Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Our Armond White Problem, and His

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Ordinarily, I don't write about film critics, or literary critics, nor do I ordinarily write about internet controversies or high-profile disagreements, or anything like that. I read critics (most of the ones I read who aren't dead can be found on my blogroll, but not all), and I, like anyone, enjoy a good on-line dust-up, but I rarely find myself drawn to those topics enough to actually write about them. This generally has to do with the fact that, whatever I know about movies, I don't do a great job of keeping up with the business of it, the trends in criticism, the employment shifts, and historical animosity between various film writers, and all the other stuff that, however important it might be to the individual parties, would count as ephemera to an outsider such as myself. Which is the other thing: not being part of the world of film and film writing in any real capacity tends to mean you have no stake in any of the ancillary uproars you might come across in your day to day reading, entertaining and fascinating though you might find it all.

But today I read Armond White's, ahm, defensive essay, with extra capsule review (for lack of any pre-existing category in which to place it) of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (which I haven't seen, and therefore won't be discussing here), and I feel some need to weigh in. I freely acknowledge that, among people who find Armond White a subject of interest, however negative, I am really late to the game, at least as far as talking about him. So late, in fact, that a lot of people, after this latest go 'round of White madness, are basically saying "Enough's enough, I'm not wasting another breath on the guy." Which is a sound way to go about one's temporal existence. Still, there are certain particulars about White, and his new bit of prose, that, as I say, compel me.

I'm going to dispense with the surrounding drama of Armond White being barred from a critic's screening of Greenberg, his subsequent protests that his freedom of speech was being infringed upon, and even most of the background involving White, Baumbach, and Baumbach's mother, Georgia Brown, that led to it. Suffice it to say, White doesn't like Georgia Brown, and it seems quite likely that this animosity has bled into his assessment of Baumbach's films. I certainly believe that, as does pretty much everybody else who has followed this over the years, but it's not actually provable, and, in any case, has been rehashed so ad nauseum that there's absolutely nothing new I can bring to that table. The one aspect of that history that is relevant here is the fact that White, in his review of Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy, said, in effect, that since the movie was so bad, you know what would have been great? If Georgia Brown had gotten an abortion.

Ha ha, and then everybody had a good laugh and went home. Now, this abortion line is by far the most discussed aspect of the White/Baumbach controversy, to the point that, since the review pre-dates the New York Press's (the paper that employs White) on-line archive, some have wondered if White ever actually wrote that. Well, he did, as proven by J. Hoberman, who found the review in a library archive, scanned it, and put it on these here internets.

All of which brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is White's defense of the abortion line. First, here's the line itself, which White himself quotes in his Greenberg piece:

I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.

I'll leave the job of parsing and interpreting that last sentence to you. Shouldn't be too hard. Now, here's what White says by way of explanation:

The last line is not Oscar Wilde but it’s also not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference. It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral. No more than that.

First off, his admission that he's not Oscar Wilde is probably as humble as White is ever going to get, so you should savor it. Second, if he'd actually used that "natal congratulations" line in his original review, either no one would have cared, or maybe thought "Hey, that's pretty funny." Really, transplant that line into the Mr. Jealousy review, in place of the abortion line: it works! Third, we see here the entire Armond White Problem illustrated, plain as day, although your ultimate defintion of that problem may vary (in other words, its impact is in your inference), but basically it's one of these:

1. White doesn't say what he means.

2. White doesn't mean what he says.

3. White doesn't care what he means or says.

4. White knows exactly what he's doing at all times, and is some kind of nefarious super-mind, planting the abortion line into his Mr. Jealousy review over a decade ago, and demonstrating an inhuman patience before paying it off earlier today.

Except it can't be that last one. I don't know too many people who are still swept up in any admiring way by White's word-smithery, so it's like saying someone is a great liar: if you know they're lying, how great can they be? (And not incidentally, White's also a bad liar.)

But I digress. Let's look at that sentence again:

It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral.

Well, that's not like any kind of definition of "abortion" I've ever come across, and "abortion" is the word he actually used (never mind that White has completely avoided the topic of what the word "retroactive" means, and how it functions in the sentence). But he seems to think that "abortion" means that, while others are congratulating a new mother on her wonderful new baby, you're backing away because you know that in the future that kid is going to make Mr. Jealousy. Which is also not what White thinks he's saying, because later he attacks Hoberman and others who have showered disgust on him for "suggesting" Baumbach's abortion by getting all political on them, and saying these people are hardly Pro-Life, so why should they be so offended in the first place?

Can Hoberman and Dart’s objections to the very mention of abortion mean that they are, in fact, Pro-Life? (I remember Hoberman railing against Juno for choosing life while praising the Romanian abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.) Can’t wait to see Hoberman and Dart defend their Pro-Life position on the Glenn Beck show.

