Sunday, March 21, 2010

Commentary: On Armond White's "Greenberg" Problem

I should start with some background on the Armond White vs. Noah Baumbach thing. Movieline does the full play-by-play here, but it boils down to this: Armond White, as anyone who has tracked with him at all is acutely aware, is a contrarian asshole who hates everything that’s good and loves everything that’s bad. (Don’t believe me? Check out his Rotten Tomatoes profile, or just take a peek at this handy-dandy chart.) He’s made gifted filmmaker Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming”, “The Squid and the Whale”) a frequent target, most notably in this passage at the end of his review of “Mr. Jealousy”:

“I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [former Voice critic Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.”

So yeah, there’s a chance that perhaps crosses a line.

As a result, Mr. White was not invited to the first New York critics screening of Baumbach’s latest, ”Greenberg”. Here’s where the stories split; the film’s publicist, Leslee Dart, says that it was always her intention to invite White to a later screening; he claims he was never invited “until their ban was made public.”Either way, White insisted that his First Amendment rights were being infringed.

His resulting piece for “The New York Post,” “My Greenberg Problem—and Yours,” must be read to be believed. He paints himself as the victim of a vast conspiracy, orchestrated by Baumbach, Dart, “The Village Voice”’s J. Hoberman, and (I guess) every critic who had the temerity to like one of Baumbach’s films. Oh, and everyone is a racist for thinking he’s an insane person, because he’s black. Or something. ANYHOO, here’s my letter to the editor in response:

Jerry Portwood
Editor, New York Press

Mr. Portwood-

Armond White’s delusional, self-important screed “My Greenberg Problem—and Yours” is somewhat remarkable; it manages to encompass everything that is loathsome and hateable about your cause célèbre critic in a mere 2,252 words, seemingly without even trying. If I may, I’d like to add a few of my own—as a fellow critic, albeit a lower-paid one that occasionally dares to praise good films and critique bad ones.

The trouble with the quote in question, from the 1998 review of Mr. Jealousy, is not that “its impact is in your inference,” it’s that it’s so obliquely written that no one can seem to come to a consensus as to exactly what the hell it means. This is a danger with Mr. White’s particular writing style; since he has made it his mission to function not as a tastemaker but as a contrarian, bucking critical trends, taking down well-reviewed pictures and elevating tripe, he is forced to overthink and overwrite his resulting discourses. White is clearly a smart guy, so the kind of communicative handsprings required to pawn off a positive review of garbage like Norbit or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry as well-considered appraisals (rather than knee-jerk antithesis) can result in a muddying of the prose. White looks at his quote and denies that he was calling for a retroactive abortion. Others look at the same quote and say that he was. Maybe it’s just bad writing?

But there’s plenty more where that came from, and one need only scan further into White’s messy declaration to find it. He takes broad, vindictive swipes at J. Hoberman; the latter’s esteemed reputation as a writer of note, it can be inferred from the pettiness and venom of White’s attacks, appears to genuinely get your troll’s goat. Sadly, he proclaims himself the victim of “a racist lynching by white critics,” a cheap, lazy playing of the race card in a situation where the race of the players couldn’t have less bearing on the matter at hand. He even succumbs to Godwin’s Law, howling in anguish at “Hoberman and his (Georgia) brown shirts” and announcing that “this is how fascists operate, attempting to besmirch opponents and write them out of history.”

But perhaps the saddest portion of the piece is his theory as to why Baumbach’s works are well-reviewed by pretty much every other major critic working today, including Hoberman. To wit:

“Hoberman’s film culture dominance exemplifies the nepotism and personal favors that rule the critical network in New York, if not across the country. Like some nefarious, shadowy dictator in a Fritz Lang silent, Hoberman’s influence (as NYU instructor to the Times’ Manohla Dargis and innumerable Internet clones) stretches from coast to coast, institution to institution. He’s the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism… Dart and Hoberman would prefer a film culture that caters to cronyism, always promoting “one of ours”—as when Baumbach’s post-grad employer The New Yorker allowed Bruce Dione, Baumbach’s former boss, to write the magazine’s positive review of Kicking and Screaming. That same dispensation happened with the media’s treatment of Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding… It exposes the hidden conspiracy by him and his backward children (you know who you are) to control film discourse. They give Baumbach the acclaim and attention withheld from less well-connected indie filmmakers. Their defense of Baumbach disguises their reluctance to engage this writer in a forthright discussion of aesthetics; it’s basically a witch hunt.”

