Saturday, June 19, 2010

Armond White, Rotten Tomatoes and General Hilarity

You may have noticed that Armond White, whose contrarianism and combination of unpredictability and utter predictability (he's loved every Spielberg movie since god knows when) were once known only to a few film buffs, has become more widely-known lately. But not in a good way. There's even a petition to ban him from Rotten Tomatoes.

As movie fans have gotten obsessed with Rotten Tomatoes rankings -- rooting for their favorite action/animation/sci-fi movies to get 100% positive rankings -- they've noticed that White frequently goes against the critical consensus (though not always), and that he single-handedly stands in the way of getting Toy Story 3 a perfect score. And so they're enraged. Since I think a collective critical ranking is kind of useless, particularly a numerical one, I kind of enjoy seeing him screw it up.

And it's also interesting to witness the anger of people who think The Dark Knight is the last word in cinema but can't stand a single contrary opinion. It's as if they don't have full confidence in their own opinions. White fills his contrarian reviews with references to other movies, often very worthwhile ones (I may not agree with his pan of Toy Story 3, but I agree that Small Soldiers is an underrated film), and obviously knows a lot about movies -- not just recent Hollywood movies either, but movies from all places and time periods. That gives his writing a certain authority that can make a person very uncomfortable; I think some (not all) of the people who get really angry at White are worried that he may be right. It's a bit like I used to get angry at John Kricfalusi for his opinions on cartoons I liked, because I wasn't secure enough in my own likes and dislikes. I'm now at the point where I know enough to agree or disagree.

Of course White is not right, or at least I find it very difficult to believe that he means what he says all the time. He denies that he's going out of his way to offer the opposite opinion from other critics, but since it happens so often, it almost comes off as a parody of criticism, a bit of performance art designed to show how meaningless critical buzzwords are. He uses the same words lots of critics use, and makes them argue the exact opposite from what the rest of them are arguing.

I also wonder if White's increasing weirdness is just based on his lack of interest in most current Hollywood movies. As a regular reviewer he has to be, officially, interested in every movie that comes out, and especially the big Hollywood releases. Except I doubt he cares very much about most Hollywood blockbuster sequels, whether it's Transformers 3 or Toy Story 3. And if he doesn't care, he might as well argue the opposite of other critics. Especially when it gets a rise out of the kind of filmgoer who is his natural enemy -- the filmgoer who is almost exclusively interested in current Hollywood product.

That's not really a defense of White. The thing I can say in his defense is that he still can and does write interesting pieces on small, foreign and past films -- that is, the kind of films where no one cares about the Rotten Tomatometer. Those are the films that he clearly gives a damn about, and if you look at his reviews with the new Hollywood movies filtered out, he looks a lot less bizarre.

But, of course, if he really is just having a lark with contrarian reviews of movies he doesn't care about, that's not a defense either. I'm sure it can be a chore to find something to say about every new movie, but his criticisms are so non-specific that I can't help thinking (again) that they're just some big joke on criticism.

Still, I can't help but feel a bit of enjoyment at watching the reaction to a critic who refuses to consider movies important just because they're big and new. I mean, if you look at the famous list of movies he hates and likes -- yes, the hates are sometimes weird and the likes equally so. But I don't think most of the movies on the "hate" list are immortal masterpieces, and his hatred of them isn't that much weirder than the reviews that proclaim these movies to be four-star perfection.

Most movies, then and now, don't matter that much in the long run. And the ones that do turn out to matter often aren't the ones that get the four-star reviews at the time. That, at least, is something that White keeps pointing out in his own strange way. And while everyone should like what they like, there's a weird sense of entitlement in some of his attackers, the idea that not only did they think Toy Story 3 was great (a perfectly good opinion) but that because it's the biggest movie of the week, everybody must validate this opinion. White's performance art is suggesting that most of these big movies are just the flavor of the week, and it doesn't matter much what critics say about them. I'd prefer this suggestion to be coming from a regular critic who actually discusses the movies, not a distant idea of what they are, but at least he's goading people into questioning some assumptions about what the "important" movies are at a given moment.

