Still, a film nut could do far worse than to spend several hours discussing cinema with White, hearing him say that “among Andersons,” the “comically humane” films of Wes Anderson, maker of Rushmore, are infinitely “better than” the “toothless Robert Altman gumming” of Paul Thomas Anderson, whose There Will Be Blood is a “symptom of everything wrong with the American experience.” Personally, I like White’s survival-of-the-fittest approach to film history, a macro version of the “better than” shtick. In this Darwinian praxis, all films must plead their case against all other similar films, with White as judge and jury. It is in this way that White can confidently tell you a film like Blade Runner is “effective for about fifteen minutes” and probably should have never been made, because there was no way it was ever going to surpass Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as a dystopic vision of the future.
It’s cracked, but fun. Sooner or later, however, you know you will crash into the densest of Armondic icebergs, i.e., Steven Spielberg. White regards the maker of E.T., Schindler’s List, and 1941 to be “the greatest of all American humanist directors, every bit the equal of John Ford … the measure by which all films and filmmakers must be judged.” The possible notion that Spielberg, eternal box-office boy-king of Hollywood, may embody the Reagan-Clintonist consumerism White claims has ruined serious film appreciation in this country is rejected with little more than a sardonic chuckle. For White, defending Spielberg is a waste of his breath, “a distraction.” If you can’t grasp the self-evident greatness of A.I. and Munich, that’s your problem, not his.
Light on this most confounding aspect of White’s criticism might be shed by an incident that took place in late 1977, when he was working for the Wayne State University newspaper. White was assigned to cover the local screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But Detroit’s being what it was in those days—they called it Murder City—there was no theater nearby deemed suitable to show the picture. A screening was set up in Southfield, then a nearly all-white suburb. White took the bus out there and walked several blocks to the theater. The film, needless to say, blew him away, especially the climactic descent of the giant mother ship, a moment White took to be nothing less than a revelation of the “face of God.” During the time White had spent in the theater, a heavy snow came down, nearly a foot.
“There I was, having seen that film, a truly great film, and I was walking through this blanket of pristine snow in the suburbs. I was the only one around. I’d never experienced a moment of such purity; perhaps I never will again.” As I contemplate White, it is hard to think of an image “better than” this: lone seeker making footsteps across unbroken field of blinding white, under the impression he’d just seen the face of God in a movie theater.