Curious but Vital

Nobody in the world — nobody — throws brilliant, super-analytical lightning bolts from his own incredibly fickle and ferocious orbit like New York Press critic Armond White. Judgment! Judgment! He’s immensely readable, fearless, provocative. Film criticism today would be in a much poorer and less observant state without him. But he’s so alone now. He’s so up there and out there that he’s barely seems to be breathing the same common air or standing on any kind of recognizable terra firma. Not as currently constituted. You know what I mean by that.

In a perfectly reordered universe White would have written and ruled in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when impassioned, super-charged eccentricity was more readily absorbed and in fact valued. In certain ways White’s writing reminds me of Manny Farber‘s, or the Cahier du Cinema scribblings of Francois Truffaut, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-luc Godard. He’s a fascinating madman. Only White can say stuff that I find almost appalling (but always amusing) in its hermetic and secluded considerations, but at the same make points that I know deep down to be true, or at least worthy of serious consideration.
Read this presumably recent (but undated) White piece called “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies,” the title of which reminds me of Jerry Maguire‘s manifesto called “The Things We Think But Do Not Say.” Indeed, it feels like something White wrote in the wee hours, driven by fury and righteousness and disdain. It’s a slam at what he feels are the facile, go-along, hipper-than-thou and (in their own way) sometimes coarse judgments of internet critics. If you don’t feel like reading it, at least read these three paragraphs:
“The new inclination is to write esoteric criticism. Post-Tarantino cinema has wrung the pop aesthetic dry, so the new gods of criticism have made totems of movies so unwatchable and so unappealing that they prohibit the basic pleasure and amazement of moviegoing. Critical babble doesn’t talk about what matters, but it sustains Ten Current Film Culture Fallacies.” Here are White’s fallacies with my reactions:
(1) ‘The Three Amigos’ Inarritu, Cuaron and del Toro are Mexico’s greatest filmmakers while Julian Hernandez is ignored. HE reaction: Julian Hernandez?
(2) Gus Van Sant is the new [Luchino] Visconti when he’s really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger. HE reaction: Is this a reaction to Van Sant’s lost period when he made Finding Forrester and the Psycho remake?

(3) Documentaries ought to be partisan rather than reportorial or observational. HE reaction: Yes, that’s correct — partisan documentaries have made the genre alive and vital and more popular than ever. Adam CurtisThe Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares are sterling examples.
(4) Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Dreamgirls equal the great MGM musicals. HE reaction: Of course they don’t, but Dancer in the Dark and Once were two permutations I was fully delighted and enthused about.
(5) Paul Verhoeven‘s social satire Showgirls was camp while Cronenberg’s campy melodramas are profound. HE reaction: My understanding is that Verhoeven has admitted he went way off the rails with Showgirls, and that he wouldn’t for a second suggest that it deserves to be called “social satire.”
(6) Brokeback Mountain was a breakthrough while all other gay-themed movies were ignored. HE reaction: I don’t know how many gay-themed movies I’ve seen, but Ang Lee‘s film touched me like no other. What’s so bad about believing or saying that?
(7) Todd Haynes‘ academic dullness is anything but. HE reaction: I was thrilled to the bone by I’m Not There. I found it anything but dull. A little academic, okay, but this approach, given the underpinnings of the Dylan phenomenon, fit the subject.
(8) Dogma was a legitimate film movement. HE reaction: Yes, it was. And is. I don’t give a damn what the know-it-alls say about Dogma movies (and how the whole movement was a put-on). To me they carry a feeling of unfettered realism and raw behavioral truth. Too bad if this isn’t to everyone’s liking
(9) Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected. HE reaction: I don’t know enough about Asian cinema to have a worthwhile opinion. I only know that certain J-horror films have penetrated deeply, and that the balletic vitality of martial arts films has become, for me, tedious.
(10) Mumblecore matters. HE reaction: Not knowledgable or hip enough to have an opinion.
Back to White’s piece and the final two excerpted graphs:
“These delusions derive from an elitist, art-for-art’s-sake notion. It’s the ‘Smart About Movies’ syndrome allowing bloggers and critics to feel superior for having suffered through Dead Man, Ye-Ye, Gerry, Inland Empire — movies that ordinary moviegoers want no part of and that hardly reflect a community of citizens or the New Millennium’s political stress. It may be a coincidence of social class that most movies are made by people espousing a liberal bent, but it is the shame of middle-class and middlebrow conformity that critics follow each other when praising movies that disrespect religion, rail about the current administration or feed into a sense of nihilism that only people privileged with condos and professional tenure can afford.
“Routine reporting from Cannes and Sundance is another expression of journalists’ perks that encourage a sense of elitism. Fact is, those fests are remote from how most people experience or relate to film culture. Like the weekend grosses list, it promotes a false sense of being informed — not art interpretation or feeling. And festival favorites aren’t discussed in fundamental terms. Critics talk around what’s happening inside Pedro Costa or Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. Instead, they call the latter ‘Joe — proof of their in-group shamelessness. They’d rather make xenophobic jokes about Weerasethakul’s exotic name than actually deal with the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorization.
“Such hipoisie canonizing is as unhelpful as TV’s pop reviewers who only respect banal Hollywood blockbusters. They also, consequently, discuss the Oscars as a plebiscite that readers must dutifully and mindlessly observe. It’s entertainment — weakly.”