Update: In comments, Bwolowitz has a different perspective on where White is coming from:

I've read enough Armond to believe that he truly considers himself to be the savior of a diseased film culture. He constantly lashes out viciously against critics and so-called "hipsters" (White's favorite pejorative that's utterly meaningless in his hands) who have taken film culture in the wrong direction. And only he can right the course. So what we see as contrarianism, he sees as corrective measures. (And sometimes - rarely nowadays - he's right.)


bwolowitz said...

Sorry to keep jumping in on this but I'm fascinated by Armond and can never resist discussing him. I think you make some interesting points - I share your snickering pleasure at watching the fanboys get apoplectic about him - but fundamentally I disagree with your view of Armond in that I don't think he's doing performance art--at least not if by "performance art" you're implying insincerity on his part. I've read enough Armond to believe that he truly considers himself to be the savior of a diseased film culture. He constantly lashes out viciously against critics and so-called "hipsters" (White's favorite pejorative that's utterly meaningless in his hands) who have taken film culture in the wrong direction. And only he can right the course. So what we see as contrarianism, he sees as corrective measures. (And sometimes - rarely nowadays - he's right.)

And while you're right that Armond starts to look saner if you factor out his reviews of major Hollywood releases, I think it's a mistake to say that he doesn't care about them. For one thing, his particular bugaboos exist regardless of the size of the movie - see his recent virulence against Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, which obviously didn't hit the Tomatometer fanboys' radar, but was a big deal in the cinephile community. He can be just as unreasonable and ornery about small films as he can about big ones. Furthermore, he is often passionately defensive of major studio junk like Norbit. His writing on older movies is more reasonable because those movies date back to a time before his crusading began. As I said, it's not that he doesn't care about contemporary mainstream movies, it's that his perception of contemporary film culture has driven him insane.

Everything wrong with Armond is embodied in his annual "better than" lists. Instead of listing the best films of the year he lists ten cases of "X underrated film is better than Y overrated film." And sometimes I agree with his choices, but the presentation is so infuriating, based on this false binary.

Some of his earlier stuff is genuinely enlightening, especially when he's praising rather than panning. I love his writing on De Palma's reviled Mission to Mars - he said that any critic who pans Mission to Mars "doesn't understand movies, let alone like them." Not that I'd go that far but it is a misunderstood film and Armond can tell you exactly why. And I know people have a high opinion of his '90s book "The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World."

bwolowitz said...

One more thing - I think Armond's worst crime is his continual trumpeting of "humanism" as the philosophy he supports in films while hypocritically launching personal attacks against any and every human being that doesn't share his views. That, to me, is worse than any pan of Toy Story 3 could ever be.

VP81955 said...

I don't always agree with Armond White's views, but at least I appreciate where he's coming from, inveighing against the multiplex fanboy culture that has reduced the maturity of the moviegoing public...and for some, that hurts. It's wonderful to say the emperor has no clothes -- unless you're the emperor.

Anthony Strand said...

I usually find his reviews interesting, but - like you say - a lot of that is trying to figure out exactly whether he's playing a game and what game it is. I haven't seen Jonah Hex, but he really seems to be watching a different movie than every other critic I've read -

Thad said...

What's wrong with him thinking most of those movies on that list suck? They surely DO.

Though anyone who thinks Transformers 2 is a good movie in any way is not a human being.

Loren said...

Here's one short measure of White's contrarianism: out of the ten Best Picture nominees of 2009, White gave negative reviews to 7 of them. Often harshly negative.

The only 3 he gave positive reviews to were An Education, A Serious Man, and The Blind Side. (The Blind Side, incidentally, had the lowest Tomatometer rating of the 10.)

Loren said...

Correction: White gave a positive review to The Hurt Locker, not An Education.

As another point of comparison, though, White reviewed 3 of the 2009 Razzie nominees for Worst Picture. He gave positive reviews to all three: Transformers 2, GI Joe, and Land of the Lost.

Chris L. said...

