Armond White is the movie critic for National Review. In 2010, as then-chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, he addressed the group’s annual award banquet. Moviedom VIPs attended: Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, others. None liked what they heard.
An essay based on that talk appeared afterward in First Things under the title “Do Movie Critics Matter?”
Most editors and publishers today cut out or limit criticism’s traditional media function. Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.
The audience did not want to be told that critical thinking about film—their films—was in crisis. Or that press plaudits owed less to cultured reflection than to corporate interests:
In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content.
He added this thrust: “Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.”
The Movies—Mirrors and Makers of Culture
What we call the movies has exploded into an amalgam of variants unimagined in the days of D. W. Griffith. The term is now a gargantuan umbrella that covers more than Hollywood goods. It shelters a vast supply of videos, TV series, streaming services—all the metastasizing works of entertainment/communications conglomerates that control upwards of ninety percent of U.S. media.
In sum, the movies dominate culture now more than ever before. This colossus is the filtration system that shapes our shared beliefs and practices while it presumes to reflect them. Culture comes to us today on a screen. That comprehensive delivery apparatus, a spawn of entertainment, has consequences. Even newscasting arrives as cinema, staged against a full color backdrop and recited by celebrity anchors. Inevitably, an air of diversion attaches to serious matters.
Film criticism tilts toward promotion of ideological fashion and commercial interests rather than acting in counter to them. Contemporary criticism’s guiding principle inclines toward a positionless posture that substitutes the industry-flattering habit of appreciation for judgment. All dogs go heaven. It is a merchandisable dogma.
White’s disdain for industry-stroking retreat from judgment yields clear verdicts. His zest for distinguishing reality from sentimentality— the snake oil of entertainment value—is a needed social service.
White’s affirmations are as reasoned as his censures. What follows are samplings of the latter simply because they illustrate his contrarian eye for gall and wormwood. And they are fun to read.
Avatar: the Way of Water (2022), sequel to Avatar (2009), is the third highest grossing movie in film history. America, the Jesuit flagship, endorses its sci-fi loathing of “vulgar, rapacious, militarized capitalist destruction.” White has nothing against cogent sci-fi. It is director James Cameron’s “tech-nerd inanity” that earns dismissal as “an extension of adolescent comic-book delirium.”
It is anti-intellectual, and the corrupt media has gone along with his infantilizing scam.
. . . Avatar had weak-minded folks wishing to live in Neverland/Pandora, portending the susceptibility of Black Panther fans seeking plane tickets to Wakanda. The Way of Water perpetuates the geopolitical displacement by which Hollywood keeps us docile — as when celebs sell Ukraine as the new site of global interests.
Consider America’s review of The Banshees of Inisherin. The magazine was entranced by “the dark Catholic imagination of Martin McDonagh” which “serves up sad enough stuff to leave us crying in our beer. But first we laugh.” America takes at face value McDonagh’s own self-admiring cue to reviewers: “It’s a really beautiful film, with brilliant performances. And it’s funny . . . but it’s sad. No one really tries to make sad films any more.”
By contrast, White zeroed in on the “hip nihilism” that turns the calamity of social division into kiss-me-I-am-Irish fakelore:
All that explains the film’s high profile and acclaim during awards season is that McDonagh mirrors vaguely recognizable “global reset” dread and social antagonism. I concur with the critic [unnamed] who saw through McDonagh’s sarcastic friendlessness as brutalizing. The director doesn’t do much to relieve misery or our current existential crisis. That’s why The Banshees of Inisherin feels like both an X-ray of contemporary malaise and a betrayal of Irish romance.
The White Lotus is, as they say, trending. But White’s rambunctious demurral wants none of its conventional ugly American clichés. Nor any of its smug patronizing of “non-white observers of white folks’ folly.”
Thinking that HBO’s salacious hit series is to be enjoyed for satire is a mistake made by conservatives who think like liberals. They misconstrue the show’s “dark” humor, cosseting its audacity — the power of the political Left to shape pop culture and put across sinister beliefs as entertainment.
. . . . The ultimate paradox of conservative reviewers praising The White Lotus’s anti-conservatism proves what critic Gregory Solman called “political aphasia”: They can watch the show’s odious, partisan characterizations and tell themselves, “That’s not me.”
White weighs films against each other. A comparative approach, it is anchored on a stable center against which the significance of the product can be gauged. His column on this year’s Best Picture nominees cuts to the core of things: “Quality of candidates no longer matters; the idea is to subtly re-engineer the standards of choice.”
The film industry deludes itself into thinking that the least it does — signified by the overpriced and preposterously promoted Avatar: The Way of Water — is the best it can do.
. . . . These nominees are the result of a scavenger hunt conducted by the Academy’s 10,000 DIE (Diversity, Inclusion, Equity) members who seem to have lost moviegoing passion. They pay attention only to films touted by media that are committed to either box-office success or political trends.
In sum, White is a serious critic of an influential genre in unserious times. He risks assessment over consensus:
If criticism is to have a purpose beyond consumer advice, it is important that critics not follow trends . . . . Without using morality, politics, and cultural continuity as measures of value, there is no way to appreciate the state of the culture or to maintain intelligence. Without criticism, we will have achieved naiveté.
This why resolute criticism matters. And why we read reviews even of movies we do not watch.