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White and Wrong: Contrarian (Anti-Popularist) Film Critics

I was away in Florida when the whole Armond White thing broke last month. For those out of the loop, users of film review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes decided that they’d had enough of White’s contrary approach to film reviews after he ‘ruined’ the perfect Tomatometer for District 9 – and generated quite the reaction on the site. With District 9 being released in the UK and Ireland this week, it seems almost the perfect time to revisit the discussion, with the benefit of hindsight. Plus, film criticism is one of those topics that I take a great deal of recreational interest in.

Somehow I doubt we'll ever see eye-to-eye...

Somehow I doubt we'll ever see eye-to-eye...

Now, you might be right to shrug off a bunch of film nuts on the internet getting belligerent when a film critic doesn’t like their film of choice. It happened when the New-York-based critics decided they didn’t like The Dark Knight last year and – to a lesser extent, given there were more negative reviews – when Watchmen debuted in March. So, statistically speaking, we were about due for another one of these whiny, pointless outbursts? Yes and no.

What this minor geek mushroom cloud served to do was to draw attention to Armond White’s track record on the site – so geeks could see what films he gave passes to and what films he failed, and hold him to account accordingly. Except that this is the internet, and the media – it’s kinda contrary to the whole free speech thing to attempt to ‘hold someone to account’ for their opinions. Facts, sure – that’s fair and in the interest of the reader – but not opinion.

I’ll get my position out of the way first. I don’t like White, at least from reading his reviews – but I’ll throw in the old cliche that I respect him. He seems determined to consistently draw attention to the fact that he’s a smart guy. White is intelligent, undoubtedly. He’s insightful and he makes good points, but he also makes bad ones. He has strong opinions, most of which I wholeheartedly disagree with, but they are expressed in a (mostly) clear manner – though he is prone to name dropping in a way that seems unnecessary to the arguments that he is advancing. We get it, but nobody likes the kid who makes obscure references for the sake of making obscure references.

To understand where White is coming from, it’s worth taking a moment to look at his own attitudes towards films and film criticism.

My main problem with White is his contention that films are contributing to the ‘dumbing down’ of modern culture. You could really argue about whether that is true, relatively to other mediums, for example – I’d say that modern news media are the biggest cause, and that film is only as dumb as modern literature, for example – but my big problem with White’s argument here is that cinema somehow owes the public the obligation of making them better for having seen the film. That’s fine if the film takes on that obligation voluntarily, but it’s a fairly hefty obligation to just shove on to cinema as a whole. I think that the audience should decide if they want to be entertained or enlightened, and chose their films accordingly. Sure, we know from experience which they’ll pick – but isn’t it a little patronising to assume that there is a ‘right’ choice or that cinema has to make people smarter or better?

I love cinema, but the importance that White places on it seems unfair. He acts as though cinema leads and defines modern society, which is debatable. It is also debatable whether it should. He manages (through some exaggeration) to place the blame for the desensitisation of modern man squarely at the feet of cinema:

American cinema in the Tarantino years has pandered to violence, racism, greed and self-satisfaction. It’s not impossible that the torturers at Abu Ghraib—including even Saddam Hussein’s own precedent-setting torturers—were inspired by the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs.

I think that such an approach is overly simplistic. I’d argue that cinema can lead (and has, from time to time), but that it mostly reflects. If we don’t like what we see, it’s easier to blame the image on celluloid, right? In fairness, he isn’t blaming the silver screen for direct acts of violence (leave that to politicians), but rather on creating a general mood that itself leads to violence. That ‘violence, racism, greed and self-satisfaction’ is present in both films (though we’ll disagree of which ones) and real life, but I don’t believe that cinema either created it or feeds strongly into it. Sure, it’s easy to find an exceptional case or another, but White places too much emphasis on cinema as the shaper of culture and implies that it should be used as tool to shape that culture (he suggests that we hinder the use of cinema to cultivate or define a culture we don’t want, but it’s still using cinema as a means of shaping society).

I will concede, though, as much as I may disagree with his fundamental points and his particular opinions, he writes very well on film critics and the obligations that they owe the public, for example:

This disrespect for thinking—where film criticism blurred with celebrity gossip—has resulted in today’s cultural calamity. Buyouts and dismissals are, of course, unfortunate personal setbacks; but the crisis of contemporary film criticism is that critics don’t discuss movies in ways that matter. Reviewers no longer bother connecting movies to political or moral ideas (that’s was what made James Agee’s review of The Human Comedy and Bosley Crowther’s review of Rocco and His Brothers memorable). Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history—except to get it wrong, as in the idiotic reviews that belittled Neil Jordan’s sensitive, imaginative The Brave One (a movie that brilliantly contrasts vengeful guilt to 9/11 aftershock) as merely a rip-off of the 1970s exploitation feature Death Wish.

Though one should note the cluttered and pointless references that could easily have been trimmed to help him make his point with more clarity – but less showing off. That section is just about the only section of his opinion piece on which the two of us agree. He claims that such a model is incompatible with the current state of film criticism (which works on binary: like or dislike; thumbs up or thumbs down), which is a little odd since he publishes his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a site pretty much defined by that model. He goes on to target Roger Ebert, despite the fact that I typically find more ideas about a film in Ebert’s reviews than elsewhere (including his own):

It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.

It’s somewhat ironic that he also criticises the critical trend towards elitism after suggesting that films should be more than ‘bread and circuses’, to borrow his pejorative term. It is elitist to suggest that it is not enough for a movie to viscerally entertain, and even empty spectacle (if truly spectacular) has its place. He is right that film critics shouldn’t be afraid to discuss ideas where they are found, but he is wrong to suggest that such ideas are a prerequisite for an entertaining or ‘good’ film. But that’s a matter that could just as easily form a discussion in its own right. I’ll acknowledge that he’s right in that we do need more learned and more experienced critics – more critics who do more than simply recite a film’s plot when reviewing it – and I’ll acknowledge that White’s opinions are sometimes an interesting read (more often as a devil’s advocate), but there is a huge amount of condescension in his writing.

