Meet the film critic who hates Toy Story 3 and calls Josh Brolin’s Jonah Hex “beautiful and brilliant.” Armond White used to be unknown beyond readers of the alternative weekly he writes for, the New York Press. But that changed when fans of movies like The Dark Knight, There Will Be Blood, and Wall-E began to notice that White was the only critic who disliked their favourite films. That made him famous, even feared: he was banned from a screening of the Ben Stiller vehicle Greenberg because he’d wished “retroactive abortion” on the film’s director. Though Village Voice critic Vadim Rizov calls him a once-interesting critic who has “collapsed into self-parody,” White has found a way to make criticism relevant again: write reviews that strike people as crazy.
White, a chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, has reviewed films in impenetrable prose for years; he told Maclean’s that only people who haven’t followed him subscribe to “the infantile notion that I’m just after attention.” What brought him attention was the website Rotten Tomatoes, where movies are ranked according to an average of major critics’ reviews. Thanks to that site, readers discovered that he levels some odd accusations against big films, implying, for instance, that District 9 showed what producer Peter Jackson “really thinks about the Maori and Aborigines.” They also found that he likes to be different from other critics; when The Hurt Locker came out, he reviewed it favourably, but he started calling it “overrated” once it won the Oscar.
The last straw came last week, when White panned the new Toy Story sequel, almost solely preventing it from getting a 100 per cent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Josh Tyler at the website Cinema Blend wrote that his opinion was objectively “wrong, flat-out wrong.” A Petitionspot.com petition to disqualify his reviews from counting at Rotten Tomatoes, because “he’s been railing against the most popular and beloved movies while praising utter garbage,” had a goal of 500 signatures; it now has over 3,500. Another webpage features a long list of his opinions, revealing that he loathed The Wrestler and liked Confessions of a Shopaholic; the list is called “Armond White is Insane.”
No one cared that much about White a few years ago; he says that “the ‘controversial figure online’ stuff is pretty recent, especially after Rotten Tomatoes became popular.” So while White calls fans of the site “ignorant of history,” it’s single-handedly turned him into a celebrity. It drives traffic to the New York Press site, where people leave enraged and sometimes hateful comments. There are discussions about White to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the days of his hero, film critic Pauline Kael. Roger Ebert, the most prominent critic in the U.S., called White “a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll.”
White, for his part, doesn’t seem unhappy about his notoriety. He told Maclean’s that Ebert began “the destruction of intellectual film response,” and he sees attacks as a badge of honour, further proof that “I don’t think like the mainstream. As a pedigreed film scholar, I take movies seriously.” But while White claims his opinions are a sign of superior taste, readers have pointed out that his attacks aren’t always logical. He called Toy Story 3 “besotted with brand names and product-placement,” but in the exact same essay, he compared it unfavourably to Transformers 2, a movie literally based on toys. “The film under discussion is secondary,” Rizov says. “The primary agenda is to champion himself as the one lone voice of truth in a field of easily corruptible fools.”
As provocation, it’s working. Tyler wrote that one of White’s arguments was “not just a bad opinion, it’s insanity,” perhaps confirming White’s point that people are “unnerved by the ideas I bring up.” Even Rizov, who calls White “a jerk who combines rhetorical misdirection with bullying behaviour,” doesn’t mind that he upsets “the fanboy contingent” that loves Hollywood blockbusters: “It’s good to champion stuff against the tide.” It’s just that White’s championing of great cinema might be more convincing if he didn’t love I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.