Armond White: "I Do Think It Is Fair To Say That Roger Ebert Destroyed Film Criticism"

New York Press film critic Armond White is well-known for his contrarian reviews (for example, panning Toy Story 3 for celebrating consumerism while praising Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for its visual style). In the past, many have despised White for souring the Rotten Tomatoes scores of films that they love. After reading his reviews, I was filled less with disgust and more with fascination and curiosity. White was not a fool that just spouted off mindless hate; he's previously been a film professor, and was twice the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. But that didn't change the fact that his views on many films ran directly and consistently counter to popular perceptions. Did the man really believe what he wrote? Or were his reviews cynically calculated to draw the most ire, and by extension, the most page views?

Sure, I could speculate endlessly on whether White was purposefully trying to be a troll, but without being able to speak with him directly, without being able to parse his points, that's all it would ever be: speculation. I wanted some definitive answers from the horse's mouth, so I could know where I stood in regards to the man's writing. That's why I was really grateful that White agreed to speak with us on the /Film podcast last night.

White made a guest appearance on the /Filmcast to share his views on Christopher Nolan's Inception, then stuck around during the /Filmcast: After Dark, where he shared his thoughts on the state of film criticism in America. Many people undoubtedly expected a battle royale in which a verbal smackdown on White would serve as a cathartic revenge for years of infuriating reviews. These listeners have clearly not listened to the /Filmcast for any appreciable period of time. Otherwise, they'd know that we try our best to treat our guests with respect, no matter how vehemently we disagree and how non-sensical we find their views (besides, we save most of our hate and vitriol for each other!). We're not afraid to learn from our guests either, and for his part, White often came across as reasoned and even made some points I agreed with(!?), although many I did not.

In the end, White ended up pretty much insulting, by association, everything we do and stand for here at /Film. And while, most people would be pretty pissed that a guest would use one's own forum to denounce them, I'm just grateful that White even agreed to come onto the show at all, and that I now have some pretty definitive answers, at least for myself: Either White 100% believes everything he writes about movies, or he is engaging in some kind of elaborate performance art project so intricate, niche, and drawn-out, that it doesn't even make a difference if he actually believes it or not.

What follows are some quotes from our discussion, in which White claims that Ebert and the internet have brought about the end of quality film discussion.

I asked White about his position that the current state of film criticism in America is a state of "intellectual anarchy," a quote I got from White's Wikipedia page. White said he didn't remember where/when he uttered that phrase exactly, but that he thought it still applied:

We got film critics who are employed professionally by legitimate publications, and we have the world of the internet film writers. The internet has become so pervasive and overwhelming that the internet has stolen the impact and prestige and effect that traditional professional film criticism used to have. As a result of that I think that people who are now employed by the mainstream media are so intimidated by the internet that it seems, when you read mainstream published film critics, that they've simply given up being film critics, because they're afraid of losing readership, because they're afraid of losing their jobs, probably because publishers and editors simply want to get readers and appease readers, rather than inform and instruct readers. And I think that leads to a kind of anarchy where there are very few people writing about film who know what they're talking about and who are rigorous about having standards in film. The anarchy, I think, comes from the the fact that in mainstream media and the internet, most people who are writing about films are simply writing from a fan's perspective instead of a truly critical perspective. So what used to be termed "film critics" now is almost meaningless, because you just got a free-for-all of enthusiasms rather than criticism.

My co-host Devindra chimed in that people have always been decrying the end of film criticism. (Indeed, see A.O. Scott's excellent summation of this phenomenon at the NYTimes). When Ebert was on television, many thought that his popularity heralded the end of quality film discourse. Now that many years have passed, a multitude of film critics agree that Ebert has done more good for film criticism than bad. And that perhaps led to White's most interesting response of the evening:

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.

White elaborated on this point for awhile, essentially asserting that many internet film sites don't engage in what he calls "criticism." He later asserted that there really shouldn't be any film critics under the age of 30:

You guys might have perhaps come across something I wrote/said somewhere, where I said that I think no one should be allowed to make a movie before they're 40, although there are obviously a whole lot of exceptions to that. We'd have no Citizen Kane if that were so. But I kind of feel that way, and I certainly feel that way about criticism. I think really, there should be no film critics – okay, let's change the age – there should be no film critics younger than 30. Because before that you don't know enough about art, you don't know enough about life. And I repeat to you, I started out as a young person interested in writing about film, but really really really, I know more now than I knew then.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the evening for me came when I asked White to name some of his favorite film critics. There was dead silence for a good five seconds, before White reluctantly stated:

I'll answer you this way: If there were a whole bunch of critics who I thought were doing a good job, then I would stop. *laughs* Because really, the reason why I do what I do is because I think there are things that need to be said about movies, about culture, about the world, that nobody's saying. And that's why I do what I do. I can only ask you to read around, read as widely as you can. Whoever you read, hold them to a standard, and don't simply enjoy a critic because they say what you want to hear. But read as many people as you care to, but ask yourself: Are they REALLY talking about what's on the screen? Do they know the history of this form? Do they have any political awareness? Do they have any spiritual, or moral, or religious awareness even?

After all of his grandiose statements about the importance of quality film criticism, I was a bit disappointed that White couldn't name any critics other than himself that were worth reading, but I think it does say a lot about his point of view. Here's actual audio of the beginning of this exchange:

After last night, I don't believe that Armond White is a professional troll; just a critic who (perhaps too) vehemently believes in the integrity of his art and longs for the golden era when the mainstream still cared what film critics thought. As for his outlying opinions on films, I don't begrudge him them any longer, since he really appears to stand by what he writes. That being said, a man who finds Michael Bay more skillful than Christopher Nolan is not someone whose views I want to align myself with, no matter how pedigreed, trained, or well-versed in the art he may be.

The full audio of the /Filmcast Inception review is now available for download. The After Dark (quoted above) is also now available. To make sure you don't miss it, subscribe to the /Filmcast using the links below and it will be downloaded automatically to iTunes or whatever podcast catcher you use.