Twenty years ago, in the pages of Film Comment and other publications, I appreciated and enjoyed the trenchant attacks by American critic Armond White on the growing trend of 'thumbs up-thumbs down' film reviewing, and his tenacious lists of all the brave, little films overlooked by mainstream US culture (two decades ago, that list included the Belgian Crazy Love and the Australian Dogs in Space).
But today, primarily in the pages of New York Press, White (whom I do not know personally) faces the problems of any self-styled maverick who once hurled his provocative bombs from the margin of culture, but now finds himself at its centre. White is still proudly in attack mode: but who, exactly, is the enemy? And now that he has stormed the citadel of popular film reviewing, can he deliver the alternative critique that he once called for?
On April 23, White published an over-3000-word opinion piece titled 'What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies' (www.nypress.com/21/17/news&columns/feature3.cfm
). It offered a summary of White's feisty opinions and his inflammatory rhetorical procedures. The Internet reaction was instantaneous and voluminous, both pro and con (see the discussion at Glenn Kenny's Premiere blog, http://glennkenny.premiere.com/blog/...ite-noise.html
In the field of film criticism, White is against everyone: reviewers, promoters, bloggers, cinephiles. They are not merely myopic, in White's estimation, but 'wilfully blind' to the truth before them on the screen and in the world, because of ideological bias, or their desperate need to flee reality. But what is that truth, this reality? In his essay, White spontaneously offers 'ten current film culture fallacies' - ranging from 'Gus Van Sant is the new Visconti when he's really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger', to 'Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected'.
That list is Armond White in a nutshell: it's all dubious assertion (only 'non-pop' Asian cinema is acclaimed?) and even more aggressive counter-assertion (Van Sant is a phony), in a non-stop, strident loop. There is no argument, no development, no depth in this writing - for the simple reason that White is always dancing on the surface of ideas, a polemical 'moving target'. His modus operandi is confusion, as in this thumbnail account of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: all critics (except White) apparently ignore the 'fundamental terms', 'the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorisation'. So is he for or against the filmmaker? Who can tell?
White's fancy moves are partly a result of his intriguing political profile: he is simultaneously progressive (black, gay, a supporter of edgy pop culture) and a 'post 9/11' conservative, taking his adversaries to task for their lack of religious education, or their 'kneejerk liberalism'. And, as a critic heavily influenced by Pauline Kael, he is fatally caught between extolling cinema as an art and over-identifying with the assumed taste of 'the people'. Just like Richard Corliss of Time ('Do Film Critics Know Anything?', http://www.time.com/time/arts/articl...693300,00.html
), who thinks that No country for old men is an 'elitist' taste! These are strange days indeed, when White interprets the absence of 'popular hits' from critics' end-of-year lists as ultimate 'proof' that they 'have failed to rouse the moviegoing public in any direction'...