Thursday, February 22, 2007

New York Press Review: "Norbit" [Vol. 2]

Armond White's recent, seemingly much talked about review of Norbit is dumbfounding in a number of respects. First, White, through critical and rhetorical bullshitting, spins Eddie Murphy's unoriginal, unfunny, and downright offensive caricatures as "explosive," "democratizing," and as existing "on a realistic continuum." What "realistic continuum" would that be? "We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types," he says. By employing that pseudo-populist pronoun "we," AW suggests that viewers should buy into the lazy offensiveness of Norbit without considering that the characters therein are nothing but hand-me-down stereotypes culled from a brain dead American popular culture. The "freakishness" on display in Norbit isn't a creative response generated from "black comics self-consciously relat[ing] to ideas of normalcy," just lowest common denominator pandering: Murphy-as-Rasputia simply occasions typical fat jokes, from shattered beds to water-emptying splashes in swimming pools to bikini waxes. But from the way he writes, you'd think Armond never saw a director use a wide angle shot to grotesquely distort features: "A perfect illustration of [director Brian Robbins'] buoyant sketch-style is the water amusement park sequence where Rasputia appears in a bikini and mounts a water slide." Didn't Mike Judge recently mock this level of devolved anti-entertainment in Idiocracy? Next up: Armond champions the buoyant artistry of Ow! My Balls!
It should be noted by now that White's tone-deaf sense of humor leads right back to his remarkable inability to call out caricatured depictions of minorities because the two glaring critical blind spots are intertwined. White cites the following as an example of the "sly social commentary" contained in Norbit : "When Mr. Wong querulously says 'Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!' it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused." This is not social commentary but the weakest, most cliched sort of observation. Read Armond's statement again: Murphy's "joke" doesn't even deserve to be called that. It doesn't provoke laughter or insight or anything at all save dull recognition (get it? Because both blacks and Jews eat Chinese food!) As for Mr. Wong, what can we say? He's only the most insulting Asian caricature we've seen since Fu Manchu (thanks to Mark Asch for directing us to Walter Chaw's terrific review of Norbit: "[Wong] reveals his dream to be a whaler, making him more Japanese than Chinese, but hey, a slant's a slant.") Ironically, in the film Norbit tells Mr. Wong that the latter's quip about African-Americans "running fast" might be racist, and Wong admits as much -- Murphy tries to deflect similar, potential charges against his lampoonery by literally questioning himself on screen, a disingenuous move that, like the Mr. Wong character as a whole, White fails to catch onto. Neither does our man wrestle with the film's misogyny, which comes forth most clearly when Eddie Griffin's trite pimp character invites two women to work for him and instead of receiving a slap in the face is serenaded with their willing pleas to be his "ho." Nor does he investigate Rasputia herself, the butt of most of the film's humor and disgust, let off the hook by AW with this pretentious, circumventing gibberish: "Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage." She's just one of the nearly unanimous face-pulling African-American cartoons crying out self-hatred in nearly every frame of the film. Like Murphy, White doesn't seem to notice, or care.
What White's done with his review of Norbit is destroy the trust of anyone -- from those hanging on his every word to those casting a permanent wary eye -- who reads his work to look to him for incisive, relevant criticism. There are two possibilities here: either White's critical faculties are far less than stellar in understanding cinema -- how films impart meaning and for what reasons -- or else he has other motivations. If it's the latter, then those motivations are transparent. Maybe we're in denial, but to us there's not a single sentence in this review that feels genuine -- as Victor Lazlo describes Rick in Casablanca, White writes "like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart." White knows his audience, knows the general consensus of the high-minded, left-leaning criticism his readers usually refer to, and frequently goes in the other direction to upset their comfort. This sometimes provides provocative challenges, but more often than not it finds AW taking up positions that seem antithetical to his own intelligence and common sense. That's why in our last post we called attention to excerpts from White's review of Coming to America -- he once could call it like he saw it. But times have changed. When a film like Norbit (see also Napoleon Dynamite, the Farrelly Brothers' atrocities) comes along and provides a perfect opportunity to show he's down with "humanistic" low-brow eye-junk and against the rest of the critical community (and able to name-check Capra and Chaplin in order to do so; remember, he still has to prove his hipster credentials and raise this crap to level of Cinematic Art), Armond takes it. Even though the film, by any serious standard, is hateful. And racist. And unfunny. And shallow. And all the things that would prompt even the most knee-jerk contrarian to confess taste enough to reject it as satire or entertainment. And if our second hypothesis is true, (and we're not sure if it's more or less depressing to imagine than Armond's possible critical ineptitude), then the ramifications are clear: Armond White cares more about how others perceive and react to him than he does about writing incisive, socially and artistically astute criticism. A scary thought.

Monday, February 19, 2007

New York Press Review: "Norbit" [Vol. 1]/"The Resistance": "Who's Coming Out of Africa? The Man Who Lost His Roots!"

