In Defence of Armond White

by Tom Ingram

Well, here we go. These are words I never thought I’d be writing.

I recall seeing District 9 back in 2009. It was, and remains, a very good movie. If every loud science fiction action blockbuster could be at least that smart, the world would be a better place. Everyone recognized this, too, and for a while District 9 had universal critical acclaim. Then Armond White happened to it.

If you’re not familiar with White, he’s the former New York Press movie critic (now editor of City Arts) known mainly for his high-profile and often baffling disagreements with the critical consensus. Discussing him is difficult because most of his NYP reviews are no longer available online, but as an example, see this review. He takes Precious: based on the novel et cetera et cetera to task for being exploitive and racist—which it may well be; I haven’t seen it. But then among movies with “positive black themes” he cites Norbit, of all things*. He’s especially infamous for “spoiling” the Rotten Tomatoes scores of good movies by writing the lone negative review.

This happened, in two prominent cases, to District 9 and Toy Story 3. Moreover, certain details in his review of Toy Story 3 suggest that White didn’t actually watch the movie. More moreover, while critics such as Roger Ebert have embraced the web as a way to communicate more freely and clearly (and informally) with their readers, White has not—he thinks of the Internet as a place for children. This makes him seem to many like an inaccessible ivory tower intellectual, determined not to give a good account of himself.

Why do we hate Armond White, and are we right?

White does “spoil” the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, but it’s no use getting upset about it. Movies—even your favourite ones—are not entitled to a 100% ranking. If the Tomatometer is supposed to reflect critical consensus, then White’s opinion is and should be part of that consensus. Even if there were any point to getting worked up about a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score, we’re talking about a difference of about 3%, which is so small it gets lost in rounding anyway.

As for the Internet, it’s best to accept that intelligent people are going to have decidedly unintelligent thoughts about computers for at least another decade. Not everyone can be an early adopter. I grew up right alongside the Internet, but for someone who didn’t—especially someone with a low-tech career and limited insight when it comes to technology—I can see where the difficulty would be. Let’s take it as given that (a) White is wrong about the Internet, and (b) we’re not going to hold it against him.

The accusations that he doesn’t watch the movies—ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I doubt that Armond White has sat through Toy Story 3. Either he wasn’t watching or he didn’t go at all. His review contained a factual error about the movie that he is unlikely to have made if he had seen it (or, indeed, any of the movies). If this is the case, it is a pretty serious violation of the journalistic ethics he so often writes about. He has some soul-searching to do.

But you can hardly make a sweeping moral judgment based on just this. At the very least, if you were so inclined, you’d need more information. And as far as I know, there’s no evidence that this is usually the case. I can’t help but feel that this is an excuse to hate someone we want to hate anyway.

No, to properly understand Armond White, we need to go deeper. White said that Roger Ebert “destroyed film criticism” because he talks about movies as “disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment”**. He thinks that most critics don’t really care about film as an art form and would be just as happy writing about something else.

I don’t think he’s right in either case. But look at the implication: the thoughts of other critics are as impenetrable to him as his are to everyone else. He rightly sets himself apart from other critics, which could mean that he’s the only one doing criticism correctly, but more likely means that the thing he calls criticism and the thing everyone else calls criticism are different exercises with different goals and inevitably different results***.

Most strikingly: White seems pretty much unconcerned with whether or not a movie is good. He is not interested in judging the amount of craftsmanship that went into a film and whether it succeeds at what it tries to accomplish. Instead, he’s all about the political ideas the film espouses—or more accurately, since we’re often talking about movies like Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill, the political ideas that occur to him as he watches the film. In this respect he is like many literary scholars, although I should note that he’s a much better writer than any of them.

He’s also indifferent to film as drama. The mainstream of criticism generally sees film as an integrated medium incorporating aspects from several different arts. All of them are important, but typically the drama is given the most weight. Thus a visually lacklustre but otherwise solid movie can get a good review (see Pauline Kael’s thoughts on The Odd Couple). White’s old-guard film school background comes into play here. Most film professors think of movies primarily in terms of what you see—angles, focal length, lighting, etc. Most non-film professors do not.

There is a basic communication problem at work here. Criticism is already a field where many concepts are hard to pin down, and Armond White’s obfuscatory tone does nothing to help. So there’s a lot of confusion. But I think the real reason we don’t like White is that he’s a wild card completely outside the system, and we’re not quite sure how to parse him.

There is a continuum of movie opinions ranging from naive to enlightened. The naive end of the scale is the audience for movies like This Means War (which, incidentally, White panned). Right in the middle is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They have a little taste—How Green Was My Valley and The Apartment are certainly better than This Means War—but no vision, so their all-time classics include a lot of films that have no real value, and they often don’t recognize a film as great until long after everyone else has.

At the top end are the best movie critics, whose opinions are informed and occasionally surprising (within certain parameters). Pauline Kael panned Dirty Harry and championed The Warriors. These folks are not really predictable, but they are predictable enough that you can expect they won’t like This Means War.

With Armond White, that’s not the case. He could have easily given it a good review—perhaps for its vindication of alternative, polyamorous lifestyles—and not surprised anyone familiar with his work. He doesn’t like Lost in Translation but defends The Godfather 3. In other words, unlike any critic currently working, Armond White does not exist anywhere on this scale. He doesn’t pattern-match to vulgar or mediocre or enlightened or anywhere in between.

What does he pattern-match to? Well, contrarian, mostly. He looks superficially like enlightenment inverted, which doesn’t naturally exist anywhere on the scale. This makes him look like he disagrees with people just to be cussed.

Compounding the problem is that at least some of the time, he does. He’s not, as some would have us believe, always seeking publicity by being the only one to pan a good movie. But he has done such a thing on occasion. His hyperbolic rhetoric, overblown jabs at high-profile people, and weird opinions make him seem like nothing more than an attention-seeker. He is an attention-seeker, but certainly not nothing more.

When he’s writing about films in general rather than any particular film, White seems positively lucid. His reviews—even the stupid ones—bring to bear a knowledge of film history and technique that is extraordinary. His style is pompous but effective, a cut above the average and certainly better than the cinematic quotemongers he’s so fond of deriding.

So there clearly is a sound critical function at work in Armond White’s mind. It’s just entirely unlike what we’re used to****. It’s hard to see because he makes it hard to see. And you have to admit, as a self-promotion scheme it’s worked out pretty well for him. He has his problems, chief among them being his failure to realize just how weird he is. But give him some credit: at least he’s not Ben Lyons.

* He also mentions Akeelah and the Bee, which I thought was pretty good. [return]

** The article in which the second quote appeared is no longer available from NYP, but it was widely quoted when it was first posted. [return]

*** Everyone else, in this case, being newspaper critics and their readers. White’s criticism would not be out of place in an academic setting. But if he wants to play the newspaper game, he has to be judged by the newspaper standards. [return]

**** Which makes him quite useless as a weekly reviewer. [return]