Film Criticism: On the Irrelevance of Armond White

SlashFilm recently conducted an interview with Armond White, the notoriously contrarian critic who panned Toy Story 3 (destructive consumerist themes) but loved Transformers 2. Reaction from David Chen of SlashFilm is here.

I think White’s view of Roger Ebert gives the most insight into his approach to film critism:

I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all…I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds, but the fact is, I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it. And I know many other people who’ve studied it as well, studied it seriously. Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job. And if you’ve ever seen any of his shows, and ever watched his shows on at least a two-week basis, then you surely saw how he would review, let’s say, eight movies a week and every week liked probably six of them. And that is just simply inherently dishonest. That’s what’s called being a shill. And it’s a tragic thing that that became the example of what a film critic does for too many people. Often he wasn’t practicing criticism at all. Often he would point out gaffes or mistakes in continuity. That’s not criticism. That’s really a pea-brained kind of fan gibberish.

As is often the case, the real disagreement here doesn’t seem to be with reality but with a definition of terms. I’d guess that Armond White views film criticism as some combination of the following:

  1. A tool for the education of film students, with various aspects of a film broken down to see how certain effects are achieved.

  2. An opportunity to place films within an historical or societal context, commenting on how they reflect or predict trends within film-making or culture at large. (Or, if the films don’t work, how they fail to do so.)

  3. A literary venue in which a particular film is just a backdrop for an essay on whatever topic the “critic” chooses; the content of the film is largely irrelevant.

I think all of these goals are valuable. I take great exception to writing of type 3 when it is presented as type 2—when an essay pretends to be presenting factual analysis—but there’s nothing wrong with the form when it’s presented honestly. Restaurant reviews and sports columns, in particular, are terrific playgrounds for skilled essayists, perhaps because nobody takes the text terribly seriously.

But White seems to miss the distinction between his academic “film criticism” and popular film criticism—a.k.a. movie reviews. Such reviews have a very different goal:

That’s what Ebert, and most people with column-inches in newspapers and on web sites, do. And the truth is, it’s in many ways a tougher job than the kind of academic analysis that White chooses to undertake. It requires understanding the tastes of dozens of different overlapping audience types, as well as the ways films are marketed and to whom they will appeal. It requires putting aside the special perspective that viewing hundreds of films a year for decades gives you, and seeing what an average audience would see. This includes the “gaffes and mistakes” that would distract a typical viewer from their enjoyment, but not technical aspects that fail to draw viewers’ attention. White may claim “I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it.”, but as a movie reviewer he’s completely clueless.

In short, Armond White is about as relevant to my appreciation of film as a linguist is to my appreciation of novels.