12 Years a Slave causes cranky critical contrarianism

US film critic Armond White lobs opinionated dynamite

Curmudgeon and proud of it: Armond White

Curmudgeon and proud of it: Armond White

Fri, Jan 17, 2014, 00:00

If, as is often argued, Armond White lives to court controversy then he must be a very happy man this week. Formerly published in the New York Press and the City Sun, the African-American critic currently shares his thoughts in a number of relatively obscure publications. Yet his creative perversity has gained him a reputation out of all proportion to his readership. There have been more radical critics (though not many). There have been reviewers more at home to biting rhetoric (though only a few). But none have been quite so adept as White at sideswiping expectations.

“It is baffling to me that a critic could praise Transformers 2 but not Synecdoche, NY,” the late Chicago critic Roger Ebert wrote following a falling out. In his annual “better-than” lists (which do just what that suggests), White has said that the notorious Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill was superior to Alexander Payne’s The Descendents and that ultra-bomb Jonah Hex kicked the hell out of the Coens’ True Grit.

Yet, for all his renown among film maniacs, White has rarely made much impact in the news pages. That changed (just a little) earlier this week. The latest target for his wrath is Steve McQueen’s almost universally praised 12 Years a Slave.

To be fair, White’s review is typically bracing and genuinely thoughtful : “12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise. But it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race”.

Fair enough. Too much blind consensus can be awfully boring. If recent news reports are true, however, White did properly cross the line at the New York Film Critics Circle awards by heckling McQueen as he accepted an award for best director. According to Variety, White yelled: “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. Fuck you. Kiss my ass.” McQueen did not react.

For the record, White has denied making the remarks, but suddenly he’s found his notoriety extending beyond the film pages. We are all now expected to have an opinion on his eccentricities.

It’s tricky one. White’s public displays of rudeness and ad hominem attacks on film-makers are often indefensible. A dispute with Noah Baumbach, for example, turned nasty in ways that, for legal reasons, we can’t explain in any detail.

White continues to offer, however, a satisfying corrective to the unthreatening discourse that characterises so much film criticism (including that by this writer). He doesn’t write “buyer’s guides” of puff pieces. He deconstructs the week’s cinema according to his own rigorously constructed puritanical principles.

There is a downside to being (not that he’d like the term) a professional contrarian. You can too easily end up becoming as predictable as the blandest studio stooge. Who, aware of White’s history, would ever have expected him to admire 12 Years a Slave? It’s enjoyable reading White work through his opinions. But expectations are now much less frequently sideswiped.

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