Friday, April 28, 2006

A Response to Rich Brooks of White Alert

A year and a day ago, the L Magazine's Film Issue came out, featuring a Critique piece I wrote dealing with the film reviews published on the "White Nationalist" websites the Vanguard News Network and White Alert. It was my first long piece and first cover credit, I worked pretty hard to say some things that I had wanted to say, and I was very excited when it came out. Looking at it now, there are some things I would change about it, but all in all I'm still pretty happy with it.

And this morning, I received an email from Rich Brooks, the man behind White Alert, telling me he had read my piece with interest and written a response to it on his site. He addresses my article in his Daily Alert section (there doesn't appear to be a separate url to link to, but it's accessible through the front page; scroll down for the mention of my article), and in a longer piece here, which features his "Between the Lines" commentary interspersed with my piece.

As Mr. Brooks has responded to my article publicly and line-by-line, and since this seems to be the most open and free-flowing way of doing it, I'd like to offer my response to him here, in the same Between the Lines fashion. The original texts are in the regular font; Brooks's comments are in blue, and mine are in red. First, the Daily Alert Item:

April 27, 2006

White Alert Draws Scorn of JYC Film Critic

It seems my movie reviews have caught the attention of a NYC film critic who writes for something called "The L Magazine," a hip and trendy online rag with an insularly Noo Yawk outlook. [At least somebody believes our press kit. I don't suppose you'd like to buy an ad? And the L is actually a print magazine; the reviews and features published online are all the print edition, which is our primary medium. A minor point, but it will come up later.] Author Mark Asch, presumably a jew, titles his rather condescending piece about White Nationalist movie reviewers "MeinKampf.com." Here are some quotes:

"Reading a recent review of The Notebook on VNN-affiliate Rich Brooks’s “White Alert” website, it’s difficult to avoid feeling superior to Brooks on intellectual and aesthetic grounds as well as moral . . . But condescension, even putting aside the potential danger of dismissing the movement so glibly, is a response that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the approach employed by the reviewers on VNN and White Alert. In fact, they represent a specific part of the discourse of film criticism even as they pervert almost all of its specific values."

"One might, of course, question the feasibility of sustained dialogue with anyone whose website states, as White Alert does, that the world would be a better place if Germany had won either of the world wars, and indeed, that’s the major shortcoming of Brooks’s rigorous reliance on his own point of view. Implicit in the notion that one’s response is dictated by individual context is the idea that anyone else would have to respond any other way, and so the real failure of the VNN and White Alert reviews is their disinterest in any divergent opinions. It’s not a matter of clumsily didactic recommendations (“So run, don’t walk, to your nearest (preferably non-jewish [sic] owned) video store and rent a copy of [Jackie Brown]”, for instance) so much as their obvious belief in the superiority of their own opinions and the irrelevance of anyone else’s . . . Ultimately, for all their extremism, the reviews on VNN and White Alert fail for pretty conventional reasons. But that’s how I feel about their film criticism. I wonder what they have to say about mine?"

Fair enough, jewboy. [Here's as good a time as any to mention it: I thank you for offering to change the headlines on your website, if in fact I'm not Jewish. Although I was raised Jewish, I think more and more that I don't have a particular connection to any religious faith. That said, there's nothing like a "jewboy" taunt to get you back in touch with your cultural heritage. The headline can stay.] Send me some of your reviews and I'll tell you what I think of them. I'm not a professional film critic but I'm somewhat flattered that you treat me as such. I just wish you had given your readers the link to White Alert so that they could judge for themselves. [Like I said, it's a print magazine; the online content is just a reprint of what's in the magazine, which I hope is a satisfactory explanation for why none of our online reviews or features contain links. And I'd like to think that anyone interested would take the initiative and google your site for the whole picture.] I may respond further to his points at some point, but in the meantime readers can email Mr. Asch at mark@thelmagazine.com.

