Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Armond White and (the other) John Waters have spoken!

A few days ago we paid tribute to one of the great gentlemen of film criticism. J Hoberman, recently let go by the Village Voice, has always been a civilising influence on the medium. Now, we’re going to discuss the …

Tue, Jan 10, 2012, 19:37


A few days ago we paid tribute to one of the great gentlemen of film criticism. J Hoberman, recently let go by the Village Voice, has always been a civilising influence on the medium. Now, we’re going to discuss the strange world of Armond White. Formerly a critic with The New York Press, now attached to something called City Arts, Mr White is, it seems, one of those people who lives to antagonise others. He writes pretty well. He seems to have reasonable depth of knowledge. But his assessment of films is so perverse that one suspects an internal randomiser has been at work. Norbit is some sort of gem. Precious was the “con job of the year”. That sort of thing.

An African-American, White does spend a lot of time ragging Hollywood and other critics for perceived racism. Fair enough. But he will champion the oddest films dealing with the black experience. We’ve already mentioned Norbit. But he also thought that Spielberg’s pompous, patronising Amistad was the very best film of 1997. Indeed, the man is positively addicted to Mr Spielberg. When he submitted his list of the 10 best films of all time to Sight & Sound 10 years ago, AI: Artificial Intelligence somehow found itself placed at number one. I’m fairly certain that even Mr Spielberg himself thought that a little excessive,

Why do people bother paying attention to him? Well, in some senses he is the Jeremy Clarkson of film writing: he says frightful things, but the world would seem a poorer place without him. Then again, most decent liberals who have worked with Clarkson (Jo Brand for one) grudgingly admit that, in private, he is an extremely charming fellow. I have never met Mr White, so I cannot comment on his manners, but his public pronouncements — always free of Clarksonian “humour” — do not suggest that he is the warmest fellow on the block. A year ago, Hoberman felt minded to respond to a review in which White suggested that Noah Baumbach’s mother should consider having a “retroactive abortion”. (The director’s parent, Georgia Brown, once wrote for the New Yorker magazine.) Hoberman also detailed various alleged outrages carried out when White was head of the New York Film Critics Circle. Lest I anger the man any further, I will avoid further paraphrasing and point you to Hoberman’s rebuttal.

I am greatly in favour of critics who buck the trend. By all means tell me that 8 1/2 is vulgar and Tokyo Story is underpowered. The problem is that White’s reviews so stubbornly buck the trend that one can’t help but feel he is having us on. He also seems to go out of his way to start fights with other critics. Jonathan Rosenbaum has been known to snipe at fellow reviewers as well, but his criticism seems much more surely grounded than that of Mr White.

Anyway, having said all that, I do greatly enjoy White’s annual study of which supposedly under-appreciated  films are better than vaguely similar critics’ favourites. The 2011 edition is another classic of the genre. Some of these inequalities are pretty sound. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far better than Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (but is that really such a controversial view?). Real Steel is certainly more fun than Moneyball. But Tintin (groan, Spielberg again) superior to The Artist? Attack the Block superior to A Separation? I refuse to rise to the bait, old man.

For a little less heat, have a glance at John Waters‘s top 10 films of 2011. The director of Pink Flamingos has, as always, leaned towards films with a gay connection. It’s a fun list that reveals a delightfully original temperament. (See the full shebang here.) Waters watchers will, however, be surprised by one omission. John almost always includes the latest Woody Allen film in his list, even if it’s as awful as Cassandra’s Dream. Now, in the year that saw Woody have his biggest hit ever with Midnight in Paris, the old geezer is nowhere to be seen. Okay, so maybe John is also at home to studied perversity. Ooo, you think so do you? No, that’s not what I meant!

Heres the Waters chart:

1. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)

2. Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes)

3. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

4. Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont)

5. Kaboom (Gregg Araki)

6. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman)

7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

8. I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive (Claude and Nathan Miller)

9. We Were Here (David Weissman)

10. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)