Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 17, 2014 8:39 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
ARMOND WHITE [Ozier Muhammad/NY Times]

I'm an admirer of the contrarian, argumentative New York film critic Armond White, but it's not always easy and now is one of those times when one's loyalty is being sorely tested.

However, I have decided to stick by the man. He is rude, he is knowledgeable and intelligent, he is provocative, he is outspoken and unexpected and outrageous, he continually goes against the received opinions of the crowd and he's indispensable in a world of far too often boring, bland, not very smart and not very well-informed film reviewing. He was expelled from the 34-member New York Film Critics Circle last week, reportedly for shouting rudely at people on stage during the annual awards ceremony. He has denied this, and some attribute the remarks only to his table. I don't know how significant this group really is, but Armond White has actually contributed significantly to it in the past and served a term as its chairman three times. It makes the news because it is the first group to announce its awards, in December. It's the oldest film critics organization in the country, and Armond White has been a member of it since 1987.

The reason for Armond White's ouster, the first in the group's 79-year history, was given specifically as White's recent rowdy and disrespectful behavior around the awarding of a prize to Steve McQueen for 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which he originally described in a review headed "Dud of the Week" as "torture porn" and designed "to make white people feel good about their own guilt." White has denied that he was heckling or saying the specific words recently attributed to him. (He's said to have called Steve McQueen, who got the Best Director award from the Critics Circle, "an embarrassing garbageman." McQueen himself has said he didn't hear anything. The British filmmaker probably has a more robust ego and lively sense of humor than many of Americans present on this occasion. ) The action was allegedly taken because this was the second year in a row White allegedly displayed boisterous and rude behavior during the annual awards ceremony. Another time it's reported that when he was chairman on stage introducing Tony Kushner to present an awrd to THE SOCIAL NETWORK, he said maybe Kushner could explain why the film won. Last year he shouted barbs at Michael Moore, whom he reportedly resented for attacking the Catholic Church. White, who is black, has been identified as gay, a fundamentalist Christian, and a conservative, though it's hard to pin him down consistently in his reviews as anything but a contrarian. He is obviously black, but he has not overtly laid claim to the other alignments in writing, to my knowledge, though he has given some evidence of opposing a liberal media mainstream and being offended by attacks on morality and belief. If he is gay, I can only remember his brutal attack on the entire career of Gus Van Sant, film by film, on the occasion of the release of Van Sant's MILK, when he also had negative things to say about Harvey Milk himself, in his "incredibly mean-spirited review", as I called it at the time, saying that White's free-spirited libelousness was "his glory and his curse."

That remains true. White dares to say things others wouldn't think of saying, and in so doing he stimulates free thinking and controversy. But he also goes over the line. "'He’s an intelligent critic and a passionate writer," Roger Ebert wrote in a rambling 2009 blog post — after calling Mr. White an online troll. "A smart and knowing one," Ebert added, "but a troll." What is a troll? Watch the end of the first season of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," where newsroom contributor Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) tries to get his first news story by posing as a troll, in order to expose them. A troll has been defined as "a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community." Armond White has not done this and so obviously is not a troll; so Ebert was opposing online (or journalistic) provocation by indulging in it. Note: Armond White was originally a print reviewer for the now defunct print-only weekly The New York Press. It's only recently that his reviews began appearing syndicated online on City Arts. I discovered White's writing by picking up copies of New York Press and reading his reviews quickly became a habit whenever I was in New York. I knew I'd be provoked. I knew I'd be stimulated. By the way: White's reviews have also been simultaneously appearing weekly on the New York Film Critics Circle's own website.

Some NYFCC members have expressed distress at White's expulsion. These include Slate magazine film critic Dana Stevens (who sympathized in part with White's view of 12 YEARS A SLAVE) and New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein, who said the decision was "lose, lose" and made him feel "devastated and dreadful." All this is explored in detail in a balanced piece today in the New York Times by Cara Buckley, "Armond White, Ousted Critic, Has Words on Expulsion." "We need to treasure the cranks, we need to treasure the crackpots," Mr. Edelstein said, “because the profession has gotten so cautious," Buckley writes.