Before continuing on to the longer essay, I wanted to take issue with how you refer to me, here and in the next piece, as a "professional film critic." Technically, at the time I wrote the piece I was an unpaid editorial assistant (though I've since come aboard at the L in a more full-time, paid capacity, mostly for responsibilities other than film writing). More importantly, though, I don't consider what I do to be any different from you do: there isn't, I don't think, any dichotomy between the professional and the amateur. Especially not now, when there's so much vital film criticism being self-published on the internet (take a look at any of the blogs linked to on the right). An increasing number of employed film critics also maintain their own websites. I don't really see this as an insider/outsider issue; we all write about movies, strive to understand them better, and take our efforts fairly seriously.

That said, here is the longer essay:

Between the Lines with a NYC Movie Critic

April 27, 2006

The following review, rendered below in italics, appeared recently in “The L. Magazine,” a website billing itself as “New York’s Event Guide.” My between-the-lines comments appear in blue.

MeinKampf.com

At the Movies with Online Nazis

By Mark Asch
mark@thelmagazine.com

By Rich Brooks
rich@whitealert.com

Unpleasant biographical revelations have long disrupted our appreciation of beloved artists. Ezra Pound was likely a fascist and T.S. Eliot an anti-Semite; James Brown beat women and Chuck Berry videotaped them peeing — so it goes. Holding Semitically Incorrect political views is equated with sexual perversion and wifebeating! Never heard T.S. Eliot called an anti-Semite, but if true, he rises in my estimation. We rationalize this by saying that, after all, the works we admire are created by human beings, with human flaws, and that the shortcomings of the artist do not detract from the art. Still, separating the two is difficult work, so it’s not all that surprising that Vanguard News Network correspondent Mark Rivers has a difficult time No he doesn’t; he’s just giving the jew his due, which I would think you’d applaud. justifying his admiration of The Man Who Wasn’t There:

“Naturally, I’m not going to write them off just because they’re Jews… [T]he Coens are fine storytellers. In this age of Lowest-Common-Denominator crap coming from Hollywood, it’s nice to see a thought-provoking comedy once in a while, even if it is brought to us by more of those filthy Yids.”

[It's evident that Rivers had to reckon with the apparent contradiction of hating Jews and liking a movie made by Jews. He even felt it necessary to offer his readers his rationale for making the decision he came to. Hence, "difficult." It's really just a matter of semantics, but he's basically expressing the same kind of ambivalence I feel while reading this, which deals with Eliot's anti-semitic leanings.]

The Vanguard News Network, a self-described confederation of “disgusted and disaffected writers driven out of academia and journalism by the Semitical correctness that has denatured our culture” operating under the banner “No Jews. Just Right.” and apparently based out of Kirksville, Missouri, is a website of political and social commentary promoting a “White Nationalist” agenda. Recent content includes a wishful address by President Bush, admitting that he was duped into invading Iraq by “the entire Jewish community in America, which so vigorously pushed the idea of waging war against Iraq via their newspapers, magazines and TV shows.”

As the review excerpted above might indicate, the movie reviews on VNN are similarly bound to the supremacist agenda. In a not unrepresentative passage from his review of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Rivers jokes: “The articulate negress in a power suit at the head of the table points out that the real ‘conundrum’ (I wonder how many bananas it took the dialogue coach to get her to pronounce it correctly?) is whether…” etc., etc. Obviously, the first and most sensible reaction to a statement such as this is outrage. My first reaction was laughter. Blacks are constantly being depicted in power positions by Hollywood far out of proportion to such occurrences in real life, and this is Rivers’ clever way of telling us this. But, given time, one’s righteous vigilance gives way to a certain morbid fascination. So you grudgingly admit it’s funny too? [Not grudgingly. It is funny, the way anything so unexpected and uncomfortable inspires laughter.]

The VNN and the movement it represents are, after all, a mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash embodiment of evil so far removed from one’s understanding as to be a curiosity. That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that phrase. [Thank you. That's what I was talking about above, when I was explaining why I found what Rivers said funny.] They’re self-made straw men: no one could invent an enemy so easy to despise, or, for that matter, to dismiss. Much of their fuming seems as motivated by a vague suspicion of their own impotence as by anything else; at the conclusion of Rivers’ review to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he works himself into a fury culminating in what appears to be a fantasy of violence exacted by himself upon two fictional characters. We’ve gone from burning crosses to a Burn Book.

