Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Weekly Rant: The Demonizing (of) Armond White
If you’ve ever found yourself wishing that New York Press critic Armond White would be eviscerated with the kind of predatory viciousness that colors so many of his reviews, his recent interview on The Film Talk’s weekly podcast won’t do anything to satisfy your bloodlust. In fact, it has the potential to increase it. Podcast hosts Jett Loe and Gareth Higgins produce an extremely professional movie debate program on their own dime each week (for now), so it isn’t a terrible surprise that their interviewing style is network-friendly. With White they take an angle of approach that is less Frost-Nixon than Hannity-Palin. (It’s one thing to ask nonconfrontational questions. It’s another thing to also help answer them.) But in a way that’s enough, because White has some Colonel Jessep in him. He wants to talk. (We want him on that wall. We need him on that wall.) And so even without a Lieutenant Kaffee grilling him, White says some incriminating things.
Of greatest interest to me is his response to his reputation as a contrarian. Loe and Higgins seemed ready to let the interview end, but with the contrarian topic on the table White seized the opportunity to set the record straight: “That is garbage,” he said. “That whole phrase is simply, I think, a symptom of a kind of culture that has turned into automatons, where people think they are simply supposed to like whatever Hollywood dangles in front of them and that anyone who thinks for themselves is wrong. You know, in America we’re supposed to be a democracy. There’s supposed to be this thing called freedom of speech that we respect and expect of people. How is it that when someone expresses themselves that has their own opinion, they are demonized as being a contrarian? I have no interest in being contrary. My interest is in writing film criticism that helps me to understand movies better. And that’s why I keep doing it. If I was going to write movie reviews or movie critiques that said the same thing everybody else was saying, there would be no point to it. I wouldn’t do it. The only reason I do it is because I’m trying to express myself. In a civilization that says it values independent thought, that’s supposed to be the ideal. But instead when you speak for yourself about movies people think something is wrong with you. They think you are simply being contrary.”
At issue here, for me, isn’t whether White is or isn’t a contrarian. What’s interesting to me is that White objects to being “demonized” as a contrarian just a few sentences after he suggests that our culture is plagued by “automatons.” The thing that offends me about White’s criticism isn’t his tendency to break from the pack, even when he seems to be doing so out of desperation, indeed to be a contrarian (more on that later). What offends me is his habit of demonization, taking down people and films. You don’t have to do much searching to see what I’m talking about. In his recent review of Precious, White suggests that Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey signed on as producers because the film about a black woman being horribly mistreated by black people “helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms.” In his review of The Men Who Stare at Goats, White writes that George Clooney is “among those media stars who presume that having Liberal biases make them radicals.” These observations – severe or not – have little to do with the film he’s reviewing. They are merely drive-by hits. White is a name-caller. He’s a schoolyard bully. He is talented enough and intelligent enough to review films without taking these venomous detours, but he doesn’t. (It isn’t uncommon for White to pause in the middle of a film review to take a one-sentence swipe at some other film that he hasn’t reviewed.) More than being contrary, that’s his thing. He demonizes.
I could rant at length about what I perceive to be desperation and insincerity in White’s reviews. As the above quote implies, he has painted himself into a corner – made it so that any film that gets majority support from fans or critics cannot possibly be worthy of such acclaim. I could rant about the ludicrousness of his “Better Than” lists (which are entirely contrary, by the way), the most recent of which suggests that Happy-Go-Lucky was without critical support. I could rant about how reckless he can be in the name of a takedown – such as when he describes the characters in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as “abortionhorny.” I could even rant about how uncomfortable it is to listen to White, promoting a new book of essays about Michael Jackson, talking about the difference between “a real film critic” and someone who does it as a “hobby” while being interviewed by two guys running a pledge drive to stay afloat. But I won’t do that. I don’t want to lose sight of the big picture.
In the big picture, White makes a lot of astute arguments. Love or loath his reviews, they are often conversation starters, and I’m always in favor of passionate film discussion, regardless of how it begins. Do I doubt the sincerity of White’s motives? I do. Do I think he’s wasting his talent by using his reviews as the forum for cheap shots? I do. Do I think that White should quit condemning others for being sanctimonious when that word so often describes the tone of his reviews? I do. Do I think he has lost the right to object to his “contrarian” label when he routinely uses harsher words for others? I do. But I don’t think we should demonize White. It only gets us closer to the thing we’re demonizing.