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Claudia Leisinger


BITTER ARMOND: WHY MR. WHITE AND THE CRITICS OF CONTEMPT LEAVE A BAD TASTE.

I think it was Spike Milligan who once slyly referred to a critic as “a man with no legs telling everybody else how to run.” By that standard, how does one define scorched-earth firebrand film critic Armond White? Here’s a man who not only rips into the runners and riders, but seems to take an even greater delight in chainsawing the crutches of his crippled colleagues. An institution at the New York Press and self-avowed Pauline Kael disciple, White is a venerable African-American whose unforgiving prose style comes in merely two shades, appropriate to his ethnicity and name: black and white.

If White’s with you – yes, you Brian DePalma and Steven Spielberg – it’s a lifelong commitment that can find the good in Bonfire of the Vanities or Hook. But if he’s against you… White consistently lauds or denounces in only the most extreme terms possible. It’s not enough for him to admire DePalma’s Mission to Mars; “any reviewer who pans [it] does not understand movies, let alone like them.” And it’s not sufficient for White alone to dismiss Richard Linklater; “No amount of fancy wordplay can excuse the destructive effect of praising offal like Before Sunset (That’s not a personal attack, it’s a defense against the injury of bad criticism and poor taste).” Lars Von Trier “wants to destroy cinema”; Mike Nichols is most likely “evil” for foisting Closer onto the world; Michaels Winterbottom and Mann, Alfonso Cuaron or Chris Nolan get off a little more lightly. They’re merely hacks.

The Gospel According to Armond is, at heart, a simple tale: the church of cinema corrupted by the merchants, cynics, shills and – his insult of choice– “hipsters”, who desecrate it with every trite, insincere, cynical and – another favoured slur – “smug” product whored up on its hallowed altar. Any critic can and will rag on the never-ending glut of cash-in sequels, remakes, cookie cutter rom-coms and slasher flicks Hollywood serves up on a regular basis; White, however, regularly defends what others find indefensible (recent endorsements include, for example, Transporter 2, Final Destination 3 – ironic, having panned the first in the clone-like series - and the Flight of the Phoenix retread). Instead, White specializes in trashing middlebrow “art” films, especially those he identifies as having a left-leaning agenda: Sideways, Children of Men, The Constant Gardener, Lost in Translation, In the Bedroom, Far From Heaven and Million Dollar Baby.

For White the acclaim afforded all these films, and plenty more like them, is merely the result of a conspiracy between corporate marketing and the cowardly journalists who rollover to lap it all up. Basically, for any film that seems to have a shot at both positive critical consensus and the Oscars, White sees it as his personal mission to smite down them and the very whey-faced, politically neutered hegemony of the Entertainment Industry Complex that they dared to ride in on.

None of this is news to the many fans and foes of White’s abrasive style. A brilliant analogy by shrewd online scribe Peter Gelderblom is that between White and his erstwhile New York Press colleague Matt Zoller Seitz, for my money, the very best film critic working today (how’s that for White-ist hyperbole?!). To wit:

"If this were the X-Men universe, we’d be talking about the militant Magneto (a mutant terrorist with a serious superiority complex, eternally at war with humanity) versus the noble Professor X (a peaceful telepath who seeks coexistence of human- and mutantkind by means of education). While White keeps his ivory tower firmly locked, Seitz has plugged into the blogosphere and founded his very own Xavier’s Institute with The House Next Door, a school of gifted youngsters that embraces respectful discourse and mutual understanding. The militant spends most of his time criticizing his peers, the telepath surrounds himself with them."

Yet White still remains a required read for cineastes. He – and they – thrive on his effortless button-pushing and many, even when they disagree with him or puzzle over his strident contradictions (see the differing fates of Final Destination 1 and 3 above), applaud his evident cine-literacy and passion. Unfortunately what’s become more and more evident in recent years is White’s gradual shift from fervent defender of the underdog, to a near-Pavlovian response to savage anything that falls into his catchall definition of unworthy.

Most people would take the comment “smart” as a compliment. For White, though, it’s “the alternative to popular. And ‘smart’—the hipper-than-thou, angrier-than-thou attitude of today's culture—has led to smug.”* Thus Noah Baumbach’s hyper (self-)critical, autobiographical The Squid and the Whale actually “recounts Baumbach's parents' divorce not as a coming-of-age lesson, but to boast of his clan's dysfunction.” In Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, the “diabolical smirk” of George Clooney “sells the irreligious, left-liberal media their own cocktail party fantasy about themselves.”