It’s also oddly (and perhaps naively?) satisfying to browse through an archive of White Nationalist movie reviews. Thanks, it’s oddly (and perhaps naively?) satisfying to read your condescending remarks about me. Reading a recent review of The Notebook on VNN-affiliate [sic – I can play that game, too. White Alert is not an “affiliate” of anything.] [My mistake. I found White Alert through VNN, where you're credited with a number of movie reviews. I assumed the relationship between the two sites was more formal than it is, and I apologize for the misleading choice of words.] Rich Brooks’s “White Alert” website, it’s difficult to avoid feeling superior to Brooks on intellectual and aesthetic grounds as well as moral. Amid praise for the film’s marginalizing of black performers It isn’t just racists like me who are tired of seeing black performers shoved down their throats (by the jews who run Hollywood and the ad agencies) every time they turn on the TV or watch a movie. All of White America is getting sick of it. [That's a vast demographic. Anecdotally, not a single white person I know—and I know many, many white people—would say that you represent his or her views. So I think that claiming to speak for "all of white America" is a bit of a stretch.], eminently [sic]-able references to actresses Gena “Rolands” and Rachel “McBride,” OK, so I got a couple actors’ names spelled wrong. I’m not a professional movie critic or Hollywood insider nor do I read People Magazine or watch the E! Channel. I try to ignore pop culture as much as possible [I don't buy that "I'm above caring about pop culture" line as an excuse for messing up the names of two lead actresses whose names were in the opening and closing credits. And besides, when was the last time Gena Rowlands was in People? It's just lazy, which is why I mentioned it, and the fact that you don't get paid to write about movies doesn't excuse you from caring about the quality of your work.]. and a description of James Garner as having “matured and ripened like a fine wine or aged cheese,” What’s wrong with that metaphor? [Nothing. It's a perfectly apt metaphor. That's why it's been used so often.] Brooks admits that The Notebook (The Notebook!) made him cry, and concludes: “’Sweet and very tender but not saccharine’ is how I’d sum it up in seven words,” in an apparent sop to those readers that pass along his judgments by telegram and don’t wish to paraphrase.

But condescension, even putting aside the potential danger of dismissing the movement so glibly, is a response that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the approach employed by the reviewers on VNN and White Alert. In fact, they represent a specific part of the discourse of film criticism even as they pervert almost all of its specific values. Huh? What “specific values” do we pervert? You’ve lost me here. Please try to rephrase that in plain English.]

This January, in Slate.com’s Movie Club, an annual year-in-review critical roundtable, Salon.com critic Stephanie Zacharek offered a description of the critical process very useful for our purposes: “OK, obviously, we all apply an aesthetic, if that means we have a range of sources — of people and experiences, of other movies we’ve seen or books we’ve read or music we’ve heard — that effect how we look at what’s in front of us.” Any attempt to respond to a film is bound to be largely informed by the personal, subjective context a viewer uses to relate to the film, and a piece of film criticism is the product of a negotiation between the filmmaker, the film, and the audience. The way the reviews on VNN and White Alert engage with films is an extreme example of a subjective approach, positioning them as far out on the critical spectrum as they are on the political spectrum. But radical as it is, though, their approach does warrant discussion as a part of that spectrum. Isn’t all movie criticism subjective? No matter how many esoteric "roundtable" terms you want to toss around, it still boils down to whether or not one likes the film and how it affects him personally. I also choose the films I review with an eye on their relevance to White Nationalism, and of course I talk about them from that perspective, a perspective totally lacking in elite media film criticism. I don’t pretend to be neutral or unbiased. Yes, all movie criticism is necessarily subjective, and I guess this means we sort of agree on this last paragraph? [We absolutely do. I wrote this piece because, once I get past from the initial novelty of movie-reviewing White Supremacists, I think that your reviews demonstrate something absolutely essential about the way people respond to art. I believe it's inherently subjective. Which is why, after first introducing the reader to you and work, and running through the list of initial responses, I try to establish your status as extreme practitioners of the same thing everybody else does when they're thinking about movies. Or anything else, for that matter.]

