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Revenge of the (Not) Fallen: Armond White, the Other Curmudgeon

August 22, 2010

Two weeks ago, I sought to re-take the word “curmudgeon” from its current negative connotations. Claiming that our culture requires the presence of someone with the guts to ask “Should we unquestionably toss aside these entities that have served us well for so long?” I lauded authors Buzz Bissinger and Chris Weingarten for lacking the fear of riling up the Tech At All Costs crowd. I meant to add a third name to that list, but was reluctant to include Curmudgeon #3 because he would dominate the article, and thus, deserved his own space. When Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg was released earlier this year, it received mixed reviews, in addition to an almost nixed review. A prominent critic was disallowed from attending a pre-release screening of the film, allegedly due to a history of conflict with Team Baumbach (aka the “Hawks”, or the “Cougars” – either name is just a symptom of the pressures in this non-unnatural environment). Outside of bashing one of my three favorite directors in the post-New Hollywood era, he became notorious in movie-geek circles for throwing the lone Rotten Tomato at Toy Story 3, all while exalting the “impressively communicated” Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (which was referenced by Kermode and Mayo Film Reviews guest-hosts Boyd Hilton and Nigel Floyd, making White a cross-continental curmudgeon). He tops it by citing Roger Ebert – yes, Ebert – as the man that “destroyed film criticism.” Who would dare be so brusque, so contrarian, so…curmudgeonly?

Despite his controversial nature, I had never heard of the New York Press’ film critic before this year. Yet, for the past two decades, White has offered meticulously-(over)researched reviews of films, which regularly connect elements of blockbuster Hollywood fare like Sex and the City to avant-garde cinema from the 1930s. Just to add to the entertainment value, his references are casually dropped into the review in a manner that feels quite organic – as if he truly believes that everyone has seen Joan Crawford films like Sadie McKee, and would be disappointed to learn that the opposite is likely true. However, White is a rarity for a cultural critic of prominence – he (largely) avoids pretentiousness, yet offers the opposite of having your intelligence insulted. This idea is so rare that I find it almost impossible to explain, like crafting a Kindergarten lesson around the concept of ironic detachment. White has been called audacious for his willingness to defend some seriously dreadful films (and not in the “I hope my blurb is on the poster” ethos of wannabe David Mannings). White’s true boldness is the adroit utilization of his analysis of the film as a jumping-off point for a deeper examination of the state of criticism, and/or society’s relationship with the culture they consume.  Yet, he doggedly maintains focus on the piece of cinema listed at the top of the article. The occasional stream-of-consciousness aside is just that – occasional – and almost always contributes to the intentions of his review[i]. Two of his essays, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies, and Do Movie Critics Matter?, serve as a fairly comprehensive primer on White’s Quixotic stand against “internet’s free-for-all” of a “…torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable ‘love of movies’[ii] (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).” In the same ethos as Chris Weingarten, White fears that criticism of quality will be cheapened by the fire-hose effect resulting from the democratization of opinion via the internet, which has “stolen the impact and prestige and effect that traditional professional film criticism used to have.” Hence, his controversial views on Roger Ebert.

In an interview with David Chen on the “/Cast”, White unloads on the great Chicagoan. Here goes:

“I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds, but the fact is, I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it. And I know many other people who’ve studied it as well, studied it seriously. Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job. And if you’ve ever seen any of his shows, and ever watched his shows on at least a two-week basis, then you surely saw how he would review, let’s say, eight movies a week and every week liked probably six of them. And that is just simply inherently dishonest. That’s what’s called being a shill. And it’s a tragic thing that that became the example of what a film critic does for too many people. Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish.”

