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Armond White (born 1953) is a New York-based film and music critic known for his provocative and idiosyncratic film criticism, which some have characterized as contrarian. He is currently the editor of CityArts, for which he also writes articles and reviews. He was previously the lead film critic for the alternative weekly New York Press (1997–2011) and the arts editor and critic for The City Sun (1984–1996). Other publications that have carried his work include Film Comment, The Nation, The New York Times, Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, First Things, National Review, and Out.
White was born in Detroit, Michigan as the youngest of seven children. His family was the first African-American family to move to a primarily Jewish neighborhood, where he grew up. Raised Baptist, he later became Pentecostal, and identifies himself as "a believer".
His interest in journalism and film criticism began as a student at Detroit’s Central High School, when he first read film critic Pauline Kael's book, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang whom he cites for "her willingness to go against the hype", along with Andrew Sarris, for his "sophisticated love of cinema", as being a major inspiration on his choice of professional career. White is a recipient of a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
White was the arts editor for The City Sun, where he wrote film, music and theater criticism, for the span of its publication from 1984 to 1996. He was hired by New York Press in 1997 and wrote for the paper until it ceased publication in August 2011. He then assumed the editorship of the Press's sister publication CityArts starting in September.
White is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Online. He was the three time chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle (1994, 2009 and 2010), and has also served as a member of the jury at the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival and was a member of several National Endowment for the Arts panels. He has taught classes on film at Columbia University and Long Island University. White claims to watch "five to 10 movies a week" and "as many as 400 films a year".
On January 13, 2014 it was announced that White was expelled from The New York Film Critics Circle due to allegedly heckling director Steve McQueen at an event for the film 12 Years a Slave. White maintained his innocence saying: "The comments that I supposedly made were never uttered by me or anyone within my earshot. I have been libeled by publications that recklessly quoted unnamed sources that made up what I said and to whom I was speaking. Someone on the podium talked about critics' 'passion.' Does passion only run one-way toward subservience?". He has also characterized his expulsion as a "smear campaign", orchestrated by "people who don’t have the intellectual capacity to argue with me or debate me in terms of criticism, so they do the ad hominem thing".
White, who describes himself as a "pedigreed film scholar", claims that "[l]iking [a film] or disliking it is irrelevant" to his reviews, and insists that "[he] tell[s] it how it is and write[s] what a film deserves" rather than offering mere personal opinion. He has stated that he has a "politically minded perspective on film" and is known for his often controversial "socio-political interpretations of cinema". Writer Matthew Ross cited White's "unrelenting tone of moral seriousness, caustic dismissal of [...] filmic sacred cows and obsessive championing of [...] relatively 'unhip' films" as well as his "unlikely compare-and-contrast reviews" as distinctive characteristics of his work. White's reviews often draw extended comparisons between films of disparate genres and historical periods, an approach Mark Jacobson described as a "Darwinian praxis [in which] all films must plead their case against all other similar films, with White as judge and jury".
White, who has asserted in an interview that "most films are dismissable", has been described as the "most contrarian" of film critics for allegedly "position[ing] himself in diametric opposition to virtually every film critic on earth". White has dismissed these allegations, stating that he has never "said anything about a movie out of meanness or indifference" and that he always contrasts movies he evaluates negatively with ones he considers superior, as in his annual "Better-Than Lists". Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film reviews, indicates that he agrees with the consensus of other professional critics 52% of the time. He has been compared to such critics as Pauline Kael, Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Tynan and Nathan Cohen for his "intransigent refusal to think what people expect him to think".
White is known for his use of the term "hipster nihilism" as a description of what he sees as a prevalent, and destructive, attitude toward film and the world, as well as his notion of "kinetic art" which he identifies in many action films. He coined the label "the American Eccentrics" to describe a group of "millennial" filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sofia Coppola whose works "offer an unabashed solipsism, whimsy, and undisguised film savvy".
White has bemoaned the state of contemporary film criticism, describing it as "intellectual anarchy" and characterizing the profession as "dismal". In an online discussion with other film critics, White emphasized that "I don't read criticism for style (or jokes). I want information, erudition, judgment, and good taste. Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don't know what they're talking about". He has particularly criticized the practices of embargoing of reviews, stating that it shows that "media culture prioritizes commercial practices rather an interest in art"; the fear of "spoilers", arguing that they restrict critical discussion and nullify "any attempt at detailed interpretation or explanation of a film"; as well as the practice of the distribution of "screeners" during the award season, stating that it shows the collusion of critics with the film industry.