White’s formidable eloquence and intellect mean he’s far more complex a character than simply the movie version of Fox News’s rabid, right-wing bully Bill O’Reilly. By any reckoning he’s written some of the most important and influential writings on art and popular culture in the past few decades*. In common with one of his pet peeves, Michael Mann, White has absolutely no sense of humour but when he stands up for a film you love that’s been largely discounted by most critics (for me, The Dreamers, Breakfast on Pluto, even Spanglish), it feels like a friend offering a hand in times of trouble.

But does Armond really want allies? Is he as interested in reaching out as much as he seems to enjoy lashing out? His me-against-the-world, don’t-believe-the-hype hectoring tone thrives in its splendid isolation and is growing ever more gruff and one-note. It’s not enough for Armond to praise Film A. Films B, C and often D have got to be buried too. White clearly positions himself as champion of the people, cutting through the crap of “pundits with no grace or humility, who assert their difference — their smartness — from the general public.” Yet could anyone have written a more accurate description of White himself? 

This is most comprehensively demonstrated in White’s 2006 End of Year Round-Up in The New York Press. White has been refining an interesting compare-and-contrast format for a while now, but this year he felt the urge to take it to its bitter conclusion: “The Better-Than List”. “Don’t be fooled,” he warns of all those 10 Best Lists that are “merely corroborating the promotional campaigns of the most highly publicized movies”, before shuffling – and stacking – the deck to suit his own selections and the designated hits they’re superior to.

Among White’s picks are Paul Walker-starring B-movie Running Scared over Scorsese’s The Departed; Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center over Paul Greengrass’s United 93; and little-seen Mexican love story Broken Sky by director Julian Hernandez triumphing over a quartet of critical hits from his fellow countrymen: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel; Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men; Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth; and Fernando Eimbcke’s debut feature Duck Season, each the work of “trendy lightweights.”

The old adage of a critic’s value seen by the reader in direct proportion to how much one agrees with their views seems a moot point here. One undeniable fact about White’s list is that it’s guaranteed to be unique. Still, I shouldn’t allow the fact that my two favourite films of the year, Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men, are promptly and soundly trashed, to prejudice an analysis of White’s list, and more importantly, his reasoning, to conclude, that in the words of fellow critic (and Armond admirer) David Edelstein, White is “bat-shit crazy”.

Every word of White’s “Better-Than List” really bellows not that Film A is better than Film B; rather that Armond White is better than you at appraising movies, the universe and everything. Such inflammatory abuse immediately puts you on the back foot. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Broken Sky yet and welcome White’s advocacy of an undersold film to look out for it. But the hyperbole he brands it with, and the casual disdain he dismisses the other four films with, irrespective of someone’s admiration for Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men, sets Hernandez’s film up for a huge fall. So much for protecting the little guy.

Examination of the criteria White assigns to these movies across the board also doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. “The most highly publicized movies” is a convenient quote that suggests the full weight of the Hollywood P.R machine behind each of Cuaron, Del Toro, Innaritu and Eimbcke. The reality is somewhat different. Compared to the average American visual effects-laden fantasy epic, Pan’s Labyrinth was a micro-budget movie ($15 million), made in Spain, in Spanish, with a cast that no one outside of foreign film lovers would recognize. The publicity it has garnered is much more the slow build of genuine critical appreciation, than any overriding, carefully calibrated plan of action. If the film hadn’t been so acclaimed, and positive word spread so quickly, it’s likely the film would have passed by moviegoers like so many unpopped corn kernels.

Likewise, Children of Men, for all the plaudits it has garnered is widely held to have been unceremoniously abandoned at the tail-end of December’s Oscar derby logjam by its distributor, Universal*. Only subsequent critical and then commercial enthusiasm seems to be pulling it back from the brink. Duck Season, a no-budget, monochrome, one location stoner comedy, has played on a mere handful of screens across the US – hardly equating the John Hughes teen hits it allegedly rips off. True, Babel supported by its A-list star power has been given a huge media push, but it’s also received by far the most mixed notices of the quartet.

Yet if White genuinely objects to a movie being “highly publicized”, why not go after a film that’s been pleading for its Oscars since its August release, World Trade Center? Far from feeling violated by the film’s excessive ‘For Your Consideration’ ads, in White’s view “those who saw it were healed”. Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre seemed to do OK in the P.R stakes too but passes unscathed through the White-wash (unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat), because of its “beatific vision”. Who knew P.R dollars could be so good for the soul?

