Ebert stands up for Armond White … then sits down again

Posted by · 2:35 am · August 15th, 2009

Armond WhiteI’m sure Armond White couldn’t be more thrilled with the amount of chatter about him this week, and all spurred by one solitary review to boot. It rather puts the lie to the perception that nobody cares about what critics have to say these days.

Now Roger Ebert, generally appointed by America as class captain of the critical artform, has decided to weigh in on the matter, and has come out in defence of White — only to rather confusingly revoke his support overnight.

Ebert backs up White’s take on “District 9,” agreeing with him that the film ends in “apocalyptic silliness” (Ebert’s own review heavily criticizes the third act) and praising him for both his political reading of the material and his off-the-beaten-track film references.

Finally, he stands up for White’s supposedly contrarian leanings, and in doing so, points out the stupidity of using Rotten Tomatoes as a barometer of critical worth:

More to the point is White’s reputation as a critic who “doesn’t like anything.” This is not true. It would be more accurate to say he dislikes a great many films approved of by fanboys. The last Tomatoes lynch mob raised against him was for his dislike of “Star Trek.” Man, did they hate him for that! You may be surprised to learn that White agrees (or, for that matter, disagrees) with the TomatoMeter exactly 50% of the time.

He continues:

Although I agree that the Meter is no gauge of a critic’s quality, it looks to me like White is the epitome of the ideal critic, positioned smack dab in the middle of the scale. What makes him seem so contrarian is that the movies he loves and hates are frequently not the movies most people love and hate. “Nobody has ever heard” of some of the movies he loves. Is it a flaw of a critic if he loves a film you’ve never heard of?

But after celebrating White as “an intelligent critic and a passionate writer,” whose opinion “is often valuable because it is outside the mainstream,” Ebert then does an abrupt about-face after looking a little deeper into the specific films to earn White’s cheers and jeers in recent years:

On Thursday night I posted in entry in defense of Armond White’s review of “District 9.” Overnight I received reader comments causing me to rethink that entry … I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise “Transformers 2” but not “Synecdoche, NY.” Or “Death Race” but not “There Will be Blood.” I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll. My defense of his specific review of “District 9” still stands.

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t fly, particularly from a writer as usually thoughtful as Ebert. You can’t one day commend a critic for an individualist sensibility, and the next day condemn him because it doesn’t mesh with yours, however much you find you disagree.

And it’s curious that in Ebert’s initial piece, he seemed intimate enough with the man’s work to lavish such praise on him, but then claimed ignorance of White’s well-publicized alternative views on “Transformers 2” or “There Will Be Blood.” Does he read Armond White or not? If not, fine … but then why make such a stand in the first place?

→ 25 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

25 responses so far

  • 1 8-15-2009 at 3:12 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    I’m with you 100% Guy. This whole debacle is rather silly. It’s just one guy’s opinion, and Armond isn’t exactly the only critic who disliked District 9, or even the only critic to write bizarre and sometimes nonsensical reviews (doesn’t anyone remember Victoria Alexander?).

  • 2 8-15-2009 at 6:43 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    You know what, I criticized the dude on Wednesday (or whenever that review came up) but he was actually half-right about “District 9”.

  • 3 8-15-2009 at 6:58 am

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    At the end of the day its only an opinion on a movie not Healthcare. Still I think there an agenda with the guy but Im not going to lose sleep over it.


  • 4 8-15-2009 at 7:03 am

    Harry said...

    Ebert had a change of heart. He’s a critic who loves films and when he realized that another so-called “critic” loved Deathrace (fail) and Transformers 2 (major fail), he gagged a little and changed his mind. Don’t blame him. Transformers 2, Guy. Transformers…2. barf.

  • 5 8-15-2009 at 7:31 am

    Bill said...

    I understand what went on in Ebert’s mind. If you read an Armand White review, you meet a guy who is so well-versed in the English language and the art of film that you know his taste is of the highest quality. He praises Mike Leigh and a few hidden foreign gems and is too elite for the popularly acclaimed 4 Months, There Will Be Blood, The Class, The Wrestler, etc. You realize that he is highbrow-so highbrow-that he will only reward a film with a positive review that is truly a masterpiece.

    But then you realize that he has given positive reviews to:

    Transformers 2
    Dance Flick
    Terminator Salvation
    G.I. Joe
    Land of the Lost
    I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
    and even (God help us)

    The elitist is a hypocrit. If he was consistently too good for quality films that would be one thing, but how can he justify not being too good for the films listed above? He’s just, as Ebert says, a troll. Reading one review of his (as I, and presumably Ebert, had done) leaves you with an unfinished portrait of a man who gives the thumbs up to Norbit.

    Some outlets, like the Times Literary Supplement in London, give out positive reviews extremely sparingly, usually too good for most of the films White is too good for (negative to Milk, mild for The Wrestler, etc). But the TLS doesn’t even bother to review the shitty movies Armand White likes. They’re legitimately highbrow.

