Every person who takes film even somewhat seriously must eventually come up with an opinion about Armond White. Most people end up with “hate,” of course.
I’m not most people. I’m not predisposed to hate and usually try to find value in everything, even if I ultimately disagree. Before going to “hate” I try to end up at “disrespect” or “disagree,” which are much more productive. I’m especially reluctant to “hate” White because in general his opinions are hard to predict and pin down.
So why does Armond White bother me?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to be contrarian for contrarian’s sake?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to be locked in the culture wars of the 60s instead of the culture wars of today?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to have some consistent problems with feminist or women-centered films (Black Swan, The Tempest, Morning Glory, White Material, For Colored Girls, Fair Game, Salt, I Am Love, Just Wright, Alice in Wonderland — to name some from the last year)?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to be rather simplistically against “the industry,” without being systematic about it (It’s Complicated and Greenberg are emblematic of “Hollywood” but not I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Grown Ups)?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to delight in liking truly terrible, schlocky films?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to revel in comparing blockbusters and schlock to classics, merely to evince a reaction?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to hate “liberals” with the kind of zeal only reserved for the likes of Sarah Palin?
Is it because he appears, on its face, to be incredibly unhappy, one of those Boomers who is never satisfied and always cynical (even as he constantly rails against the cynical)?
The answer would be “no.” I could go on, because in almost every Armond White review there is a “WTF?” moment. Reading a number of them in succession sends the reader into a dark spiral of intellectual uncertainty, like watching Kubrick. But each one of those questions, most of which would get a “yes” from bloggers and critics, has a caveat, a “but wait…” or “but what about…”
Puzzled and seeking clarity, I decided to brave New York‘s profile of him last year, which I’d originally avoided for fear making myself too angry. I got some insights — his working class upbringing in Detroit, his early film and film criticism experiences — but few answers.
The truth is: a) White isn’t as contrary as people think. According to RottenTomatoes (which he hates), he agrees with other critics more than half the time, which is much less than the likes of AO Scott (76%), Peter Travers (79%), and David Ansen (83%), but not that far from Anthony Lane (65%) and Kirk Honeycutt (69%). White is the most contrarian critic we have, and he often takes those positions on popular or beloved movies (from Precious to Toy Story 3 to The Social Network), but he’s not doggedly and avowedly contrary.
At the same time, there’s b): White is an interesting and necessary voice in film criticism, someone who talks about race and class, even, and especially, when it’s not obvious or warranted, someone who criticizes the industry at very interesting moments (his Greenberg review actually had me nodding my head).
The problem I have with White, when I boil it down, is he’s a snob. That’s it. Just a snob. Under the guise of intellectual activity (he knows film, but I wouldn’t call him a scholar — he’s a thinker, not a theorist, if that makes sense), what he’s really doing is putting down his reader. If the goal is for people to take film more seriously, the last thing you want to do is sit back and whine about how stupid everyone is. He takes a lot of populist opinions, and a lot of advocating for the working class in film, but his reviews would turn off those exact people. Why? Because no one, it appears, can ever be as smart as he is, or care about film as much as he does, or understand America as well as he does.
White seems to be on a crusade, which, in itself, fine — even welcome or noble. But bitterness and condescension are not the best ways to get people to listen, especially if your audience doesn’t belong to the pedigreed, bourgeois class White consistently harangues — and, by the way, belongs to. White is the kind of fogie who hates blogging but never reads blogs — new flash: serious people blog, Armond!
I don’t like snobs. Snobs put people down. It’s easy to have intelligent opinions without claiming everyone, besides you, is unintelligent. How is that possible? It’s easy to be critical without being nasty or sanctimonious. But White is of an older generation, who believes in culture-jamming and waking people up.
By all means, wake people up! But do it with a nudge and a smile, not an alarm clock and a bucket of ice water.