63 thoughts on “Curious but Vital

  1. He goes off a bit too far with it, but damn I love this line… “Post-Tarantino cinema has wrung the pop aesthetic dry, so the new gods of criticism have made totems of movies so unwatchable and so unappealing that they prohibit the basic pleasure and amazement of moviegoing.”
    So, so, so so true. And the result is a distrust between the critics and the masses, resultling in the masses often ignoring worthy films because they’ve been burned too many times before.

  2. White can be a fascinating read, but lists like this are exactly why I don’t look to him as compulsively as Ebert, A.O. Scott, or even this column. He’s obsessed to the point of myopia with righting perceived wrongs, or wronging perceived rights, or something — with making it absolutely crystal clear who he thinks is massively overrated, who is massively underrated, etc., no matter what he’s reviewing. He seems almost incapable of writing a review of one movie without bringing up five others (usually those he didn’t get to review over the past few months) just so you know what he thought of them.
    I understand this instinct, especially when you’re one critic among three or four or more in a single publication or outlet; you’re looking for you chance to say “hey, by the way, Snow Angels was awesome” or “in case you were wondering, the main guy here might not’ve liked Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but I did and here’s why.” But you have to control that — not for the same of publication consistency so much as for your own sanity, and the sanity of your readers. Reviews have context, yes, but White spends a lot of his time playing catch-up in case you missed how overrated he thinks so-and-so is. Is it uncontrollable movie love and devotion, or is it a tic? I guess it’s both, but it makes White seem like that much more of a cartoon.
    Also, Moulin Rouge isn’t like the studio musicals of yore, no. It’s far, far better than 90% of them.

  3. If I had only read his articles and never, ever saw any of the movies he reviews, I’d probably consider White one of the most brilliant critics who ever lived. Except, I have seen the movies he talks about, so I’m stuck thinking that he’s a high functional nutjob. I don’t find his insularity any more charming than that of any other critic just because he’s scrambling out on his own limb. He’d be a legend, not if he were right once in a while (granted, he gets a few things correct), but if he were just half as right as he is breathtakingly WRONG so much of the time. Way too often he overbuilds a simple opinion into the most prophetic and infallible truth that’s ever been put into words. And I can’t think of one time where he’s even hinted at ever having been wrong about anything.
    Still though, he’s fun to read. Some crazies in the park make fascinating listening too.

  4. Hmmm…I find him to be a pedantic asshole who strives to be contrary for its own sake. I’m kind of shocked that Jeff digs him. White is well-known as the biggest Spielberg apologist in the business. EVERY single film that Spielberg has directed during the past ten years (nine features) appears in White’s top ten lists. Even The Terminal! His writing is occasionally provocative (as it appears, that is its sole purpose), but he easily has the worst taste in cinema of anyone writing in the English language. See here:
    http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ejohnson/critics/white.html

  5. “Post-Tarantino cinema has wrung the pop aesthetic dry, so the new gods of criticism have made totems of movies so unwatchable and so unappealing that they prohibit the basic pleasure and amazement of moviegoing.”
    A fair point, but why the hell is he lumping Edward Yang’s accessible (even at three hours) YI-YI in with DEAD MAN, GERRY and INLAND EMPIRE. Re-shoot it word-for-word in English, and it’s the best movie James L. Brooks never made. For a guy who’s also big on technical proficiency (check out his tear downs of Sidney Lumet), White should worship Yang. Perhaps if he’d discovered him.
    At least he’s still slugging it out in defense of De Palma and Spielberg.

  6. I think it’s telling that everyone so far is concentrating on White’s eccentric specific tastes while ignoring the major, much more important, point. Too close to home perhaps?

  7. MiraJeff to TheJeff: Thanks for providing that link. Those lists made my jaw drop. Armond White is the smartest-sounding moron in the world. And if you really wanna know why all these print critics are dropping like flies, it’s because THEY ARE OLD AND OUT OF TOUCH. The key to writing anything is to know your audience.

  8. MovieMan: I agree 100% with White’s thesis. But he loves playing contrarian, and that’s as intellectually dishonest as playing elitist just to curry favor with… I dunno, Kent Jones?

