Sunday, June 20, 2010

Armond White does it again

The always hilarious Armond White has yet again managed to piss a great many people off by panning the latest Toy Story film. Some of the hoopla revolves around the fact that if White (and a couple of other poo-pooing dissenters) hadn't given the film a low score it would have garnered a 100% rating on the all-hallowed Tomatometer.

Armond White, looking particularly sinister

Devin Faraci at Chud has written an interesting response to this whole issue, bluntly asking "who gives a shit about Armond White?" Faraci is one of the few film critics online who regularly bashes on filmdom's fascination with numbers, be they box office scores, the Tomatometer or the majestic IMDB user rating (which contains some of my most hated films of all times in the top 10) and has been known to be something of a contrarian himself (he blessedly gave Avatar a less than stellar review) so I was more than a little surprised at how dismissive he is of White's criticism. Note the following:

Nothing Armond White says about a movie matters, whether he means it or not. Let's for a moment assume that the opinions of critics are actually important. Even if you take that concept as a truism, White's positions of ultimate contrariness - such as being apparently the only human who didn't like Toy Story 3 - are just as ultimately marginalized. He's not leading the discussion or setting the tone, he's the lonely guy screaming at a brick wall.

Faraci also repeatedly uses the word "opinion" in relation to this discussion, ostensibly suggesting that film reviews are a largely subjective affair.

Devin Faraci after realizing someone had pooped in his shoe

What is rather alarming about this piece is the way it exemplifies two very dangerous developments in our thinking about art in general and film specifically: First of all, with the all-consuming influence of the internet, the concept of the critic as an educated, informed specialist, i.e. one who has a knowledge of the subject matter far exceeding that of the general public, has been largely dismissed. With the incredible accessibility of films on DVD, Netflix, Roku and other media and the unbound potential of public discourse on the internet it all of a sudden seemed like anyone who had seen a good number of films and who could manage a blog or website could consider him or herself a film "critic." In some ways this development was and is a positive one. There are a lot of really smart, sensitive people out there whose voice has been a welcome addition to the aesthetic discussion of film as art. This also served to lessen the elitism that often seems to surround art, as if one needs to somehow be "in the know" to be able to discern what flies as good art. Though never reaching the same depths of pretentiousness as theater and visual-arts criticism, film criticism nevertheless saw its fair share of this development.

That being said, the democratization of film criticism online has largely been a negative trend, one that further threatens to devalue and marginalize film as true art. Serious discourse on film theory and the finer points of filmmaking, be they story, cinematography, directing, editing or acting, are all but absent from most discussions of film online. The notion that film is a language, a technical craft, a philosophical meditation, are all dismissed in favor of knee-jerk emotionalism where people respond mainly to spectacle rather than subtle artfulness or moments of beauty.

All of this relates to my second point which is that the philosophically inviable notion that art (and discussions about art) somehow fall within the realm of the "subjective" has now become the norm. The truly bizarre notion that reality can somehow be split up into "subjective" and "objective" realms is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of philosophy (late 17th century), one which emerges in the wake of certain Enlightenment philosophies, most notably Descartes'. It becomes entrenched in our cultural and philosophical thinking because it implicitly puts discursive rationality at the very center of all human experience and in turn makes science and technology the two primary ways in which we are to understand the way reality truly is, as opposed to the way it appears to be. Since Descartes was looking for indubitable truths he found no better ground for his epistemology than the emerging new science, especially when it was coupled with mathematics. Numbers, after all, cannot be doubted or argued. That which can be measured and quantified therefore belongs to the realm of the objective while more vague things like emotions, personal experience and wisdom are relegated to the realm of the "subjective."

Descartes, whose greatest contribution was to be wrong about everything and to look like a villain from a 1960's Disney film

This, of course, included art and (later on) the humanities as a whole. The ancients viewed art as an exploration of truth, seeing as how truth was simply a corollary of beauty. The way in which we experience the world (our being-in-the-world, to use Heidegger's term) and the way the world actually is cannot be separated in any robust fashion. What we mean by the "world" is exactly this realm of everyday experience that we are immersed in, the things we feel, touch, smell, are anxious about, dream of and hope for. For any culture before the modern Western one it would have been considered a ridiculous epistemological error to superimpose some kind of representational schema onto our experience in order to understand it, which is exactly what we moderns do with our scientific understanding. To reduce anything, be it a desk, an apple, the experience of gravity to numbers, theories, molecules, quarks or atoms is absolutely ridiculous if we are trying to understand what these things truly are. Science, of course, can be immensely valuable and sometimes (though very rarely) beautiful since it can show us a limited but powerful point of view with regards to the operational mechanisms of certain elements of experience. But it has nothing, zip, zilch, nada, to say about anything any sane human being might possibly call lived reality (unless you actually experience the computer screen you are reading this on as atoms whizzing about in a void - in which case I am either wrong about this whole thing or you need to have your head examined).