He has singled out Roger Ebert for particular condemnation, telling an interviewer that "I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism" and accusing him of "talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment". He has called Village Voice critic J. Hoberman "pathetic", "despotic", "traitorous", and "racist", describing him as "the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism" whose malign "influence (as NYU instructor to the Times' Manohla Dargis and innumerable Internet clones) stretches from coast to coast, institution to institution"; he also categorically described Hoberman's associates in the film community as "brownshirts", "fascists", and "backward children". Other film writers he has singled out for criticism include A. O. Scott, David Thomson, David Denby, Gary Indiana, David Bordwell, Georgia Brown, Karina Longworth and Lisa Schwarzbaum, who along with J. Hoberman he has accused of racism. Of such accusations, White has written that
I have called critics out by name, but when I do so, I don't call them names. I'm after the vigorous defense of an idea. Sometimes that means going at certain ideological and professional suppositions that other critics take for granted. I guess that's when they feel personally attacked. They call it "bullying" or "slightly nuts" simply because their unexamined values or arrogant prejudices have been shown up.
White has been an outspoken opponent of online film criticism, which he associates with "amateurism, gossip [and] cliques" rather than the "education, expertise [and] experience" he attributes to professional film criticism. He has also stated his opinion that "there should be no film critics younger than 30" since they would lack the necessary scholarship and life experience.
He has cited film review aggregators in general and Rotten Tomatoes in particular as examples of how "the Internet takes revenge on individual expression" by "dumping reviewers onto one website and assigning spurious percentage-enthusiasm points to the discrete reviews" and "offer[s] consensus as a substitute for assessment". Additionally, he indicated that the site had "caused basic curiosity about new films to warp into the intellectual cowardice of mob-mentality and group think" making the "fanboy fanaticism [into] today's reflective standard", which results in "name-calling, death threats and other hostility". White also claimed that he was forcefully removed from the Rotten Tomatoes after his positive review of the film Jack and Jill, a claim which was denied by Matt Atchity, the editor-in-chief of the site.
In interviews he has repeatedly demurred when asked to identify critics other than himself whose work he values. However, in other settings he has praised the writing of Molly Haskell and John Simon. Among film critics of previous generations, in addition to Kael and Sarris, White has credited James Agee and former New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, as well as critics and essayists Robert Warshow and Gilbert Seldes.
Because of his consistently negative reviews of Noah Baumbach's and Spike Lee's films – and his ad hominem attacks on their creators – he was barred by publicists from press screenings of their films Greenberg and Get on the Bus. In the case of Greenberg, the ban was rescinded in time for White to watch the film with other critics. Director Darren Aronofsky also publicly disparaged White's film criticism. It was reported that during the 78th New York Film Critics Circle Awards White yelled: "Fuck you!" at the director Michael Moore, while during the 79th New York Film Critics Circle Awards White allegedly heckled the director Steve McQueen, saying: "You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. Fuck you. Kiss my ass."