  9. Jeez –
    Even Well’s breakdown of White’s piece was all-but impenetrable (not a knock against Wells, just a further knock against White). I don’t even know where to start; but I can offer a point about Verhoeven’s showgirls.
    Verhoeven offers some of the most entertaining commentary tracks in the DVD world. I own every single one of his DVDs, except for showgirls, because it doesn’t have a commentary. He talks about showgirls in the other DVDs and you definately get the sense that he hasn’t disowned the thing or has any huge problem with it. I don’t remember the specifics of his comments, but my recollection is that he did not think he went off the rails, and might concur with the “social satire” argument.
    The film that Verhoeven clearly feels he went off the rails with was “Hollow Man.” It was just a job for him, and it depressed him; leading him back to holland and his roots to produce Black Book.

  10. Jeremy I do agree, and wasn’t trying to sound smug. I have a humble blog myself and that article rocked me, and I just wanted to acknowledge that force without getting lost in a bunch of specific “that film, this film” nitpicking. But, yeah, White certainly has an agenda too and he can be infuriating, but that, at least, adds to the conversation.

  11. You say: “He’s so up there and out there that he’s barely seems to be breathing the same common air or standing on any kind of recognizable terra firma.” I say: It’s been a good decade since he’s gone from drawing a line in the sand to being a loon standing atop a pillar in the middle of the desert. You might find him, well, however you find him, but he really is a disgusting, bullying narcissist√¢‚Ǩ‚Äùit’s all about how he gets everything and everybody else is a degenerate creep. Also, Jeff, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s totally in the tank for Bush and the Iraq war.

  12. I always considered Armond White a phony, who considers himself a movie prophet for seeing greatness in films people hate and amorality in movies people like. Although, most of the time, he’s not even honest about the critical consensus of a movie when he starts attacking critics.
    Then again, White simply forms an opinion on a movie based on whether the director is on his genius or hack list and then performs several logical somersaults to come to the conclusion he decided on before watching the movie.
    There should be a contest where people can write White’s forthcoming rave review of “Indiana Jones” next month with the winner being the person whose review closely resembles White’s. Extra bonus points if you can name the movies or directors he despises that he will randomly bring up during the review.

  13. “There should be a contest where people can write White’s forthcoming rave review of “Indiana Jones” next month with the winner being the person whose review closely resembles White’s. Extra bonus points if you can name the movies or directors he despises that he will randomly bring up during the review.”
    Well done.

  14. he really is a disgusting, bullying narcissist√ɬØ√Ǭø√ǬΩit’s all about how he gets everything and everybody else is a degenerate creep.
    Beyond his questionable taste in films (or at least the taste he wishes to portray), I have heard from a couple of other semi-prominent print critics in NYC that he is a genuine grade-A asshole and all-around miserable person. Mr. Kenny makes three.

  15. I value Armond’s insights even when I can’t always agree with them. The fact that he’s a contrarian shouldn’t obscure the fact that he has consistently held to the views he promotes. He’s certainly right about Hernandez. He and Reygadas are the true cinematic masters in Mexico at the present. The Three Amigos are second tier.
    He’s also right about the kind of elitist reception that swirls around the likes of Hou and Apichatpong and I say that as a great fan of both artists.

  16. White really is one of the worst critics writing today. It has nothing to do with his taste, but with his complete inability to back his opinions up with any consistent application of the principles of film craft. His body of work is nothing but the most sustained ad hominem attack ever seen in writing, on every single critic in the world that is not him. The actual films tend to be forgotten in the fury.

  17. Even though I share some of White’s tastes (I like both Wes Anderson and Alan Rudolph, for example), and agree with his central thesis of how critics should be engaging the film on an emotional level, I find him to be every bad thing others here have said about him and more. He also never lets the facts get in the way of his argument (calling RENDITION critically acclaimed when, in fact, most critics I know of – including the ones he sneers at – didn’t think much of it). And as I remarked to a critic friend of mine, I wait for the day when Michelle Pfeiffer appears in a Spielberg movie. Probably render him speechless for once.

  18. So…he slams Ebert for giving thumbs up to so many mainstream movies and being a populist, then slams younger critics for being too esoteric and only praising films the public doesn’t like?
    Not sure I get it. Besides, the Internet is very populist.
    My main gripe with Internet reviewers is a general tendency towards ridiculous hyperbole, i.e. “I’d rather be sodomized by ten rabid baboons in a Turkish prison than watch another movie by Paul W.S. Anderson”
    [that's a purely hypothetical sample quote, but you get the idea]

  19. “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies” is an allusion to Raymond Carver, schmucko. Who’s got the jungle genes now.

