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In Defense of Armond White

Look, I'm tired of him, too. 

I'm even more tired of defending him—to myself, most of all. Armond White doesn't make it easy on those of us who like, or at least tolerate, him. He's needlessly combative, explosively arrogant and self-defensive in equal measures, and disingenuous in his argumentation against those who disagree with him. Your Latin dictionary should probably have a picture of him next to the definition of ad hominem. Over the last decade, his writing has become increasingly opaque, often to the point of incoherence, while he's become more and more caustic and condescending about his vagaries. ("If you can't understand my florid ineloquence and inarticulate profusions, it's your fault," he seems to say.) He's grandiose in his opinions while offering few substantive details to buttress said opinions. His sentences seem coated in butter; the more you try to latch onto their meaning, the messier and more slippery they get.

But a defense is still required. Here it is.

Armond White is an important, distinctive, and (okay, I'll say it) necessary voice in film criticism. He's no troll, and he's one of the few critics capable of noting the inherent—and latent—racism of much of cinema and its discourse. In his writing at City Arts, Film Comment and the now-defunct City Sun and New York Press (where he wrote alongside Matt Zoller Seitz and Godfrey Cheshire), he has provided a rare black voice, and perhaps an even rarer conservative voice, to film/video commentary. White is fluent in pop culture outside of cinema, academic theory, religion and politics, and brings it all into his writing. He throws brickbats at stuff I love, sure, but I've got thick skin, and his provocations serve to jostle me out of received opinions and consensus feedback. 

If nothing else, Armond White—like almost no one else in today's mainstream American film criticism—makes me consider why I like what I like, and to learn to defend it against his attacks. In his essays, he points the way to classics (American and otherwise) that I might not have otherwise considered, and unearths underdog gems on a regular basis. He makes seemingly bizarre juxtapositions that, more often than not, grow to feel correct upon reflection, and that show the ways in which cinema is itself a bizarre concatenation of different modes, technologies, discourses, and genres. Just as White's chosen art form is hybrid, so too is his criticism, and it's odd to note how rare this trait is in film commentary.

And now, after serving as its chair more than once, Armond White has been kicked out of the New York Film Critics Circle, basically for making an ass of himself at the NYFCC awards banquet during a presentation for "12 Years A Slave." (White was not a fan.) Now, to be fair, he probably was disruptive and uncivil. He's made a habit of that in his prose for 30 years, calling those who disagree with him "fools," "charlatans," and "simpletons." He's no stranger to personal attacks and look-at-me theatrics. 

But I don't actually know what went down at that banquet and neither, in all likelihood, do you. Accounts vary. White's denial of the allegations is predictably self-serving and incoherent. Available recordings aren't conclusive.

Still, let's be honest. Dude's being kicked out for heckling

Are we adults here?

A rundown: A Very Important Movie About A Painful Subject—that I admittedly have not seen, so have no dog in that fight—gets booed by a dissenting critic, a position that said dissenting critic is entitled to take. Dissenting critic then sees the film critics association to which he belongs extol the movie's virtues, and decides to sneer further at the obtuseness of those who praise the Very Important Movie at an event that happens to have an open bar. He then gets excommunicated from said society for heckling a film and director that he's made it clear that he hates. 

All of this is complicated by the fact that said Painful Subject is slavery, and thus intrinsically tangled up in race, and the trauma that this country has inflicted upon itself from its genesis. The dissenting critic is black. The filmmaker is black. The film's subject is, largely, blackness. Almost everyone else in the story is white.

Presumably, of course, the dissenting critic (Armond White) is overly rude, disrespectful and, when responding angrily to allegations that he denies about himself, sensitive. Of course. Because no white critic has ever responded overbearingly to a black writer's criticisms of white discourse. No black critic has ever had reason to think whites praise a "black" movie for all the wrong, patronizing, soul-crushing reasons.

I'm not defending White's awards banquet razzing of "12 Years a Slave," which I have every reason to think happened, based on White's own record of rowdiness at these dinners, and as a public figure generally. From a public-relations standpoint, the man is his own worst enemy, and his assertion that his peers' censure is "a shameless attempt to squelch the strongest voice that exists in contemporary criticism" makes my head hurt. Even among prominent African-American critics, I'm not convinced White is the most incisive. There's Elvis Mitchell, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson and Wesley Morris, formerly of The Boston Globe, now of Grantland, and one of a handful of film critics of any color to win the Pulitzer for criticism.

Nevertheless, no other African American critic incites, either through their writing or their public remarks, the kind of ire that has accompanied White throughout his career. 

There's no point arguing whether White’s writing or his public persona is the bigger irritant, because his entire career—beginning with his 1980s run at the City Sun—has been based on conflating the two. Following the model of Pauline Kael, whom White acknowledges as a key influence, he makes his personal investment in his criticism part of the package. 