There's a hell of a lot wrong with this line of reasoning, but what bothers me the most has to do with something more personal, which is that I've always wanted to like Armond White. There's a lot about the guy that, on the surface, appeals to me -- his refusal to walk down easy, knee-jerk Liberal lines of film criticism being the most prominent. When I first started to notice this aspect of his writing, I lit up a bit, excited to find a voice that spoke more directly to me, at least regarding politics, than most film critics do. But at best, White is politically a dumb-ass, and at worst his politics are nothing but a pose. At this point, I'm leaning towards the latter option. The way he brings up abortion as a bit of political self-righteousness is unbelievably cynical, and disgusting to me. I want to agree with the man, but I can't, because he doesn't mean what he says, or care what he means.

Words matter, is I guess what this is all about. Though, as you can see, I haven't been able to pinpoint what is the core motivation, or specific fault, behind all this, a few things still seem pretty obvious: he writes without a thought; he thinks we're all morons; he doesn't know what words mean. Also, he's a bitter, hateful, small little man.

Oh, and as I implied earlier, after several paragraphs railing against the shadowy organizations, which include Noah Baumbach, that would keep him from seeing Greenberg, White actually tacks on a capsule review of the film at the end. Guess what? He didn't like it very much.

45 comments:

Greg said...

I laughed when I read this piece because it is such an astonishingly bad lie. It's like a kid walking out of the kitchen with icing on his mouth and when his mom accuses him of tasting the cake she told him not to he says, "No, I didn't taste the cake because, first, it's not cake, it's flour that's been baked. Second, if I recall you said too much sugar was bad for you so you must hate cake and yet you're saying you made a cake and it's in the kitchen. I'd like to see you defend that on Glen Beck."

White's defense was only barely more coherent than that. I'm sorry but he's not worth your time or my time. He's a clown. And an idiot.

WalkerP said...

Yeah, I used to try and read Armond White's reviews back in the early days of the New York Press and the problem was that I could just never really understand what the hell he was trying to say. I think he wields excessively convoluted language and obscure vocabulary without really having the skills to do so. Every now and then, an interesting idea or approach came through, but it was pretty rare. Most of the time, there was such a lack of a coherent argument structure and any solid clarity of thought that I couldn't finish the article.

I didn't realize he was still around and still making a bit of a name for himself. I think he is a good example of how simply producing consistently is one of the more sure routes to succcess in life.

bill r. said...

Greg - Yes, the "it's not a cake" analogy is apt. It's such a bluntly nonsensical argument, that it's actually sort of jaw-dropping. How can you respond? And why would you bother? Well, I had some things about the guy that I wanted to get off my chest, and it gave me something to write about.

Walker - If I'd had more energy, I would have gone back through some of his reviews and pinpointed the kinds of passages you're talking about. One of the first reviews I ever read by White was his rave of AI, a film I love, so I was thrilled that somebody else was defending it (the film has a lot of defenders now, not so many then). But to appreciate it, I had to basically gloss over a lot of completely absurd or meaningless "points", to get to the stuff that I believed to be accurate, or even made a lick of sense.

Greg said...

Bill, sorry, I wasn't trying to make it sound like you were wrong in writing this, and I understand writing about something that isn't worth your time but you do it anyway. I've wasted hours on exercises like that.

But yes, the defense of the "retroactive abortion" line is pretty jaw-dropping. The words are undeniable: The movie makes one wish for "retroactive abortion", that is, going back in time, retroactive, and aborting the birth so he could not live and make movies. And yet, he's quoting his own words exactly and saying that's not what those words meant. And then further compounding the jack-assery by not saying what it does mean if it doesn't mean that. The whole piece seems intended to produce eye-rolls more than anything else.

Ryan Kelly said...

Great post, Bill. Tons of great points and, unlike the piece that inspired it, puts forth reasonable ideas and backs them up with evidence and logic (after reading White's drivel this afternoon I feel I must be grateful for this).

I too am compelled to write about this, but I want to enforce my no posts about Armond White policy. I've gotten a ton of hits from people googling the phrase "armond white noah baumbach abortion" or something along those lines and I kind of feel bad about that, though I don't know if I should.

But I think he brings up valuable points with respect to the relationships between publicists and critics, and to the extent which publicists view the practice of mainstream criticism as an extension of their advertising agenda. But what's insane is he's bitching about film's publicity departments and their relationship with critics, yet also bemoaning that he doesn't get to reap the benefits of that corrupt institution - free screenings. To continue the food metaphor from earlier, it's like wanting to have your cake, then turn around and say that the cake is shit and that the people who brought you the cake are dishonest shitheels.

This piece is like meta-Armond, in that it sums up everything I find fascinating and frustrating about the man: occasionally valuable ideas lost in muddy prose, flawed reasoning, self righteous theatrics, and mean spirited attacks. And it's an old routine at this point, if it wasn't always.

Ryan Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bill r. said...