And so on. You can– and presumably White loves to – picture those detestable “New York intellectuals” spluttering into their espressos at beloved films like The Queen being branded “a monarchist suck-up”, or Clint Eastwood’s pair of World War Two movies damned for their “dull earnestness”. But could even critics of no-budget, race-baiting mockumentary C.S.A- The Confederate States of America accept its spiteful panning as “easily the worst film of the year”? No doubt White gets away with this broadside because of his ethnicity, an allowance all the more intriguing in the light of the Wayans’ Brothers Little Man, from which, incidentally, White classed Marlon Wayans’ midget-impersonating-a-toddler as one of the Best Performances of the Year.

One counter-claim from White’s defenders would be, isn’t this what being a critic is all about? Vociferously pledging your expertise, authority and opinion to the world-at-large? Stimulating debate? How can someone who inspires so many others to write about his views be accused of closing down discourse? Witness the numerous articles, this one included, that attack, defend or simply throw up their arms in bemusement at his latest missive. There’s even an “armonddangerous.blogspot.com”, dedicated to deciphering and scrutinizing the oracle’s words. How many other prominent critics provoke such a response?

This would be fine if it genuinely felt like a lead in to opening up discussion. What White’s repetitive polemics reflexively do nowadays is close down all other outlooks. He’s made it clear that he pays scant attention to what other colleagues think* – “Read other critics? Not really.” “Let me be more blunt:” he told colleagues at the fascinating Slate Movie Club forum a couple of years back. “I am not the least bit interested in reading the opinions of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. There, I’ve said it.” *

Away from the pulpit of his weekly column, reading interviews with White, where he generally seems far more reasoned yet still impassioned, makes you wonder just how much of his fire-and-brimstone sermonizing is itself an act, his very own descent into “hipness”. Assuming that he isn’t succumbing to what he evidently sees as the worst of all artistic crimes, it seems we must take him at his words and, from the evidence out there, the vast majority of people who do, take White to task. Some get angry, some exasperated; many do it with an affection like that afforded a batty old uncle lodged in his sofa hurling epithets at the TV. White himself would surely see such retorts as patronizing in the extreme. But he really has only himself to blame.

Part of the buzz about offering one’s own opinion is the way it gets reflected, and maybe even refracted by the other arguments around it. Dialogue, not monologue. Rather than letting some air into his pod, White seems to baste in the heat of his own blustering self-righteousness. Passion ain’t excuse enough. For all his insistence on films of humanity and empathy, White’s vitriol denies filmmakers, colleagues and often the audiences who engage with them those very qualities. That’s not just bad criticism, that’s a defective philosophy of life. There’s a word for those who believe from the outset they’re right and that everyone else is wrong, and that nothing you can say or do will change their position one iota: and in this day and age “fundamentalist” isn’t a tag that lends itself a whole lot of sympathy.

So what’s the alternative? Carry on blasting away regardless? Hold fire altogether? Fact is, to coin both a White-ism, there really is an Armond-esque, brutally simple choice. Engagement versus Isolationism. Respectful disagreement over scornful condescension. White, of course, isn’t the only flamethrower in the trunk; there are several other critics out there – Ed Gonzalez at the ever-contrary Slant online magazine, or the too-cool-for-school clique at Reverse Shot - attack dogs who delight in scattering the flock. But there are plenty of first-rate critics out there who eschew White’s vindictive, broad stroke sloganeering and offer equally incisive, if often less quotable, insights into film and popular culture: J. Hoberman at Village Voice, Scott Foundas at LA Weekly, Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, Stephanie Zacharek at Slate online and the estimable Matt Zoller Seitz, already very much settled in and welcoming new lodgers at his House Next Door.

Are some of the sacred cows White carves up deserving of slaughter? Absolutely (Million Dollar Baby, Babel, even The Departed were overrated). Is White’s basic tenet of the too-cosy relationship between the media and the entertainment industry wrong? Absolutely not. But his increasingly bitter, solipsistic invective does neither him nor the films he attacks (or, more worryingly, defends) any favours. White should be able to stand above this, rather than lording it over the twin trades to which he’s devoted so much of his professional life. Get out a bit more, Armond, even virtually. Go knock on the entrance to The House Next Door, see what the neighbours have to say. And hey, nobody’s ordering you to sprint over, a gentle stroll should do the trick. Those legs of yours have been denied real exercise for too long now.

Leigh Singer

posted February 6th, 2007  

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