Friday, June 18, 2010

Defending The Great White Shark

            At the current moment, this year’s most critically acclaimed film, Toy Story 3, sits atop the Rotten Tomatoes chart at 100% fresh, with over 125 reviews. This prompted film critic Roger Ebert to write on his Twitter: “World awaiting Armond White.” He's not the only one—it seems multiple people are waiting for the film critic to give the film a bad review, only so they can pounce on him. But why?

            For those who follow the film critic world, Armond White has a rap that is not exactly the greatest. Mr. White has been called many things, mostly a troll, someone who trashes good movies just to have an opposite opinion, and simply a bad critic. And they do so with good point—he just seems to like really bad movies, and hate the movies everyone else loves. No matter if its an art house film from around the globe, the little indie film that could, or the blockbuster that defies expectations, Mr. White’s reviews for the New York Press will trash it, and trash you for liking it.

            However, is there anything of credit to Mr. White? Sure he goes overboard. Last year he called Precious the most racist film since The Birth of a Nation and earlier this year had to defend comments about wishing that the mother of filmmaker Noah Baumbach had aborted him (when I asked my former professor Nico Baumbach, Noah’s brother, about the situation, he was truly confused why Mr. White had so much against his family).

            Yet one of the most fascinating things is reading classic Armond White reviews—the reviews that jump off the page, no matter if its praise or hate. If anyone has had the pleasure of reading Philip Lopate’s excellent collection American Movie Critics: An Anthology of Silents Until Now, the author and critic himself includes Mr. White along with over a hundred other critics, including the greats like Pauline Kael and James Agee. Mr. Lopate gives us two of Mr. White’s reviews: His carefully languid praise for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and his insightful discomfort with the same director’s Malcolm X.

            Before you trash Mr. White once more, read these reviews. You should read them not because it means that Mr. White’s style hasn’t changed over the years, but because they are great pieces of criticism. In his article on Do the Right Thing, Mr. White connects the dots between the use of the radio, and the filmic style that reflects the radio throughout the film, creating a parallel world of mashes and mixes that collide both in terms of the audio and the visual in well. On Malcolm X, the critic attacks the standard approach Lee takes to the controversial figure, expecting something more brash and distinct that would honor the political leader in a way more appropriate.

            Mr. White is capable of great criticism, and despite what you may think, he does give valid reasons to why he doesn’t like the film. Let’s take a look at one of his most controversial reviews from last year—Pixar’s Up, which managed to garner only five negative reviews, the most notable of them being Mr. White’s (you can read in full here). White begins his review by putting on his flame suit, comparing Pixar to General Motors in its branding of all that is good and pure. Typical, but necessary for what he will set up.

            His first sentence on Up is an excellent thesis: 

“Up’s uninteresting story of an old widower who attaches his home to helium balloons and floats off to Venezuela with an overeager kid in tow follows the same formula as the previous nine Pixar movies.” 

White is going to attack how Pixar has delivered movie after movie by using the same formula. “Blasphemy already!” one may dare. Let’s see: 

“Pixar’s price sticker includes enough saccharine emotion to distract some viewers from being more demanding; they don’t mind the blatant narrative manipulation of a sad old man and lonely little boy.”

Okay, now we’re getting some meat. Is Pixar sentimental? Do they use their emotional strings to pull at our hearts? Pixar’s films, and especially Up, do have the advantage of making us cry. When I told people I saw Up last summer, one of they’re first questions (second actually after, “Great Pixar film or greatest!?”), is “Did you cry?” And it’s true. I cried like a baby, more than any movie I can remember in recent history. In White’s criticism of the film’s most memorable moment, the silent montage, he criticizes as such:

“Even the montage showing Carl’s marriage to childhood sweetheart Ellie (their wedding, companionship, childlessness, then Ellie’s illness and death), is over-sentimentalized. This silent interlude (which first seems to stretch the genre into seriousness) is no more daring than the utterly conventional Wall-E: It concludes with Carl, alone, holding a blue balloon at Ellie’s funeral. Sheesh. A parallel montage of Carl leafing through romantic-couple scrapbook photos is equally sappy—especially when you consider the logic of “Who took those pictures?” Reality is never a Pixar issue. Although Chaplinesque music underscores these maudlin scenes, they’re not emotionally pure like Chaplin; they preen. Critics who forget that movies should be about people defend this reduction of human experience. It’s part of their Pixar-corporate allegiance.”

Let’s piece through this shall we? White is taking issue with the actual construction of the images. There’s nothing wrong with these moments being put to screen for him, but instead it’s the construction of the images to make them to most emotionally manipulative, along with Michael Giacchino's over-the-top score. Pixar is not delivering anything close to real life, but it’s making you think its tackling serious issues in an adult and realist manner. That for him, is the crux of the Pixar problem: he constantly points over the Pixar, despite its approach to dramatic themes, glosses over some larger issues. When Pixar is at its worst, for White, it when its cute: “‘Cute’ is how Pixar oversimplifies the world.”

Now I don’t agree with Mr. White, but its not because he has written a bad review. I disagree on his philosophical approach to Pixar, that Up already has accomplished so much by at least attempting to offer adult themes while packaged in a conventional style. That montage works wonders not because its glossing over but because its trying to capture life as moments, and those moments are constructed. Mr. White’s argument would make Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which is heavily constructed on dynamic imagery, a disaster as well.

But don’t call White a bad critic. White approaches films with the cut-throat brashness of Pauline Kael with the dynamic insights of Susan Sontag. He likes films for his own reasons, and when he writes well, he gives insightful points that one forgets, are always subjective. It’s sad sometimes because when White does fit into the mainstream of critical appraisal—he wrote a strongly positive review of The Hurt Locker, and unabashedly loved the new Tilda Swinton film I Am Love—his work goes unnoticed. People forget that Mr. White doesn’t care what you think of the movies. He only cares about what he thinks. So if he decides to trash Toy Story 3, I’ll gladly read his opinion, not because I want to change my own, but because it’ll be an excellent read. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is no credible defense of Armond White. No matter how good he may have been in his early career, he is nothing but someone trolling for attention now. It's fairly obvious.

He reasons are often not even close to valid, and he often seems to have an agenda beyond simply reviewing a film.