The reviewers on VNN and White Alert are certainly more transparent about the link between their ideology and their response to a film, as any discussion of a film’s aesthetics is secondary to a parsing of its racial message. Exactly. That’s what White Alert is about, discussing things from a White racial point of view. [Of course: a White Nationalist is going to write movie reviews refracted through that ideological lens. It couldn't be otherwise, any more than a secular humanist, or a neo-Marxist, or a radical feminist, or a devout Christian could watch a movie without interpreting it, however invisibly, through their own particular perspective. This is something I very much believe; really, it's the central premise of the essay and I'm using you to prove it.] The point that the highly politicized nature of their viewpoint obscures is that any reaction to a film’s aesthetic qualities is no less subjective. A consideration of a film’s aesthetic accomplishments is as bound to the artistic sensibility of a viewer as a response to its political content is bound to the viewer’s political context. Some people are predisposed to be suspicious of tear-jerkers while others willingly surrender to them — judging from his response to The Notebook, incidentally, it would appear that Brooks falls squarely into the latter camp. Wrong! I mentioned the tears because it is highly unusual, as I’ve said elsewhere, for me to shed tears about anything. I also mentioned that I don’t normally like tear-jerkers and that I was prepared for a mushy chick flick when I first watched it. Obviously we share a difference of opinion about this film. [I'm just using it an example of a predisposition. Maybe the response was completely out of character. But it still reveals something about the person who responded that particular way to that particular movie, which was the central point.]

An exploration of the film as it relates to one’s own, subjective context is the unavoidable nature of critical expression. A review that lauds the masculine, warlike nationalism the reviewer saw as the dominant thematic element in Troy (as Brooks does) is more similar to a review bemoaning its perceived “meathead’s understanding of sexuality” (as Zacharek does) than would initially appear. Both reactions represent the fusion of the film’s content and the reviewer’s ideological make-up. Laughable or contemptible (or, likely, both) as White Supremacist film criticism may be, it does warrant consideration as film criticism. Thanks. As laughable and contemptible as I find Fatso and his equally fat negress wife, Roger Ebert’s opinions do warrant consideration as film criticism.

In another Movie Club dispatch, Zacharek asks rhetorically, “But mostly isn’t it how a critic thinks, and not necessarily what, that makes you want to read?” The primary value of the reviews on White Alert is as a demonstration of the very personal “how” of the reviewers. On the other hand, the charge most often and most accurately leveled against Roger Ebert is that he willingly and profitably reduces all the nuance of his reaction to a film down to a “what.” Whichever the direction he jerks his thumb, it’s a vulgar and insulting gesture, and represents the assumption that what people want from a critic is didacticism rather than dialogue. Agreed. I said one time that he should take his two thumbs and shove them up his ass.

One might, of course, question the feasibility of sustained dialogue with anyone whose website states, as White Alert does, that the world would be a better place if Germany had won either of the world wars That opinion with regard to WWI is quite mainstream now, and I am always willing to engage in "sustained dialogue" with anyone who wishes to seriously engage me. [You can't possibly believe that. Not about Germany, I mean—you apparently can and obviously do. But as far as your opinion being a "mainstream" one, you're once again overstating your case. I don't know the extent to which you've insulated yourself from what actually constitutes mainstream beliefs, but I refuse to accept that you don't recognize the unpopularity and extremism of your own position. I defy you to offer "mainstream" viewpoints congruent with your feelings about Germany and the wars. And as for why living under a regime that practiced ethnic cleansing, suppressed freedom of expression and religion, and practiced a policy of aggressive military over-expansion wouldn't, in fact, be preferable to the current state of affairs, I suppose I find it fairly self-evident and you don't, and after all that build-up I'm not particularly optimistic about this argument going anywhere. Better to stick to the subject at hand.] and indeed, that’s the major shortcoming of Brooks’s rigorous reliance on his own point of view. Implicit in the notion that one’s response is dictated by individual context is the idea that anyone else would have to respond any other way, and so the real failure of the VNN and White Alert reviews is their disinterest in any divergent opinions. It’s not a matter of clumsily didactic recommendations (“So run, don’t walk, to your nearest (preferably non-jewish [sic] owned) video store and rent a copy of [Jackie Brown]”, for instance), Give me a break, for Chrissakes; I was only trying to close the review with a catchy one-liner. As to your [sic], in White Alert’s style sheet “jew” is never capitalized to subtly denote contempt. [To the first point: I know that's what you're doing; I just found the juxtaposition of canned critical jargon and bile-spewing anti-semitism to be amusing and revealing, and assumed my readers would as well. To the second point: in the L, the word "Jew" is capitalized, as are all other religious and ethnic denotations. Hence the [sic].] so much as their obvious belief in the superiority of their own opinions and the irrelevance of anyone else’s. The truth shall set you free, even from tangled verbiage. [Yeah, this last part isn't exactly a model of clarity. If you'll permit me to give it another try: If I say that I'm is bound to respond subjectively to a movie, I also have to grant that you're going to respond subjectively, too, and that aside from variables like cinematic knowledge and willingness to work with the film's project, both viewpoints are equally valid. And so my objection to your reviews is what I perceive as a dismissal of divergent points of view. First you say that you accept Roger Ebert as a valid critical voice, despite his being overweight and married to a black woman, and then a paragraph later you repeated a wish that he'd just shut up. That kind of stuff, and the general tone of your critical and political writings, makes me suspicious of the extent to which you view anybody else's opinion as valid. Because if we're going to agree that movie criticism is all subjective, we're going to accept that Ebert belongs. That in fact, his opinions might carry more weight than ours, since he's seen so many more movies and has honed his critical abilities over several decades. Perhaps I've underestimated your open-mindedness. Then again, you think my grandmother should have died in the gas chambers.]

