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.

21 comments:

Craig said...

I don't believe in demonizing him, either. He's a humorless misanthrope and a shitty writer yet does occasionally have a point or two buried beneath the muck. I just wish one of these interviewers, instead of serving up softballs, would call him on his crap.

Sample questions I would like asked of Armond White:

1. Why is Steven Spielberg infallible?

2. Why did your initial review of "The Hurt Locker" call the movie great, and praise the quote "War is a drug," only to later backpedal on both?

3. Isn't the reason you're called a contrarian because there's a clear pattern of this in your criticism? (Cite Examples A-Z.)

4. You pride yourself as a scholar of the history of film, yet what about (Cite Errors A-Z)?

5. Do you see a contradiction in a critic who rails against hatefulness would also call Lisa Schwartzbaum a "cunt" and suggest that Noah Baumbach's mother "should have had an abortion?"

Yeah, those questions are loaded, but the guy deserves them.

Steven Santos said...

I listened to the interview last week. White spends a good deal of that interview accusing others (particularly on the web) of doing the very things he himself is guilty of doing.

It isn't a secret that I consider White a fraud. Perhaps, that is demonization, but I feel the integrity of film criticism is on the line when White is legitimized.

I am bothered when reasonably intelligent people legitimize White by supporting him when he takes a viewpoint similar to theirs, no matter how poorly argued. It happened with the review for "Precious" where White came across as someone uncomfortably obsessed with race (and making moral judgments on Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry). But, to some, it was just enough for White to hate "Precious" fiercely and take down a critical darling.

I do wish that, one day, White will be ignored because he adds practically nothing to the dialogue on film and everything to the dialogue on White himself, which I think is his main purpose.

I'm all for a passionate discussion of film (or any subject). But it seems, in recent history (let's say the last decade), passion seems to have been equated to losing one's shit, as well as the idea that declaring your beliefs is the same as making an argument for them. White, to me, represents all that is wrong with discourse today.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments so far. Some quick replies ...

Craig: I think those are fair questions. I need to think of what my five questions would be. If others have their questions for White, leave them in the comments.

Steven: I am bothered when reasonably intelligent people legitimize White by supporting him when he takes a viewpoint similar to theirs, no matter how poorly argued.

I'm very much with you there. I read somewhere that White pisses off people who disagree with his take but gets people to shout in triumph when he delivers a takedown they agree with. For me, it's the opposite. I find him much more interesting when he disagrees with me. It's when we have the same view of a film that I tend to loath his reviews, usually for the manner in which he makes his arguments.

Ed Howard said...

I'm with Steven on this one. White does occasionally have a good point, a cogent argument, here and there, proving that he could be a worthwhile critic if he wanted to. I even agree with him sometimes, as you know from our Pixar conversation. But most of the time I think he's dishonest, hateful, and irrelevant. Half the time I read one of his reviews and I'm not even convinced he actually believes what he's saying, that he's just being provocative because that's what he does. The quick turnaround on some movies once their general critical estimation changes is evidence: he's all about hating what "the establishment" likes and loving what they hate, so if a particular film's critical fortunes change over time, White's "criticism" pretty much has to change with it.

The other thing that really, really bothers me about his writing is how infrequently he supports his points. He makes some pretty bold assertions, and that would be fine, even admirable, if he backed them up with concrete details from the movies he's ostensibly reviewing. He almost never does. A White review seldom contains references to actual visual style, to images or details from the film at hand. Instead he prefers to assert that a film is either morally unforgivable or morally redeeming, and then spend the rest of the review making snide assertions. Remarkably, his positive and negative reviews are pretty much the same in form. If it's a negative review, he'll make snide remarks about the film, actors, and filmmakers involved. If it's a positive review, he'll make snide remarks about another film that somehow suffers by comparison with this one. But it's his lack of grounding in film form and his lack of engagement with the film's text that is really damning.

Ed Howard said...

Oh, yeah, and I also love his weird habit of attributing aspects of a movie to people who can't possibly have had anything to do with it. A good example: in his new review of The Blind Side (comparing it of course to Precious, mostly) he seems to think Sandra Bullock is the auteur of the movie, despite admitting in an aside that she's the star and producer, acting in a script written and directed by someone else entirely.

Kyle said...

Let me start off by saying I respectfully disagree. With pretty much all of you. I don't mind starting a (respectful) discussion on film criticism (and as a couple of you alluded to, you agree with having a passionate film discussion), but someone had to break up the circle-jerk (no offense).

I'll just throw a couple of my opinions out there. I don't find anything wrong with White championing Spielberg. Spielberg is one of the more interesting filmmakers out there. More people need to take him seriously, and more needs to be written about his work. If I remember correctly, Hitchcock was dismissed during his time. It was not until film critics Truffaut & Friends championed his work was he taken seriously.

