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On Armond White’s “Discourteous Discourse”

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On Armond White’s “Discourteous Discourse”

Armond White always begins with himself and ends there too; like T.S. Eliot, the end of all his exploring is to arrive where he started and let us know he was the destination all along. Twice this year he’s written “essays” that boil down, essentially, to how he’s film’s grail-keeper and everyone else is a fraud. The first was March 17th’s “My Greenberg Problem—And Yours,” in which White, among other things, promised—in terms worthy of a HUAC friendly witness—to “no longer keep silent” on the conspiracy (“a racist lynching of a black critic by white critics,” he noted) to throw “personal brickbats my way.”

It wasn’t really a subject he’d “kept silent” on; Armond vs. the world is a perennial motif of his writing. Still, enough was enough; he was going to dismantle the whole rotten system once and for all. The subject was a Gawker blip on the screen: White had been denied access to one of the earliest screenings of Greenberg, though he was allowed into an early enough screening to draft a review for print. The publicist was none too thrilled about White calling for Noah Baumbach’s retroactive abortion in print, or indeed just calling him an asshole; White denied the latter, the proof was uncovered, and he issued another blustery statement about how his prose, having approached the interpretative complexity of late Foucault, had been misinterpreted.

Such things rest, I suppose, within the realm of subjectivity. True, White had in the meantime called J. Hoberman “the scoundral-czar of film criticism,” then decried “the hidden conspiracy between him and his backward children (you know who you are),” as if he were calling The Warriors to come out and play. This even as he spoke, as ever, of his disinterested status as “a critic who speaks truth to power” (a phrase loaded with racial implications not even worth going into here, but certainly not ones applicable to a kerfuffle over Greenberg), one whose potential denial from an early screening would “test our film culture’s commitment to democracy.” The idea is that Armond is basically the mercury in the barometer of film culture and, curiously, the only meaningful representative of same. Everyone else is a goon, a dope, or worse.

About three months ago, my colleague and friend Paul Brunick took an unflinching, sentence-by-sentence approach to dismantling Armond White’s review of Toy Story 3 on the simple grounds of logical argument, factual accuracy, syntactical clarity, and rhetorical coherence. If I could, I’d like to take a slightly more impatient look at Mr. White’s second article of the year on the subject of his own victimization.

White’s absolute contempt for all his colleagues is no secret: If there’s a single critic he respects, he has yet to name them. Asked point blank by Steven Boone to name even one equal, he said “can’t give you one.” Since then, he noted in 2008’s annual “better than” list that you should “trust no critic” in thrall to Slumdog Millionaire or WALL*E. Fair enough on the former, I guess, but WALL*E is as consensus-y as things get out there; logically, White is saying not to trust any of his New York Film Critics Circle colleagues. That’s fine insofar as it goes, but makes it all the more puzzling when White stands up and issues another edict ostensibly on behalf of people he doesn’t seem to like or trust.

So what’s going on in “Discourteous Discourse”? The piece is more or less built around the proposition that aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, along with a sea of internet yahoos, are harassing, intimidating, and destroying true film criticism. This is arguable; my short answer is that there are many different kinds of film writers on the web whose audiences don’t come close to overlapping but pointlessly attack each other for, essentially, speaking different languages. But that’s not what the piece is about: Substitute any and all mentions of “the dignity of criticism” or “erudite criticism” with “the dignity of Armond” or “my erudite criticism” and you’ll start to get closer to the true intent. And this isn’t an unfair interpretation: White has so repeatedly, explicitly set himself up as the one remaining practitioner of true criticism I’m going to take him at his word and read his article that way.

The first four paragraphs are basically a preamble complaining that no one else understood The Social Network correctly (i.e., as Armond did), complete with a link to his review. The article never links to anything he didn’t write or that wasn’t about him; he is his own frame of reference, and he should be yours too. He sums up the problem with a bullet point: critical “hype…enshrines Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s antisocial behavior without understanding how his neuroses set the agenda for Internet bullying and film culture chaos.” The film has failed because in telling Zuckerberg’s story, it failed to draw the link between being asked to play a stupid zombie game and attacks on Armond White on Rotten Tomatoes. He seems not to have noticed that the film has almost zero interest in how Facebook works in any way, positive or negative; like almost all his reviews, seeing the actual film is no substitute for attacking or praising directors he’s already on the record about. He’s the world’s most predictable, unthinking auteurist.