White is correct – Ebert’s training does not match his own – but of all people to chastise, Roger Ebert? One of the greatest cultural critics in American history? A man whose commentary has aged like a fine wine? My first impulse to this diatribe was to scream “HOW DARE YOU SAY SUCH UTTER BOLLOCKS ABOUT ROGER EBERT!” But after reading a sizable chunk of White’s output, and examining his entire raison d’être, I have to admit that if you really look at the paradigm of credentialism and always-on-message consistency that Armond White resides, he can’t like Roger Ebert. He just can’t. If he did, White would reveal himself as a contrarian for contrary’s sake, a charlatan. And I am completely fine with it – the last thing we need is a critical consensus, where everyone’s opinion (even of each other) serves as massive love-in. We just can’t let criticism morph into comfort food, White says. Which is what I tried to elicit from his “blather” on Ebert. If you (anybody?) are willing to dig out a legitimate point amidst the bile, White is implying that it is extremely difficult to offer a film review its necessary space and depth when a) each film is competing with several others for time and b) the medium of television – and the advertising dollars required to maintain its existence – means a reviewer has to constantly incorporate the Bill Lumbergh ideal of “Is This Good For The Company?” when crafting their opinions. Not that White wants a critic to solely bask in art-house fare. In another essay, Avant Lard, White says:

“The willingness to give popular cinema the rich audacity of experimental art has been lost in the current drive toward junk populism and elitist sophistication. The twain no longer expected to meet. The War of the Bores.”

His reviews of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and Toy Story 3 serve to illustrate this seemingly-contradictory viewpoint. In the multiple WTF-moments of his piece on Transformers 2, the words begin to approximate a commercial for the toys themselves, a literary version of the I-dare-you-to-look-away awkwardness found in Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job.

“Based on the original 1980s Transformer toys by Hasbro and subsequent TV cartoons and comic books, the Transformer movies expound on this cultural plenitude. Their fascination with technology—the way common objects rearrange, expand or shrink as if having a benevolent or malicious life of their own—drives the stories… these cars, trucks, motorcycles and planes—both human-friendly Autobots and dastardly Decepticons—metamorphose fast, but their transfiguration is like the mechanical toy descriptions in E.T.A. Hoffman: fantastic and uncanny… This commercialized life force ‘Cannot be destroyed, only transformed,’ as a Decepticon warns.”

Contrast this celebration of excess to his evisceration of Toy Story 3, which begins with a clever recasting of the great (and sorely missed – come on, make another film already) Whit Stillman:

“Pixar has now made three movies explicitly about toys, yet the best movie depiction of how toys express human experience remains Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan. As class-conscious Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) tries fitting in with East Side debutantes, he discovers his toy cowboy pistol in his estranged father’s trash. Without specifying the model, Stillman evokes past childhood, lost innocence and Townsend’s longing for even imagined potency. But Toy Story 3 is so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination—the usefulness of toys—and strictly celebrates consumerism.”

It would be easy to call out White for this contradiction: “How can you blast Toy Story 3 for commercialization when Transformers 2 is nothing more than a glorified commercial? Hell, the product name is in the title!” White has been accused of engaging in an elaborate performance-art endeavor in his defense of T2, but he is not contradicting himself here – he’s praising the honesty of Michael Bay (and even uses the “___–porn” construct in describing his aesthetic!), whose motives are never in question.

“It’s essentially a bored game that only the brainwashed will buy into. Besides, Transformers 2 already explored the same plot to greater thrill and opulence… The Toy Story franchise isn’t for children and adults, it’s for non-thinking children and adults. When a movie is this formulaic, it’s no longer a toy because it does all the work for you.”

Do I agree with him on any of these points? Not really, but that’s part of the fun. Much like the awesome book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love To Hate, there is a unique joy in reading an over-the-top perspective in disagreement with your own, especially when it is extremely earnest and sincere. Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s book does just that – as does White. We can’t afford to lose their curmudgeonly contributions.

[i] Not that I would know anything about that!

[ii] While one could reasonably predict that White would detest one of my favorite podcasts, Doug Loves Movies, I think that he’d admire the honesty in the title, which makes no claim at academic criticism. He’d also have to respect the Bertolt Brechtian honesty of Doug Benson, who will often admit that his airplane rides are a primary venue for his cinematic experiences – not exactly the optimal locale for viewing a film.

Photo courtesy FilmDrunk:

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