Friday, October 29, 2010

Armond White and Endangered Critical Thought

We've mentioned New York Press critic Armond White in passing, focusing on how he uses his impeccable vocabulary to call films "dung-like." Armond has become something of a pariah in the film community, praising films like Norbit while deriding popular new releases like Toy Story 3 and The Dark Knight. Roger Ebert called White a "troll" and each of White's reviews on Rotten Tomatoes generates more user comments than all other critics put together. In a sense, Ebert and company are right: Armond is a troll. He frequently goes to ridiculous extremes and inflammatory language to generate interest in his articles, and, by extension, the newspaper that employs him. But what's alarming is that Armond may be the last true film critic in that he actually attempts to speak intelligently about the movies he watches and as a result is either dismissed or attacked by a film culture that promotes fanboy-ism and star ratings over intelligent discourse.

Armond recently wrote about the phenomenon here, in a surprisingly even-handed take-down of his critics, arguing that it may take years for a film like The Social Network to be objectively evaluated without being lost in a sea of fanboyism. If we apply that same principle to previous Hollywood sacred cows, it means that only now can we start evaluating something like The Lord of the Rings in an objective way. It was only six years ago that the Return of the King won nearly every major award in Hollywood, after the franchise garnered huge amounts of money but few Oscars in its first two episodes. In a sense, history has proven Armond right: while the film was once a top 5 film on imdb, it's cooled somewhat, sinking behind more recent heavily hyped projects like The Dark Knight and Inception. The response from critics has been far more stark, as it went from being a top movie of the year on many lists to falling out of nearly every critic's top ten of the decade list. Instead of being "omg BEST MOVIE EVER," a fair analysis reveals that the product was far from perfect in a number of ways, most notably relying too heavily on CGI effects that look even more unearthly seven years later. While The Dark Knight is less along in this process, in 2010 it is now okay to say you didn't love that movie, whereas in 2008 the same sentiment would have provoked some outraged fanboy shouting that Dark Knight was the greatest thing ever.

But why does it take seven years for critics, people who review movies for a living, to come to their senses regarding projects like this? There's several factors at work here. First, there's the ever-present hype machine that seems to work in collaboration with critics, artificially creating "buzz" for the projects that need it while keeping critics out of the theater for projects guaranteed to be panned (teen horror movies, girly rom-coms, etc.). But even more importantly is the decline of the film critic as a serious evaluator of movies. James Berardinelli may be the poster boy for bland, unthinking critics, but there are dozens more like him lacking in any of the critical consciousness that allowed movies like Citizen Kane to be enshrined in the first place.

The film critic of a generation ago was a person who studied film (and got a degree!), thought about film, and had something to say about film. Now, most of these critics are dead and gone, and in their place are uneducated ciphers designed to represent demographics (Ben Lyons) or white noise students of Roger Ebert who provide nothing beyond bland recommendations. Ebert has become the grand old man of the film critic profession, but while I have nothing but respect for the man and the health issues he's gone through, he was in his time the forerunner of the sort of populist garbage the majority of critics have been reduced to. It's frustrating because he clearly cares about film and works at his craft, but he regularly misunderstands films entirely, misses or invents details, or talks about something unrelated to the film on a regular basis. Ebert's reviews always require the reader to take the next step in critical analysis: Ebert's negative review of Blue Velvet focused on the treatment of a female character, but the reader has to analyze why Ebert had that reaction and how Lynch intended that sort of reaction in the framing of the story. Ebert's criticism has always been more rooted in "gut" (no pun intended) reactions rather than thoughtful analysis, and the separation has grown starker over time. Going further than I would, White went so far as to say Ebert "destroyed" film criticism, going on nationally syndicated television and shaping expectations of what a critic should be without having the necessary background and training to actually offer criticism.

As if the decline of the quality of critical thought regarding film wasn't bad enough, it's come in conjunction with the rise of sites like Rotten Tomatoes that encourage groupthink and discourage independent thought. By allowing user comments on every critic's reviews, these sites encourage anonymous individuals with even less film training to make fallacious points, generally that a) the critic previously gave a bad movie a good review so they have no credibility, b) that they misunderstood the movie entirely (with no support), or c) that they are dumb. What is truly outrageous is the tone of these comments, as they almost always marginalize dissenting views and act incredibly offended that someone, somewhere didn't absolutely love Toy Story 3. This is the same level of outrage you expect in political discourse, but it's doubly discouraging because if we can't have a rational disagreement as a society about Toy Story 3, how can we have a rational disagreement about anything?

Part of the problem is that in any situation involving Liberal Arts, there isn't going to be one "right answer" that makes all previous analysis of a film obsolete. But at the same time, these individuals accusing Armond White of "trolling" are approaching film without the critical eye or the years of experience watching movies for a living that Armond approaches. These things make White's opinion more valuable than some anonymous outraged person on the Internet. White doesn't apologize for his dislike of the New Hollywood machine, his distaste for irony of any kind, or his dislike of anything that could be liked by someone he would consider a "hipster." But he's earned that right by reviewing hundreds of films a year for a living. White actually does engage in the type of film analysis that white-bread critics like James B. squeamishly avoid to include more detailed plot summaries. Unless the individuals arguing with White can use a similar level of analysis instead of calling him names because he doesn't call every third movie "sizzling," his dissenting opinion should be more valuable, not less. Despite the common misunderstanding on the Internet, all opinions are not created equal: the person who can use reasoning and "facts" to support their opinion has the infinitely more valuable opinion.

That doesn't mean that Armond White is right or that I agree with him all the time. He has his favorites and would step over his own mother before saying a bad word about Spielberg, a director that I don't rate particularly highly. But he is one of very few critics whose reviews actually make me think, even if it's just coming up with reasons as to why his opinion is wrong-headed and/or deliberately inflammatory. Amidst a sea of bland critics and outraged fanboys, Armond is an island of coherent film analysis. If that makes him a troll, movie criticism needs more trolls.

But this isn't just about Armond White. His treatment is a symptom, not the problem. So what can you do, reader? The answer short answer is think for yourself. Don't blindly trust critics, friends, etc., when it comes to your impressions of movies, books, or art of any kind, and that includes your friends at Your Stupid Minds. As an example: critics loved Up. Audiences loved Up. I hated Up. I thought it was poorly paced, featured a lot of cloying sentimentality, and was in no way a kid's movie until it suddenly featured dogs piloting airplanes. There was the same turning point climax that has been in a number of Pixar projects, but this time it involved the protagonist choosing between saving a boy's life or sitting in a house. It was mawkish hallmark sentiment aimed exclusively at adults, which makes it a disappointment as a kid's movie. Cars is a more effective kid's movie. You don't have to agree. In fact, when you think for yourself it's going to be rare for total agreement with anyone, even similarly intelligent people. That's actually a good thing: it encourages critical discussions about film, and both parties can walk away learning something.

Addendum: for a film critic I rate over Armond White, check out Ted Goranson's site here. Ted is not a professional film critic but his reviews typically involve a high level of analysis and encourage a lot of positive discussions about movies. Again, I disagree with him on a regular basis, but his reviews always make me think critically.


  1. This piece really got me thinking about criticism as a literary activity in general. Love the site!

  2. Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you like it.