Greg - That's okay, I know that's not what you meant. I did wonder why I should bother, but the truth is that it was the Thing to Talk About at the Moment, and I never talk about those things, and since I had an opinion, and wouldn't be doing it JUST for hits, I figured what the hell.

And then further compounding the jack-assery by not saying what it does mean if it doesn't mean that.

Oh ho, but he does! Remember, he thinks that he said that had he been around when Noah Baumbach was born, he would NOT have congratulated Baumbach's mother on her new baby. That's what he said.

Honestly -- "retroactive" is almost the key to the whole deceit.

Ryan - Thanks. I don't blame you for not wanting to go back to this well, and I sincerely doubt I'll ever come back to it myself. But I feel like at some point everyone should, or at any rate everyone will, weigh in on Armond White, and the hilarious web of lies that is his GREENBERG piece was my gateway. And he's pretty fun to write about, actually, because he's SO easy to tear apart, while actually having it coming. That's a rare combination.

But he really is frustrating to think about as well. As I touched on, it was a great disappointment to me too make the leap of realization from what White could have been to what he actually is. There are kernels of truth and insight scattered throughout his writing, but it's buried in so much venomous and/or brainless horseshit that those moments almost come to seem accidental after a while.

bill r. said...

Who deleted a comment??? I hate that!

Greg said...

Remember, he thinks that he said that had he been around when Noah Baumbach was born, he would NOT have congratulated Baumbach's mother on her new baby. That's what he said.

Oh, right. Wow, that's... uh... so... yeah, wow.

Dean Treadway said...

I, too, am irritated by White's writing, and his contrarian stance. I like to like movies other people don't like sometimes, and to hate movies people somehow love, but I feel I do so (in my writing, at least) with clear reasoning as to why I've taken the stance. With White, I often get the feeling he's playing some kind of practical joke on us all. It's film writing as self-aggrandizing performance art. But I congratulate him; he does stir the shitpot up royally.

somecamerunning said...

Nailed it.

As for White himself, well, to quote one of his musical heroes, Morrissey, "That Joke's Not Funny Anymore."

Ryan Kelly said...

I guess I deleted a comment... only I DIDN'T.

Your blog is haunted, Bill.

bill r. said...

Dean - "he does stir the shitpot up royally."

He do indeed, but that shitpot always ends up splattering all over him. It's not like he successfully positioned himself as the truth-to-power-speaker he claime to be, at least not anymore. Every time that pot gets stirred, he winds up looking more deranged, or hateful. Who reads him as anything other than a geek-show-in-print anymore?

Glenn - No, I guess it's not. Well, it sort of is, but I do seem to remember you once having a relationship with the guy unique to the rest of those commenting here. The way I remember you laying that out, I can hardly blame you for being a bit angrier than most.

Ryan - Yes, it is. A child died badly on this blog in the 1940s.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, thanks for this post. I think your clarity regarding the Games Armond Plays are valuable not only for their precision but also because they are several steps removed from the kind of vitriol that always gets slung around with the shitpot gets stirred up. And the fact that you have no interest or stake in the underlying bitching and moaning that may characterize the relationship of two critics banging on each other in public (one considerably more effectively than the other, I have to say) speaks volumes to your integrity and your intelligence in considering the actual words that Armond wrote and the words he now uses to try to paper over the old ones.

I once saw a bumper sticker in college that was itself kind of smart-assy, but was one that I always loved because it was a) witty and b) became a credo worth living by. It read, simply:

"ESCHEW OBFUSCATION!"

Armond has self-made his reputation as the unimpeachable speaker of truth to power through an incredible onslaught of muddy language and tenuous connections that are, to my mind, constructed precisely to muck up the waters with unprovable statements themselves decorated by fuzzy, obscure language and phrasing. Much better to couch your ideas, half-ideas and lack of ideas in a barrage of lofty-sounding word coupling, usually invoking some sort of morality-- moral compass, moral integrity, moral vacuousness, you name it-- that can be employed as a case for or against, and without much call to get into the specifics of what you actually mean. Then enough people will be either duly impressed or duly confused by the language and it will be much easier for you to claim some sort of unique grasp on the work in question because nobody can pinpoint precisely what the fuck you're talking about in the first place.

Interesting that what has come out of this is that finally White has been specifically called to the carpet for language he used, and not only can he not come up with a cogent, believable context or definition for his own words, but he uses the occasion to once again ignore the specifics of the situation, and the movie, he's talking about, couch it and his entire argument in vague declarations and accusations, and then jump in and start accusing colleagues of corruption and (I'll be darned) racism.

Bob Dylan wrote not too long ago that politics is the last refuge to which a scoundrel flees. That may be true, but it's kinda stomach-turning to realize, during a time in which the economics of the practice have been so thoroughly shifted and undermined, that film criticism is itself a pretty safe harbor for the kind of bullshit we have come to expect from the greasiest public representatives. In reaching out to condemn everyone but himself as either an asshole, the nexus of one conspiracy or another, or at the very least a blind follower of the conspirator du jour, White has painted himself into the corner of a very nasty self-portrait, one that he's going to be backtracking and reinterpreting for anyone still willing to sit still for his nonsense, for a long, long time.

