The Oppression of Armond White, Film Critic

Posted by Charles Reece, April 18, 2010 11:08pm | Post a Comment
armond white  

Critic Armond White used to regularly irritate me with his movie reviews over at the New York Press when I read them. I often agreed with his views on the ideological underpinnings of Hollywood, but rarely for the reasons he gave. I'm of the opinion that it's better to be wrong for the right reasons than vice versa. He could always be counted on to take the inverse reaction to the majority of high-toned critics writing for film magazines and weeklies, not because they were wrong (they often are), but more, I suspect, because his inflamed rhetoric to the contrary got him noticed. It's hardly a coincidence that he should write for the Press, the city weekly equivalent of talk radio. While no right-winger, he shares with that group a reactionary take on culture. And not unrelated, his critical M.O. is similar to Pauline Kael's: puncture the pretentious bubbles of critical elite, take down their sacred cows. Her bête noire was the doleful European art cinema (e.g., Ingmar Bergman), whereas his is the current misanthropic American indy film (e.g., Noah Baumbach, to whom we'll be returning shortly). From there, the Paulette "bravely" defends a commercial filmmaker who's been slighted by said elite. Following the titular hero of Dawson's Creek, White's pet project has been Steven Spielberg.  

Take for example his positive critiques of the director's two releases from 2002, Catch Me If You Can:

Telling the true story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. [Leonardo DiCaprio], a con artist who switched identities, posed as an airline copilot, doctor, lawyer and cashed millions of dollars in bogus checks before he was 21 years old, Spielberg locates the American myth of ceaseless ambition in the neurosis of a boy attempting to emulate, please and avenge his father. [...]

In the nauseatingly hip Blow, a drug dealer chased the American dream hypocritically, narcissistically. It was impossible to enjoy or learn from that movie because of its dishonesty–pandering to the youth audience while pretending rebel, entrepreneurial cred. Abagnale’s habit of collecting labels torn off product containers (Dad’s Root Beer, Spam, Gallo, etc.) more credibly illustrates capitalism’s effect on youth–the influence a consumer culture has on one’s developing identity. In Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale’s elusiveness derives from this product- and media-oriented lack of emotional connection.  [...]

Catch Me If You Can has a grave, dark undercurrent despite its surface pastels–the pinks, blues, greens, yellows, sunshine. This vision of the life Americans once idealized also measures the distance we’ve gotten away from it. Lazy film-watching and dishonest filmmaking won’t do. Catch Spielberg, if you can.

And Minority Report:

Minority Report’s arcane title is subtly critical; it refers to a singular–possibly exculpating–crime report that’s been suppressed because it disrupts the standard, politically convenient view. (Spielberg implies that corrupt, fallible police procedure is an inevitable social threat.) Anderton [Tom Cruise]’s pursuit of this typically ignored–misfiled–truth makes Minority Report a socially significant, moral mystery–an extraordinary moral inquiry–rather than a film noir in the classic sense. The movie is way ahead of cliche cop dramas (and news reports) that exploit urban chaos by reducing it to racial antagonisms. Class tensions are still observable in the shocking difference shown between the exurban lives of moneyed citizens and cramped city-dwellers. But more than noir, this is poli-sci-fi–the first movie since Godard’s Alphaville to truly connect moral fiction with political science. [...]

Like da Vinci’s study of the body, Spielberg graphs the body politic through Anderton’s behavior–a reflection of morality, law and cinema esthetics. It’s a rare achievement because these days a moral movie is a minority report.

I picked these two examples because they prompted the only bitchy letter I've ever written in response to a film critic:

The only problem I see in Armond White’s attempt to recreate a New Wave for our commodified age is that he’s no Truffaut and Spielberg’s even less of a Hitchcock. Spielberg’s like a one-man Disney, reducing every story ever told to one: the relationship between a boy and his parents. That’s not where his virtues lie, of course, for it is the formally innovative manner with which Spielberg will tell us which mall stores to shop at (or, perhaps, airlines to take) in his latest offerings that will put so many asses in theater seats over the holidays (well, that or Leo and Tom). "American myth of ceaseless ambition," indeed. Keep trying, White, and just maybe we’ll all live to regret chuckling at your expense, but I’m betting not.