Second point: White, and any other film critic (or anybody, for that matter), can change their opinions whenever they please (see: The Hurt Locker). If anything, it shows true thought. (By claiming The Hurt Locker as over-rated isn't a sign of him being anti-establishment. If that logic was applied to all situations, why does he still champion the overwhelmingly popular Anvil documentary?)

Third: This is the biggest issue at hand (And don't equate Palin and White, you aren't paying attention if you do): "I feel the integrity of film criticism is on the line when White is legitimized." Honestly, I believe White is more valuable to film discussion than, say, Rotten Tomatoes. When film discussion gets boiled down to "Fresh or Rotten", we all become mindless consumers. This is what White fights against. I realize he has his faults, and that his faults are magnified due to his confrontatial reviews. Film criticism loses when all we talk about are arbitrary stars, or thumbs up/thumbs down, or "Fresh or Rotten".

It would be a shame for White to be belitted, and ignored, in favor of the Rotten Tomatoes Community.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kyle: Thanks for jumping in. Always happy when there are differing opinions. A few replies ...

* Just to clear up one thing: I'm not comparing White to Palin. I'm comparing the way the interview with White was handled by the guys at The Film Talk -- asking nonconfrontational questions and then even helping White to provide the answers. So, yes, White is in the Palin role in that Hannity-Palin example, but I'm not comparing him to her.

* I don't find anything wrong with White championing Spielberg. I'm glad you wrote that. Here's the thing: What people seem to object to isn't that White champions Spielberg but that he so unfailingly champions Spielberg. Spielberg is his artist who can do no wrong. I think that's where people roll their eyes; it's predictable and I think people think it's fraudulent. And it might be. BUT it might not be. In other words, White's adoration of everything Spielberg touches might be totally genuine. Regardless, even though White has created his own reputation as a Spielberg sycophant, when as film fans we dismiss one of White's glowing Spielberg reviews before we even read it we are making the same mistake that many people (including me) feel that White makes: losing sight of the film itself and getting distracted by everything around it.

* On The Hurt Locker I agree and disagree. Yes, in basic principle it's a great thing to reconsider one's position. What White's detractors find interesting is that White reversed his position at precisely the moment the film became popular, and his knock against the film became that it was "over-rated." (Hardly a deep reanalysis.) Now, Hurt Locker might indeed be over-rated. But it's interesting that White responds more to the public's response to the film than to the film itself. He hasn't rewritten a review of The Hurt Locker, he just keeps taking shots at it in reviews of other films. Again, it goes back to what I said earlier: If enough people like it, they must be wrong.

* On RottenTomatoes: I agree with your complaints about RT, and I think I know Steven well enough at this point to feel comfortable saying that he'd agree with you, too. (Let me know if I'm wrong, Steven.) But the items aren't mutually exclusive. RT can be a sign of what's wrong with "criticism" today, and White can be, too.

Again, thanks for joining the discussion.

Ed Howard said...

Kyle, no one here was praising Rotten Tomatoes, I don't think. RT is nonsense and useful only as an aggregator for a bunch of reviews in one place — and even at that, other venues are better. If anything, White is one of the critics who benefits most from the over-reliance on RT: he thrives on being the lone "rotten" on a page full of freshes, and (less often, seemingly) vice versa. That kind of stuff just stokes his need for generating controversy. I'd wager that White wouldn't be nearly as famous without RT; it sharpens and emphasizes his own point about being at odds with everyone else all the time.

But more than White's "contrarian" tendencies, as I said I'm mostly bothered by his overly vague approach to criticism. He doesn't support anything, he delivers critical ring-and-runs, often using one film as a club to beat another with, rather than really addressing the substance of either film.

Kyle said...

Jason and Ed: Thanks for responding in a non-hateful, but direct way. It's refreshing to see that on the internet.

A couple points:
I agree that people overlook White's reviews of Spielberg movies. But, for example, his writings on A.I. are incredibly insightful. They provide a great jumping off point for a discussion on one of the decade's most confounding pieces of cinema.

This leads to my next point. Armond takes film seriously, which is to mean he looks at it as an artform. Cinema and its impact on our culture are exclusive, and this is why, I think, he writes about both. A formalist review of a film is an academic approach. But, a broader view of the film in the context of its cultural impact discovers the film's significance.

The Hurt Locker, reminds me of Armond's writings on No Country for Old Men, as he labeled both over-rated after their popularity rose. Of course labeling them over-rated has to do with the public's reponse. But, with the Hurt Locker, I thought he gave an insightful response to the what he thought was being misunderstood (Re-thinking "War as a Drug" in terms of commitment).

