Monday, March 29, 2010

Armond White and The Greenberg Problem

The following piece, like Armond White's notorious review, only barely touches on the film in question. Accordingly, the Spoiler Threat Level is green.

How do you solve a problem like Roger Greenberg? Armond White isn’t interested.

In a fascinating debacle of life imitating art and the journalist becoming his own story, New York Press film critic and NY Film Critics Circle chair Armond White has launched himself into the position of being the most-discussed aspect of Noah Baumbach's new film. It started when White was allegedly "disinvited" from a press screening of Greenberg and an anonymous email began circulating calling for a critical boycott of the film as a response to the (alleged, again) censorship.

Or maybe it started in 1998, when White suggested that Baumbach's mother ought to seek "retroactive abortion" - a quip White has recently tucked between his legs, claiming it's "not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference." Or maybe it started much earlier, when White and Baumbach's mother Georgia Brown (film critic at the Press' opposition Village Voice) had a running feud that culminated on live radio with White, as he so often does, pulling his race card.

Several people have entered the debate, which has been more-or-less put to rest with White's inevitable screed against Baumbach and his films. In his piece at the Press, White posits himself as a lone warrior, a martyr in the futile battle between publicists and critics for free speech. In what he terms the "Greenberg problem", White discusses the rampant isolation of critics from their proper pedestals and throws around accusations of Nazism, fascism and communism.

He's unhinged, and he's losing much of what little cachet he had left as a responsible, intelligent critic. The best response I've read to all this is Walter Chaw's "Armond Hammer" post at the Film Freak Central blog. I agree with Chaw in several respects, most crucially in regard to this notion that if only we had more critics speaking their mind instead of the gospel of the press release - and if we had more respect for criticism as a viable art/science - White wouldn't seem nearly as crazy as he does.

White was responsible for the most high-profile take-down of Precious, something for which I want to hold him in high regard. One man's insane rant is another man's sermon.

But re-reading White's "review" after seeing the film in question - a relatively quiet, simple story to have stirred up all this gunk - it's pretty clear that for all the talk of critical dialogue and free speech, White barely seems to have watched the (admittedly imperfect) film at all. I'd also say that for a writer who so frequently brings up issues of race (White calls J. Hoberman's reprinting of White's own words a "racist lynching by white critics of a black critic"), he's hedging unbearably close to anti-Semitism. In comparing Greenberg to Zelig, he draws a dangerous link between Greenberg's ethnicity (and the character, onscreen, explicitly eschews his Jewish heritage) and his social standing. Also, if I were Armond White, I'd try not to use phrases like "Indian-giver".

Greenberg has, arguably, two protagonists. Ben Stiller is a self-possessed jerk who gets involved with a girl who's unhealthily submissive, both sexually and emotionally. It's a pretty honest portrayal of both types - you'll likely cringe at the way he treats her. I don't think it's incidental that Baumbach opens his story with Greta Gerwig's Florence and doesn't introduce Roger for about fifteen minutes. We're meant to sympathize with both of our very-flawed heroes, but to suggest that the film "coddles" Roger Greenberg is simply inaccurate. Greenberg is an asshole, to be sure, and if there's something I truly admire about Baumbach's films it's his relentless posing of the asshole as the hero through the prism of daring semi-autobiography. To view his work as a whole, you might say Baumbach's thesis is "Assholes are people, too." The challenge of his films, and some (The Squid and the Whale) are more successful at this than others (Margot at the Wedding), is in engendering sympathy for a jerk. To dismiss the entire body of work as a lionization of anti-social behavior and a series of love letters to a bunch of pricks is, well, dismissive.

For White to assert, as he so often has, that Baumbach is himself an asshole ("You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole. I would say it to his face.") represents either a totally cross-wired auteurist theory or a trans-generational grudge. Did The New Yorker run a review of a Baumbach film written by a friend and former employer of Baumbach himself? If so, that's probably a conflict of interest and it likely shouldn't have gone to print. But for White to suggest that scenario as a violation of journalistic ethics while at the same time freely admitting to his decades-long grudge with Baumbach's mother seems exposing of a deep hypocrisy.

This all brings me back to a point that Walter Chaw put better and more succinctly. White is a crazy, raving loon and also a crucial member of the critical community. We need more like him and we need more people in intelligent oppostition to him. But in refusing to take the film on its own merits, White is falling on his own sword and letting the publicists win.


  1. I didn't like the movie all that much - I couldn't find anyone in it worth liking or rooting for. But Armond White is such a jerk, I hate to agree with him about anything, if I can possibly avoid it. The piece of this that makes his actual film criticism lose all weight, in my mind, is the fact of his longstanding feud with Baumbach's mom. In light of that, there's no way to read his criticism as anything other than the product of a bizarre vendetta. I'm not against polarizing critics, and certainly see value in a minority opinion (no pun intended), but again this doesn't even seem to be about the film.