  • 6 8-15-2009 at 7:34 am

    red_wine said...

    He has become a cult figure on the internet. This only works to White’s advantage as his reviews are some of the most widely read and discussed today! Any critic would love that.

    But seriously, bashing a guy because he gives bad reviews to popular films. If I were a critic, I know for a fact that I would give bad reviews to many many films that are exceedingly popular with the general public.

    And why find fault with a single guy, Transformers 2 is a global blockbuster and general audiences around the world apparently loved it enough to go for 2nd helpings. Hit on them too.

  • 7 8-15-2009 at 8:10 am

    Anthony said...

    Finding that he has given all of those horrible movies positive reviews only shows that he grades based on expectations or a scale.

    I can’t imagine that White is genuinely saying that Dance Flick or Norbit are better than The Class or There Will Be Blood, but that based on his expectations of the film they beat or failed to beat what he wanted from the film.

    If he is saying that they are legitimately better films, then he really is a troll. There’s really no argument. No rational person can say Dance Flick is better than There Will Be Blood. No one.

  • 8 8-15-2009 at 8:57 am

    aaron said...

    you smug hipster nihilists sicken me. go watch your morally bankrupt celebrations of nihilism (your there will be bloods, your dark knights) and leave the true cinema to god-fearing manly men like james bowman and armond white.

    smug. just smug.

  • 9 8-15-2009 at 9:19 am

    Chris138 said...

    Armond White’s reviews don’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s really just him rambling on and thinking up whatever he can come up with at the time, and insulting movies as much as he possibly can. I don’t know, I don’t really consider that a review.

  • 10 8-15-2009 at 9:22 am

    Georgie said...

    His District 9 review was completely off topic, and he spent too much time criticizing Peter Jackson, who didn’t even direct the film. He calls it racist, but gives positive reviews to movies like Norbit and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which, to most people, are much more offensive than D9.

    And he spends too much time attacking hipsters for being unoriginal, yet thinks that movies based off of toys and remakes are original…

  • 11 8-15-2009 at 11:34 am

    KB said...

    My goodness, Armond White looks like a nice guy in that picture. Looks can be so deceiving….

  • 12 8-15-2009 at 12:14 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    I really didn’t mind Armond until he praised the Hurt Locker only to rip and trash it when he realized that too many critics were loving it.

  • 13 8-15-2009 at 8:27 pm

    Matt said...

    If you don’t understand why Ebert retracted his statement you’re a giant tool. Armond White isn’t hated because he gives negative reviews. He’s hated because he intentionally praises bad films and bashes good films *just* to get the attention and more readers. That is called trolling, not criticism.

  • 14 8-16-2009 at 12:06 am

    Austin Lee said...

    I feel as though you completely missed Ebert’s point.

    At first, he defended White and his review of “District 9”. Assuming that people were in uproar simply over that one review, not realizing that White has done this on several occasions. However, and I agree with Ebert, White’s review of “District 9” is legit.

    When Ebert realized more of White’s track record, he wanted to rectify his post and make it clear that he does not defend White as a critic overall but defends that single review.

  • 15 8-16-2009 at 1:10 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I haven’t missed his point — I just think his retraction proves his initial piece to be somewhat disingenuous. Ebert first goes to great lengths to defend not just this one review, but White’s entire critical standing.

    One would presume he does this with the knowledge of White’s more perverse tendencies — everyone who is remotely familiar with the landscape of American criticism knows that White is the type to bash a “Blood” and hail a “Transformers.” It’s his schtick.

    So Ebert’s U-turn, and professed unawareness of such opinions, indicates that he isn’t familiar with White’s work at all — which makes his earlier, more general, defence entirely pointless.

    I like Ebert. But I think he showed himself up here.

  • 16 8-16-2009 at 7:30 am

    timr said...

    Yes Man defends No Man. Yes Man gets flak from readers, runs scared, and seeks safety in numbers. No Man continues saying “No” to whatever the prevailing opinion might be, with whatever roundabout logic comes to hand, such that whenever he’s right, it’s purely by accident, like the stopped clock that tells the time twice a day.

    I don’t get the defence of AW as an independent thinker. He’s the very opposite, because it’s impossible to believe the vast majority of his reviews aren’t calculated, bloody-minded responses to what other critics think. It’s not a matter of his line on certain movies, which does not a good or bad critic make, but his argumentation to get there. With the occasional exception like his Star Trek review, which I find fresh and cogent despite disagreeing with it, this is mechanical perversity, not maverick thinking. Witness his statement that no one who dislikes “Mission to Mars” knows anything about cinema: I personally have some time for M to M, but that’s outright crazy.

    Ebert, despite this weird about-face and 77% yes-man-ish agreement with RT, is the more “independent” voice: at least you believe he honestly likes the movies he likes. Whether anyone else agrees may give him pause, as it seems to have done here, but it doesn’t completely skew his criticism.

