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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

you’re not helping: Armond White says, “Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism”

So, Armond White is a troll, after all.

I debated not posting anything about this at all. I keep hearing my mom’s voice, her advice on what to do about bullies when I was kid: “Just ignore them. They’re only looking for attention.” That’s White in a nutshell: He says crazy things, he gets linked, we all start bitching about him, and because he got a reaction, he’s encouraged to do it again.

Maybe he can’t get any more trollish than this. Maybe this is the last time — the very last time, I mean it — that we’ll have to give him what he wants.

But, now, in an interview with /Film, it’s kinda hard to ignore his ultimate troll proof:

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.

You could say a lot of things about Ebert that many people would not agree with and not sound like a troll, but White, it appears, chose to frame it in the most inflammatory way possible: “Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism.” Oh, and that stuff about it being “inherently dishonest” to have a similar reaction to six out of eight movies. Isn’t that what White does, except he hates lots of films instead of liking them?

Maybe the thing that pisses me off the most — and why I hate myself for even posting this — is that this shit works for White. It boosts pageviews for his paper’s Web site, the New York Press. It raises his profile as a critic. White complains about “blather,” he complains in another portion of this interview 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.

but with his criticism — and with calculatedly confrontational comments like these — he doesn’t appear to want to reverse this situation. He’s not contributing to an intelligent conversation about film. He’s just striking a pose that stands out from the crowd. He’s just another bully on the playground who thinks that because he pulls pigtails and smirks while he does it that he’s being cool and independent.

The Internet could be a big sandbox where we all play nicely together, even if we don’t always agree with one another. Or — to use a more adult metaphor — it could be a sophisticated cocktail party where the conversation is contentious but dynamic and passionate.

But it’s because of people like Armond White that we can’t have nice things.



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  • Michael

    I wonder if Ebert’s response will be anything like his response to Rob Schneider.

  • I still don’t think this makes him a troll. His comments may be disingenuous and ill-informed, but there’s a marked difference between someone who’s just out to piss you off by saying stupid things they don’t mean and a person who believes every word of what they say, and simply have no tact. Let’s not forget that he has been harping on Ebert for a long time now. Does anyone else remember White’s screed, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies” from 2008? White’s Ebert-bashing is old news.

    White has styled himself as an agent provocateur since the 80s. He seriously considered having his byline be “The Resistance,” as if he were the last surviving voice of reason and morality in a profession totally lacking both traits. This was well before the ascendancy of the Internet as a household tool of populism. His particular elitism has been cultivated for a long, long time, and it’s only now that his reviews are linked from Rotten Tomatoes that so many people seem to think that White’s alleged “trollness” is a Big Important Issue. If his criticism is invalid, then it’s invalid criticism. If he’s wrong, he’s just plain wrong. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to call him something he’s not (i.e. a “troll”) when the fact is that one could just as easily engage comments like these and, if possible, destroy them. I just find it interesting that hardly anyone bothers to do so. Labeling him a “troll” suggests that he doesn’t even take his own expressed attitudes seriously, and I think that just ignores the most baldfaced fact of all: Armond White is totally sincere.

    I don’t think it’s worth hating yourself to repost and comment on statements like White’s, provided that you engage the points he raises. I don’t think that holding up those statements as proof of his “trollness” counts. I think it would be more worthwhile to combat his assertions in an equally provocative — though more constructive — way.

  • Michael, Ebert already responded. Via Twitter:

    Armond is a TRAINED film critic. I’m NOT. I scramble by on three years of grad school in English, 42 years of experience and 35 of teaching.

    Of course, he may write more later, but that was his first statement.

    But I do kind of think Armond says something. I read his reviews and try to look at it from his perspective, and I almost always find it to be valid in that you could look at the movie that way, and it holds up logically, even if I don’t agree. I never feel as if Armond is just dartboarding negative things at a film. And I think it’s interesting to try and grasp where he’s coming from. If you do agree with Armond White, his pans are totally justified; the movies in question entirely embody the things he doesn’t like about film. I also think the slashfilm guys got steamrolled on that podcast; White is an intelligent speaker, regardless of whether he’s a troll, and they came expecting a loon. He posits all sorts of things, some of them true and some of them worth debating, and the hosts never fight him. They just let it stand and move onto the next point. “But don’t you think at least…?” and “But did you like…?” Aggravating, to say the least.

    But Ebert’s blog about White’s review is also insightful. Ebert points out quite effectively how Armond makes statements he doesn’t ever back up with examples.

  • Jolly

    Or — to use a more adult metaphor — it could be a sophisticated cocktail party where the conversation is contentious but dynamic and passionate.

    If movie criticism is something that is to take place as a “sophisticated cocktail party,” I can see why you would dislike White. One of his recurring assertions is that, with the acquiescence of modern film critics, modern movies no longer acknowledge the role of class in American life.