Adam Zanzie said...

I was excited to hear the good news that another critic is trying to call out White on all of this BS... only to realize that that critic is J. Hoberman, whose writing I dislike even more. Hearing about White and Hoberman exchanging bitch-slaps at each other is about as amusing as watching O'Reilly and Geraldo yelling at each other about drunk-driving and illegal immigration. Yes, it's entertaining, but we've got nobody to root for!

White's rebuttal to Hoberman's article is lame, to be frank. If there's anything White does have a point on, however, it's that Hoberman has a serious problem with Spielberg. He's trashed Spielberg ever since Jaws, which gives you a firm idea of his bias. I say this with a realization that White himself is a Spielberg apologist who at times expresses his appreciation farther than he needs to (like when he gave a favoring review to Transformers 2- even though Spielberg was affiliated with it in a very MINOR way), but at the same time it gives White a chance to call out Hoberman on his own BS. But that's the only sane argument he's got against Hoberman; the rest of the deck is (almost depressingly) stacked against White.

harlan said...

I'm going forward with my plans to establish the Talk Cinema Nursing Home. I get he corner room. Seems like we'll have lots to talk about. Pass the cream of wheat.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Dennis. I, too, find it very hard to believe that anyone would not be able to see White for what he is after this, but then, I've long failed to understand how anyone hadn't clued in already. Even when White is championing filmmakers I like, and who get dismissed too easily, like Spielberg and Wes Anderson, he so often turns it into a battle, or has to twist himself into unbelievable shapes to ignore the contribution of Noah Baumbach, that I can't even get behind what I can get behind. If you see what I'm saying.

His use of language reminds me of the kind of college student who tries to impress, or more likely fool, his professors with a bunch of impenetrable word jumbles (or super fancy paper) in the hopes that the emptiness at the core of their "thinking" won't be noticed. In other words, those students hope their professors aren't paying attention. That's what White is banking on with his readers. Finally, it seems to no longer be working.

Adam - Whatever you might think of Hoberman -- and I'm not exactly a fan myself -- it's hard to find fault with him here. He got tired of hearing White lie about what he said, and other people wonder if those lies weren't true, and so he did something about it. I'm glad he did.

Whatever problem Hoberman may have with Spielberg is irrelevant here, as far as I can see. I'm a big Spielberg fan myself, but that's beside the point.

bill r. said...

harlan - Cream of Wheat with peanut butter is pretty good, so I don't know what your beef is.

Jason Bellamy said...

Bill: Bless you! A while back, I finally broke down and ranted a bit on White, while trying to keep from becoming him. (That was the point.) Like you, I usually try to stay clear of this stuff, but after reading his latest piece I was astonished and felt like I might have to break down and rant again. For real, this time. Thankfully, you've perfectly articulated the problem. Well done.

I know there are some people who complain about White just because he disagrees with them. That's never been my problem with him. My problem is that he doesn't follow his own rules. Even within this piece, he criticizes personal attacks on others even though he more or less specializes in the attack trade.

I could go on, but you've pinpointed the problem. So two quick additions ...

1) Only White could decide that (a) his "retroactive abortion" line "clearly" says what he thinks he does and then (b) think that this line just as clearly eliminates any confusion: "It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral." I mean, honestly, if you're trying to explain just what you meant, try saying just what you mean in the simplest language possible. Of course, White doesn't do that there because he can't. Which is why White, who is willing to rant at length on a number of things, then resorts to this: "No more than that." Right. Because he clearly just wants to put this whole thing behind him and move on.

2) This line kills me: "No wonder critics have lost touch with the public and become expendable even to editors and publishers." The implication here is that only critics are finding it hard to have paid writing jobs these days. Is White really that ignorant about the dire state of print media, particularly newspapers, right now? He can't possibly be. To suggest that he thinks only critics are becoming "expendable" is to suggest that he is the one who is out of touch. Not to mention: Though White certainly has his staunch supporters, if critics lost jobs because they were out of touch with the masses, how is it that he's still employed? (Let me be clear: I don't think critics should reflect the masses. I'm just arguing White's logic.)

OK. I'm done. Thank you for taking on the White problem so clearly and professionally.

Jake said...

Bill, this is a terrific piece. White's, well, I don't even know what to call it other than a pity parade, was so stunningly full of holes we could probably hold more revealing discussions about it than most of the films that will come out this year. I especially loved Hoberman's response, in which he slyly reminds everyone that he didn't even say anything; he just found White's own review and posted it online.

I've known people to defend White on the basis of the occasionally insightful criticism he's capable of, but how can you even be sure now that even the seemingly astute pieces are written from a place of honesty (surely the critic's most important facet, even above intellectual range considering all of the specialty blogs out there now), and if I can't trust a review to be his thoughts or what he's planting to get a rise out of people then I have no reason to spend any time with his ludicrous methods.

bill r. said...