Ladies and gentlemen, due to overwhelming popular demand and dependable antagonism: Norbit!
First, some "compare and contrast." Almost two decades ago (July 6, 1988, to be exact) Armond White wrote the following about Eddie Murphy's Coming to America in The City Sun, in a review titled "Who's Coming Out of Africa? The Man Who Lost His Roots!" (later reprinted in The Resistance). Bear with us:

Murphy pretends to bring to pop culture insider details of Black experience: manners and dialects that he dredges up with specious authority, always falsifying or excluding their socio-economic, psychological contexts.
Black politics, Black consciousness, has never figured in the plots of Murphy's movies, but his comic's acumen uses the idea of Black awareness in order to seem truly
Black, up to date. Actually, Coming to America is a betrayal of every instance of politics, history, sex, and ethnic culture Black people have ever known. . . .

Obviously, attending an Eddie Murphy movie is nothing like attending a Black awareness rally. There's ethnic self-loathing and humiliation throughout
Coming to America. Murphy's consciousness is the kind that is completely detached from political action. He's a casualty, I would guess, of that period of arrested social advancement for Black people -- the aftershock of the civil rights movement -- the 1970s. In that period the predominant Black cultural figure was not a politician or demonstrator but the superficially, stereotypically ethnic icons of Blaxploitation movies and television sitcoms. As part of the TV generation, Murphy doesn't connect being Black with social injustice or political struggle. For him all Black life is vaudeville. . . .

Take this ignorance and insensitivity and add it to Murphy's undeniable talent for mimicry, his comic timing and wit, and what you get is a showbiz atrocity. As a showbiz kid, Murphy has adopted the "Black consciousness" of white ideology: Murphy sees and comments upon Black people, life, and experience in ways and terms that the mainstream readily understands and that, I fear, make Black people tolerable to whites so that they won't be surprised by Blacks and won't have to fear them or respect them.
Unlike Richard Pryor, Murphy does not make humor about how we are all foolish, ambitious, shy, neurotic, horny, greedy, and human. He confirms how Black people really are the stereotypes their enemies have always claimed. This may be New Age Blackness, which accepts denigration by others. After all, one does not make movies that gross an average of $75 million . . . by appealing only to the interests of a minority audience.

And now, only last week in the New York Press:

It’s not the ethnic and gender stunts that prove Murphy’s ingenuity. He has learned (perhaps from Jerry Lewis’ example) to place his gift for mimickry [sic] in an appealing context. Norbit takes place in a fairytale setting, an All-American burg called Boiling Springs that combines the small-town settings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (the name Norbit is no doubt derived from Eddie Bracken’s Norbert) for a spoof on American gentility which Murphy then integrates with explosive caricatures. It’s a democratizing impulse, less hostile than the Wayans Brothers’ satire Little Man but not far from that underappreciated film’s skepticism about American complaisance. Both Norbit and Little Man express how black comics self-consciously relate to ideas of normalcy. Here, Murphy’s gender/ethnic split embraces a sense of freakishness because Norbit, Rasputia and Mr. Wong are all, also, on a realistic continuum. We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types. . . .

It’s significant that Murphy has moved past the family quandary of
The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (where he was at his most brilliant) into an area of sly social commentary. When Mr. Wong querulously says “Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!” it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused.
Murphy responds to post-Dave Chappelle self-insult comedy with a better, more experienced sense of self-awareness (that is, self respect).
Norbit is the meek part of Murphy, yet he wears a perfectly spherical Afro (like the teens in TV’s “What’s Happening”) that is like a halo of blackness—a nostalgic affection for his own youth. And don’t get angry at Norbit’s attempt to off his ogre-wife; its precedents recall Walter Mitty performing the Martha Rayes scenes of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Not misogynist, just a funny function of a frustrated id. Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage. Dig the name, Rasputia. It’s a satirical ghetto moniker that brilliantly suggests a blinkered awareness of the non-black world; a joke worthy of Murphy’s terrific animated TV series “The PJs.”

How the mighty have fallen, not only in terms of basic sensitivity but in terms of critical insight. And this from the man once considered the leading African-American film and culture critic. Sad, really. If any current Armond White review demonstrates the self-willed blindness he's effected in order to place himself in uncomplicated opposition to the critical majority, no matter how weak his own reasoning or how off the mark his points, this is it. We'll talk more about it later.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

New York Press Review: "The Good Shepherd"

We know, we know. We'll talk about it later.
We finally got to see The Good Shepherd, a very good film -- a little too proper for our own personal tastes but still an engrossing account of the CIA and one man's descent into emotional callousness for its cause. Going back to Armond White's review of the film from approximately a month ago we saw that he perfectly describes how Robert De Niro generates empathy for Matt Damon's aware but self-effacing anti-hero while also exploring the complex motivations behind involvement in something as bureaucratic and bizarre as a secret government agency (although AW does skimp on the issue of racial exclusivity, which he barely acknowledges as "privilege.") But for one unforgettable moment Armond succumbs to the temptation for a cheap shot and consequently lapses into classic frothing mode:

This may be the boldest movie characterization of the year because it defies the snarky, anti-American, self-hatred and nihilism and distrust of Bush-bashers, also known as Borat-mania.

Sigh. And you wondered why we were away for so long?