Armond White, if you believe the widely assumed critical narrative, is a troll.
The film critic, currently the editor of CityArts and contributor to the National Review, has perplexed and angered film fans in equal measure with his idiosyncratic pieces that seem created with the specific intention of annoying as many people as possible. Examples of his unique point of view include claims that Norbit is not only funny but a deft exploration of race, Resident Evil: Retribution is a better movie than The Master (the two were only compared because they were released in the same week), and compared 12 Years a Slave to The Human Centipede. He’s also unafraid to express his views directly to those whose work he dislikes, coming to an infamous climax where he loudly heckled Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle, calling him an “embarrassing doorman and garbage-man”. Currently he’s drawing the ire of the film community over his predictably contrary and oddly nonsensical negative review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. He’s a strange kind of troll, if he really is one, and yet there’s method to his madness that doesn’t seem out of place with the current state of criticism.
Every reviewer who has expressed an opinion that’s gone against the popular narrative has been accused of being a troll. Oh, you didn’t like The Fault In Our Stars? You’re only saying that for attention. Why do you have to ruin everybody’s fun by saying you hated The Hunger Games? You don’t actually dislike Twilight, you’re only saying that because it’s popular to do so. Going against the grain is often labelled as a deliberately obstructive act, one designed purely to get under the skin of the wider creative community, regardless of the merit of the points made. When something becomes popular, it’s usually for a pretty good reason, although said reasons can differ between commercial and critical audiences. Boyhood may have universal acclaim with critics but that doesn’t mean it’ll pull in Transformers money, and no amount of pans by the best in the business can put a dent in Michael Bay’s box office power.
It can be tempting to lash out against the lone dissenter, especially when everyone else is so steadfast in their opinion, but it can also feel a touch lonely. Everyone’s witnessed a comments section attack against the sole negative voice, or even someone who just doesn’t give 10 out of 10, and it doesn’t help to harbour a community of varied voices. When the pressure to stick with the status quo becomes overwhelming, stepping out of line means being put in the firing line, and being the big target of fan ire can be tougher if you’re not a straight cis white dude. The assumption that critics give bad reviews for attention is rather false when said attention is seldom positive.
Being contrary isn’t especially shocking given the subjective nature of criticism, but it’s the act of being deliberately and actively contrary that riles up so many. What is there to be gained from working so hard to creative critical conflict? White, for all his bombast and glee over his pot-stirring, is an immensely intelligent critic whose turns of phrase are often eloquent and truly thought provoking. Even at his barmiest, there are astute points to be made, such as his assertion that Pixar’s films are obsessed with brand consumerism. Sometimes, we need someone to just take that stand, be it as the devil’s advocate or because of genuine conviction, and the resulting conversations can change opinions or at least open up discourse beyond the same few topics. There’s a great history of this brand of critical thought in entertainment. Look at Pauline Kael and Dorothy Parker, whose influence can still be witnessed in criticism to this day. There’s real worth in being the black sheep in the room, as well as great entertainment. Nobody found Parker as interesting when she was being nice.
That’s not to say that such a point of view can always bring worthwhile discussions to the table. White’s arguments have frequently been clear examples of being contrary for the sake of it, such as his claim Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill is a comedic masterpiece (a fellow critic claimed to have been present at the screening White attended and said he didn’t laugh once). Indeed, White also has a habit of getting personal that’s more off-putting than his critical thoughts. He often admits or alludes to other critics and how his views will infuriate them, implying he does so for that reason, and his thoughts on the online film community are less than favourable. Being contrary can force a consumer to detach their personal thoughts from a piece of media and examine it critically, but the same can’t quite be said for being contrary just to irritate. There’s no real worth in baiting the people who read your work unless your sole aim is to gather as many page views as possible (given the current business model of journalism, it’s not unfeasible to imagine this).
At the end of the day, most critics just write in the hope that someone will listen, regardless of their opinion. Repeated claims that criticism is dying as the internet reigns supreme and any chump with a laptop and a blog (hi, how are you?) can set up shop and join in with a conversation previously limited to a select few don’t help. The chances are that you’ll be called a troll regardless of what you write and how you write it. It’s all about picking your targets wisely and applying your skills thoughtfully. If you want blood, go for it properly, no trolling.