  20. “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies” is an allusion to Raymond Carver, schmucko. Who’s got the jungle genes now.

  21. Evidently I do because I can not post a comment without doing it twice. But check out the Carver stories, They’re wonderful.

  22. The Jeff wrote:
    Hmmm…I find him to be a pedantic asshole who strives to be contrary for its own sake.
    Kind of the same way I regard online critic Walter Chaw from FILM FREAK CENTRAL (http://filmfreakcentral.net), except his politics are farther left than Armond White’s.
    And Chaw has the same filter-films-through-a-utopian-notion-of-political-correctness schtick that Helen Knode had when she was critiquing for LA WEEKLY back in the day.

  23. So…he slams Ebert for giving thumbs up to so many mainstream movies and being a populist, then slams younger critics for being too esoteric and only praising films the public doesn’t like?

    Not sure I get it. Besides, the Internet is very populist.

    My main gripe with Internet reviewers is a general tendency towards ridiculous hyperbole, i.e. “I’d rather be sodomized by ten rabid baboons in a Turkish prison than watch another movie by Paul W.S. Anderson”

    [that's a purely hypothetical sample quote, but you get the idea]

  24. As much as I was disspointed by Dead Man, that and Inland Empire can’t be seen as mere critical snobbery. There are plenty of people I know who are not film-geeks of any kind who watch these films over and over. Hell, there are complete stoners who have those two as their favorite films along with Thin Red Line. Sometimes people just discover things that are atmospheric and work in spite of themselves. A fairer target for that kind of scorn would be some of Tarkowski’s films, in particular Offeret. Anyway, I agree with White about Spielberg (alright, so Terminl is not really very good…) and consider him the most inventive and fascinating mainstream director this decade. I’ll never be able to completely trus Wells after his treatment of Munich (it was clear to anyone that the review could easily have been written before the film was shown). Every readable critic has some kind of eccentricities.

  25. btw, Wells does not write reviews, and is not a critic. Which means for all his nutty assertions, Armond has a point.

  26. I believe in Smart Mobs far more than I do sanctimonious NY Press babbling. If we’re to ascribe to Armond White’s theory we all pretty much need to elect him ruler. He has that sacred film knowledge and thus must be trusted to tell us that THE BRAVE ONE wasn’t a terrible film – we just didn’t “get it.” This is the problem with assigning value to things that are inherently subjective.
    Ebert was successful because he could relate to everyman. That’s not something to look down upon – it’s something to admire. Ebert also championed many small movies that never would have gotten any love at all without him. I enjoy talking film with my friends, sometimes on a high level – more often on an approachable level. Leaving people out of the mix isn’t impressive, it’s the height of ego.
    Do I wish more people wanted to talk about THE FOUNTAIN? Sure. But it takes a village and whatnot – so strap into this century Mr. White.

  27. Yeah, but I think that misses a vital point. It’s not so much that the “everyman” can’t have valid things to say about film, though Armond himself, with characteristic brio, may deny this. What’s important is that if we are going to talk about film that it isn’t simply subjective.
    Obviously in the arts it’s impossible to ever leave that behind completely but there are objective standards of assessment that can be applied critically and with consistency. That’s what Armond does (mostly) and even when I find the logic of his arguments to be inadequate I appreciate the effort made to ground them in a larger context or aesthetic sensibility.

  28. Armond White is basically a soulless lawyer in a film critic’s clothing. He argues for the sake of arguing. Sure, I agree with him sometimes, but he always seems more invested in the act of arguing than the films he’s arguing about.

  29. I am not good in writing that is why I usually look for scholarly written essays here. However, if the message is clear and the details of his ideas are well explained then there is no point of critiquing his write ups.

  30. Directors can do the hell what they want with their films in my book. All I know is that I hate everything I make with a burning intensity and the sense of having made catastrophic mistakes mars my ability to feel positive at all about things which are a major part of my life. I can understand the desire to go back and try and repaint them and make them interesting to the director again. Audiences can take it or leave it. I leave Apocalypse Now Redux but I don’t begrudge FFC his right to have done it one little bit.forex software

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  33. Dogma was a legitimate film movement. HE reaction: Yes, it was. And is. I don’t give a damn what the know-it-alls say about Dogma movies (and how the whole movement was a put-on). To me they carry a feeling of unfettered realism and raw behavioral truth. Too bad if this isn’t to everyone’s liking.
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  34. Dogma was a legitimate film movement. HE reaction: Yes, it was. And is. I don’t give a damn what the know-it-alls say about Dogma movies (and how the whole movement was a put-on). To me they carry a feeling of unfettered realism and raw behavioral truth. Too bad if this isn’t to everyone’s liking.
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