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Do the Contrarian (Part I)


The Pale Man knows how to do The Contrarian. He sits motionless until an external stimulus prompts him into motion.

There's a brand new dance That's easy to do It's called the Contrarian And it's all about you!

Strike a hipster pose And admire your reflection Just be sure you're facing In an opposite direction!

(apologies to Rufus Thomas)

Is Armond White too easy a target? Does any other movie critic have a blog devoted to "parsing the confounding film criticism" he produces? (See the hilariously titled Armond Dangerous.)

At the risk of sounding contrarian, I want to suggest that White (published on the web via the weekly New York Press) is by no means the worst movie reviewer in the United States. He just pretends to be the baddest.

The all-too-common White review is a reactionary tirade that owes a lot to the angry shtick of aging hipster comedians like Dennis Leary and Dennis Miller back in the 1990s ("hipster" being White's favorite term of disapprobation). White can also be funny, but I wish he thought so, too -- and that his humor arose from his observations about movies rather than his hysterical indignation.

In this sense, White doesn't necessarily practice film criticism, although what he writes is almost always based on his real or imagined characterization of what other critics have already written. The movie itself sometimes gets lost in White's internal monologue as he rages against some chimerical critical consensus.

In the Bizarro World, Armond White is Jeffrey Lyons. He's the negative campaigner's blurbmeister. Just substitute disses for superlatives and you'll find a similar (anti-)promotional blurb mentality at work. This is the most elementary form of so-called "criticism" -- purely heirarchical rather than analytical or exploratory. It's not even "This is why I prefer this to that"; it's just "This is better than that because I choose to say so."

(Speaking of rankings and hierarchies -- check out Charles Taylor's ratings at the National Society of Film Critics web site, which have a pronounced tendency to go for one extreme or the other. On a scale of 0-100, Taylor goes for both. Zeroes include: "The Good German," "Slither," "Junebug" and a DVD release of "The Sound of Music." 100s include: "The Painted Veil," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Days of Glory," "Shut Up and Sing," "The Departed" and "Marie Antoinette. " I'm not sure what's going on here -- if he's satirizing the whole idea of ranking movies on any kind of of qualitative/numerical scale, or whether he really believes these movies are worthless or ideal (respectively), or whether these numbers just reflect his internal political ploys to throw off the average NSFC ratings for movies he likes or doesn't like.)

Here's a dandy deceptive excerpt from White's "Dreamgirls" review: "Critics generally accept that 'Dreamgirls' recreates the story of Detroit’s black-owned Motown Records and how entrepreneur Berry Gordy chose Diana Ross to be the leader of The Supremes, prompting the demotion of the late Florence Ballard. But this fable is historically inaccurate, the plot an inane excuse for melodramatic hysteria."

That second sentence may an accurate observation (and would make a terrific blurb), but there's a heap of dishonesty behind his disingenuously vague, but carefully worded, opening phrase: "Critics generally accept that 'Dreamgirls' recreates the story..." Who are these ignorant critics, and how have they expressed their "general acceptance"? An example would seem appropriate here. Do these same critics generally accept that "Bye Bye Birdie" "recreates" the story of Elvis Presley? Is there a soul who believes this 1981 Broadway musical is the real story of Diana Ross and the Supremes? How dumb does White think these critics -- and his New York Press readers -- are? Pretty darned dumb, evidently.

(For a smart and funny examination of "Dreamgirls" and what it does with/to the life of Florence Ballard, see Steven Boone's wittily (and meaningfully) anti-anti-contrarian piece at The House Next Door, which includes a passing reference to The Contrarian One:

As embarrassed as some white critics (and one White critic) have been about "Dreamgirls"’ lumpy mix of flamboyant negritude with bland, cruise ship arrangements of faux Motown pop, black audiences have mostly returned the love. Here, the music’s quality matters less than its thematic resonance; the characters’ thinness and broadness are less important than their vibrancy and familiarity. "Dreamgirls" is a white moviemaker’s sorta wrongheaded but sincerely besotted Afro fantasia, destined to go in the Ebony subscriber’s collection alongside "Carmen Jones," "Wattstax," "Sparkle," "The Color Purple" and "Coming to America." Love is what keeps this parade float of a movie aloft -- until a failure of nerve and insight built into the Broadway original sends it floating far away from emotional reality on the helium of hope....