  • So what is “the training”, Armond? He claims that film criticism is “intellectual anarchy.” So what would he have us do? Does everyone have to go to the right film school, get the “pedigree,” have an arbitrary number of life experiences, write the “right” way, belong to the right society, etc.? Sounds like he’s fighting the times. He’s pissed that upstarts receive any credibility from RT or the like. The internet levels the playing field, and though it may result in “anarchy,” the cream rises to the top, and you can’t try to keep everyone down through an intellectual aristocracy.

  • Brian

    White’s allegation that Ebert has not “studied film” is ludicrous. It’s precisely the kind of sour grapes that you see from any academic or professional community when someone comes along who popularizes the subject, just as some classical musicians sneer at John Williams (the film, or the scientific community used to look askance at Carl Sagan.

    It’s especially ludicrous in the case of a humanities field like film criticism to denigrate writing about an art form that does not originate from academically sanctioned “study.” Roger Ebert has been watching films critically and reviewing them for half a century, and has much more than a passing familiarity with the theoretical and technical underpinnings of the art. To suggest that his ideas are of lesser value because he has not “studied” would be like saying that Paula Deen can’t be a real cook because she’s never been to culinary school. (How many universities were offering courses in film criticism in the early 1960s, anyway?)

    But you’re probably right that it’s best not to bother with the likes of Mr. White, MaryAnn. After all, this “pedigreed film critic” apparently thinks that “A.I.” is the greatest film ever made. How can you take that seriously?

  • MaryAnn

    If movie criticism is something that is to take place as a “sophisticated cocktail party,” I can see why you would dislike White. One of his recurring assertions is that, with the acquiescence of modern film critics, modern movies no longer acknowledge the role of class in American life.

    Sorry, how does your second sentence here follow from your first? Are you suggesting that disagreeing in a civilized manner is a “class” issue, and that somehow our apparent inability to do so is a result of movies not addressing class?

    I mean, White is correct that American *society* on the whole refuses to acknowledge class issues, and this lack of attention extends to movies. But I don’t see how wanting to be able to talk and even argue about stuff on an intelligent level and without resorting to namecalling is a class issue.

    I don’t want criticism to look like Whit Stillman’s *Metropolitan.* That’s certainly not a world I’m familiar with. And if White wants to talk about “class,” then with his “pedigree” and his Ivy League degree, he’s in possession of more of the signifiers of “upper class” than I am, who is a child of working-class immigrant New York City with only a high-school diploma to her name.

    Seriously: I’m mystified, Jolly.

  • Drave

    Thanks for quoting such a big chunk of that so I can read it without giving him traffic. Y’know, I’m still a bit miffed at Ebert for accidentally using his powers for evil by declaring video games are not and can never be art, which dealt a pretty strong blow to a burgeoning art form that is still struggling for legitimacy. Having said that, I still think he is one of the finest and most influential film critics around, and while people may dispute the first part, the second is not open for debate. He certainly did not destroy film criticism. If anything, he vitalized it. To me, White seems an idiot child, furiously pissing into the sea to see if he can change its color. Ebert must have hurt White’s feeling when he called him out in his Inception review.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think it’s worth hating yourself to repost and comment on statements like White’s, provided that you engage the points he raises.

    But as I said, my point isn’t whether or not I (or anyone else) agree with him. It’s how he says it. Criticism of Ebert and Ebert’s style is one thing, but he accuses Ebert of being dishonest for reasons that would seem to apply equally well to White himself.

    Maybe White is sincere. But if he is, in the face of all the pushback he’s gotten lately, why would he not assume that Ebert is sincere, too? White is the one who does not engage with his own points. He doesn’t back them up with anything.

    And my point is, too, that there are *lots* of critics online who are doing criticism in a way that is smart, in-depth, and not “mainstream.” Film Comment just offered a whole big list of them, and while I’m sort of distressed to see Ain’t It Cool News on that list, for the most part, these are outlets that, by their very existence, refute Ebert-style reviewing. But they don’t get the attention White gets, because White goes out of his way to be provocative.

    Oh, and by the way: Trolls don’t have to be insincere to be trolls. They just have to be attention-getters and rilers-up to the point of distraction.

  • MaryAnn

    Thanks for quoting such a big chunk of that so I can read it without giving him traffic

    Well, give /Film some traffic. They’re cool.

  • Jolly

    Are you suggesting that disagreeing in a civilized manner is a “class” issue, and that somehow our apparent inability to do so is a result of movies not addressing class?

    When “civilized” is compared to a cocktail party, yes, I think there are class issues at stake. Political issues are not always going to be resolved in a “civilized” manner, because stakeholders are often deliberately excluded from the table. Civil disobedience has often been successful precisely because the ruling class has revealed itself to be anything but civilized, despite its appreciation for high art and formality. In any case, what I disliked was your metaphor…why should a cocktail party, with its class associations, be the appropriate representation of “civilized behaviour?”

  • MaryAnn

    why should a cocktail party, with its class associations, be the appropriate representation of “civilized behaviour?”

