White does have his unique bona fides, including a twelve-year stint (1984–96) at the City Sun, the borderline-radical black weekly where he regularly slammed Spike Lee’s movies, referring to Clockers as “40 acres and a bunch of bull.” The youngest of seven children, and hailing from northwest Detroit, where his family “busted the block” as the first African-Americans to move into what had been primarily a Jewish neighborhood, White grew up in the era of white flight, the civil-rights movement, and Motown. His father played piano and worked for Ford after trying his hand at owning a gas station and a pool hall, neither of which lasted. “He taught us about the rights of the working man, and also that if you didn’t have anything to say, you should keep your mouth shut. But if you did have something on your mind, you should talk up, don’t keep it to yourself,” White recalls.
“We always went to the movies, every Saturday at least,” White says. “I used to love to see stuff like The Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. To me, this was a window into the adult world. Now people watch movies so they can stay kids, which proves how infantilized the culture is. I wanted to see how grown-ups acted, in CinemaScope. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, the most beautiful people ever, on that giant image: It filled my head … Detroit was a great movie town then. We got Canadian TV, so I got to see stuff like La Dolce Vita, Jacques Demy’s Lola, 8½, all of them dubbed. Boccaccio ’70—these shorts by Fellini, De Sica, and Visconti—I must have seen that one twenty times.
“People would ask why I was watching foreign movies. But from early on, I knew I was different … Our parents raised us Baptist, then they got saved and became Pentecostal. There was always a lot of religion around. It had a big effect on me. I’m a believer. I think God is the force for ultimate good in the universe. He made the movies, didn’t he? If you cut me open, that’s what you’d find: the movies, Bible verses, and Motown lyrics.”
White’s narrative arc would take a turn in his senior year at Detroit’s Central High School, when he was assigned to write a paper on a book, any book. On a twirling rack in a drugstore, he spied a copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the second collection of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews. White had never heard of Pauline Kael, but he liked the picture of the camera on the cover. He began with the shorter pieces, then the famous Bonnie and Clyde essay, and went from there. Forty years later, long after coming to New York, meeting and befriending Kael, who in 1986 would nominate him for membership in the Film Critics Circle—which makes him something of what is generally called a “Paulette,” even if one critic says “there’s Paulettes and there are Paulloons”—White still retains that original copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
In between bites of tempura, White pulls out the book, now yellowed and coverless, from his bag, along with an accompanying, equally well-thumbed copy of The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris, the former Village Voice film critic and grand channeler of the auteur theory that championed B-directors like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. As any sixties-seventies film nut knows, the pairing of the two books on White’s part was a symbolic act, being as Sarris (whom White studied with at Columbia) and Kael, the two most influential figures in American-popular-film criticism, were often seen as intellectual antagonists back in the days when writing about movies was considered to be something of a life-and-death matter.
This was White’s point. If the discourse of cinema, as he claims, has reached “the bottom”—victim of Roger Ebert’s thumbs up/thumbs down Roman Colosseum–style methodology, excessive blurb-mongering, fixation on weekend box-office reports, sheer laziness, etc., etc.—the fault lies not with the movies themselves. There will always be good movies. The problem is with the messengers, the sold-out, the politically and historically indifferent movie-critic sheep who have abdicated the passion-filled mantle of Kael and Sarris.
To anyone who used to care about such issues, this can be a compelling complaint. As for White’s corollary to the argument, his however-immodest proposal that he, and he alone, remains to tell the … well …
“Shit, you’re writing a piece about Armond?” exclaims one well-known film critic who would just as soon keep his name out of this. “Armond’s smart and all, I get a kick out of him, but do I really have to see him looking out of the magazine like he’s the last angry, honest man in the film culture?”