Jason - Thanks very much, though I should remind everyone that I did resort to calling White bitter and hateful and small, which, while accurate, I maybe should have avoided.

As for the "natal congratulation" line...yeah, it honestly took me a while to figure out what the hell he was saying there. When I originally planned to write this, I was going to approach that explanation from the angle of complete mystification (as opposed to complete dishonesty). But then the tumblers fell into place, and I was able to decode it. Either way, you're absolutely correct that he couldn't have made his "explanation" more obscure. It's like he knew no one was going to buy it, so he decided to add a layer of confusion, as well.

And your point about the general status of newspapers, not just film critics, is very well taken, and I hadn't even thought about that part.

Jake - I've known people to defend White on the basis of the occasionally insightful criticism he's capable of, but how can you even be sure now that even the seemingly astute pieces are written from a place of honesty...

That's exactly it. I used to read White without irony, or try to, for just those moments, but after a while, you start to think "Well, I don't believe a word of any of this, but I believe this part, because I agree with it." White has so thoroughly soiled everything that you can't treat him like another critic, with whom you're going to agree and disagree with from time to time, because you're both human beings. Nothing he says can be taken at face value, so I can't give him credit anymore for the stuff I like.

Craig said...

Thanks for doing this, Bill. I'd considered going through the piece with an editor's comb myself, but the mere thought was making me physically ill.

I only disagree with one point: I think Armond means exactly what he says - at least up to the moment he says it. How else to explain how he can deny calling Baumbach an asshole in one sentence only to call him an asshole in another one? White's rhetorical question about halfway into the screed -- "So what if I said something rude?" -- is actually his most revealing statement. It's not much of an argument, but at least it's honest.

Like you, I'm frustrated that he lets vitriol overwhelm his more salient points. His accusation that Hoberman doesn't bother with "black films" may have some validity. I went through Hoberman's list of reviews (as did coincidentally Andrew over at Film Brain) and found only two out of nearly a thousand: Killer of Sheep and When the Levees Broke (though he loved both). Too bad Armond uses it as a cheap race card, and then contradicts it by insinuating that Hoberman and his minions are behind the glorification of Precious.

Speaking of sycophants, it's revealing as ever that Armond's fellow Paulettes remain conspicuously silent over his shenanigans. I can sympathize with the impulse to defend a friend, but you'd think a pack of good writers like them would at least object on an aesthetic level to his prose.

Regarding Hoberman, I'm only remotely familiar with his work and was hitherto unaware of his imperial dominance over the critical establishment. I will say that he seems engaged with foreign films more than any critic in the business. And tracking down Armond White's abortion piece was simply good detective work. I imagine Robert Downey, Jr.'s character in Zodiac shaking his head in admiration and muttering, "The fuckin' library."

Tom Sutpen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ferdyonfilms said...

Bill - This is a great piece, but from my point of view, not because it takes on a specific person. What you give here is an excellent primer on writing - how to do it well, how to do it badly, how to sift through a quagmire of words for meaning or meaninglessness. This is exactly what every school should teach every child so they don't get snowed by the millions of messages designed to do just that and learn to reason and think for themselves. When a writer makes sense only once in a while, or for two sentences in a review, that only goes to show that a 12-hour clock tells the right time twice a day. I'm really starting to believe that people like this are neurotic at best, and psychotic at worst. These days, such people are being given platforms in the media and politics from which to foment insanity. As former actress Nancy Davis said, "Just say 'no'."

bill r. said...

Craig - I probably should have shortened my point to merely "he doesn't care what he means", which I think is as close to accurate as I'm likely to get regarding White. He doesn't think that what he says matters, except when he says it matters. He can abuse people all day long -- and does -- but he doesn't think anyone should care about that, at least beyond finding it all terribly witty. To get distracted by his call for a filmmakers abortion is to be illiterate.

Tom - I don't know about that. You don't think that if, say, Dave Kehr (a name I pulled out of the hat; pick someone you don't find so contrarian, which might be subjective anyway) had suggested Lars von Trier's (ibid) mother have a retroactive abortion, nobody would have said anything? And if you think yes, but not at anywhere the same level, don't you also believe that the uproar surrounding White's article has more to do with White's history of exactly this sort of thing?

I didn't need anybody to tell me that something was wrong with Armond White -- I've read enough of his stuff over the years to come to that conclusion on my own. And while I realize you're not saying otherwise, how can you not see the justification, based on his past statements, and calling for someone's abortion (I know, it was a joke...) in calling White out on this sort of thing?

You really don't think White has issues beyond his bad writing?

ferdyonfilms said...

I think he has issues beyond his bad writing. I've seen this kind of behavior before.

