In Appreciation - Armond White - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

In Appreciation – Armond White

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Armond WhiteAndrewCommentaryBannerShort2010 was the most insufferable year for criticism I've lived through since I started writing about films seven years ago and in the three years since we started this site.  It wasn't because of the opinions of any professional critics, but because it seemed like every film released had a built-in audience of defenders who scurried to any critique of their product of choice.  The worst part was how in a lot of those cases the vocal defense was for a film that hadn't even been seen yet.  Then, in what seemed like the perfect storm, Armond White critiqued Toy Story 3 (my review, Ryan's later thoughts) by calling it out on long-form commercialization and cheap emotional ploys.

I hadn't heard of Armond White prior to that point but at this stage I'd been reading Roger Ebert exclusively and my critical circle wasn't cast very wide.  But reading White's review, and the response that was generated from it, and the ongoing conversation about not just Toy Story 3 but film culture in general, made a lasting impact on me.  After reading through many of his articles I found Armond White has never been a contrarian and the response to that film, among many others, was manufactured outrage to drive up more publicity in response to a career of writing that existed long before feature-length CGI films started appearing in theaters.  Since that spark turned into a half-year inferno Armond White has been appointment reading for me, because before that moment and, now, during the years afterward he consistently does what almost no other critic can and that's illuminate something new and instructive about a film with every review he writes.

White embraces his training and education in his writing, and one of the most distressing aspects of that whole spat back in 2010 is the anti-intellectual bent of the whole thing.  It's disappointing to think of the conversations we could be having now had people sat down to think about the societal, racial, and economic implications of cinema while simultaneously explaining what is so appealing, or not, regarding the visual style, performances, and other creative aspects of each film he reviews.  We should have had conversations about those elements that he brings up in his writing, because it enriches criticism immensely.

I don't have to go far to pull up an excellent example of what I've been able to learn from his writing.  Yesterday, I praised The Butler and walked out of the theater having watched the Civil Rights movement get a long overdue salute and sharing a bonding moment with a complete stranger.  White was not as much of a fan, and among the many criticisms he writes on the film one thing he said struck me hard:

" is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment."

One of the most important things I've done in response to reading White's reviews is to stop reading other reviews before writing my own.  If I had read this paragraph before doing my writing on The Butler I probably would have ended up in a cycle of self-reflection that barely involved talking about the movie.  But approaching his piece after the fact, with my emotions and thoughts completed, allows me to reflect on his critique through my previously undiluted lens and think more about the class and race gulf that envelops the United States.  How much does my position of privilege affect how I saw the film?  That's a question for another review that I'm now acknowledging thanks to White's writings which I hope to continue reading for years and grow as a critic myself.

I want the training and the education, but for now I have to take stumbles through a mostly dark corridor of critiquing using the tools my education to date has given me.  Every review I read of White's helps me further that education, see each film in a different light, and evolve as a writer.  For now, I'll continue marveling at the different perspective granted on films that we both love, and the lessons I can pull from each disagreement.  This is what great critics can do, and I'm grateful for every opportunity to learn from Armond White.

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Posted by Andrew

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