Black and White

August 20, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Originally, this week's ReelThoughts was going to be about how the practical length of human immortality is about 175 years. Or why I hate vampires. But an issue about which I have a perspective has leapt to some prominence in the so-called "blogosphere" over the past few days that I find myself compelled to write something. A name will suffice by way of introduction: Armond White. Search the mainstream media and you probably won't find the name. White is a New York-based film critic whose most recent gig is for the alternative weekly The New York Press. He has always been controversial - that's his primary claim to fame, and has been for years - but this year, he has managed to infuriate fanboys and other partisans with negative reviews of Star Trek, Up, and (500) Days of Summer, and "serious" film-goers with positive reviews of Land of the Lost, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and G.I. Joe. Do a search and you'll find that just about everyone has an opinion about White. I have gotten more e-mails about him in the past three months than I have gotten about any other critic in the history of my being on-line. And now Roger Ebert has leapt into the fray with a blog entry.

Who is White? First, he's controversial. Always has been, always will be. His reviews often read like diatribes. He doesn't merely offer an opinion; if he doesn't like it, he eviscerates it. Hey, we all do that from time-to-time, but White often does it to films that are adored by a majority of the public. He's a superb writer, although his qualifications as a critic are questionable. He loves peppering his reviews with references to obscure films and even more obscure directors, which begs the question of who he's writing for. Clearly not the general populace. Maybe just a fringe group of ultra-hip cineastes. White is respected in the critical community; he is the acting Chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.

I don't have a problem with White's contrarian opinions, given that they are just that: opinions. No matter how antagonistic his reviews may sound, they carry no more or less weight than those written by any other sincere, informed, intelligent critic. And he doesn't always disagree with mass opinion. He loves Spielberg, as mainstream a director as can be found. His #1 film in 1998 was Saving Private Ryan (also my #1 film that year) and Munich in 2005 (ditto). This year, he has not gone against the grain with The Hurt Locker, Wolverine, Adventureland, Tyson, Fast & Furious, and Coraline.

Some bloggers, without any evidence to back up their assertion, claim that White intentionally picks what he believes will be an unpopular position and champions it. This is an insulting statement to make. White may be unpopular. He is controversial. But never have I seen anything that would make me question his integrity. Yet we are living in an era when taking a minority opinion is increasingly dangerous. People are becoming less tolerant of dissent, and the concept of a frank, open discussion is giving way to bile and mud-slinging. Civility is at an all-time low. Admittedly, White is part of the problem here. His tone is often combative, as if he wants to be attacked and is launching a pre-emptive strike.

His value as a traditional critic is questionable, but his view of what constitutes being "a critic" is different from that of many people. Those looking to him as a guide about whether a movie is worth $10 are advised to seek elsewhere. That's not part of his mission statement. He does not subscribe to the view that part of a critic's job is to provide enough information in a review that it will give the reader clues about whether the film may be of interest. White sees a movie then rants about it. Sometimes, his eloquent articles become confused and confusing. It's not always clear what points he's trying to drive home. On other occasions, however, he makes valid and intriguing observations. These are often overlooked because the level of outrage among readers is high. But to dismiss White outright is a mistake, and to lobby for his firing (as some are doing) is dangerously un-American. Hasn't it always been a tenet of the concept of a free press that the opinions most in need of defense are the least popular?

I first encountered White in the early 1990s. A friend of mine, knowing of my fondness for movies, brought me a copy of one of White's reviews, written in a New York paper (maybe The Sun - I can't be sure). I was amused, intrigued, and a little outraged. The friend kept bringing me the reviews and I continued reading them. I believe I disagreed with White more than I agreed, but I was always entertained. Such a description - that he was "entertaining" - might offend him, since he obviously strives to be more, but that's why I kept reading.

Unlike many who are writing about White, I have met the man. On three occasions, I have shared a stage with him as part of Harlan Jacobson's Talk Cinema series. I was the host and he was a guest speaker, and we discussed questions and issues with each other and with an audience. Before our first encounter, I was expecting to meet a modern day Jonathan Edwards - a pulpit-pounding, fire-and-brimstone cinematic evangelist. Not so. In reality, White is almost meek. He's soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He is open to alternative opinions and ideas, although he defends his own position. He is a better writer than speaker, but he talks with a quiet confidence.

Based on these encounters, I believe that he has cultivated a "writing persona" which does not necessarily reflect his real-world character. The opinions he voices in his reviews are genuine. He does not come out against a movie he secretly likes. But the way in which he expresses those opinions is exaggerated for effect. He courts controversy. He wants to challenge people. And he is not chagrined when sane, intelligent readers disagree with him. In fact, he is writing to provoke disagreement. He is stirring up the hornet's nest with the recognition that he will occasionally be stung.

I cannot defend everything White has written. There are times when his smugness gets to me, and occasions when his vitriolic insults take on a personal tone. Then there's this article, which crosses the line by using inaccuracies to defend a position. There's a lot of fascinating stuff in this long commentary, and I urge everyone to read it. Unfortunately, White didn't fact-check his sources. Consider this statement: "Permit an insider’s story: It is said that At the Movies host Roger Ebert boasted to Kael about his new TV show, repeatedly asking whether she’d seen it. Kael reportedly answered 'If I want a layman’s opinion on movies, I don’t have to watch TV.'" Roger's response, found in the comments section of his Armond White Blog Entry, is succinct: "This is a complete invention. I never spoke with Pauline about it." Oops. Opinion is fine, but don't start mixing in fictions disguised as facts.

When it comes to film criticism and this critic in particular, nothing is black and white, even though we're in an era when painting with shades of gray is becoming unpopular. To dismiss White as a bitter, overeducated, elitist troll is as unfair a characterization as to label him as one of the great American critics. Take him for what he is. Enjoy his writing, infuriating though it may be at times. And, if you can't stand him, don't read him. He's one voice among many and easily avoided. Vociferous complaining serves only to empower him, and that's the last thing his opponents should want.