See, Boone actually has something to say. About the movie. Contrast that with the beginning of White's second paragraph: "All this is worth pointing out in order to understand that the hype surrounding the gaudy movie version of 'Dreamgirls' is unacceptable." This is the language of an unreformed Soviet bureaucrat, not a film critic.)

I wonder what White would write about if he didn't first have other critics' opinions to react against. What if he had to critique a movie on its own merits, all by himself, without reading other critics' opinions (or otherwise discerning their views) before he published -- like, say, most daily newspaper critics in markets outside New York? It would be a fascinating experiment ("Please put Mr. White in an isolation chamber until he has finished his review...").

It takes time and effort to craft a counter-argument rather than simply fall back on an autonomic contrarian/reactionary reflex. White typically not only strikes the predictable stimulus-response pose, he turns it into a full-on tantrum. His auto-contrarian approach is indicative of the new PC mentality that has become a massively popular star-making tactic for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, A-- C------ and Bill O'Reilly. Overheated rhetoric is mustered to shoot down Straw Men, discourage and distract attention from issues of substance, and (most important) focus the spotlight on The Teller of Truths. (He's Lookin' Out for YOU!)

But in this superficial form of discourse, there's no need for argument; there's no argument at all. As Michael Palin explains in the Monty Python "Argument Clinic" sketch: "Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes."

It's easy to spot the glaring Armond White Seal of Disapproval (aka the Mr. Yuck Sentence: Warning! Unacceptable!) that's slapped onto/into virtually every anti-whatever review. It usually takes the form of an ad hominem insult aimed at some vaguely identified third party that White insists represents the status quo:

"Borat": "Avoid the trap of calling Borat polarizing; that’s a code-word of media-hipsters who long for social divisiveness."

"Children of Men": "Alfonso Cuarón is not a virtuoso, although his "Children of Men" style might convince the politically obtuse that a decorative illustration of their social alarm is a visionary achievement."

From the intro to his "Better-Than List" for 2006: "DON'T BE FOOLED by the '10 Best Films' lists from critics who never even saw the year's most interesting films. They're merely corroborating the promotional campaigns of the most highly publicized movies and failing to seek out the best. This year more than ever, it's necessary to separate genuine achievement from pure hype, thus my alternative: 'The Better-Than List.'"

Well, I don't know who those nameless critics are trying to "fool," or what they're trying to fool us into (watching movies, maybe?), but it would be hard to disagree that it's a good idea to separate genuine achievement from pure hype. (Perhaps especially when it comes to Advertisements For Oneself.) How I wish I could discern a little tongue-in-cheek behind White's cheekiness. (More on that list later.) Instead, his tone of exasperated, self-righteous condescension reminds me of a more verbally adroit George W. Bush: He lectures his audience as if they were schoolchildren who "must understand" (the unavoidable Bush phrase) that they shouldn't be fooled by what "the critics" are saying: "All this is worth pointing out in order to understand that the hype surrounding the gaudy [violence in Iraq] is unacceptable."

I admit, White plays to many of my long-held pet peeves about movie reviewers -- including his habitual attempts to dissuade you from considering any opinions but his (good grief, don't even think of reading other critics or developing an aesthetic of your own -- accept the commandments from on high!); his reliance on pointless comparisons that tell you nothing about a movie, but are intended only to disparage it (a classic: "Borat recalls one of those Madonna records whose flatulent sound and odious ideology get promoted into a hit."); and his annoying, heavy-handed use of other movies and moviemakers to bash whatever he's writing about, simply by name- or title-dropping. Each reference is a little carp-bomb, but White doesn't bother to use them as evidence to develop a rational case.

