Thursday, January 23, 2014

Culture Shock 01.23.14: The Groucho Marxism of Armond White

Armond White trolls his fellow critics and his readers with
his annual "Better-Than List."
You've probably never heard of Armond White, which is a shame.

White is a unique voice in film criticism, combining fearlessness, encyclopedic knowledge and a sensibility best described as unhinged. Like the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, you're never entirely sure if White's criticism is brilliant or just bizarre, serious or an elaborate put-on. It is performance art that exists apart from the films he examines.

This month, White, formerly of the late, lamented New York Press and currently editor of, became the first person ever excommunicated from the New York Film Critics Circle, an organization White chaired three times, as he boasts via his Twitter handle, 3xchair.

White's crime was allegedly heckling "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen as McQueen took the stage to receive the NYFCC's award for best director. White disputes the received account of events, but the incident does seem like vintage Armond. During his chairmanship in 2011, White presided over an NYFCC awards dinner that is now legend. His passive-aggressive, and sometimes just aggressive barbs made Annette Bening cry.

And White is no fan of McQueen's work, especially "12 Years a Slave," which White savaged, as is his fashion. White may be idiosyncratic, but he has an entirely understandable dislike for condescension, which may explain his visceral reaction to "12 Years."

White — who is black, I'm obliged here to note — called the film "torture porn," comparing it to "Hostel" and "The Human Centipede." White concludes his City Arts review with, " '12 Years a Slave' is ultimate proof that Hollywood's respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline."

I've not seen "12 Years" yet, so I can't say whether I agree with White's assessment. But I have seen McQueen's shallow "sex addiction" drama "Shame," which White rightly dismisses as "a sex-phobic art fraud." McQueen has a track record of producing critically acclaimed phonies.

But "Shame" was about sex, and despite what you may think, Hollywood still isn't comfortable with sex. A movie that says slavery is bad, on the other hand, is "important," which is why "12 Years" is now a front-runner for a Best Picture Oscar.

That brings us back to White's excommunication and my suspicion that it was about more than White allegedly being rude in public. White has been rude in public before. Just ask Bening. The difference is, this time he did the unpardonable, not only contradicting 97 percent of his peers (according to Rotten Tomatoes) but doing so loudly, unflinchingly about a movie they deem "important," because without "12 Years a Slave," how are any of us to know slavery is wrong, eh?

It's impossible not to see some politics at play here and sense that White's fellow critics have had enough of his politically incorrect opinions. Tolerating White's baffling love affair with Adam Sandler films is one thing (see his absurd rave of "Jack and Jill"). His deeming the "Schindler's List" of slavery films a fraud, however, is another. It's a sense reinforced by Mollie Hemingway's observation, at, that many of the same critics who damned "The Passion of the Christ" on the basis of its brutality praised "12 Years" for the same. Torture porn is in the ideology of the beholder.

The late Roger Ebert called White a "troll." It's true, to an extent. White's annual "Better-Than" lists, in which he pits movies he favors against the consensus favorites, elevate trolling to an art. And as a fellow contrarian, I'm fully in agreement with about half his better-than picks. The others....

If White is simply an embarrassment in public, the NYFCC could ban him from the awards dinner without banning him entirely. White is a vital part of American film criticism. Infuriating, occasionally insane, but vital precisely because he is so infuriating and insane.

Yet I suspect White is secretly pleased with his ouster. No contrarian can really want to belong to a group that would have him as a member, and Armond White is a Groucho Marxist film critic.

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