I regret that snark buried my genuine appreciation for Spielberg's high level of craft. There are few filmmakers who share Hitchcock's ability to perceive through the kino eye. What he doesn't share with Hitchcock, however, is crucial, namely a critique of the status quo hidden somewhere in his pleasing forms. It's there that White's time would be better spent defending the auteurism of, say, Paul Verhoeven. Any true ideological problematic, need for a structural overhaul, or call for a revolution in a Spielberg narrative is resolved/dismissed "in the last instance" through the status quo, typically signified by the nuclear family. It's for that reason that his films are more accurately seen as diversionary entertainment. He's a modern day Frank Capra (who in his overtly political films -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town -- presented middle-class common sense as a challenge to the system, rather than a matter of course).

Spielberg's one notable exception is Munich, where taking the family as a model for the State results in dehumanizing and murderous effects on those not included in the ideological bloodline. The more typical, Capraesque resolution is best demonstrated at the end of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, where after seemingly world-wide destruction, Cruise's hero is reunited with his estranged family in the untouched townhouses of Massachusetts, as if nothing ever happened. Is it "lazy film-watching" to find it distasteful that the recurring Spielbergian hero is thoroughly status quo, regardless of which ideology is in ascendancy? In Schindler's List, it's an Aryan businessman with a change of heart; in Minority Report, a cop who has the state apparatus turn against him; and in Catch Me If You Can, it's an FBI agent who provides the necessary father figure to America's prodigal son. White, however, sees this as moral filmmaking, which challenges the prevailing dogma.

jerry falwell   steven spielberg E.T.

How could the most successful and widely known mainstream director be a challenge to much of anything? Well, by White's borrowing a page from Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority playbook. For all his incessant yammering about the culture, White's a rather petty provincialist who can't see past the narrow confines of alternative newspaper critics:

These delusions derive from an elitist, art-for-art’s-sake notion. It’s the “Smart About Movies” syndrome allowing bloggers and critics to feel superior for having suffered through Dead Man, Ye-Ye, Gerry, Inland Empire—movies that ordinary moviegoers want no part of and that hardly reflect a community of citizens or the New Millennium’s political stress. It may be a coincidence of social class that most movies are made by people espousing a liberal bent, but it is the shame of middle-class and middlebrow conformity that critics follow each other when praising movies that disrespect religion, rail about the current administration or feed into a sense of nihilism that only people privileged with condos and professional tenure can afford.

Just as Falwell had the Christian become a beleaguered minority in a country of 90% Christians, White turns Spielberg into an agent provocateur for daring to express values in line with the average American against that old bugaboo of the anti-intellectual intellectual, the "elite." Clearly, White attempts to separate himself from conservatives with his constant attacks on the middle-brow and bourgeoisie, but his perversion of the dialectic -- where negating the negation has him merely celebrating the commonplace positive as a novel insight -- amounts to little more than a version of reactionary politics, albeit coded in revolutionary jargon. For Falwell, it was the secular liberal media elite that controlled everything. For White, it's the film critical establishment controlling the commonplace discourse on his subject of choice. (Little surprise that he would find a job at the right-wing version of the Village Voice.) And nothing better demonstrates how two left turns can have one going backwards than White's self-manufactured controversy regarding how he was shut out of an early press screening for Baumbach's Greenberg.