On the other hand, even if I did accept or agree with his philosophy, I find it hard to reconcile his own opinion articles with his track record of likes and dislikes when it comes to film (Rotten Tomatoes has handily tracked that here). I think that The Dark Knight has a lot more to say about modern society than Dance Flick, for example. While White undoubtedly has intelligence, I would never argue that he has taste.

So, with that out of the way, I don’t see the point in all this pointless bickering over this one contrarian reviewer. I certainly wouldn’t exclude him from the site because I disagree with him, nor would I demand he be replaced. It is good sometimes to have a voice who goes against the mainstream, even if it seems to be defending an indefensible position (like that Up sucked). I think that White – as such – serves a valuable role in the on-line community, but – even if he didn’t – he should still be allowed to air his views. Just as those reviewers out there who do nothing but summarise the film and add a paragraph of opinion should be allowed to air their views.

I don’t subscribe to the view that it’s necessary for a critic to reflect the popular views – to tell people what they’ll like or won’t like – because it’s impossible. Even if it were possible to determine a main popular taste, why should we force homogeny upon film critics? Surely people are allowed their own opinion. The litmus test needs to be applied on the demand side, rather than the supply side. Rather than than narrowing the number of critics, people should (and do) select a few critics that they listen to and whose opinion they respect. If statistics matter that much to you, open your own review aggregation website and only calculate reviews from what you deem to be good critics. That would be as subjective as critics listing what they think are good movies.

But leave Rotten Tomatoes alone. It’s open and its fair. I don’t think anyone takes the Tomatometer as an independent indicator of quality, just a quick reference. And on a quick reference the difference between 98% and 100% is tiny. What the Tomatometer does is not give you a score out of 100% (though at the side it gives you an estimated average in a tiny, hidden font), it tells you the percentage of critics who deemed it above average. And I like the way that the site has a huge range of opinions. It serves its purpose. It gets people talking about films and about opinions and it stores track records for critics that may – if you are statistically-minded – help you make up your mind on which critics you should be paying attention to. I’m not sure I support such a system – I’d rather read the reviews of insightful commentators rather than simply those that agree with me – but I can understand it.

Sufficed to say that White is not one of my critics to watch.

"A watchful protector, a silent guardian... a contrary critic..."

"A watchful protector, a silent guardian... a contrary critic..."

That said (yes, this article comes with a huge proviso), personally I can’t really reconcile all of White’s opinions. Having seen many of the films, I find it hard to believe someone who loved Transformers 2 could hate Star Trek and Up. But that is my opinion of his opinion. I share a widely-held suspicion that White is a ‘troll’ critic. For those unfamiliar with trolls, it’s slang for someone who posts on-line with a controversial opinion merely to draw attention to themselves. They offer opinions which no rational person could pear to have and occasionally return to stoke the fire that they have started, while laughing in glee.

Trolls get a lot of flack on-line because they tend to de-rail ongoing discussions. You could be legitimately discussion the system of government in a country in an intelligent and considered manner when – bang! – a troll pops along and throws in a random Nazi comparison like a grenade. Before anyone can realise what has happened, the argument explodes, blowing debris everywhere and scattering the hitherto logical and mature discourse, leaving a grim and dirty argument in its wake. Meanwhile the troll is sitting on the riverbank laughing to themselves.

My own opinion is that no reasonable human being could hold the contrasting views held by White (seriously – he likes the Wayans’ Little Man), and maybe he is being contrary to be contrary. If he is a troll – he is an intelligent one. He has successfully managed to draw attention to himself and sparked a fairly wide-ranging debate. Using the flames from those angry users of Rotten Tomatoes to do so, that makes him quite the genius – assuming that this was his plan all along. And, as I noted above, he’s a smart guy. In fairness, I’m not alone in my opinion. Roger Ebert was forced to offer a partial retraction of his defense of White when confronted with the facts:

On Thursday night I posted in entry in defense of Armond White’s review of District 9. Overnight I received reader comments causing me to rethink that entry, in particular this eye-popping link supplied by Wes Lawson. I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise Transformers 2 but not Synecdoche, NY. Or Death Race but not There Will be Blood. I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll. My defense of his specific review of District 9 still stands.

So maybe Armond White is insane. Or maybe he’s a troll. Neither of which can be objectively proven, despite the on-line community’s suspicions. And, even if they could, what are we supposed to do? He’s either insane or a troll on his own reviews section. The difference between White – if our suspicions are justified and he is making up opinions to generate controversy – and a regular troll is that White does not force his views on others. We doesn’t intrude on discussion or debate on a film – if he’s brought in, it’s by somebody citing his position. He doesn’t wander on to message boards posting discussions with subjects like “Pixar sux; Wayans 4eva”. He doesn’t hinder or stunt the discussion of film in the same way a troll stunts legitimate discussion. In fact, as I mentioned above, White actually encourages debate and discussion by playing devil’s advocate – nobody has to talk about White unless they want to.

And, besides, wouldn’t the internet be a boring place if we all got along?

2 Responses

  1. While looking at this I couldn’t help but think about the online furor over Armond White and how few people are mentioning that he has written a book on the subject of Michael Jackson that may very well be the best EVER on the subject. –

    The book is called, “KEEP MOVING: The Michael Jackson Chronicles”. It’s a collection of articles on Michael Jackson written over the last 25 years. Published in the fall of 2009, the book is slowly earning praise from a variety of readers. If interested, Google the title for ordering information.

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