With the commencement of the 75th-anniversary year of the New York Film Critics Circle, Armond White, the newly elected chairman, passed the first morning of what he called “my reign” recounting how he’d barely made it through the 74th season, which had ended the previous night with the traditional awards dinner. For starters, White, whose writings can be found in the downtown freebie New York Press, was appalled by the behavior of the stars, particularly Sean Penn and Josh Brolin, who acted like “bores, or boors, or boars, however you want to spell it.”
Also irksome, if not unexpected, were the circle’s selections for the best films of 2008. The procession of wrongheadedness began with the Best Cinematographer award for Slumdog Millionaire, a film whose cresting hype machine had failed to fool White, who saw the picture for what it was, i.e., a “TV-slick fraud” full of “blithe condescension.” No more worthy was the nearly universally acclaimed Romanian movie 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, chosen as the Best Foreign Film despite White’s contention that it was nothing more than “a fad based on liberal self-reproach; a hangover from what Susan Sontag criticized as Americans’ ‘triumphalist national self-regard.’ ” Also unsurprising was the Best Picture anointment of the relentlessly middlebrow Milk when it was clear as day that the film was little more than a “silly …celebration of an ambitious pol.” Even the widely beloved Wall-E, the Best Animated Film, was damned by the new chairman, who said it smacked of “ugly, end-of-history cynicism.”
Lest anyone think White is reflexively negative, the critic says he has never knocked a film without suggesting a superior movie a viewer might more profitably spend his time watching. Instead of the usual ten-best list, White offers the “Better-Than List,” in which he expounds on why one lesser-known or critically unfashionable movie is better than another highly touted but ultimately empty product. To wit: In the category of $100 million–budget comic-book action-adventure films, White declared the “genre expertise” displayed by his great hero Steven Spielberg in the criminally ignored Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was “better than” the overpraised “dunglike banality” of Iron Man. Among neo-art films, Wong Kar-Wai’s little-seen My Blueberry Nights was “better than” that “endless, two-hankie Kubrick movie for fanboys,” The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Most controversial was White’s assertion that the “kinetic art” to be found in assumedly schlocky Transporter 3 was “better than” that favorite of “impressionable teenagers,” The Dark Knight. White’s stance against the industry’s biggest moneymaker in this year of financial meltdown began with his original pan, in which he j’accused the film, saying it “fabricates disaster simply to tease millennial death wish and psychosis.” This opinion generated a mini-firestorm of hate mail on Rotten Tomatoes, the widely skimmed Internet movie-review site currently featuring a forum titled “Armond White of the New York Press May Be the Worst Film Critic Ever.” Among the more than 300 postings—for other critics, two comments is a groundswell—White was described as “sad,” “crotchety,” a peddler of “Cold War platitudes,” a hater of the common people, a “Christian boy,” an abuser of affirmative action, and a mindless typist. But at least none of the Dark Knight defenders suggested he get cancer from stuffing formaldehyde-filled coffins, “you stupid idiot,” as one Iron Man fan did.
All this, along with sites like Armond Dangerous—Parsing the Confounding Film Criticism of Mr. Armond White, which offers coverage of White’s self- declared “humanist” jeremiad against Williamsburg-style “nihilism” (the page links to an article called “Hip to Be Square: Armond White vs. the Ghost Hipsters Part 16”), brings a smile to the critic’s eternally bemused, goateed face.
“Shows I’m doing my job,” he says, leaning back from his bento box in a Ninth Avenue sushi restaurant.
Now 55 and bearish-looking in his green down coat, gray-flecked stubble on his shaved, outsize noggin, White might have trashed The Wrestler—one of only four out of the 185 major critics on Rotten Tomatoes to do so—but he doesn’t mind playing the heel, the bringer of illusion-dissolving cold water, the man the peanut gallery loves to hate.
White says, “I don’t say these things to call attention to myself or to get a rise out of people. I say them because I believe them. We’re living in times when critics get fired if they don’t like enough movies. People don’t need to hear what mouthpieces for the movie industry tell them. They need to hear the truth.”
White says the difference between him and other movie critics—whether they write for The New Yorker or blog by the midnight oil, a practice he decried as little more than “a hobby” in a much fulminated-against recent piece—is that “they don’t see what I see. Where I’m coming from, they couldn’t.”