Race based upon the number of Jews involved in its production is bizarre, certainly, and morally abhorrent, but mostly it’s damningly unambiguous, convinced of its own unimpeachable finality. What’s that again? [I think you missed a line; this paragraph break is formatted weird on the L website. That sentence should read: "A review bashing Rat Race based upon the number of Jews involved in its production is bizarre, certainly, and morally abhorrent, but mostly it’s damningly unambiguous, convinced of its own unimpeachable finality." Basically, one thing I find distasteful is when a critic declares that he wishes a film that isn't up to his standards had never been made. Armond White, for instance, and the below-mentioned Rex Reed do this quite frequently; so do you, based upon different subjective criteria.] Worse still, the condemnation of the film, in spite of its obvious subjectivity, is less a negative response to the film than a denial of its right to exist, a judgment typically cast by our more arrogant mainstream critics (if Rex Reed is still considered relevant, that’s a list he deserves to head). Ultimately, for all their extremism, the reviews on VNN and White Alert fail for pretty conventional reasons. But that’s how I feel about their film criticism. I wonder what they have to say about mine? I briefly glanced at a couple your reviews online, and can’t really say much about them since they were only a paragraph or two long and didn’t seem to say much of anything. Perhaps you would like to steer me toward one or two that you’re proud of. Clever title, "MeinKampf.com, At the Movies with Online Nazis," though.

[Yeah, word counts are a bitch. Don't rub it in. Anyway, here are links to my contributions to the current L—coincidentally, this year's Film Issue—with which I'm more or less satisfied, I suppose. This blog, incidentally, is home to longer, more informal writings on film, if you'd care to browse it. As for the title, my editors came up with that. I wanted to call it "Triumph of the URL." I'm fairly certain that this doesn't change anything, but I think it scans better and I didn't have cause to mention it at the time.]

Anyway, I’m flattered that a professional New York movie critic would read my reviews and find it worthy of his time to comment on them as extensively as Mr. Asch has done. I only wish that he had given his readers the links to both VNN and White Alert so that they could read our movie reviews and judge for themselves.

[Just to reiterate, because these are important points, to me at least: First, I don't consider what I do to be categorically different from what you do, and setting us up as New York Media Insider and Voice of Unadorned Reason from the Heart of White America, or however you'd quantify it, is to me disingenuous. And second, that our online content is republished from the print magazine and doesn't contain any links as a rule, so I hope you don't feel that the lack of any links was an intentional slight.]

And that, for Mr. Brooks, and anybody else who might have slogged all the way through this red, white and blue behemoth of a post, is my response to your response. Thank you very much for your courtesy in emailing me; I have tried to make my comments even-handed and hope that you find them to be so. (If not, I promise to do better in the future.) Either way, you've forced me to clarify my views, to you and myself, for which I thank you. I welcome any further response from you.