White is often provocative and impolite in his condemnations of movies he does not like. There's a distinction people make between his challenging, contrarian writing and rude public behavior. Paradoxically, he is generally described as being quiet, polite, and friendly, even toward people he has opposed or condemned in print. A nice guy, who doesn't go around yelling at people. Some cited in the Times article say that loud, unruly behavior should be routine at the annual dinner (as drunkenness is at a certain film awards fete) and that it used to be at the Critic's Circle; that this expulsion signals a reboot of the organization, a sign that critics (and not all the members really are critics anyway) are getting more and more timid, as Edelstein said, and are more and more in the pockets of sponsors and corporate Hollywood.

White has been in trouble before; it is practically his normal state. He was barred from screenings of GREENBERG for a while for speaking contemptuously of Noah Baumbach. Baumbach is the kind of middle class New York insider White would be likely to hate, along with Baumbach's mother former former Village Voice critic Giorgia Brown, whom in a review of Baumbach's MR. JEALOUSY he said might have had a "retroactive abortion." This apparent implication that Noah might better have not been born may have been the reason for White's temporary barring from GREENBERG screenings. White's review of MR. JEALOUSY was unearthed at the time of the barring (that was three years ago; the review was from 1998) by a writer for L MAGAZINE and you'll find it reproduced here. Check this out; this is a rare item, not available online, found in the form of a clipping from pre-Internet days.

It's classic Armond White, and full of little gems. He describes the film as "a yuppie-scum sit-com." He says the film's "aggregate of styles" is "half-Woody Allen, one-sixteenth Whit Stillman, the rest gall." I want to ponder the line, "This film is intolerably facetious, though its avoidance of social truth may be preferred by those who dislike Whit Stillman." Then he finishes up: "I won't comment on Baumbach's deliberate onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother except to note that her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion." I'm not sure what this means either, but the L MAGAZINE writer explains in a parenthesis, "(The 'onscreen references' to Baumbach's mother Georgia Brown are on the marquee of Cinema Village, mocked-up for a Man Who Shot Liberty Valance revival featuring pullquote from 'G Brown.')" You can see Detroit-born White's resentment at white (lower case) New York intellectuals' insider cliquishness. Baumbach arrived at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2005 New York Film Festival for his Main Slate-selected THE SQUID AND THE WHALE surrounded by an obvious protective wall of privileged mutual admiration and knowingness that turned me off to the film, though by the time GREENBERG came around I became a fan anyway, and I've liked his writing collaborations with Wes Anderson (STEVE SISSOU, FANTASTIC MR. FOX).

In the case of 12 YEARS A SLAVE Armond White is objecting, apart from the "torture porn" aspect, I think to privileged London artist McQueen's opportunistic use of myths of American black suffering. He cited in his review the recent spate of exploitation of white sympathy for the black plight that he quoted Harvey Weinstein as calling "the Obama effect." Whereas McQueen, White said, is "a different, apolitical, art-minded animal." There is truth in this. McQueen came to filmmaking already a Booker Prize-wining video artist, and the claim that he is apolitical is born out by his naive comments at the 2014 NYFF post-screening Q&A. 12 YEARS A SLAVE represents a politically correct film whose seriousness and importance mainstream US audiences think it blasphemous to challenge. White, of course, however religious, dares to blaspheme against mainstream received opinions, and as a black man, has the authority to question the (in his view) Exorcist-like indulgence in cruelty dragged out with arty "duration" in 12 YEARS.

In today's Times article (January 17, 2014) Cara Buckley cites Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo News, as calling the outster of White after 26 years in the Critic's Circle "Stalinist" and saying "the expulsion reflected a change in the group, whose previous dinners were rife, she said, with disturbances and immoralities of various kinds. . .'There was a housecleaning that happened,' [Adams] said of the vote. 'Sometimes a person gives their enemies an opportunity.'" I recommend Buckley's piece: it takes us beyond the gossip first wave of initial copycat reports on this incident.

And the incident, far from exiling Armond White from the world of film criticism, may bring him a wider audience -- and more national recognition, Buckley suggests. I like to see what Armond's got to say each week, as I also check out the younger, very differently-focused angry critic, Walter Chaw -- an angry Chinese-American guy scraping by in Colorado. Show me more guys like this. Don't kick them out of your club.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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