That list is (unintentionally) hilarious. Yes, doesn't White just look idiotic after panning such landmarks of cinematic history as Julie & Julia, The Reader and I Love You, Man...

I've never gotten the point of Rotten Tomatoes. As you say, a lot of people seem to view it as a popularity contest instead of a review aggregator. And the fresh/rotten thing is really dumb. Even though it's flawed, I like Metacritic because they draw from a more selective pool of critics and the 1-100 scores account for the more nuanced reviews, as well as minimizing the influence of contrarians and easy-to-please critics.

ARG said...

He just likes to annoy, seriously a lot of movies he likes aré more for non-thinking people (as he said of Toy Story 3) ... And he just likes to follow a pattern, he dislikes every Pixar movie, come on!

Terrence said...

Enraged fanboys don't matter. Armond White is supposed to matter, because he's the head of the New York Circle of Film Critics, and is supposed to have more cache than, say, Earl Dittman.

His game is tired, by this point. He asserts and rambles, rather than argues, and only occassionally stumbles on a salient point. Readers spend more time unpacking his psychological baggage than anything. It's a fun exercise for movie geeks like me, but it's a waste of time for the rest of us.

-Terrence Briggs (old-school rec.arts.animation fanboy)

Ricardo Cantoral said...

No wonder there is petition to ban him. The films he hates are the ones teenage boys drool over the most; The pretentious Dark Knight is now a scared cow among that age group. I will also be eternally baffled by the praise Star Trek has received, it's the allegory of today's bad film making techniques; Right up there with Transformers.

I disagree with him on Before The Devil Knows You Dead though, that was another Lumet winner. Gran Torino as well. Also his favorites list is quite baffling; It's same type of dreck Transformers and Star Trek fans flock to.

Not surprising I see a Tyler Perry film. I never seen a (comedic ?) director who relishes so much in wildly inappropriate and downright vicious violence and vitriol and highly inept, "over the top" comedy in the SAME film. One minute we are listening to the annoying Medea ranting, the next someone woman is being beaten or someone is killed.

Loren said...

"The films he hates are the ones teenage boys drool over the most"

No, he hates a lot more than that. After I checked his take on the 2009 Best Picture nominees, I went back and checked his opinion of the 2008 and 2007 nominees.

Of the 20 Best Picture nominees of the past three years, White gave negative reviews to 15 of them. It's not just films like 'The Dark Knight' that he pans. He also panned 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Frost/Nixon' and 'Milk' and 'There Will Be Blood.'

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Can't blame him for There Will Be Blood, I can't comment on the others.

Andrew said...

As a general rule panning Best Picture nominees is a pretty safe bet. I did like Slumdog, though.

I used to find White worth reading but he's more trouble than he's worth nowadays. Still one prefers him to people who get agitated over Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

Terrence said...

Forgot to add. He loves insulting anyone who doesn't share his views. Like Toy Story 3? You've been "brainwashed", and you're a "non-thinking adult".

Besides, Transformers 2 told TS3's story "with more thrills and opulence". Clearly a familiarity with the works of Resnais will set me straight.

ramapith said...

Armond strikes me as a classic case of a stopped clock being right twice a day. I now and then agree with his criticism—and certainly agree that many of the movies he bashes deserve a critical eye. But in general the man seems to kvetch for kvetching's sake; he sees this as a corrective measure, perhaps, but I find it rather poorly informed analysis.

I found Toy Story 3 enjoyable, but fully mediocre, so I'm pleased to see reviewers take it down (especially in the face of a great majority who adore it). But Armond's review clunkily misstates a few central aspects of the plot. So it's a lousy review. I don't have to like the critic just because I want to see the criticism.

David said...

There is no film culture anymore, it died years ago.

Anonymous said...

After he gushed about Hurt Locker very early on, he turned around and called it overrated mere weeks later, when it became an Oscar contender.
He hates Dark Knight, but loves Jonah Hex. He hates District 9, but loves GI Joe. He hates Transformers, but loves Transformers 2.
He's not a genius. He's not going against the grain. He is a contrarian, who gets extra attention by trolling.