So what does this lengthy, highfalutin rant have to do with poor Armond White? Well, maybe not much, but I simply wanted to point out that there is something truly bizarre about how we have devalued and disenfranchised serious discussion and criticism about art because of philosophical developments that are impossible to argue for. I don't like Armond White at all as a critic, I think he lets his personal biases and egotistical needs for recognition and celebrity get in the way of a serious discussion. But I respect White, he knows a lot about film, certainly more than most people, he holds degrees in film and journalism and has seen more movies than you or I will probably see over a lifetime. He is a serious student of the art and knows the language of film very well. What bothers me so much about Faraci's reply is that he not only wants to dismiss White but dismiss film criticism in general, as if its nothing but subjective opinions and rants and that no one is "more right" than anyone else when it comes to film or art in general. If so then why the hell bother talking about it? If art criticism is simply like stating a preference for vanilla icecream over strawberry we can all go do something more productive with our lives and stop worrying so much about something that apparently has no meaning or consequence.

In closing: I'm not saying that art criticism isn't to some extent a matter of taste. Of course it is. That's one of the things that makes it interesting to read, to see how people's different life experiences and preferences play into their interpretation and appreciation of a work of art. But this does not mean that art is reducible to those preferences. What is amazing and powerful and wonderful about art is that it tells individual stories about individual people that reveal universal truths, that tell us something beautiful and strange and exciting about what it means to be human, that opens up realms of unexplored possibilities in order for us to live our lives in a more robust, philosophical, introspective way. Criticism of any art, including film, is a matter of trying to decipher the language of the work of art in question, to explore it and to offer it to others so they may see its nuances and subtleties. Critics most often fail at this since they let their egos get in the way and either bitch and moan about how horrible a film is (this is something I usually fall into) or they sing the praises of some over-hyped jerk simply because he or she is not making films about robots or blue people. So it's no wonder that people think that film critics, especially those as asinine as White, are nothing but windbags spouting opinions that don't matter at all. But I implore anyone who is even halfway in love with film and art to not fall into this trap, to remember that there is something good and true about art that transcends any ridiculous dichotomy between "objective" and "subjective," that talking seriously about art and reading it and interpreting it is essential to our philosophical and spiritual wellbeing as a culture and as a people.


Anonymous said...

Kudos to this piece! You have said what I have been wishing I could say for a long time now.

MDJ said...

You make some great points and I completely agree with you. However since postmodernism has abolished the very concepts of "good" and "true" it's an uphill battle to declare anything to be more substantial than mere opinion. What I took from Devin's piece was just a reminder to folks that if there's a film you love, you can continue to love that film even if some critic somewhere declares it a horrible piece of trash. I think there is an objective and subjective element to art. One can subjectively love something "bad" or recognize a great work without necessarily connecting with it. Ideally the education and cultivation of taste would diminish the distance between those two so that was is true quality ends up delivering the most pleasure and edification.

Jaydon said...

"But I respect White, he knows a lot about film, certainly more than most people, he holds degrees in film and journalism and has seen more movies than you or I will probably see over a lifetime. He is a serious student of the art and knows the language of film very well."

It's precisely because White has the tools that he should not be respected. Here is a man that could be contributing to film criticism in a meaningful way. Instead, he disingenuously plays the troll. He is not in the least interested in "talking seriously about art and reading it and interpreting it is essential to our philosophical and spiritual wellbeing as a culture and as a people." He's interested in being talked about seriously by people like us, who actually care. Fuck him.

agust symeon said...

MDJ - If one were to accept postmodernism, I guess that would be true, but as a philosophical point of view it makes absolutely no sense to me. I think truth, beauty and goodness are ontologically real and that we can (and do) experience them all the time. You make a great point with regards to the cultivation of taste and education. I think this is really where we're failing as a culture when it comes to art. We should be exposing young people to much more beautiful art, including films, at an earlier age. Enjoying and appreciating beauty in all its varied forms is essential to our spiritual growth as human beings.

Jaydon - You make a good point. I wasn't really that interested in defending White but rather responding to Faraci's article. Roger Ebert said on his Twitter page today that perhaps White should be considered a "performance artist" of some sort rather than a film critic. That makes some sense to me. Whatever merits he has as a scholar of film are often completely overshadowed by his egotistical ravings. But I definitely don't think we should dismiss film criticism per se even if we dismiss someone like White.