Yes, that was me who sent in that letter to the New York Press, which was pubished in their July 9, 1997 issue. For those of you who don't know the background behind it, this genuine idiot of a movie critic wrote a quote, unquote "review" in the Press of John Woo's latest movie, Face/Off--which basically said the movie sucked, and that John Woo was a "hack." Naturally, I disagreed (I guess that's the most polite way of putting it), and I wrote an email to the Press telling them exactly what was wrong with the nonsense they printed. Four days later, the Press printed it in their Mail section word for word--the first time I've been published uncensored since 1989. So, while I still say most of the articles in the New York Press aren't worth reading--especially their "Film" column--I give extra- special credit to their printing every word I had to say-- something every paper should do with their letters more often.
Anyway, here's my letter, along with the headline and the emphasis the New York Press bestowed on it:
Jesus Christ, just when I think there's nothing left for you people to whine about, you decide to trash John Woo's Face/Off--a "lame," "humorless" "spectacle" directed by "an emigre hack," according to the review's author, Armond White ("Men In Muck," 7/2). Are you sure Mr. White didn't take it personally when someone in the film asks "Did you have that stick successfully removed from your ass?"
Let me get this straight: Face/Off is a "violent jamboree"? The movie contains "incredulity"? It has "insane outbursts" of special effects? It's even got a "bombastic" shootout? Well what the hell did you expect from a Hong Kong-style action film? Bunnies and kittens? Haven't you noticed that the main appeal of movies like Face/Off, The Killer, Hard Boiled, etc. is their extreme, over-the-top, 89-bullets-in-one-gun violence? An extremism that is so ridiculously outrageous that it's funny, enjoyable--some might even say "cheesy"? What are you going to complain about next? That Jackie Chan can't do all his stunts in one take?
Let's see what else White had to say: That John Woo is not a "serious" artist compared to Sam Peckinpah; That Face/Off is just another "postmodern" movie that "sacrifices meaning for movement;" That the shootout with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the background was nothing more than "kitsch" cribbed from Michael Mann; And that the movie doesn't have "enough to build an analysis of meaning," and Woo's fans "mistake his consistency for artistic vision."
Well, obviously the movie meant nothing for you, White, since you chose not to find any meaning in it. But rather than try to make even the tiniest attempt at decoding any of the multitude of signs or signals that may or may not have been on the screen, you egotistically assumed that because you couldn't figure it out, it must be the film's fault. What an easy way out of actually doing your job! "I couldn't see any meaning, so it doesn't exist." How can you assume what every other spectator is going to see in this movie, especially when you obviously don't like the genre in the first place? What makes you the ultimate arbiter of where the meaning is for everyone else?
John Woo isn't a "serious" artist and Sam Peckinpah is? What makes one artist "serious" and the other...not? What's the opposite of "serious" in this case? Cheerful? Trivial? Grudging? How can you toss off a comment like that and not even define what you're saying? How is the ridiculous body-count at the end of Peckinpah's Wild Bunch somehow more "serious" than the ridiculous bullet-count in Woo's The Killer, for example?
Woo's fans get his "consistent" use of "repeat themes" mistaken for an actual "artistic vision"? Gosh, White, have you ever heard of something called a "motif"? You know, one of those things that keeps recurring--or "repeating"-- within a film or films? Get enough motifs together in enough films by the same director, and guess what? You can use that crafty ol' auteur theory to explain how John Woo manages to stamp his own personal imprint within the Hong Kong industry and the super-action genre it helped create! Oh, but I guess since that might involve searching for meaning, you'd have to call it off. When you say that Woo's repeat themes "ought to mean something," you imply that they meant nothing to you--which to me is more evidence of your not bothering to look for meaning in the first place. Instead of admitting that this is just your own personal viewing of the film, you not only deny that other spectators may find meaning in these motifs, but you also deny that Woo had any "artistic vision" (i.e., artistic meaning) in mind when he included them in the first place! So if you don't get it, nobody gets it? Is that the idea?
As for labeling Face/Off a movie that "in the postmodern mode, sacrifices meaning for movement," this is yet again one more example of White ignoring the possibility that meaning could exist for anyone else--simply because he didn't find any meaning himself. Using postmodernism as a crutch is no excuse. Postmodernism, as I understand it, is not the mere absence of meaning-- whatever that may be--but instead the ascribing of new meaning onto objects removed from their original contexts. Surely, there must be some new meaning for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" during the shootout--the one unquestionably postmodern moment during the whole movie! But the best White can do is compare it to Miami Vice, and reduce it to one word: "Kitsch"--"art or literature of little or no value," according to my nearby dictionary. Once again, if it means nothing for him, it means nothing for anyone else.
Hey, New York Press: Next time you send someone to review a film, pick the person who'll make up their mind after they see it? Even better: Pick the person who has something to say.
Christopher Flaherty, Manhattan
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