noah baumbach

First, consider what White has previously written on some of Baumbach's films:
  • The Squid and the Whale: Real (average) moviegoers are said to stare back at the screen in numbed stupefaction, however screening rooms buzzed with the press's self-satisfied chuckles. Propaganda for ourselves. Most New York critics should have recused themselves from judging this mirror reflection. Their lack of such scruples matches Baumbach's lack of talent. The mind-boggling moment when his alter ego (Jesse Eisenberg) rips off a Pink Floyd tune at a music contest and, supposedly, no one in all bourgie Brooklyn recognizes the theft, demonstrates the downright plagiarism and nepotism of Baumbach's career. [...] Baumbach fakes adolescent naivete because he has no perspective on the arrogance and selfishness that divided his parents and the family snottiness he himself perpetuates. [...] Film critics repeated the publishing industry's logrolling practice when they promoted Baumbach's narcissism as the current cultural standard. The low point was the Village Voice writer who (in one of a series of Baumbach-praising articles) bragged about saving all the movie reviews published by Baumbach's mother, an undistinguished film critic but a former Voice employee. Thus, the Baumbachian admiration of snide and obtuse behavior comes full circle.
  • Margot at the WeddingNoah Bambauch makes it easy to dislike his films. Problem is, he also makes it easy for New York’s media elite to praise them. [...]  Sure enough, morons think Baumbach’s deep because he wallows in unsightly “truths,” but creatures like Margot and Pauline can be dismissed as dime-store Freud. [...]  Appointing himself cinematic enabler to New York’s most obnoxious people, Baumbach makes it obvious that each sister represents one side of his own psyche—just as the parents in Squid and the Whale were embarrassing family self-portraits. [...]  Baumbach not only turns Leigh’s fearlessness into Isabelle Huppert-style masochism, he offends her person with a scene where Pauline shits her panties. And we see it. Baumbach can’t guide us through troubled emotions like O’Neill, Williams and Anderson; he leads us into the shallow end of arrogance, conceit and ugliness. The rat at the bottom of the pool is Baumbach himself.
  • Mr. Jealousy: I won't comment on Baumbach's deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.
As I previously mentioned, I'm no fan of Baumbach's films. They strike me as social critique reduced to the sort of self-deprecating remarks made by the rich and famous, meant to make their status in the cultural hierarchy relatable and thus more easily accepted by the have-nots. That is, it's self-promotion disguised as -critique. On that, I wholeheartedly endorse White's criticism. But there's clearly something else going on than a mere distaste for Baumbach's films. The director has become a personification of all that's evil in film. What White doesn't mention is the long-standing hostility existing between him and Georgia Brown, the "undistinguished film critic" and the director's mother who reappears as a target in all of these reviews. Baumbach's literary and critical pedigree (his dad's a writer, too) might help explain his worldview, but it doesn't make for some conspiracy of the New York elite against good, common folk. In fact, his films have nothing to say about such people. And, for that matter, what does White know of rednecks or the populace in flyover country who supported the Bush administration and practice the morality that's so maligned in current cinema? At least Baumbach ignores them, whereas White uses them as a cheap rhetorical tool to wage war against some imaginary elite group of Yankee critics who have no influence on anyone but another Yankee critic. Rejecting bourgeois leisure-time miserabilism doesn't justify a defense of the fucked up views many common moviegoers have. Fact is, Baumbach's narcissism is a whole lot less contemptible than the politics of the average red stater.

Second, consider the actual reason professional critics get to see films before their release date with the rest of us. That is, in the interest of commerce. Criticism rarely improves by being rushed, reflection takes time. The studios and filmmakers want people talking about their films to create publicity. Sure, the critics might hate a film, but even the most bilious invective tends to have little negative consequence for two primary reasons, both related to the size of the film's production. For a big budget spectacle, White's "ordinary moviegoers" don't give a shit what critics have to say, since they don't much read critics anyway. For the small, independent/art house/foreign films aimed at the exceptional moviegoer who probably do read critics, enough bad press will only make him or her more likely curious as to why such a film is being labeled immoral, dangerous, depraved, etc. (just look at the careers of Lars von Trier, Peter Greenaway, or countless others). Concern for the art of criticism has zero to do with its ties to commerce or a film's release date. Or, as White himself put it, regarding the official critical reactions to the MPAA's screener ban controversy:

