that last sentence just to show how much recent history White has forgotten. No, people did not start calling for national conversations in 2004. The phrase took off in the '90s, most famously when Bill Clinton called for a "national conversation about race."

That's a minor point, but it underlines how much amnesia is at work in this essay. When White finally alludes to some earlier moments of partisan division, near the end of his article, he treats them as a mere prelude to the Moore/Gibson face-off, though every one of the examples he cites had a more lasting impact than either film did:

One of the forgotten pioneers who paved the way for Mel Gibson and Michael Moore.
Time

This break in public civility—unbridled hostility for Bush, disrespect for the office of the presidency, ruthless personal attacks on ideological opponents—resulted from pent-up political differences and partisan complaint going back to Robert Bork's dismissal, Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination hearings, Bill Clinton's impeachment, and Al Gore's concession in the 2000 presidential race.

"Pent up"? There's nothing pent up about that series of events. They exploded, one after the other, making a rubble of "public civility" each time. Needless to say, it's easy to extend the list of rancorous battles long before Bork. And needless to say, the parallel universe of conservative alternative media—what White calls "quiet but resentful enclaves," though they've never been quiet in my lifetime—existed long before 2004. If anything, in the last 10 years it has been unprecedentedly easier, not harder, for outsiders to hear what those once-enclaved voices have been saying. That's part of the actual significance of Gibson's film: It proved that those alternative networks could make a movie a hit.

But what makes 2004 an especially odd place to locate the break is that Fahrenheit and Passion, despite the hype around them, were not irresolutely opposed. Gibson and Moore, unlike Bush and Gore, actually admired each other. Here's a New York Times report from January 2005:

THE FIREWORKS NEVER STOPPED. CURSE YOU, MICHAEL MOORE.
Miramax

Asked if he had seen Mr. Gibson's film, Mr. Moore lighted up.

"I saw it twice," Mr. Moore said. "It's a very powerful film. I'm a practicing Catholic. My film might have been called 'The Compassion of the Christ,' though. The great thing about this country is the diversity of voices. When we limit the voices, we cease being a free society."

When Mr. Gibson walked to the press room lectern, he and Mr. Moore seemed delighted to meet each other.

"I feel a strange kinship with Michael," Mr. Gibson said. "They're trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it's a hologram. They really have got nothing to do with one another. It's just some kind of device, some left-right. He makes some salient points. There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on. However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq? No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we're there, why we went there, and why we're still there."

I suspect there was more than a little overlap between the two films' audiences too. Certainly much more overlap than there was between the supporters of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

Bonus link: In a sidebar of sorts, White offers capsule descriptions of 20 films that "effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence." If you ever wondered what would happen if they asked Ed Anger to fill in for Leonard Maltin, here's your chance to find out.

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NEXT: "Libertarian ideology is the natural enemy of science," says The Guardian: Absolute Codswallop.

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  1. Actually I believe it was Bowling For COlumbine, not Farenheit 9/11 that started the trend toward politically biased “documentaries” as a vehicle for browbeating non-progressive points of view into submission.

    1. Also, I think it’s pretty telling that progressives avidly consume as entertainment films whose entire purpose is to confirm and reinforce their biases.

      1. Conservative producers have tried, but the critical environment isn’t nearly as friendly. Leaving Moore’s obviously very successful films out of the comparison, I’m not sure whether things like 2016: Obama’s America have performed respectably relative to to the rest of the pack of Lefty documentaries.

      2. Progressives don’t do entertainment. It’s all politics, all the time.

        1. “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

        2. This seems to be the case.

          Watching a movie that’s just fun and not “educational” would be both vulgar and sinful.

          Vulgar because it’s the sort of thing that people who shop at Walmart do. And sinful because it’s immoral to spend one’s time on meaningless pleasure instead of on becoming a better person or making the world a better place.

  2. 2004 was the first year Armond White read a blog.

  3. Jesus, that list of 20 movies is a mess. At least he’s getting spanked in the comments about it.

  4. Please tell me there exists a photoshop of that Robert Bork Time cover with him dressed up like the Swedish Chef.

  5. Meh, so 2004 was the year that White had the scales removed from his eyes. For me it was 1992 and the ever-changing story of Clinton’s draft status. To see the same evening news anchor that told me 6 days ago that the Clinton draft story was a non-story because he never received a draft notice turn around and tell me that today’s revelation that Clinton did indeed receive a draft notice is a non-story because it has always been known that he received that draft notice — well, that let me know how the sausage was made.

    Then I started watching CSPAN and you could see the spinmeisters giving the next day’s talking points. Peter Jennings would obediently used the exact wording given the night before to describe Newt Gingrich’s dangerously extreme ideas. Like little puppets, all mouthing the same poll-tested phrases.

    When I told my grandfather about it he had the same reaction as Jesse Walker does to White: “Are you just noticing that now??”

    He regaled me of stories of FDR and his skill at manipulating the media. It seems there was a scandal about Eleanor and the family dog flying off to Hawaii on the taxpayer dime. FDR got on the radio and sniffed: “Say what you want about me, but don’t you dare talk about my poor dog!” And that was the end of that.

  6. Ah Armond White. You know I wouldn’t have minded him for trying to piss off the Hollywood Left if he didn’t turn into the Bo/Tulpa of movie criticism.

  7. What the fuck is an “Armond White”?

  8. At least White has done us the service of documenting his gaps in historical perspective, usually such things are just folded into a “narrative” insulated from any sort of factual support.

  9. it underlines how much amnesia is at work in this essay.

    I checked Google to see how old Armond White is. I wanted to see if he was a millenial.

    Nope born in the 50s.

    I think 2016 is going to be a clusterfuck of new found millenial neoconism as they move in mass to support Hilary. They will conveniently forget 2001 to 2015 and the mess of past interventions.

    Guys like White really are not helping.

  10. 5) Wall-E (2008) ? Nihilism made cute for children of all ages who know nothing about cultural history or how to sustain it.

    The Nihilists got fat and feckless and regained their humanity through the ceaseless love a robot had for the past.

    If that film is not anti-nihilist I don’t know what the fuck is.

    Maybe he thinks the Nihilists didn’t suffer enough.

  11. 10) The Social Network (2010) ? David Fincher’s new Horatio Alger tale glorified technocrat Mark Zuckerberg with chic, digital-era arrogance.

    HA!

    Sorkin wrote it to lambast and shame Mark Zuckerberg.

    My theory about Sorkin and his ability to praise what he means to criticize now has proof.

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