Monday, August 23, 2010

Armond White & Film Criticism

For those who have never heard the name Armond White is a film critic for the New York Press. Many in the public, including professional film critics, attack him as a "troll". He simply goes against the public's taste all for the sake of being different. He has recently gotten involved in a war of words with Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.

I've personally never really paid much attention to Armond White. I've known his name for years and I've known of the controversy which surrounds his name but, I must admit, I rarely read film critics. One reason is because I don't like the know anything about a movie before I see it. The other reason is because, well, quite frankly, there are few critics I actually enjoy reading and who I feel know what they are talking about. Uh-oh! I'm starting to sound like Armond White. And now you can probably guess where all of this is going to go.

I recently heard Armond White on a podcast: Here Mr. White made a point of saying how disappointed he is with the current state of film criticism. He calls it "intellectual anarchy". He feels the Internet and bloggers (much like myself) have ruined or to use his word "stolen" the prestige professional film critics once had. Film critics, he says, have given up being film critics. Several critics are now "writing from a fan's perspective". Their standards have dropped.

Actually in some ways Mr. White has a valid point. I have called film critics "sheep" on here. One can pretty much predict how critics will mostly react when a new movie comes out. You can always rely on critics to gush at the latest Pixar film and place it on their year end "top ten" list. Meanwhile, Mr. White, has a reputation for not liking Pixar films. In fact, he didn't like "Toy Story 3" (2010). Critics, in many ways have dropped their standards. I should mention however, I actually liked "Toy Story 3" if it is worth anything to you.

But this all leads to an interesting discussion on what exactly is the role of a film critic? Many people say they don't like Mr. White because he dismisses mainstream Hollywood entertainment. So what! Good for him is my response. I believe a film critic's responsibility is not to serve as a mouth-piece for the masses. A critic's first priority should be honesty. A film critic does not have to agree with the masses in order to have a valid opinion. Their job is to evaluate art and explain why they have formed the opinion which they do.

Mr. White says not enough critics, especially those on the Internet with blogs, do not understand the history of cinema. They have not exposed themselves to the classics, which any film lover needs to see. To simply love going to the movies is not enough, in Mr. White's opinion, to make you a film critic. One needs to have studied it as an art form. I agree. Too many young people do not know enough about the history of cinema. I have said that repeatedly on here. But of course young people don't want to hear that.

Some people may wonder, why am I defending Armond White. Aren't I aware Mr. White would include me in that bunch of people who are ruining professional film criticism? I have no doubt, whatsoever, in my mind Mr. White would think that of me. According to Mr. White, no person under 30 should be a film critic. They don't know enough about art or life. He also believes no filmmaker should make a film until they are 40. I don't know about the filmmaker part, as even he admits, there are several exceptions to that rule, Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" (1941) anyone? What about Bernardo Bertolucci? Roman Polanski? Still, I agree with his argument, most young people don't know enough about art or life at a young age. And I say this as someone who is under 30, I'm 27.

But, why do I separate myself from others my age? First of all, I actually did study film. I went to Columbia College of Chicago and have a BA in film theory (critical studies as it is called at Columbia). I also took journalism classes, so I understand how the newspaper business works. Also, unlike many in my age group, I actually do understand the history of cinema. I have reviewed many of the great classics on here. I'm no stranger to the work of Ingmar Bergman (my favorite filmmaker), Luchino Visconti, Francois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovsky, Claude Chabrol, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and Rene Claire among many, many others.

It would seem though the remark Mr. White has made which has gotten him in the most trouble is his criticism of Roger Ebert. Whom he says "destroyed film criticism". I'm sorry, is Roger Ebert a God? Is he above criticism? So we can criticize the president of the United States but lay off Roger Ebert? Okay, I'm exaggerating, I have to point that out in case I have some sensitive souls reading this. But, I have noticed, no one really wants to hear anyone complain about Roger Ebert. I don't think that's fair, regardless of what my own opinion of the man may be. No one is above criticism.

In fact Mr. White is dead on when he says the job of film critic was simply given to Mr. Ebert. Roger Ebert himself will admit this point. He did not intend to become film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. The job was simply offered to him. The original critic left and he was asked. This kind of "musical chairs" still exist in the business today. I wasn't born in 1967, when Ebert became the paper's film critic, so I'm not sure, if at that time, he did in fact have the training and the background to become a film critic. In college Mr. Ebert wrote about sports. He did have the journalism background but did he understand cinema at that point in his life? It is a fair question to ask.

There are some comments Mr. White says that I disagree with. Ebert may or may not have lacked the knowledge of the history of cinema when he first landed the job, but, through the years he has gotten lots of "on the job training" so to speak. With time he has shown a knowledge of the history of cinema. Even if I disagree with his opinion of a particular movie, at this point, I don't doubt his understanding of film history. I'm sure Roger Ebert knows just as much (some would say more) than Armond White does about cinema.

White also complains Ebert likes too many movies. This is a point of attack I have heard others make, even Ebert's former partner Gene Siskel. Many people view Ebert as being "too easy". This may be true but I don't know if it is enough to condemn the man and credit him with destroying film criticism. But perhaps it addresses Mr. White's point of critics having dropped their standards.

Armond White also comes across as being much too arrogant. He calls himself a "pedigree film critic". When asked to cite other critics whom he feels reaches his standards he is silent. That's not good. Giving praise to others is not a sign of weakness. Mr. White would have come off better if he could at least acknowledge that someone, besides himself, understands cinema and has high standards.

Former New York Daily News film critic, Jack Matthews, wrote an interesting article about this topic: His take on the matter is that Mr. White is an "elitist" while Mr. Ebert is a "populist". I would say that is a fair analysis. That is mostly why some people dislike Mr. Ebert, they feel his TV show dumbed-down film criticism. The show needed to have a broad appeal, because, like any other television show, ratings are important. So he and Gene Siskel reviewed a lot of mainstream Hollywood films. Mr. Ebert would of course counter that he and Mr. Siskel would discuss foreign films, indies and documentaries as often as they could. Both men have the air of self-importance to them. Mr. Ebert once said that he and Mr. Siskel "saved" "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) with their praise. He may be right, but, who likes to hear someone recite their accomplishments?

I don't think Armond White is off base with some of his "attacks". People should listen more and not be so quick to insult the man. You can tell the host of the podcast are not happy with Mr. White. I think the problem is people don't want to be challenged. Mr. White asks society to look at itself and realize our standards have been dropped. We need to stop praising all the comic book adaptations and video games. To a certain part of the population that will make a lot of sense, but, to others it is just the sign of someone who is old and cranky. Let the debate continue.