And Bill, sign-in on this site is difficult for me because of the plethora of passwords I can no longer keep track of. If you can add sign in by name/url like Greg has on his site, I'd very much appreciate it.

Marilyn

bill r. said...

Well, Tom deleted his comment, so my response to him is meaningless now, I guess. But it was only partially meaningless before, I promise.

Marilyn - Thanks. That really was the impetus to write this: White's twisted use of language. I can't believe anybody in the world of professional journalism -- I mean editors, not just White (and also readers, while I'm at it) -- can possibly let this sort of writing fly. People don't know what good writing is anymore. It's like they've been bullied into thinking that if it's impossible to understand, that must mean it's good.

bill r. said...

Marilyn - once I figure out how to do that, I will.

ferdyonfilms said...

Bill - Impossible to understand is how academics and lawyers have kept themselves in business. I don't know how many academic papers I've have to unscramble for publication. Speaking in a specialist language is nothing new. We've got a guy in town named Ray Pride whose helium-filled prose drives me crazy. I personally think the subject of your post never learned how to write well.

PIPER said...

Bill,

A couple of things even though this is probably tired and you're tired and I'm kind of tired, but I'll write it anyway.

I think one of the reasons White was banned from Greenberg had nothing to do with "abortion" comment and everything to do with the fact that his reviews are less "critique" and more personal attacks. That's just not good criticism. So for that reason, I dismiss the argument that this is publicists and critics getting in bed with eachother.

Second, and you made mention to this, I do like all this bitch slappery because there's far too little of it now a days. We need more of this stuff. Too often we shy away from confrontation such as this, so I'm glad it's still alive and well.

Third, this is a classic example of where we are now. The "abortion" comment could be dismissed earlier because people didn't "chat" the way they do now. And instead of White owning up to it, he tries to defend it with idiotic banter.

Fourth and final, this is a very well thought out piece. And thanks to Jason for turning me on to it.

Tom Sutpen said...

Bill:

I'm saying that Armond White's issues are his own, and that if anyone is in a position to engage him on this matter it's Noah Baumbach and/or his moms. It's nobody else's business.

What does it say about the FilmCrit community that we can, with little self-reflection, raise our voices en masse like courtiers defending the honor of their sovereign, to avenge a wholly personal insult one of us has rendered unto a movie director; as if his interests were in no way dissimilar to ours (which, as an institutional matter, they ought to be, otherwise no critic has a jot of credibility).

As for the analogous example you cite, no, I think not much, if anything, would be said in that instance.

I deleted my earlier comment, 'meaningless' as it was, because on re-reading it I found that I'd been a bit too direct in my remarks, which I should not have been, as it's something that normally gets me into a lot of trouble I really can't afford. My standing on this field of play is admittedly pretty dismal, I don't need to be further condemned for not knowing my place; for speaking out of turn in the presence of those above my station.

Jason Bellamy said...

It's like he knew no one was going to buy it, so he decided to add a layer of confusion, as well.

Exactly. And also this:

At best, White's initial abortion comment has been misinterpreted from its intent because he wrote it in such a vague way that it left itself wide open to alternate interpretations. (That's bad writing, but never mind.) White's defense is that anyone who is intelligent wouldn't have thought the statement is vague at all. So what better way to defend the first line than by using an equally cryptic phrase. It's as if White is saying: "If you didn't get what I meant the first time, and now you still don't get it, it's because you're a moron."

So, that said, I disagree with Craig. I think you're right the first time: A vast majority of the time White doesn't mean what he says, first because he often doesn't understand what he's saying, and second because there's a pattern here that suggests he often has an intent (being contrary, say) that's counter to what he articulates as his intent ("I have no interest in being contrary.").

Of course, sure, sometimes White says exactly what he thinks and means it (Baumbach is an "asshole"), even if later he tries to change the definition. But the pattern with him is stuff like, "I say I'm reviewing Caroline but really I'm talking about this film only in an effort to slam Pixar."

OK. I'm done ranting.

bill r. said...

Tom, I didn't say your comment was meaningless -- I said my response to it had been rendered meaningless. Sorry for the confusion.

Anyway, as you implied in the comment you deleted, White puts it out there, and he sets it up in a way that "excuses", if that's the way you want to look at it, these sorts of responses. Besides that, I see no problem at all with criticizing the critics, and the core of my whole post was his actual writing. I went beyond that here and there, but the bulk of what I say here was directed at what you consider the only aspect of Armond White that is fair game.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Craig said: “Speaking of sycophants, it's revealing as ever that Armond's fellow Paulettes remain conspicuously silent over his shenanigans. I can sympathize with the impulse to defend a friend, but you'd think a pack of good writers like them would at least object on an aesthetic level to his prose.”