    Because I’m not talking about political revolution, for Christ’s sake. I’m talking about talking about movies! “Civil disobedience”? WTF?

    I’m talking about how grownups talk about things that are NOT matters of life or death.

    But if it really bothers you, forget the “class associations.” Is it not possible to agree to disagree about movies, and to discuss those disagreements, in a way that does not become “Ooo, ooo, look at me!” and “That guy is an idiot!”? Is this not something we should aspire to? Or must talk about film come to storming the Bastille?

  • markyd

    This guy is quite the anomaly. It’s hard to call him a troll because he comes across as being an intelligent fellow. I would say he’s some sort of construct, but how long can a person pretend to be something they are not?
    If he is truly sincere about his views then I think we can rightfully call him insane.
    All we have to do is look at his movie review list as posted in your last Armond topic:
    http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2009/08/081709question_of_the_day_is_armond.html
    It’s fine to have a different opinion than others, but to have a different opinion every freaking time, just makes you wrong. And an idiot.

  • MC

    Drave, did you know that Roger Ebert wrote an entry after that where he basically admitted his ignorance and stated that he could be wrong.

  • JoshDM

    Was coming on to post what Drave wrote and then saw the post by MC regarding Ebert’s retraction. Citation needed?

  • MC

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/okay_kids_play_on_my_lawn.html

    I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.

    I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

    Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn’t qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages. It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. As Archibald MacLeish wrote: A poem should not mean, but be.

    I concluded without a definition that satisfied me. I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don’t know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong. but if ‘m not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.

    Now to me, Ebert’s previous entry about gaming was important not based on what he said but rather because it got a lot of constructive conversations started about the artistic merits of gaming… which has value too, even if you disagree with his sentiment (as I do).

  • DrBendy

    I completely agree with the idea of a dying form of criticism but I suppose in any field it is impossible to get an unbiased opinion. I just do hate the over reverance of some sites, in particular /film. But I go there because it is doesn’t possess the po-faced, ill-informed judgements of film sections of the broadsheet newspaper sites and a lot of contributors do know their stuff.

    I suppose White believes, or more crucially acts as though, art’s power is reduced through commodification. He is the perfect example of someone rallying against the decline of art but earning his supper in that very fall.

  • Patrick

    Sincere or not, his writing is a mess and often the examples he cites to back up his opinions are completely wrong. I highly recommend reading this thoughtful article by Paul Brunick which appeared in Slant’s blog The House Next Door. It examines White’s review of Toy Story 3. The comments are interesting, too.
    http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2010/07/hating-the-player-losing-the-game-the-armond-white-meta-review/

  • mortadella

    White makes me miss Elvis Mitchell’s reviews terribly. White can’t seem to decide whether or not he’s a critic or a gunslinger.

  • misterb

    If Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism, I’ll take the rubble.

  • Knightgee

    I think some people make the mistake of thinking that Armand White’s intelligence and eloquence mean he can’t be a troll. This is false. Some of the craftiest trolls are the ones who carry themselves in such a way. Trolling is not about being a brazen moron speaking in half-finished sentences, it’s about being purposely provocative for the sake of riling people up. White’s reviews are little more than well-dressed-up versions of some kid shouting obscenities at people and then smirking afterward.

    With regards to White, Ebert made a good point in his review of the whole Inception fiasco: White, for all his talk doesn’t actually seek to engage in dialogues about movies in a meaningful way. He stirs the pot and then leaves, refusing to taste the soup with the rest. Of all the things that will kill criticism, it’s people who refuse to engage in open discussion that will do it.

  • Tony

    I must be a real simpleton. I thought film critics gave their opinions on movies they have seen. Why does Mr. White have a problem Mr. Ebert’s opinions? I mean Mr. Ebert is entitled to them. Is there supposed to be more to it than that?

    I enjoy your reviews as well as Mr. Ebert’s. Though I have to say your tastes have some major differences with his. I guess I’m not understanding why Armond White cares.

    Oh and Maryann, you surprised me when you said you hadn’t been to college.

  • It’s so wrong that Armond White compares himself to Pauline Kael just because he sees himself as a fellow rebel to the mainstream film criticism establishment. If anyone carries on the tradition of Kael’s “witty, biting, highly opinionated, and sharply focused” reviews (to quote Wikipedia quoting Encyclopedia Britannica), it’s you, MaryAnn. B)

  • Rocketman

    Ebert points out quite effectively how Armond makes statements he doesn’t ever back up with examples.

    Actually, if you read Armond’s work, you do know where he is coming from when he makes certain statement.

  • Boingo

    An overly pedantic approach to a film critic’s TV show
    would have resulted in Ebert lasting 30 sec. before
    a viewer changed channels.

    Either ya got it or you don’t. Ebert could appeal to
    a guy who just got off the 9-5, plopped on the couch.
    Not a crash course Ivy league film class for the masses,
    but a workable”form” for thinking,and explaining a POV, in contrast to an opponent in the next chair.

    Man, I used to look forward to the Gene & Roger
    arguments.

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