But it is still worth considering, however briefly, the notes that White strikes in his writing, and the actual arguments that he makes, and then compare them to similar sentiments expressed by other people who aren't as widely reviled, and are in fact beloved precisely because they challenge conventional thinking. 

When we do that, we may have to admit that, however self-serving it may be, there's something to White's protestation that he's being held to a unique standard and treated with singular harshness—that perhaps, as Nirvana sang, “just because you’re paranoid / doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

Which brings us to Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of The Chicago Reader and one of the most politically concerned and globally trenchant of working critics. Rosenbaum called McQueen's film "an arthouse exploitation gift to masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons, some of whom consider any treatment of American slavery by a black filmmaker to be an unprecedented event, thus overlooking Charles Burnett's far superior 'Nightjohn.'" 

This sentiment's pretty much what White wrote about McQueen's movie, down to the Burnett reference. But Rosenbaum wrote it two months after White, and had the privilege of being, um, white, and so he wasn't blamed for wrecking the film's Rotten Tomatoes percentage, much less written off as a troll who was playing contrarian to generate page clicks.

Speaking of which: White is often blasted as a critic who doesn't believe half the things he writes, and intentionally goes against the critical grain to garner attention for himself. This claim is belied by the NYFCC's own evidence. Yes, McQueen may have jeered McQueen's nod as Best Director. But "American Hustle", the group's choice for best film, is one that White praised highly

And as a commenter on the Hollywood Reporter's story about the brouhaha pointed out, it's not as if White's list of canonical films is absurd, or even terribly adventurous. 

Here is the contrarian White's Top 10 list from the 2012 Sight & Sound poll:

"L'Avventura'" (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni

"Intolerance" (1916) D.W. Griffith

"Jules et Jim" (1962) François Truffaut

"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) David Lean

"Lola" (1961) Jacques Demy

"Magnificent Ambersons, The" (1942) Orson Welles

"Nashville" (1975) Robert Altman

"Nouvelle Vague" (1990) Jean-Luc Godard

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1927) Carl Theodor Dreyer

"Sansho Dayu" (1954) Mizoguchi Kenji

We can quibble over lists, and critics make entire careers out of doing such things, but White's canon seems respectful and mainstream enough to my eyes. Antonioni, Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Godard, Truffaut, Welles—these aren't outré choices. Even if they were, are we seriously claiming White as a knee-jerk contrarian because he dared to dislike "12 Years a Slave", and to (allegedly) say so publicly? Or because he goes against the number-crunching at Metacritic?  

Again, are we actually adults here?

I know, I know. The knee-jerk to White's knee-jerk is that he (gasp!) actually likes Michael Bay's cinema, especially "Transformers". And, yeah, I think that franchise is crappy, too. But he's entitled to think otherwise, and we shouldn't dismiss White's entire critical oeuvre just because he likes a guy whose reputation is being rehabilitated as the vanguard of "vulgar auteurism," anyway.  If we can still anoint Roger Ebert as a critical saint after giving three stars to "Tomb Raider" none to Alex Cox's "Walker" (a film that’s now part of the Criterion Collection), then perhaps we should let White own a few outlying opinions without relegating him to the dustbin. 

Critics make mistakes. They like movies that popular audiences dismiss. They go against the grain, in part because they have a deeper knowledge of cinema than most audiences. Sometimes they're wrong. But sometimes they know things, and see things, that the rest of us don't.

White is informed about cinema. More importantly, he cares passionately about it. If he contends in his initial review that "12 Years a Slave" is so hateful that it "didn't need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it," why should we be surprised that he excoriates the praise heaped upon it? And why, given his revulsion, should we insist that he pretend he's all right with the praise, solely to preserve decorum at a tuxedoes-and-canapés event? 

And even if you accept that White—or if not White, the tablemates that he failed to control—behaved badly at an awards ceremony, does that offense necessitate an emergency meeting, much less an outright dismissal from a group in which was a three-time president and dues-paying member? Isn't this a behavioral issue that could have been solved by disinviting White and his entourage from future dinners, or perhaps asking the wait staff and security at next year's dinner to keep an eye on White's table and nip any problems in the bud before they had a chance to become problems? 

Even if we agree that rude behavior at awards dinners is unacceptable—and I do—what does it have to do with anything beyond the dinners themselves? 

Nothing. 

White has always lacked decorum, often to his detriment. He can be appallingly childish. But this contretemps exposes a deeper, more systemic childishness, an unwillingness to tolerate dissenting opinion under the guise of promoting "respect" and decorum. Sometimes it is decorum itself that is stifling, that shuts down debate, that maintains a harmful status quo, and that needs to be dismantled so that rigorous, full-bodied, multifaceted criticism can flourish. Isn't that what a critics' circle should be striving toward?

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