Last, but not least, Rotten Tomatoes. I brought RT up due to the statement of "the integrity of film criticism being on the line". White over-riding philosophy responds to what I have learned through looking at film's history and the role that critics play. While I understand the point that the two aren't mutually exclusive, I see RT as a bigger reason for concern to the form of film criticism, and journalism as a whole, than I do Armond. Armond has written long before RT, I don't think he cares that his (un)popularity within the online community has risen. Of course, like every writer, he wants to be read. But, he has been featured in Criterion Collections, and other sources of film commentary, long before his work was even published on RT.

Note: I apologize if some of my ideas have come across as half-baked.

Craig said...

Here's my issue with White on "The Hurt Locker": he himself neglects to mention that he's one of those who originally found it "overrated." Were he truly on the level, White would write something like Roger Ebert's second look at "The Graduate," where Ebert admitted he was horrified that he found Benjamin a hero the first time out. For White to take potshots at admirers of "The Hurt Locker" while leaving himself out of the line of fire -- as if he had found it overrated all along -- is transparently disingenuous bullshit, and one reason among many why I can't take him seriously, no matter how bullseye I think he is about Pixar, "A Serious Man" and other topics.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kyle & Craig; More good points. Though I stand by the argument that I don't want to become like White by demonizing White, I do admit that the more I read him the less he seems to be the critic that Kyle sees and the more he seems to be the critic that Craig and others have described. Maybe I'm jaded at this point. Or, heck, maybe Kyle will come around to our way of thinking.

One thing's for sure: This debate has been better argued and more mature than most of White's reviews. I thank you all for that.

Steven Santos said...

As Ed said, Rotten Tomatoes is nonsense. The last thing I personally care about is critical consensus. Is it bad for criticism? It certainly is, but only the most conformist of moviegoers care about it (if they even care about what critics think to begin with).

Kyle, you feel Armond White is serious about film, as do most of his supporters. White gives the impression of being knowledgeable and smart. However, I think a smarter critic would back up his arguments better, as well as learn how to construct coherent sentences. That last part is sort of unforgiveable when he has been writing as long as has. I was never a fan of Pauline Kael, but there was no doubt in my mind she was a more than capable writer.

Just because White presents himself as serious doesn't mean he earns the right to be taken seriously. Based on the interview, White doesn't hold himself up the same standards of seriousness he holds others to.

Fletch said...

I thought this section that you quoted was quite telling:

"I have no interest in being contrary."

"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."

That's a contradiction if ever I've seen one. I suppose you could make the argument that none of us want to write the "same thing everybody else" does, but I'm not reading his quote like that (either by decision or just because it makes more sense that way).

White wasn't even on my radar until District 9, I don't think, and after familiarizing myself with that brouhaha (and Ebert's posts on the matter, et al), I'm more than content in keeping him off my radar. He can deny all he wants, but he's a publicity hound and nothing more in my eyes. He could be a great reviewer or a terrible one and it really wouldn't matter to me. I've seen enough evidence to know that the one thing he is looking for is attention, and I'm just dandy not giving it to him. I wouldn't have even done so here had I not found your piece so well-written and level-headed.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fletch: I picked up on that contradiction, too, but within the larger context I think he's simply speaking against the kind of Dark Knight fanboy hysteria that demands universal support, or whatever. In that instance, I don't think he's even saying he wants to stand out (though in reality I think that's true). I think he's trying to say that he wants the freedom to think for himself.

Having said that ... It's still telling, because it further underlines that White has come to the conclusion that a majority opinion cannot be reached through individual thought. If the majority likes or loves something, it's because we've become automatons. And that's not to be trusted. And that, I think, is what leads White to his contrary reviews (unless Spielberg made it).

That's what's troublesome -- the repeated implication in his writing that our individual thought cannot possibly be accurate or genuine if it leads to a general consensus.

z said...

"Yeah...let's not demonize Armond White. He's a humorless misanthrope, a shitty writer and a threat to the integrity of film criticism and all that is good and pure, but let's not demonize him."

(Integrity of film criticism? What integrity?)

While I might agree with some of what you're saying about Armond, I think this essay misses the mark:
it didn't seem like the interviewers helped Armond answer any questions. The comparison of Armond to Colonel Jessup in "A Few Good Men" is...odd and antithetical to the vibe of what he was actually saying. Armond's observations about Clooney and Winfrey and Tyler Perry have a lot to do with the movies he's reviewing. The comparison of White to a schoolyard bully seems off - a bully would have to have more power than the people he's tormenting...and I doubt Armond's more powerful than poor George Clooney, Tyler Perry and Oprah, or the media he rails against...even the throngs of bloggers he's pissed off out-number him (The real unflattering comparison might be to a "terrorist"). I'm not sure why it was so uncomfortable listening to Armond talk about the difference between a professional and someone who does it as a hobby since Armond says that the difference is essentially that of knowing what you're talking about. And, honestly, the culture IS plagued by automatons.

