I enjoy reading Armond White. Let me qualify that: under the right circumstances, White can be insightful, as in a recent article he wrote for Out Magazine on Dwayne Johnson’s multiracial Hercules, his reviews of “Love Is Strange” and “Get On Up,” or most of his writings on Steven Spielberg. Granted, under the wrong circumstances, he’s deeply frustrating, as his insight gives way to bullying attacks on critics who disagree with him and misrepresentations of their reviews to further his own viewpoint (e.g. claiming none of “Boyhood’s” supporters cite the Antoine Doinel or “Up” films, even though most of them do).
But frankly, sometimes I even enjoy his shit-stirring (see: his positive but still caustic review of “The Lego Movie”), which can veer towards weird performance art. He might be a jerk (OK, he’s almost definitely a jerk), but he’s a wildly entertaining jerk. That’s why his latest article, “Across the Ungreat Divide,” is such a disappointment to me.
In the article, White makes the case for “20 films listed here effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence.” Hyperbolic to the point of insanity? Yes. Clickbait? Definitely. Another part of White’s ongoing belief that everyone who disagrees with him is both a toady and out to silence him? Arguably. None of those are the problem with the article though. My complaint is that it’s all too brief. Here are a few samples:
“12 Years a Slave” (2013) distorted the history of slavery while encouraging and continuing Hollywood’s malign neglect of slavery’s contemporary impact.
“Knocked Up” (2007) — Judd Apatow’s comedy of bad manners attacked maturity and propriety.
“Lincoln” (2012) — Spielberg succumbs to Tony Kushner’s limousine-liberal cynicism to valorize Obama-era political chicanery.
I’ve read most of White’s full reviews of the films, which also include “There Will Be Blood,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Social Network,” and “The Hangover.” Some of his views I actually agree with (“Precious,” included here, is the “sociological horror show” he pegged it as in his review). Some I strongly disagree with but can see why the films rubbed him the wrong way (“12 Years a Slave”). Some of his cases here seem insane, like his argument that “WALL-E” is “Nihilism made cute for children of all ages who know nothing about cultural history or how to sustain it” (“WALL-E” nihilistic? Children should know how to sustain cultural history?). I’m also curious as to how non-events like “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” could have been so powerful as to destroy the whole concept of art, given how little they’ve been canonized as White seems to argue.
But here’s the thing: I want to hear those arguments. White doesn’t elaborate on any of these or even link to his earlier reviews. Most of these one-sentence dismissals are Tweet-friendly, theses to cases that he doesn’t actually make. They’re all peeks inside the mind of Armond, a look at his politics and personal beliefs that he never explicates. I want the full look, however much his arguments might end up annoying me. I want to know why these films, above all others, are so abhorrent to him (and it can’t just be big targets, or else he wouldn’t have selected middleweight prestige pics like “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and “Frost/Nixon”). I can’t help but be fascinated by the man and the critic, so an impassioned, even infuriating and hypocritical essay on the films that he claims destroyed art would be valuable, or at very least interesting.
Hell, he links to that kind of essay in the article, in which he makes a case that in 2004, the divide between liberal “Fahrenheit 9/11” fans and conservative “The Passion of the Christ” supporters broke film culture. The essay is often irritating, but it gives a full idea of how White views the world differently from just about everyone else. This is mostly just Armond for Dummies, an introduction to who he is and what he’s about for any movie lover who might not be aware at this point. And at this point, are there any of those that exist?