  • 17 8-16-2009 at 8:09 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Very well said indeed, Tim. And I do agree that Ebert’s is the more valuable voice, which is why I find it disappointing that’s he’s shown so little nerve here.

    After all, it’s not as if Ebert himself hasn’t taken flak over his career for championing unpopular fare: this is the man who described “Knowing” as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. I like him for that ballsiness, as much as I think he’s off his head.

    That opinion may well come from a more sincere place than White’s fun and games, but I can’t proclaim certainty of that, since every now and then flashes of genuine convinction shine through in White’s writing. (Plus, he does board the occasional bandwagon too — wasn’t “Happy-Go-Lucky” his favourite film of last year?)

    Anyway, I realize I’m spending far too much time defending a critic I find infuriating more often than not, but a really thoughtful comment merits a proper response.

  • 18 8-16-2009 at 8:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I should add that I fear some critical complexity has been lost in the conversation between Ebert and his readers — the list of “Armond liked/Armond hated” titles that so dismayed Ebert seemed to have been culled simply from the nuance-sucking Rotten Tomatoes red/green/good/bad ratings, which so often misrepresent a critic’s actual stand.

    God, I hate Rotten Tomatoes.

  • 19 8-16-2009 at 10:07 am

    timr said...

    You’re totally right — I’m caricaturing White a bit. (Though hopefully not so much as the RT crowd.) There are good insights here and there, like in that “Star Trek” piece, where I think he has a sorta valid case against Abrams’ televisual style. But even there, how is he to square this with “Happy-Go-Lucky”, surely the epitome of televisual (in a way that doesn’t bother me at all, but, er, Armond?)? What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.

    It’s this slipshod arguing that scuppers his writing most for me, and these circular equations he’s always making. Like, how many times have we heard him say, “X is true cinema, Y is not. Z is like Y, therefore Z sucks”. (X is usually something by Spielberg.) He doesn’t explain that position in a way you can grab on to, just recapitulates it again and again.

    For all this, and maddened though I invariably am by it, I should admit I’m actually glad his voice exists! He does get me thinking about what constitutes good criticism.

  • 20 8-16-2009 at 10:51 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “X is usually something by Spielberg.”

    Oh, it’s funny ’cause it’s true!

    And yes to your last paragraph … after all, when was the last time a critic was the subject of any media scrutiny at all?

  • 21 8-21-2009 at 12:44 am

    Smith said...

    Armond White is a troll, pure and simple. He waits to review films until other critics have posted their reviews just to see which films get the most or least praise/positive reviews.

    If a movie gets majority positive reviews, Armond will be the “independent”, “alternate” voice that says it sucks. If a film gets mostly negative reviews he will be the “brave” critic who liked what 99% of everyone else thought was shit.

    He knows damn well that this gets him attention and he relishes it (he even admitted in a New York magazine profile that he loves the attention he gets for his reviews) the publicity – good or bad. He is absolutely loving the fact that Ebert called him a troll – more attention for media whore Armond White and more page views for the usually insignificant NY Press website.

    This is his shtick which is what makes him unprofessional and a troll. If people did the right thing and ignored him he would go away but a lot of the fanboys who freak out over his “reviews” aren’t that smart. He is baiting them for attention and they are too stupid to realize it.

  • 22 8-21-2009 at 12:49 am

    Smith said...


    Forgot to add the biggest give-away that he is a troll:

    When he first saw it, he raved “The Hurt Locker.” He even called it one of the best films of the year. However, once it got more and more favorable reviews, he started referring to it as the “overrated Hurt Locker.” It’s tough to to be a “contrarian” if his fellow critics have the same views he does, right?

  • 23 1-11-2010 at 8:37 pm

    James said...

    Armond White is a troll and Ebert recognized it after further analysis. Wanting to know if Ebert “reads” Armond White or not is simplistic reductionism. Like many people Ebert may have read some of White’s reviews, but not all. He went back and looked at more and saw the true troll. The idea that someone can’t change their mind for good reasons is what makes this article stupid.

    Bill’s comments above were spot on.

  • 24 3-24-2010 at 2:16 am

    subbyb said...

    Armond White does not review according skill or entertainment value but cultural/moral/edifying value, according to his own values. (which is pretty consistent)

    It’s pretty simple.

    Some people don’t think that is the critics jo, others do.

    Armond White though considers Ebert to be a critical hack, and in fact considers him to represent everything that is wrong with contemporary movie criticism. So the whole idea of Ebert defending White is not only ironic but really revealing of Eberts shallowness and ignorance.

  • 25 2-02-2011 at 1:49 am

    S.W. said...

    Let me get this straight: you think that Ebert is SHALLOW for defending something on its own merit rather than taking a rhetorical view on someone who obviously dislikes him. He’s ignorant for actually being open-minded?
    According to your implied preference for Armond White’s “moral and edifying” values, you should be utterly ashamed with yourself right now. Ebert’s calculated response in the defense of logic’s merit should trigger off a cascade of sympathy in your anti-nihilist worldview.