Why Armond White Is Not a Contrarian

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Just this week, the New York Film Critics Circle chose to expel Armond White from its ranks, due largely to his heckling of Best Director winner Steve McQueen during the awards ceremony last week.  White reportedly called him “an embarrassing garbageman and doorman,” and while he has denied these charges, no one who was there doubts he did it, since he has notoriously heckled winners and presenters at past NYFCC ceremonies.  Some might say that Armond White’s voice is necessary in film criticism, that he’s a “contrarian,” and that he helps us understand why movies that are perceived as great, are actually garbage.  But I want to dispel that myth once and for all: Armond White is a bully with little taste, and he does not deserve to be labeled a contrarian.

The word “contrarian” gets thrown around a lot, especially in the age of the internet, where anybody with an opinion automatically has a forum for it.  But think about what a contrarian does: a contrarian challenges your opinions not so much to get you to change your mind, but to ask why you think the way you do.  Christopher Hitchens is the best example of a contrarian: even when I didn’t agree with him (and I frequently didn’t), he used his power of persuasion to challenge your presuppositions.  You always knew where Hitchens was coming from: he had a love of knowledge and the Socratic method, and he wanted people to re-examine their reasoning on that basis, rather than having blind faith in something outside themselves.  Contrarians exist in the arts, too: the playwright Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, Domesticated) is a provocateur par excellence—he’ll say some things because he wants to drive you crazy.  But Norris uses his words to make you, the listener, think, “Why did I have a knee-jerk reaction to what he said?”  Norris’s mastery of this form has made him one of the leading playwrights in the United States.

Armond White would like to be the Christopher Hitchens of film criticism, but the problem is that his writing lacks the power to get anyone (at least, me) to change their mind.  His pre-established biases towards and against certain filmmakers allow us to predict his reviews before they’re even written.  It was almost a given that he would hate The Social Network, as White openly hates David Fincher.  It’s also a given that he would praise anything with Adam Sandler: his review of Jack and Jill was so absurdly over-the-top in its praise for a movie that most people hated led The A.V. Club to publish an article with the headline, “It’s Time For Armond White To Explain Why Everyone Is Wrong About Jack and Jill.”  White’s writing, in these reviews, isn’t trying to speak to us, it’s trying to speak over us, garbled by its loudness and confusion.  And when he writes his annual “better than” lists, where he justifies why movies we didn’t see are better than the ones getting Oscar nominations, he makes it impossible for us to disagree, because, chances are, the movies he praises were barely released and impossible for us to find.  I hate when critics do this—it gives them an air of “I know more than you do.”

Even when he tries to praise talented directors, it still sounds like he’s got something to prove.  In an interview with Steven Boone, a fine writer and critic, White talks about how disappointed he was tat more people didn’t go to a retrospective of the films of director Frank Borzage.  The problem is, his praise for him comes off of his hatred towards Sidney Lumet, whom he calls an “ugly” and “cynical” filmmaker shortly beforehand.  It’s one thing to like the films of Borzage, but the way White does it, it makes him seem like he’s the only person who knows the truth, which is not only that Borzage is better than Lumet, but that film critics only care about one of them, since Lumet speaks to their cynicism and Borzage is more positive.  To which I can only say, if you don’t respect the man who made 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and countless other great movies, you shouldn’t be writing about films. 

If White tries to challenge our taste by forcing us to re-examine Adam Sandler and Sidney Lumet, why doesn’t this make him a true contrarian?  Ultimately, it isn’t just the fact that his taste is bad—it’s that there’s no love in his attempt to persuade us.  As it is with all criticism, positive or negative, the attempt must come from love and not hate.  I can criticize a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street for everything I find wrong with it, but I can only do it effectively because I believe in the talent of the people who made it, and because I wanted to love what they were doing.  White’s persona comes from a hatred towards an establishment that he feels has always rejected him: therefore, he gives himself the authority to knock it down whenever possible.  But in doing so, he has become less critic, less contrarian, and more troll, because the writing of all trolls, no matter how well-informed, always comes down to a three-word subtext repeated over and over again: “Look at me, look at me, look at me.”

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