Film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate wrote that White "has staked out a position as a renegade film critic, the Last Angry Man, unafraid to attack popular favorites or make enemies with colleagues". His criticism has been described as "unique" and also as "thoughtful" since it "allows readers the opportunity to interpret films as more than just entertainment". Also, he has been described as "not boring" and "capable of wicked insights", "often-contrarian (and always fun to read)", "extremely knowledgeable", "immensely readable, fearless, provocative", "passionate, idiosyncratic and a natural polemicist", as well as a "gay African-American fundamentalist-Christian aesthete". Film critic Jack Mathews had described White as a "classic, unapologetic elitist" whose "haughty, theoretical approach is the stuff of academia and film journals", but also as "a critic in a world of cinema that does not exist, except in the margins of independent and avant garde film". Critic Kyle Smith has argued that White "simply has a different aesthetic from that of the herd", while critic David Chen suggested that he "(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". In his article explaining his reasons for voting to expel White from the New York Film Critics Circle, film critic Owen Gleiberman offered the following perspective on White:
The reason that the whole incident, to me, was sad is that Armond White is a critic I have defended, and at times championed, for being an extraordinarily vital voice: not a soft one, to be sure, but a demanding and even important one. As a critic, he is passionate, perverse, furious, infuriating, insightful, obtuse, humane, ruthless, fearless, out of his gourd, and, at his best, outrageously exciting to read. A lot of people despise him, because he can be a bully in print, and he wears the I-stand-alone perversity of his opinions far too proudly, like a military armband. Yet much of the dismissal of Armond is itself way too dismissive. He’s an embattled critic, but one who is often at war with the lockstep tendencies in our culture, and that’s a noble crusade. Sure, there are days when he says that a Transformers movie (or a bad Brian De Palma movie) is superior to anything by Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh, and you want to go, “Enough, stop!” But there are other days when he slices through the piety of adoration that surrounds certain movies. He’s a reckless master at unmasking cultural prejudices. / When you want to read a critic, it’s often because something in his or her voice inspires and incites you far beyond their good judgment (or lack of it). You want to crawl inside their head. You want to see things the way they do, even if you don’t agree with them. I’ve often remarked that I agreed with Pauline Kael even when I disagreed with her more than I did with other critics when I agreed with them. White, who idolizes Kael, is capable of provoking that kind of response. Not that I’d really compare him to Kael; he’s more from the take-no-prisoners literary-terrorist school, an heir to Lester Bangs and the young-gun James Wolcott of the ’70s Village Voice. When you read Armond, he isn’t always reasonable, but at times he’s something more enticing. He parades his unruly, belligerent perceptions like hardcore psychological rock & roll.
Detractors have criticized White for his "hyperbolic rhetoric". It was also suggested that White deliberately takes "provocative positions and concoct[s] defenses of seemingly irredeemable movies, based on thematic subtext that only he appears to notice, or psychological insight into their creators that only he seems to have", which makes him into "some kind of self-styled iconoclast (if not just sort of a jerk)." Critic Glenn Kenny has called White "a bully and a hypocrite" and written that "the sub-theme of every White review [...] is that every other critic is a moral degenerate and an aesthetic cretin". Essayist Dan Schneider dismissed White as a "critical clown" and "a contrarian with political and personal axes to grind". Commenting on White's negative review of Toy Story 3, freelance writer Paul Brunick concludes that
What makes Armond’s reviews perversely fascinating is that he is so obviously intelligent, yet this intelligence has been harnessed to the warped imperatives of an increasingly frustrated personality. Where your average critical hack job is just banal, White’s ability to disconnect the dots exerts a kind of bizarro brilliance. Try to take any of his recent reviews as seriously as he insists and you’ll find yourself, like Alice and the Red Queen, running in hermeneutic circles, getting nowhere fast. It makes for mediocre criticism but lurid psychodrama.
Because he often castigates critical and audience favorites, White has been labeled "contrarian for the sake of being contrary" and "America's most hated movie critic". Citing the straw man arguments in White's review of the 2006 film Dreamgirls, critic Jim Emerson wrote that
White doesn't necessarily practice film criticism, although what he writes is almost always based on his real or imagined characterization of what other critics have already written. The movie itself sometimes gets lost in White's internal monologue as he rages against some chimerical critical consensus.
In 2009, following an eruption of controversy on the Rotten Tomatoes website over White's negative pre-general release review of District 9 (which ruined its 100% rating up to that point), Roger Ebert defended him against the "fanboys" of the "Tomatoes lynch mob":
The fact that you don't know what someone is writing about is not a real good reason for disagreeing with him [...] [White is] an intelligent critic and a passionate writer, and he knows a very great deal about movies, dance, and many other things.
However, after being presented with a list of films that White had liked and disliked, Ebert withdrew his overall support of White's work, writing "It is baffling to me that a critic could praise Transformers 2 but not Synecdoche, NY. Or Death Race but not There Will Be Blood. I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll; a smart and knowing one, but a troll." White condemned Ebert's response, saying "the guy has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism [...] Criticizing colleagues is not what we do". Ebert stated that he had shown "very poor judgment" in writing the latter entry.