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.