Mailbox: Letter from the Editor

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Posts.

A fellow editor once counseled me to get rid of our controversial film critic Armond White and replace him with anyone writing review blurbs on Netflix. “They’re usually pretty good,” he said. “And they make a lot more sense.”

The idea that a professional critic is expendable and that the horde of online hobbyists—many of them quite skilled at articulating their likes and dislikes—could fill in is a decidedly anti-intellectual stance, something we hoped vanished with the passing of the Bush presidency. For proof of what we’d miss, read White’s take this week on Spike Lee’s most recent movie, an “adaptation” of the Broadway rock musical Passing Strange. In it, he’s able to yoke together ideas of race, class and what it means to our current bi-racial president. I don’t think you’d find that on any online DVD rental site. Unfortunately, the Web mob has only grown in strength, seeking to extinguish the possibility of discussion of the film’s they claim to love.Today’s “cinephiles”—which is what these vocal commentators must believe themselves to be, since they spend an inordinate amount of their waking lives watching, reading and writing about films—need to remember that a dissenting voice does not negate their own reverence for a particular director, actor or movie.

White already discussed many similar ideas regarding the state of film criticism in an essay he wrote for us last year, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies,” in which he stated: “If the current indifference to critical thought is a tragedy, it’s not just for the journalism profession betraying its promise of news and ideas but also for those bloggers.The love of movies that inspires their gigabytes of hyperbole has been traduced to nonsense language and non-thinking. It breeds a new pinhead version of fan-clubism.”

Over the past week, however, I began to formulate my own assessment of the disappointing level of our current moshpit discussion forums. We’ve been inundated with hundreds of comments, hate emails and threats prompted by White’s review of District 9, a sci-fi film by an unknown director but produced by the Peter Jackson. In his review, White calls out director Neill Blomkamp for making “a nonsensical political metaphor” as well as saying the film “represents the sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema.” Few, if any, of the people who were enraged by the review had actually watched the movie, but that didn’t stop them attacking White for filing a negative take that registered as a blemish on the near-perfect score for the film on the online aggregating site, Rotten Tomatoes. “I’ve read a lot of movie reviews in my day (over 9000) and I have to say that this reviewer is garbage,” said one reader.

“This asshole has some sort personal grudge with the film and/or its makers and should be put to death for a display of such faggotry. He is trying to get noticed by ‘going against the grain’ of positive reviews and acting like he has something important to say. btw he is huge racist, lulz!” Another defended the film with: “Seriously, this reviewer is in no polite terms, a moron, not to mention a racist bigot and serial hypocrite.. Not only is he incredibly arrogant ‘Fools will accept District 9 for fantasy,’ but he’s also a hate-monger than feels the need to attack the film-makers on a very personal level ‘intellectually juvenile New Zealander Peter Jackson.’ The NYPress should be ashamed of itself, allowing trash like this to be published. Horrible review, horrible reviewer.”

And those were the nice, more reasonable and literate responses (there are currently more than 260 comments on soon were barraged with racist, homophobic and hateful messages that were quickly expunged. It was apparent we weren’t dealing with a rational group of film aficionados. These zealots felt hurt, their faith shaken. The mob was on the attack.

Although the fact that a simple movie could elicit such rage may appear exciting (when was the last time so many people cared so passionately about a piece of secular pop culture?), the fact is it also kills the opportunity for open debate.

I’ve been editing White’s reviews for over three years now and, although I don’t always agree with his views, I gladly admit that he’s taught me quite a bit about ways of observing, analyzing, criticizing and appreciating not only movies but our responsibility to actively participate in an informed cultural discourse. He expects more from our entertainment and expects to be more than entertained.That is a difficult position to hold, especially when there are more popular pontificators out there in the public sphere.

I enthusiastically support his agenda of openly criticizing the manipulation of Hollywood, taking on the powerful voices in today’s media landscape and consecrated geniuses. I recently asked him if he agreed with the pundits who label him as a contrarian.

He smiled and, in his sensitive way, replied, “No. Of course, I’m not a contrarian.” And I agree: I don’t think Armond White only wants to take the opposite view for its own sake. When I’ve tried to predict what he’ll write based on such a binary view, it always fails. He keeps me thinking, questioning and thoroughly engaged. And for that, I thank him. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Letters may be edited for size and form.