I've had my own disagreements with White, in person -- albeit of a somewhat friendlier nature. Many years ago, in a restaurant in Montreal during that city's annual film festival, I was having dinner with a group of fellow critics when the subject turned to our individual choices for the worst movies ever made. Gannett's Jack Garner, an old friend with whom I'd had this discussion before, turned to White and said "Wait 'til you hear what Mathews thinks is the worst movie." These days, Armond White of the New York Press is being widely regarded as the most contrary critic in America, with various outposts in cyberspace having expressed outrage over White's critical drubbing of 'Toy Story 3.' If it weren't for his review and that of two other blogging pests, Pixar's latest blockbuster would have scored 100% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.
I've had my own disagreements with White, in person -- albeit of a somewhat friendlier nature. Many years ago, in a restaurant in Montreal during that city's annual film festival, I was having dinner with a group of fellow critics when the subject turned to our individual choices for the worst movies ever made. Gannett's Jack Garner, an old friend with whom I'd had this discussion before, turned to White and said "Wait 'til you hear what Mathews thinks is the worst movie."
To appreciate my discomfort at that moment, you have to know what I knew about Armond White as I looked across the table at him. He's black, he thinks the director of the black-themed movie I am about to name is one of the greatest filmmakers in history and he is about twice my size. Nonetheless, I blurted out the title: 'The Color Purple.'
Now, if you're a 'Color Purple' fan, you may think that White had met his match in the arena of perverse opinion. And if you've read published accounts about him that include a reference to a near physical confrontation with a colleague, you may wonder if I got through that evening with all my teeth.
On the contrary, what actually followed was a spirited but civil discussion during which he defended Spielberg's picture as a black love story, and I attacked it for being a sunny, cartoon version of Alice Walker's withering novel. The book opens with the story's 14-year-old heroine being raped by her father; the movie opens with her and a friend frolicking in a field of (what else?) purple flowers. As then, I rest my case.
I am reminded of our Montreal debate now that White's 'Toy Story 3' review is so prominently in the news. And though I agree with White's detractors that his now predictable naysaying of Pixar movies (he loathed 'WALL-E' and 'Up,' as well) is wildly off the mark, I can't hate him for it. First, as someone who named a picture with an 88% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes the worst movie ever made, I can hardly feign outrage at an opposing opinion. Second, I like the guy. He's friendly, personable, extremely knowledgeable; and as bizarre as I think his reviews often are, he's fun to read.
What fascinates me most about Armond's sudden rep as the Super-Curmudgeon of American film criticism is that he's been writing the same way with the same outlook as long as I've known him -- 20 years -- and for a decade before that. He didn't just appear with a tail and a pitchfork to ruin the lives of movie lovers whose innocent gaze fell upon his toxic reviews linked at Rotten Tomatoes, though that is how he is being perceived and portrayed. Look up his review of 'Toy Story 3' and read the comments below it. I dare you.
"There is a lot of really nasty stuff out there," White told me in a telephone conversation. "It's upsetting and there are people who should know better encouraging it."
White refers specifically to Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago critic who has developed a massive online following. Last year, Ebert briefly defended White's blistering review of the sci-fi film 'District 9,' and then recanted after readers sent him lists of White's pro/con reviews. Among the movies he'd panned were 'Milk,' 'The Dark Knight,' 'The Hangover' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.' Among those he liked: 'Transformers 2,' 'Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?,' 'Norbit' and 'Terminator Salvation.'
"I was not familiar enough with his work," Ebert wrote in the piece withdrawing his previous defense of White. Later in the article, he concluded that White is indeed a "troll," Internet slang for people who write outrageous things in order to provoke or disrupt dialogue in an online community.
White is offended by Ebert's "professional disrespect" and by his "encouraging" the thoughtlessly vicious commentary being directed at him at Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere on the Internet.
"The guy has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism," White says. "Criticizing colleagues is not what we do."
The irony of White bumping into Ebert in cyberspace is that White wants nothing to do with new media. He loathes Rotten Tomatoes and the faceless hordes of self-proclaimed critics popping up on the Internet, while Ebert has written that some of the best movie criticism he's ever read was out there in the bright digital light. The further irony is that while White may hate what the Internet is doing to legitimate criticism, he is more famous because of it than he's ever been in New York.
To be kind, the New York Press is not required reading in the Big Apple, or anywhere else. And the arcane film publications in which White's writing often appears remain unknown to the great unwashed who populate the multiplex. The thing of it is, the Internet can discover talent even when it doesn't want to be discovered. And I will argue that White is a genuine talent.
I'll admit that I was once convinced that White was putting us on with this contrary reviews. And by contrary, I don't mean negative. He's as apt to praise a movie that everyone else disses as he is to diss one that everyone else praises. But as I have come to know him, I've also come to believe he's sincere. Unlike most critics, myself included, White doesn't see himself as providing a consumer service, of helping people decide which movies to see over the weekend. He wants to force his readers to engage with a movie intellectually, even if it's a children's cartoon.
His rap on Pixar, that the company is in the business of brand consumerism, is a moot point with most of us -- certainly with the children who are dazzled by their films' ingenuity and cleverness. And I could not possibly care what he found to like about 'Transformers 2' or 'Death Race.' But when he's writing about movies with greater ambitions, movies like 'A.I.' and 'Munich' by his idol Spielberg, he does provoke you to think beyond your gut responses. He may not convince you -- I still hate 'The Color Purple,' despite his passionate arguments for it -- but he will make you defend your position. And if you happen to agree with him, as I often do on the some of his most damning reviews of popular films, he is really fun to read.
A final White anecdote. About 10 years ago, I was asked to host audition tapes for a television show that would have had panelists debating current movies in the same way politics is debated on 'The McLaughlin Group.' Among the eight New York-based critics I invited to participate on those mock panels was Armond. And it was, if I may say, perfect casting.
In his 30-minute segment, Armond was as provocative off the cuff as he is in print, and he got the other critics on the panel in a fighting mood. He was Pat Buchanan to their Eleanor Clift, combative and entertaining, even when spouting apparent nonsense. (If I recall correctly, he argued that if 'Moulin Rouge' had been made with unknowns who could sing and dance instead of its lead-footed, larynx-challenged stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, it might have been tolerable. I said a studio would never spend $50 million on a movie with unknowns. "They should," he said.)
That proposed TV show never found a sponsor, and with the announced cancellation of 'At the Movies,' the long-running movie review show started by Ebert and the late Gene Siskel and now hosted by the way-too-collegial A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, it may be a long time before the art of movie debate gets another shot. But as Armond and the cyber-dust kicked up by each of his reviews prove, movies still provoke passion in people -- and arguing about them is still a vital American pastime.
Somebody should put that show together ASAP, and call Armond.