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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Armond, Armond, Quite Contrary

I was just reading this piece that Ray Pride linked to about Armond White on Maclean’s, in which writer Jaime Weinman attempts to dissect the man whose penchant for contrariasm has made him one of the most talked about critics du jour.
Love him or hate him, but you have to admire White for finding a way to use the internet to reinvent himself, rather than just shaking his fist in the air and yelling at those damn kids to get off his print critic lawn. Roger Ebert, who’s quoted in the article from this piece calling that White a “… troll. A smart and knowning one, but a troll.” has also learned to leverage the power of the internet to his advantage, communicating more directly with his large fan base through both his online journal and prolific use of Twitter. But whereas Ebert has been accused in recent years of growing too soft and generous with his reviews, White is the bellwether of contrariasm. If everyone else loves it (see: Toy Story 3) White is almost certain to review it negatively. If most other critics slam a film, White is likely to find something to like about it.

I’ve sometimes tended to dismiss White (as I do a couple of other critics prone to contrariasm) as being more interested in being the one “smart” guy in the room who sees what everyone else doesn’t than in actually critiquing whatever film is at hand. It’s as if he watches a film, senses which way the critical tide is likely to turn, and then deliberately crafts an opposing critique specifically to incite a particular response.
This isn’t actually as hard to do as you might think; anyone who took debate in high school or college learned how to argue either position of a given topic with relative ease, and if you’re a writer of any talent, you can learn to write both sides of just about any argument and do so well. I could just as easily write a defense of the pro-life side of the abortion debate as the pro-choice side, although I personally am adamantly pro-choice. Likewise, I could just as easily have written a defense of The Last Airbender had I so chosen, though that one might have required considerable effort and a bit of stretching to make the case. It’s just about knowing how to look at your topic with a degree of emotional objectivity and to pluck out the salient points that support one side or the other of the argument.
The question is, is being able to write a contrarian argument the same as actually critiquing based on your genuine emotional response to a film?
Now here’s where I disclaim and say that I do not know Armond White, have never been inside his head, and therefore cannot say with any degree of certainty whether the reviews he writes are actually his honest critiques based on some particular viewpoint that just happens to be skewed from what others perceived to be “normal” or “right” or whatever standard by which White is judged. I don’t even know what “normal” means. Do you have to agree with “most” people in order to be right? Can someone have an opinion, even an opinion that a lot of people might look at and find totally incomprehensible, and still be a good critic? Of course. Then again, neither do I think you have to be on the minority viewpoint on every film in order to be honestly critiquing film intellectually.
But I also think it’s dishonest to say that any film critic isn’t writing as much about himself as he is about the film; there’s no such thing as objectivity when it comes to writing opinion — subjectivity, crafting a review that tells readers what you think about a particular film and why you think it — is what film criticism is. Otherwise, you might as well just be writing synopses of films for press kits and film festival catalogues (not that there’s anything wrong with that). No one reads Roger Ebert or Armond White or any other critic to just find out what a film is about, they read to find out what that particular critic thought about it.
While I don’t always agree with White (more often than not, I don’t) and I do often feel that in his reviews he’s choosing to debate an opposing view just for the sake of supporting the minority viewpoint rather than critiquing, his reviews do, at least, often make me think about things I otherwise might not have considered about a film, be they positive or negative. It can be easy to get swept away by hype and hyperbole and that odd, mass peer-pressure cooker that is the internet. People get pissed when you disagree with them, and the anonymity of the internet gives them the freedom to express that displeasure vociferously.
And if nothing else, White’s found a way to tap into that power to get himself the attention he claims in the Maclean’s piece he doesn’t actively seek. And maybe his contrarianism has, in a way, made criticism relevant in a way that all the fanboy rants and raves cannot do: by debating the unpopular point of view, White stimulates others to at least consider that point of view in order to formulate arguments against what he himself writes, creating a really rather interesting kettle of critical stew that does, at least, make the discussion more interesting. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing — or even a crazy or irrelevant thing — for a writer to do.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon