"I love the idea of Armond White, but I hate the fact of Armond White."
The New York Press' infamous contrarian has been spurring up a lot of net discourse lately, more than usual, no doubt in large part stemming from Roger Ebert's kinda-sorta defense of him and then non-defense of him posted at Ebert's blog near the end of last week. It's shocking to me that Roger Ebert, who is known to read into all corners of the internet, has managed to avoid Armond White for so long; White has been writing criticism for a quarter of a century, and back in 2008 he had some pretty unkind words for the man in his gibberish manifesto, "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies". But apparently Ebert stumbled onto him because of the latest Rotten Tomaotes shitstorm that White's review of District 9 caused (because he dare make its Tomatometer score anything less than a perfect 100, because that's the kind of mass-consensus sheep haven the site really is). It was interesting reading Roger Ebert's perspective on White, especially coming to him as an outsider, appreciating his forcefulness and outspokenness, then being turned off by his balls-out insanity and poisonous vitriol; but at the same time part of me wishes he hadn't posted that particular entry to his blog. White says what he says in the manner he says it strictly for the sake of attention and provocation, solely for the purpose of moving issues of the trashy news weekly he writes for, and the attention he receives and the reactions he incites only validate his notion that he's the lone defender of truth fighting the corrupt 'hipster' amateur critics and the even more corrupt 'corporate' professionals. The attention he receives from people with infinitely more eloquence, dignity, and grace only validates his moralistic superiority and ideological bullying. It fuels the fire instead of dousing it.
Not to mention I feel Ebert uses the weakest of criticisms to prove the point that White is a 'troll'; it's not the constant attacking of his peers, it's not the garbled prose, it's not the holier-than-thou contrarianism, it's because he thought Transformers 2 was a good movie while Synecdoche, N.Y. was not, because he said Death Race was a good movie while There Will Be Blood is not. This is a questionable mindset; it implies that the opinion itself is the reason for White's lack of worth as a critic, not his extremely questionable critical methods and highly obvious agenda. It's an eloquent version of the same Rotten Tomatoes fanboy mindset that he was originally decrying: White, by disagreeing with the consensus, is not useful as a critic. This is a mentality that misses the forest for the trees, as anyone who turns to criticism for validation of one's own opinion has many outlets for that sort of thing. Those of us who like to be challenged by critics have fewer outlets to turn, especially in the print-press, and this is where, theoretically, White's value lay. But he makes it difficult for those of us who try to defend the occasional relevance of his ideas by sensationalizing his writing to the point of absurdity. He's the Bill O'Reilly of film criticism; ranting about how wrong everyone but him is and decrying the corrupt mainstream media, while really subservient to the agenda of the trashy news outlet he works for. That he writes for a weekly that claims to fill a 'niche' market does not make his pandering anymore acceptable than it would if he was writing for the Times, the Post, or any of the other mainstream outlets he spends so much time tearing down. It may even make it worse, because White is disingenuous about who he really works for.
And this is what we don't talk about when we talk about Armond White. By focusing on the semantics of his opinion --- by making it out like he's a madman, a lunatic, a contrarian-for-contrarian's sake --- the real issue with respect to White's criticism gets distorted. We're talking about a critic who was, at a time, one of the most sharp cultural observers writing in the Metropolitan area --- film criticism doesn't even quite encapsulate what White was attempting to do. I think Steven Boone put it best in a piece for The House Next Door "Ten Armond White Quotes That Shook My World" (as well articulated a defense of the man as I have ever seen) when he said "White is out to change the world"; that notion, in and of itself, isn't particularly earth-shattering though. What separates White is that he honestly thinks he can. But White is now a servant to the agenda of his media outlet (which isn't to say I don't think he believes what he writes), dumbing down and tarting up his writing for the sake of getting the New York Press off stands and to get the website's hit-counter up; the advertising revenue, after all, is the only thing that keeps that garbage afloat. 'Sell-out' isn't quite the word I'd use to describe White, because 'sell-out', to me, doesn't quite encapsulate the idea of a critic who has extremely unique and occasionally relevant ideas, who has the potential to be among the most idiosyncratic voices in criticism, but squanders that potential to the agenda of a corporation who is only interested in making him a commodity. And not even a big corporation, at that --- White is a small-time crook.
Which is especially disappointing, as there are many pieces of White's writing, even for the Press, that are of a great deal of importance to me --- his appreciation of Spielberg (especially his reviews of The Color Purple and A.I.), his defense of De Palma as more than merely a Hitchcock plagiarist (especially in his essay collected in his book The Resistance: "Brian De Palma, Political Film Maker"), his eloquent appreciation of Michael Jackson's power as a pop-star and artist, both during Jackson's life and after his death --- these pieces helped me look at these respective artists in a new, eye-opening light. He once said of Spike Lee that he was 'born to make' Do the Right Thing; on that note I think White was put on this earth to wax poetic about Spielberg, De Palma, and Jackson. But what separates his Press writing from his City Sun and Film Comment days is that even in his stronger Press pieces (by which I mean cohesive and lacking in vitriol), he can't help but throw in asides about how much better his taste is than everyone else's, how all the media is corrupt (with the notable exception, of course, of his employers), and baseless comparisons to other works (i.e., in a mostly exemplary review of Borzage's No Greater Glory from around last year, when he randomly name-drops The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and There Will Be Blood, or in his piece after Jackson's death called "In MJ's shadow", where he states that "People who don’t appreciate “Ben” don’t really appreciate pop culture and remain clueless about MJ"); it's this type of holier-than-thou rhetoric that turns even the best of White's work into a highfalutin fraud, a sheep in wolf's clothing. That he has the potential to be so much better than he is --- that he was once a unique critic who put films into a valuable cultural, racial, and political context --- makes him worse than the hacks he spews so much venom at. They were born sell-out hacks, White turned into one.
So this is my plea to all those who help put White onto the pedestal that he rests on today --- by treating him like a cartoonish super-villain instead of a venomous, shameless self-promoter, we give him the attention he and his employers so desperately crave; indeed, the attention that they depend on. The New York Press' livelihood relies on the controversy that White stirs up --- what other publication puts their film critic on the cover with such regularity? He is their main draw, and they'll even occasionally host polls with questions like "What's Armond White's wackiest review?" --- they treat him as a commodity, as if saying 'Look at our nutty critic, he hates everything that people like!'. That he allows himself to be marketed that way, that he plays into that blatant pandering with his increasingly sensationalistic and mean-spirited writing , exposes him as the fraudulent bully that he is. There are many writers out there with more relevant ideas and more eloquent prose, and who don't feel the need to attack anyone and everyone who doesn't agree with them. Let's stop giving Armond White the power that he and his employers so clearly thrive on, and in doing so, turning him into something he isn't. There are more relevant issues worth discussing.