I have two objectives in this article: 1. To keep you interested in film critique. 2. To get you to read Armond White.
White is the most universally reviled film critic writing today. He’s a classically educated critic known for his off-the-rails opinions. Ebert called him “a troll”. Darren Aronofsky publicly insulted him at the New York Film Critics’ Circle awards dinner (the what? I don’t know either). He’s the guy that hates what you love and loves what you hate. He panned Inception while lauding Transformers 2. He typically lifts up trashy, middle-of-the-road action fare and, if his detractors are to be believed, looks up the Rotten Tomatoes score on whatever’s hot and writes in the opposite direction to the trend.
Thing is: I love the guy. I can’t help it. He’s an excellent writer and he’s one of the few critics out there with some pointed philosophy to his film critiques. He is best defined by what he’s against: a unique concoction of mass-media, racism and secularism all cooked up in his own mind. It may lead to some distorted reviews but it also leads to some very, very good ones. Nowhere else will you get the sort of criticism this guy offers. He’s parroting no-one. His Inception review was airtight logic which I happen to agree with.
But extreme intellect comes with some serious drawbacks, particularly in being rather out-of-touch with taste. His joylessness comes through in his faulty analysis of who the good guys and the bad guys are in Hollywoodland. I love him because he acknowledges a culture war. I pity him because he’s drawn the lines wrong. Among other oddities, the man. hates. Toy Story. I guess you gotta have some principles in life, but that is not the right one. He cannot miss an opportunity to blast Toy Story for its inherent marketability and he’s still doing it. In his latest review of The Hunger Games, with all the deftness of a post-modern comedian, he places Lasseter’s brainchild in a list of much-hyped young adult novel-film franchises: Harry Potter, Twilight, Toy Story. So that gives you an idea of what the man is capable of.
The Hunger Games review is a classic example of his script: take something marketable, explain the pernicious forces behind its marketability and feed that into critique of the director’s abilities and style, as if each cut and take is made with $_$ signs in their eyes. He does manage to give a decent laundry list of the myriad dystopian stories the series steals from: Running Man, 1984, Battle Royale and…Death Race? though he unfortunately leaves out Brave New World. The rest is re-interpreting any pathos and passion as marketing, and flat, unsupported contradiction that the film had any deeper meaning, its emotional core had any value, sincerity or well-crafted performances.
But…gosh, he’s right about the lack of irony. I fully expected White to go for The Hunger Games for its commentary on consumerism, oppression and the unflappable genuineness of its filmmakers. But he’s eluded me again. White rightly points out that sincerity in film has to correspond with the film’s premise, and the fact that The Hunger Games was filmed without a whit of irony, all the while playing out an extremely ironic premise (we’re watching children die in an entertaining movie about children dying for entertainment value) is definitely an inherent flaw. This is the classic White bait-and-switch. Wrong about the movie. Right about what we’re doing while we’re watching it. So so wrong and then so so right.
It turns out, that White is a lot harder to peg than people think. They label him as a contrarian, intentionally reviewing films opposite of the broad swath of critics. Folks usually cite his distaste for Nolan’s passion project, Inception and preferring Bay’s cash cow CGI-fest Transformers 2. But he also hated Transformers 3. And he loved True Grit (even though he said Jonah Hex was better, but still…).
There’s no question the man is in love with his own crusade, mostly because he’s convinced that he’s the only one on a crusade that isn’t for a paycheck. He’s wrong about that, but I appreciate his one-man quest against cinematic nihilism and marketability. Nobody else cares about nihilism. As far as most other critics are concerned, cinematic themes, if well-shot and edited might as well be gospel truth. There’s no pushback and certainly no discussion of what films do to our souls.
But The Hunger Games was just really really good. It’s a plain fact. I was totally into this film whose premise I cared little for (see the previous post) and invested in characters as two-dimensional as any TV cast. I (and just about everyone else I saw it with) had some nitpicks about the shaky-cam, but this is simply, a good movie. A good movie that proves it’s not hard to make a good movie as long as you’re honest about it. Ross channels Suzanne Collins’ guilelessness. They are sincere about this film. They don’t have dollar-signs in their eyes. That’s already promised. The Hunger Games film would have been a cash cow regardless of its quality. It’s laudable that Ross took that leeway of assured box-office success and didn’t rest on his haunches, but actually made a harrowing, exciting and emotional film. It’s an interesting situation, much like the Harry Potter series, where the critical mass of hype surrounding a film can actually be an opportunity to make a good movie with a good script, good acting and good, visceral action, one that doesn’t pander, over-explain the premise or play to the lowest common denominator. Shaky-cam aside, he tells the story visually, instead of using narration or stupid, shoehorned dialogue. It’s a straight-faced, gut-wrenching and ultimately very emotional film.
Am I a sucker? White thinks I am. I think White is out of touch and gives his critical missiles bad guidance. On my read White is mostly right on about America, he just picks the wrong movies to crucify. The Hunger Games is the latest. You won’t agree with Armond White. But you’ll be forced to explain why.
Fume away at all his reviews here.