Film criticism has been corrupted, and we shouldn’t make things worse by getting involved in an industry that’s skewed. We need to step outside it. We can comment on it, but not get involved with it. [...]  The New York critics have been corrupted. And the L.A. critics are of course corrupted. They’re just too close to the industry that maybe they don’t know that they’re supposed to be separate from. They think they’re a part of the industry. Well, I’m not part of the film industry, I’m a journalist. I’m not involved in that dispute. And to preserve journalistic integrity, I have to stay apart from it. It’s sad and aggravating that my colleagues don’t understand this basic fact of journalism. There is an ethical issue at stake, which has been forgotten.

Now, for some reason White was "disinvited" from Greenberg's press screening, only to be reinvited a week later to another one (due to the controversy created by the banning). Most plausibly it was Baumbach himself who did it through his publicist, Leslee Dart, but that was denied by the latter. Given the continual tangential attacks on Baumbach and his family, it's understandable that the director wouldn't want to make White's job any easier. Why not own up to it? But I don't much care about that. What's entertaining is White's review of the film, a better demonstration of how solipsism leads to the conspiratorial mind, I won't likely find. According to the title, this "Greenberg problem" isn't just White's, but all of ours.

j. hoberman listens

Consider how "the unhealthy alliance between the film industry and journalism [...] threatens journalistic independence and prevents criticism from being trustworthy." Because White denied ever calling for Baumbach's abortion (rhetorically or otherwise), Village Voice critic J. Hoberman went to the library, and posted the Mr. Jealousy review online that proves just that (see link above). Rather than a matter of getting the facts straight, White takes this as a sign of Hoberman's "viciousness," reflecting that "[h]is only solidarity is not with the critical profession but with publicists" and his "sid[ing] with censorship." Thus, "given this crisis, [White] can no longer keep silent about the conspiracy afoot in film criticism or the personal brickbats thrown [his] way." There's so many insane quotes that it's hard to choose, but how about this summation of Hoberman's influence:

Hoberman’s film culture dominance exemplifies the nepotism and personal favors that rule the critical network in New York, if not across the country. Like some nefarious, shadowy dictator in a Fritz Lang silent, Hoberman’s influence (as NYU instructor to the Times’ Manohla Dargis and innumerable Internet clones) stretches from coast to coast, institution to institution. He’s the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism. 

White doesn't stop there, though. Hoberman " prefer[s] a film culture that caters to cronyism," " hold[ing] onto his pathetic, unexamined anger [that] exposes the hidden conspiracy by him and his backward children (you know who you are) to control film discourse" whose "defense of Baumbach disguises their reluctance to engage this writer in a forthright discussion of aesthetics; it’s basically a witch hunt." And after calling Hoberman "traitorous," comparing him to both the communists and nazis, White goes the way of Clarence Thomas: "It’s unfortunate to have to point out that it is also a racist lynching by white critics of a black critic." And without a hint of irony, White writes, "[t]he snarkiest people have the thinnest skins." Professionally speaking, "[a]s Chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, [he] must rise above" all the vicious slander being thrown his way to stifle his minority voice.

All of that simply because White couldn't initially attend a publicity screening for some small independent film. It has nothing to do with value of criticism, and everything to do with a bourgeois critic whining about temporarily getting one of his privileges revoked. That privilege is, of course, the ability to use the publicity machinery of a film to promote his own writing on said film. If White had to actually wait for some time after a film's release date, fewer people would read his reviews, since they'd no longer be as conducive to the shopping guide publicists and movie industry want them to be. Without that, his criticism would be increasingly reduced to that of the bloggers he so despises. That's tantamount to censorship, I guess. Ah well, I'm still chuckling at his expense and glad that others are, too.

Relevant Tags

Armond White (2), Steven Spielberg (5), J. Hoberman (1), Noah Baumbach (1)