It takes three titles (two unfavorable comparisons and a damning resemblance), and a fusillade of insults in all directions to take down "Children of Men" in his lead paragraph (the first part of which is quoted above):

Below the garish surface of this paranoid fantasy lies political antipathy—not the sort of soulful detritus of Tarkovsky’s "Stalker" tableaux or Spielberg’s hallucinogenic "War of the Worlds," but Cuarón’s cheap specialty: fashion. By distorting contemporary social fears into facile apocalyptic imagery, "Children of Men" does little more than rework the ludicrous, already-forgotten "V for Vendetta."

(I think I kinda agree with White's feelings about the movie's ending, which he mentions later on; I just don't think he offers enough coherent observations to support his reading of the movie. He just pelts it with references and bad words.)


Ah, but the above is exquisite nuance compared to the grand-standing finale of the "Borat" review, which indiscriminately poops all over everybody from Michael Moore to Emir Kustarica (yes, the Sarajevo-born director who once made a movie about gypsies) to "Green Acres":

Borat’s cruelty is not surprising; it begins and ends by demolishing the people of Kazakhstan. These toothless, incestuous, corrupt townsfolk recall the pathetic denizens of Slavic director Emir Kusturica’s stylized, cacophonous "Black Cat, White Cat." But Cohen’s piled-up ridicule is nastier; it’s a Comedy Central set-up with a Michael Moore follow-through. And the 35mm video transfer is as visually ugly as a Michael Moore movie. Connoisseurs of genuine cinema satire will find nothing like Buñuel’s elegant visual subversion or even the polished absurdism of TV’s “Green Acres.” Still, Borat is primed for dubious “classic” status because it exemplifies the angry Left’s vicious temerity. It should be ashamed that its “dissent” finds expression in Cohen’s “Ethnic-Cleansing” humor.

Woo-hoo! It's like a rickety ride on the pop-culture Matterhorn! And it's just as full of holes and cheap effects (look out -- it's the Abominable Moore Man!) -- but it does make you wish the guy had a sense of humor. He could be really funny if he knew how.

I've saved the best for last. In the appropriately named "Better-Than" List (yes, something cannot be good -- it can only be better than something else), which is actually two side-by-side lists, with White's "Better Than" genuine achievements on the left and those hype-driven phonies on the right, with a facile squib of copy between them. You've got to read the whole thing, but here are White's choices, and (as near as I can tell) the criteria he used to compare them:

"Broken Sky" vs. "Pan's Labyrith," "Children of Men," "Babel," "Duck Season" (Point of Comparison: Made by Mexicans)

"A Prairie Home Companion" vs. "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story" (POC: "Backstage" movies about performers)

"Running Scared" vs. "The Departed" (POC: Movies with guns.)

"World Trade Center" vs. "United 93" (POC: Both set on September 11, 2001)

"The Promise" vs. "Letters from Iwo Jima" & "Flags of Our Fathers" (POC: "War poem" vs. war movies)

"Infamous" vs. "The Queen" (POC: Bio-portraits of "idiosyncratic" personalities, Truman Capote and Queen Elizabeth II, the commonality apparently being that both consider themselves queens)

"Nacho Libre" vs. "Borat" (POC: Comedies featuring foreign-born characters)

"Bobby" vs. "C.S.A.: Confederate States of America" (POC: Fantasies about American history)

"Akeelah and the Bee" vs. "Half Nelson" (POC: Protagonists are black teenage girls)

"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" vs. "Dreamgirls" (POC: Both have songs)

"Changing Times" vs. "Army of Shadows" (POC: One "confronts urgent issues of modern sectarian confusion," while the other placates those "seeking the safety and security of WW II")

"The Forsaken Land" vs. "Three Times" (POC: No posited connection)

Meanwhile, no word from White about what movies he didn't see this year...

More on the virtues of contrarianism (as well as the pitfalls of practicing it for its own sake) to come in Can Your Monkey Do The Contrarian (Part II)...

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