A word on Rotten Tomatoes seems necessary: White was absolutely correct to note, earlier this year, that his recent quasi-celebrity status isn’t of his own devising. He was practicing much the same brand of hyperbolic shock tactics and quasi-dialectical oppositions long before the Internet drew a sea of enraged fanboys to his door, who often leave blatantly racist comments of the most common-troll variety. Everyone on the Internet gets subjected to this garbage sooner or later, and a lot of what’s thrown his way is obviously more reprehensible than average. The difference is that most people don’t sit down and write some 1,200 words on their martyrization.

There are some other solipsistic potshots here. The fifth paragraph is on “how film criticism works now: Publicists select favorable media outlets to create advance buzz (embargoing others) and then, with frat-boy mentality in effect, no one else in cyberspace dares dissent from the hype. [...] To praise the movie is to praise the whole rotten system.” It’s totally true that publicists often weigh their options and listservs in favor of Internet publications that are going to curry favor with sycophantic, undiscriminating reviews and interviews. But that’s not what Armond is talking about: He’s talking about his embargo, which wasn’t an embargo. The personal becomes universal once more.

Thus also with passages like “Reviews of blockbuster films Toy Story 3 and Inception by established professional film critics (myself particularly) received a record number of largely intemperate posts on the RottenTomatoes site.” That “myself particularly” gives the game away, except the qualifier’s unconvincing; it should read “exclusively.” I’d agree that Toy Story 3 was kind of a mess and Inception pretty stupid (between attacks, Armond actually occasionally makes cogent arguments if his mood is good enough), but that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying that attacks on him threaten to destroy serious film criticism, represented solely by…Armond White.

His inability to name anyone else makes you wonder what he’s talking about; a polemic about the Internet’s slobs versus intellectual criticism is really about Armond vs. the net. One could argue that because White never cites any specific low-lights of the machine he so punctually rages against, he’s internalized the very aggregate mentality of Rotten Tomatoes he so despises. He doesn’t hate individuals; he hates a monolithic, reductive entity, one which unthinkingly levels fanboy bloggers, TV “critics,” passionately well-informed unpaid bloggers and highbrow polemicists.

Honestly, megalomania and a tendency to think of oneself as the one true light aren’t really all that big a deal. But there’s a reason the few people who care about New York film gossip (and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here, not, you know, a challenge to democracy) are sick and tired of hearing about Armond. Part of it is that you can’t argue with someone who has perfect faith in themselves and no regard for others, and White’s perch at the New York Press is hardly going to rock the establishment anytime soon. As for the RT fanboys, frankly it’s good to have someone mess with them.

The real issue here can only be explained by being as petty as White, separating his distaste for his colleagues (and their largely mutual reciprocation of same) from the Internet’s collective rage at him. These are two separate issues. So let’s not mess around: When Armond rails and rails and rails against “Internet bullying” and “ugly intimidation,” one would expect him to keep his hands clean of such petty tactics. And the simple fact is that he doesn’t, and that makes him infuriating.

A personal example, not because it’s the most potent but because I’m uncomfortable sharing others’ stories (of which there are many) without permission. Back in March, I put together a brief timeline of why Armond White hates Noah Baumbach so much, explaining that it had little to do with his films and more to do with Baumbach’s mother, former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. Armond White does not do vulgar brawling on the Internet: That’s what he has an editor for. So Jerry Portwood accused me of being a minion (and later a pawn) of J. Hoberman’s, said I couldn’t do research and was too young to know anything without the patronage of my elders and betters; presumably he felt comfortable saying this—all of which was a product of his (or Armond’s) imagination—because he knows I can afford a lawyer about as well as the Press can afford to pay their writers decently. So who’s intimidating whom?

I’m writing this not because anyone particularly cares about Armond’s screams into the void, nor because he actually affects anyone nearly as much as he wishes. I do it basically for the few people who care, to record precisely the hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and underhanded petty comment sniping Armond engages in and claims to stand against. (And because I’m annoyed, granted, but the difference here is I’m not claiming to represent all that’s holy and pure in film writing.) And, finally, because a jerk’s a jerk, and just because he touches some nerves every now and then doesn’t mean he’s doing it in a constructive or productive way. He’s not “starting a conversation”; he’s nailing incoherent theses to the door and verbally spitting on non-believers, fully convinced a conversation can take place with just one person.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.