I wouldn’t presume to speak for any of White’s colleagues who have been pinned with the “Paulette” label, but I think it’s entirely possible that those writers to whom Pauline Kael was important may have feelings on the matter, ambiguous or not so ambiguous, and have just made the decision to, as Tom says White should have, let the work speak for itself. If White felt he was sole occupant of the high road to begin with, then he should have continued on his way, let sleeping rabid dogs lie and not commented on any of it. Unfortunately, he seems unable to do that, and any defense on his part, let alone one as perforated with contradiction and illogical passages as the one he offered, is going make him look worse.

I’m certainly only speculating, but White’s take-no-prisoners attitude in his writing may have created a wall between him and even those one might presume would find reason to sympathize him on even a level of camaraderie. Perhaps his obvious desire to use the pretense of a review as a launching pad for ill-considered and often random-seeming comparisons and, much worse, personal attacks—the specific kind, like the ones on Baumbach, and the more general kind, where he vilifies fellow critics in print as blind or corrupt or otherwise lacking in proper stature and awareness if they don’t see things his way-- have made other critics realize the lack of up-side in getting involved in trying to defend White’s writing. In a situation like this, silence can be just as damning as a blistering retort. It seems Hoberman understands this as well, given his short, bemused response.

By the way, as one who has taken certain critics to task on my own blog, and has mentioned and responded to other critical responses to films as part of digesting and expressing my own point of view, I might myself be expected to be sympathetic to White’s tendency to drag others into his own arguments. But I like to think I’ve done so without resorting to the kind of denigration and humiliation (which goes hand in hand with placing oneself on a pedestal) that seems to be such an integral part of White’s scorched-earth manner of reviewing films. And I think you’re right, Bill—any critic’s perspective is out there in the culture for a reason, and I think responding to those points of view is fair game. The only way I can conceive of to understand the objections of those who complain when a writer engages the points of view of others, one which definitely seems on point here, is if that writer were to take a contradictory, defensive, mean-spirited stance without adequately and cogently expressing his/her own view and backing it up properly with evidence taken directly from the screen. How well White does this ought to be enough of a determining factor as to whether he’s a good critic. The rest of this is just an increasingly unpleasant freak show.

ferdyonfilms said...

This whole incident just points up the desperation of major media outlets to be heard and make money. When Glenn Beck, a man with an open history of mental problems, becomes the leading spokesperson for his network; when "liberal" media commentator Eric Alterman wishes on camera that the sleazy Lee Atwater had been on "our" side instead of the GOP's; when Ann Coulter, a best-selling author for her publisher, is called out by conservatives because her "fearlessness has become an addiction to shock value"; when professional rich flip-flopper Arianna Huffington runs the most popular "liberal" blog in America by giving play to Deepak Chopra's trenchant analysis of the Iraq War and refusing to pay anyone for anything - well, Mr. White is relatively small potatoes.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well said sir,

Its funny, White first came to my attention when I read an interview he did at the De Palma retrospective praising Mission To Mars.

That really should have been a sign right there.

The problem with White is he's a film critic who made his names by taking bold unpopular opinions, and then just decided to take the film critic part out of his title.

For him being in the minority is an endgame, not a result.

My solution is to take a giant jar and place both White and Schiekel in it, shake it, and then watch them fight.

Who will win?

We will.

And yes I'll be happy to go on Glen Beck and defend my giant jar fights to the death position.

Craig said...

Dennis,

I wouldn’t presume to speak for any of White’s colleagues who have been pinned with the “Paulette” label, but I think it’s entirely possible that those writers to whom Pauline Kael was important may have feelings on the matter, ambiguous or not so ambiguous, and have just made the decision to, as Tom says White should have, let the work speak for itself.

I hope you're right. What bothers me, though, is they're typically not shy about calling out colleagues who have done a lot less harm (and are far better writers) than White. Edelstein, in particular, has been a disappointment with his comments at the Voice's site, when all Hoberman did was support a claim with factual evidence. (What used to be called journalism.) He'll take on Hoberman for that, or Georgia Brown for something she did a zillion years ago, or Glenn Kenny for an offhanded remark about Pauline Kael, or a random commenter like Bill over at your blog....yet with Armond's long-term pattern of behavior, the best he can do is tug at his shirt-collar like Rodney Dangerfield. It's a feeble refusal to acknowledge the obvious.

And I like Edelstein as a critic. I like reading most of the Paulettes -- for their fearless commitment, if nothing else, so why are they suddenly bashful now? I guess what I'm saying is what somebody suggested elsewhere: Armond needs an intervention. He needs a little help from his friends.

bill r. said...

I read a couple of comments over at Glenn Kenny's site that put forward the idea that the NY Press's continued publication of White essentially amounts to exploitation. This is an interesting idea that I hadn't considered, and depends, I suppose, on how truly warped you think the guy is.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Craig, I guess the difference for me is that David Edelstein is not using column inches in his actual reviews as a pulpit for interacting, however positively or negatively, with those with whom he may have issues. When he has called someone out or joined in an argument, it's been in the comments column of a blog, where the tenor of the comments are often dictated by the blog itself, and where the comments column itself is designed for such exchanges. And however I may or may not feel about his comments on the Voice blog or his official response in his own blog, at least that's where he chose to make it public-- a blog, not tucked into a review or a piece written for New York magazine.

