Over at Spout, resident list-meister Christopher Campbell notes that New York Press critic Armond White's pan of District 9 has led fanboys to raise the roof both at the NYP site and elsewhere, and gathers reactions from the film blogosphere, some of it predictably negative. But a few folks—including John Lichman, even!—come to A.W.'s defense. "I'll be willing to put down money that 7/8ths of the crowd denouncing his District 9 review didn't even bother to look up You, The Living in terms of his comparison." Nope, I won't take that bet. Jen Yamato says "even when I disagree with his reaction to a film...I understand why he feels so strongly." And Campbell himself says "the important thing is that he's an interesting read, and not just for how against-the-grain he is. Even if he is ever anti-majority just to be anti-majority, he presents reasonable arguments and raises necessary points by doing so."
In their eagerness to make lemonade out of lemons, these boosters ignore a few salient points. The first being White's problematic relationship to the English language. Here's a challenge. Tell me what this sentence, from White's review of the new version of The Taking of Pelham 123, means: "Audiences who enjoyed the original 1974 Pelham 123took its grungy dangerousness as a realistic confirmation of their own citizens' distrust." Now here's the rub: I don't want to know what you think it means, what you infer it means when you put it through your own personal White decoder ring, no; I want to know what the words in the sentence as they are actually written actually mean. As, you know, an actual copy editor would understand them. Because an actual copy editor would tell you that the sentence is gibberish. (You get at least two of these every time White goes over 1,000 words, by the way.) But I suppose that some crafty White defender could break out the Borges, and claim that White "has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by way of a new technique..."
Then, of course, there's the "reasonable" argument via non-sequitur, as witness this, from his pointless defense of G.I. Joe: "It's a self-protective reflex by which they'll praise undistinguished junk like Wanted, 3:10 To Yuma and Drag Me To Hell to defend Hollywood's routine, commercial U.S.S. Enterprises." No, don't worry, I'm not gonna ask anyone to parse that. And, yes, the "they" referred to therein are "politically unconscious movie critics" and where the "politically" fits in I have no idea. No, I just want to know why the hell White is bringing up 3:10 To Yuma. Do YOU know? (And yes, I think bringing up You, The Living in the context of District 9 is equally nonsensical.)
Then of course there's the sub-theme of every White review, which is that every other critic is a moral degenerate and an aesthetic cretin. And it is this judgement that explains the, well, seeming arbitrariness as to what he elects to condemn and what he elects to celebrate. He wrote of Star Trek and Wolverine: "Their only purpose: teaching audiences to watch movies crudely, as teenagers, as a boy. At that, [they] succeed damnably." And as for G.I. Joe: "With G.I. Joe, we don't have to put on that we're above trash—after all, it's based on a Hasbro toy and a popular animated TV series for kids." Before you say "Huh?", just check out the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings of the above-cited pictures. They'll tell you most of what you need to know.
I understand that Lichman, Yamato, Campbell and many others yearn for a truly provocative contrarian to shake things up in the movie criticism world. That they have to settle for this intellectually fraudulent, baseline incompetent lout is sadder for them, I guess, than it is for the rest of us.
Actually, the real reason I wanted to write this—and obviously I got rather carried away, as is my wont—is because of something Campbell wrote that I found kind of sweet and moving. "I will admit that when I began writing film reviews many years ago, I looked up to White more than anyone and even gave myself the nickname 'The Film Cynic'...because I was a more negative and cynical person back then, and also, I honestly admit, because I thought it'd help me get controversially noticed."
I read that, and after asking myself, "Yeah, where HAVE all the copy editors gone?" (because I'm still a negative and cynical person), I recalled how everybody in this game does sorta stupid stuff when they're first starting out. And it occurred to me, in the spirit of generosity and fellow-feeling that transcends differences of opinion and petty bickering, that it would be fun to share the very dumbest thing I ever did when I myself first started writing criticism.
I was a freshman at William Paterson College in the fall of 1977, and shortly after submitting my epic interview with The Ramones, conducted in the backstage area of Dover's The Show Place, I was assigned by the arts editor of the school paper, The Beacon, to cover the afternoon jazz and classical concerts sponsored by the school's music department. Which was pretty damned distinguished. Raymond Des Roches, a professor there, was a founder of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, which brought the world premiere of Charles Wuorenin's Percussion Symphony to WPC. Our jazz faculty was among the nation's finest, and boasted trumpeter/composer Thad Jones as an instructor. One of my earliest assignments was to cover a recital by the very well-renowned quintet that Jones co-led with drummer Mel Lewis.
At the time I didn't know shit about jazz. As a self-constructed weirdo, I had listened to some Ornette, and pretty much only the farthest-out of Coltrane (Ascension really drove my parents up the wall), but a real antipathy to anything trad had built up during my last couple of years of high school, wherein some of my best friends were fans of both Chicago and Maynard Ferguson. Also, I was a real screw-you punk rock kid. And that's the state of mind in which I went to see Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
The review I wrote, which I'm rather relieved not to have at hand to quote generously from, was one of the greatest farragos of ignorant nonsense ever to be published at any time, anywhere. Still hip-deep in Maynard Ferguson resentment, I sneered at Thad Lewis' "blaring" trumpet. I punkishly turned my nose up at "sentimental" song titles such as "Children Are Pretty People." And, most hilariously stupid of all, I criticized the size of Mel Lewis' drum kit, mocking it as too small and as looking like "the Kenner toy kit that your little brother got for Christmas."
Man. Did I ever get it in the neck from every jazz student at William Paterson College, and deservedly so. Remembering it now, I'm actually shocked that I was allowed to continue writing for the award-winning paper at all, let alone that I eventually made it to arts editor. I did learn from the experience. A pretty simple lesson: don't mouth off when you haven't the slightest idea of what the fuck you're talking about. I mean, yeah, it sounds like a simple lesson, right? And yet...