Or… or… and I’m just spit-balling here… it could be that the reason Noah Baumbach’s films are well-reviewed are because Noah Baumbach makes good movies. I’m not one of Hoberman’s “backward children” (unless, contrary to Mr. White’s assertion, I don’t know who I am), but I gave the film a high rating and favorable review because I found it witty, smart, challenging, and entertaining. I don’t review with an agenda, but based on my emotional and intellectual response to the work. I’m funny like that.

But does this argument hold true for all of the other fine films that this broad, media-controlling “they” dared to praise, in spite of Mr. White’s clear assessments of the flaws therein? Did we all just get together and let Hoberman dictate to us that The Dark Knight and The Wrestler and Zodiac and In The Loop and Star Trek and Wall-E and Up in the Air and A Prophet and Shutter Island and Precious and An Education and Inglourious Basterds and District 9 were good films? What’s more, what kind of a vast conspiracy prevented us from seeing, as Mr. White did, the hidden genius of Transformers 2 and Dance Flick and Transporter 3 and Death Race and How She Move?

The short answer is, there isn’t one. White clearly couldn’t care less about contributing to a real dialogue in film culture—he aims to be a provocateur, and nothing more. At the end of his rant, he contends that “To the unbiased, I am known as a critic who speaks truth to power.” Apparently, in this context, “unbiased” means “lacking in anything resembling good common sense.” But it’s a telling line; by claiming to speak “truth to power,” his insistence on bucking trends and casting his lot on the far side of good taste (quality of the work in question be damned) is laid bare as his primary motivation.

White closes with a dire (and, let’s be frank, uproariously ham-handed) warning. “Don’t get it twisted,” he writes, “this Greenberg squabble is not about me, it’s about the contempt that the Leslee Darts of this world show toward critics and that Hoberman displays to competition. If they can do this to me, they can do it to you.” And again, with the “they”s and the paranoia; it’s all rubbish. The title of his article notwithstanding, White’s “Greenberg problem” is his, and his alone.

-jason bailey


  1. Nice response.

    There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in the notion that, for a publicist or a director or anybody to say, "No, you can't see my movie for free," that this is censorship. White can easily write about it all he wants, he can see whatever movie he wants, just not on Baumbach's dime if Baumbach chooses. As a reviewer myself, of course
    I don't want to be barred from seeing a screening; as a creator, however, I'd be lying if I claimed I never asked my publisher not to send someone my books. Why waste the stock when the writer in question clearly has a fundamental dislike of what I do? (And those guys never got personal the way White does.) It's not like they still expect him to write about Greenberg, they know the ink they are sacrificing. That's the real trade. I give you my product, you review it, I take my chances; I stop giving you my product, I don't get what comes with it.

    Most interesting to me, though, is for someone who is claiming racial insensitivity, he uses the phrase "Indian-giver." But then, that just reinforces that his standards for what is right or fair only apply to him, his behavior is above reproach and everyone else be damned.

  2. Well-put, Jamie. And I almost dug into the first portion, but decided it was too personal and not really relevant; but I've been trying, for MONTHS now, to get on the screening lists, and there are scores of movies I don't get to see for free. And for this guy to bitch and moan about the one time he didn't get invited to one is far more of an indictment of his immersion in the critical/media bubble than anything Jim Hoberman might ever say or do or write.

    And I really wish I hadn't already sent this in to NY Press, or I would have totally stolen your point about the "Indian-giver" thing.