Full disclosure: I, like you, admire Edelstein's writing a lot-- I have ever since his apparently beleaguered Voice days. And I also consider him a friend, though I know next to nothing about his history with the main players in this drama. So I may not be the least biased person to speak on this issue. But I will say I'd take Edelstein and his writing, and his way of going about expressing his feelings regarding these sorts of weird personal fracases (or should that be fricasees? Fricassi?) over White's boorish manner and graceless writing any day.

Craig said...

Dennis,

I guess the difference for me is that David Edelstein is not using column inches in his actual reviews as a pulpit for interacting, however positively or negatively, with those with whom he may have issues. When he has called someone out or joined in an argument, it's been in the comments column of a blog, where the tenor of the comments are often dictated by the blog itself, and where the comments column itself is designed for such exchanges.

We're actually in agreement there. You're right, Edelstein usually doesn't waste space on that sort of thing in his own writing. (I may be thinking more about others in that regard.) I just find his comments -- and even his blog-writing -- disappointing compared to the quality of his criticism.

First Church of Storytelling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidE said...

There's nothing more to say, Craig Madonna. Tug my collar, time to go home. I don't like taking pot-shots at other critics unless they're my friends and in that case it's ribbing. I have never written a bad word about Hoberman, a former colleague, in my life (and check out my very long and very breathless discussion of The Dream Life, one of the best books about film and culture I've ever read, with A.O. Scott in Slate) and so I really DON'T have a dog in the fight between him and Armond. As for Armond, I suspect I am just as much the object of his "official" contempt as anyone. He once asked if his readers knew one intelligent person who liked--and he named three films. I liked two of them. I went for a few years without talking to him and then patched things up and now really respect him for standing up to films like The Departed and many many many of the bad films in this year's New York Film Festival (programmed by Hoberman and three current or ex Voice colleagues). He and I were lone voices on behalf of Gentlemen Broncos. I wish, as I've told him, he didn't frame every piece as about a masterpiece the corrupt critical establishment ignored or a piece of crap the corrupt critical establishment praised--not because it's not sometimes true but because it has become reflexive for him (and often I consider myself directly insulted). Do I condone what he wrote about Baumbach or Hoberman? No. Would I have vocally and strenuously objected if he'd been kept out of Greenberg? Yes. (I did, actually.) Do I think he went a little hard on Greenberg? Emphatically. Do I think Hoberman went a little easy on Greenberg? Emphatically. When will my review be up? Soon. Is anyone even still reading this

Jake T. said...

First of all, apologies for coming in so late to the discussion and using this horrific old Google Account, as apparently it's the only way I can post a comment here.

I'd like to chime in with some support for this article as well. I, too, once had hopes for Armond White. He's got an obvious wealth of knowledge regarding cinema history, he comes from an unusual perspective and he certainly appears to have a great amount of passion for the work.

But Jesus. It doesn't take long for disillusionment to set in with White. I agree with most of the other comments, and would merely like to add that my personal massive frustration came from his ranting against his two favorite cinematic crimes: cynicism and nihilism.

The problem is that White, more than any other critic, exhibits an extraordinarily cynical and nihilistic approach to cinema. His trumpeting of absolute dreck like Little Man and Transformers 2 while systematically slamming P.T. Anderon and Quentin Tarantino, to my mind, comes from a place of extreme cynicism. It's not that I'm angry that he disagrees with me, it's that he disagrees for reasons that are at best obtuse, illogical and poorly stated, at worst as a conscious subverting of the critical norm such that it betrays a cynical manipulation of media to gain his coveted outsider status.

And all of that misdirection, that toying with perceptions and engaging so entirely head on with the critical world in general, leaves his beliefs regarding cinema itself meaningless. Nihilistic. Cinema is merely the acrylics he uses to paint his own distorted, contradictory portraits of class warfare, disenfranchisement and abuse.

I should also say that I agree with that person over at Glenn Kenny's blog who says that White is now basically being exploited by The NYPress. That rag in general has become a contrarian, reactionary bit of bile-spewing, but White goes above and beyond. I think it's telling that their number one "most read" story on their website has been, for MONTHS now, the insipid and disgusting article wherein a horrific amalgamation of cougar-esque cliches writes a personal ode to why she likes getting screwed by black men only, and paints all black men in the most backward, racist, disgusting way imaginable.

They know what gets the hits, and they've sold out all integrity to keep them coming, including allowing a critic who barely even qualifies for that title anymore to continue filling their pages with rubbish and vitriol.

He gets to me sometimes, he does, and I agree that it's about time somebody says something.

Craig said...

Fair enough, David E. It's an honor to debate (and get razzed by) you. Looking forward to your review.

Shouldn't that be Craig Ciccone?

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