I think Armond is genuine and sincere about everything he writes, which is why people get so pissed off. If he were insincere I doubt we'd even be talking about him. While I understand (and sometimes share) the problems people have with him, I do think that simply dismissing him as a contrarian and ascribing some kind of shadowy motivation ("He just wants attention" etc.) are, often times, handy ways of not dealing with what he's actually writing.

Jason Bellamy said...

Z: Thanks for your comment. If you think that White is "genuine and sincere about everything he writes," then you do. I won't try to talk you out of it. But a few replies ...

* I don't have the time now, but it would be pretty easy to cite examples from the interview where the fellas help in answering the question before they kick it to White. I don't have the exact quotes handy, but it happens at least twice, in relation to why White has a contrarian reputation and in relation to how the fall of newspapers, etc., has made critics nervous about their jobs. Now, this is a show where the opinions of the hosts are set up to be just as valid as those of the guests. So this is all fair. There's nothing necessarily "wrong" with their approach. But it's certainly nonconfrontational. By defending White's reputation before they even ask him to defend it -- actually, they don't even go so far as to ask -- they're making it clear that they're not going to challenge his answers. I think my description is accurate.

* I think the Jessep reference works within the context, too, actually, but that doesn't mean you need to agree. The reference relates to the fact that the guys from The Film Talk didn't even need to corner White to get him to talk about his contrarian reputation. He went there himself. And if you think, as I do, that White demonstrates himself as hypocritical in the statements that he makes, then the Jessep line applies. He goes there because he wants to and not because he's forced to.

* Curious: You object to "bully." Do you object to "name-caller"? He's certainly the latter. I don't think it could be effectively argued otherwise. And I think he does so in a way that is (at least potentially) damaging to the reputations of the people he's insulting. I'd say that qualifies as a bully.

* Here's what I meant about "uncomfortable," and perhaps I should have been more explicit: White's description of what makes a film critic is such that I believe -- though cannot prove -- that he would say that the gentlemen from The Film Talk would not apply to the group. I believe he would consider them mere hobbyists. And since White considers that an insult, he was essentially insulting the hosts on their own show. Now, perhaps I'm wrong about this and White thinks that the guys from The Film Talk are knowledgeable (in my limited listening they sure seem knowledgeable enough for me). But since White seems to have a very short list of people he considers knowledgeable enough to call themselves true film critics, I'm skeptical.

* I agree with you here: "I do think that simply dismissing him as a contrarian and ascribing some kind of shadowy motivation ("He just wants attention" etc.) are, often times, handy ways of not dealing with what he's actually writing." However, I feel compelled to point out that White often manages to not deal with what he's supposedly writing about, too. (Not that two wrongs make a right.)

Thanks for furthering the discussion in a respectful way. Come back anytime.

Daniel Getahun said...

"Son, we live in a world that has films, and those films need to be reviewed by people with opinions.

Who's gonna do it? You? You, Anonymous Blogger? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for The Dark Knight's Oscar snub and curse Steven Spielberg; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Spielberg's films, while tragic, probably saved cinema. And that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves cinema.

You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about on blogger comment threads, you want me on the internet - you need me on the internet.

I use words like overrated, worst-ever, abortionhorny. I use these words as the backbone of a career spent trying to defend my opinions. You use them as a punchline.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to bloggers who rise and sleep under the blanket of the very provocation I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide it.

I would rather you just said "thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a new hobby and get out of my way.

Either way, I don't give a damn - what you think about my contrariness!!"

- Colonel White

Jason Bellamy said...

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the comment of the year. Well done, Daniel!

Daniel Getahun said...

Ha, well I was a week behind in reading this and everybody had already made a lot of great points. But I wasn't able to get the Jessep connection out of my head after you wrote that line.

Anonymous said...

It's not that people do not like Spielberg because they do not take him seriously. Rather, it is that when Spielberg is taken seriously, and his films really studied, that it becomes apparent how utterly evil he is. Spielberg's reputation relies on the kind of half baked smokes screens Armond writes, and the thoughtlessness of masses of audience members.

Anonymous said...

id say Armond White makes a lot of great points that i would even agree with sometimes, but there are a lot of things that in his reviews he needs an editor for. I also believe that Denzel Washington and George Clooney are total hacks and that Cuba Gooding Jr. is a totally underrated actor.