You can’t choose how you fall in love with someone, and with Roger Ebert, it was the most unlikely of all places: his review of the movie Tomb Raider. The movie was universally dismissed by critics — because it wasn’t very good — but Ebert was unabashed in the pleasure he got from it. Here was a man who went to the movies not to be part of the crowd but for the singular experience of one’s connection to the screen. What we like will be unique to us, and Ebert had a way of expressing his passion in a way that reminded you why you went to the movies — even when he championed movies you thought were crap. His review of Knowing still makes me scratch my head four years later.
Yet as often as I disagreed with his take, Ebert made me see something in the movies he loved and hated that I’d never considered before. Mr. Ebert saw the beauty in the mundane and the art in trash, a genuine Russ Meyer fan. He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain and his Ebertfest was founded for that very reason: to give overlooked movies a second chance. To me, this is what a critic is. A true critic elevates, giving voice to that singular experience not to argue but to be part of a conversation on film. It’s not about being right or having the final say but about creating a culture where people are engaged with their entertainment, where they think for themselves about what they see. Even if you disagree with his critiques of violence in Blue Velvet and The Raid: Redemption, Ebert’s dissenting opinion adds something to the discourse.
Ebert, to me, signifies the difference between a critic and a troll. Often called “contrarians,” a troll isn’t interested in discussion. A troll only wants to knock down the opinions of others and to tell you why your opinions are wrong and why his are superior. A troll wants to go against the consensus for the sheer purpose of rebellion, an anti-establishment view that doesn’t achieve anything more than getting attention. These trolls devalue criticism, making film theory into nothing greater than a giant pissing contest, less a discussion than an argument. This also makes it difficult for those with genuine critiques of well-liked movies to go against the grain — because they are just seen as fucking up the consensus. In a world of Rex Reeds, it’s hard to have your own opinion without being labeled a troll yourself.
While he was still alive, Ebert’s archnemesis was Armond White, the CityArts film critic whose takedowns of There Will Be Blood and The Dark Knight have achieved a level of infamy. Mr. Reed himself has courted similar controversy over the years, like this year’s Identity Thief review, but Reed is nothing if not dependable. Rex Reed likes his movies a very certain way — with old-fashioned, David Lean-style filmmaking — and anything avant-garde or post-modern he’s likely to trash. You know what you’re getting with Rex Reed, and people who share his tastes are likely to tune in. White is notoriously unpredictable, using his platform as a bully pulpit. Mr. White gets off on telling you that Hollywood trash was better than your favorite movie, which is why he told America that A Thousand Words is better than Argo. He wants to piss you off.
In a strange way, Armond White is reminiscent of Pauline Kael, the godmother of film criticism. Kale notoriously couldn’t be bought, and her pans of beloved films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, West Side Story and The Graduate are still legendary. I agree with none of her takes on those movies and consider 2001 to be one of the greatest films ever made. However, reading her opposing views on these classics simply reminds me why I like them so much, and the best critics exhibit these same qualities. I don’t know what I think about a movie until I (internally) argue with A.O. Scott or Andrew O’Hehir about it in my brain. I would hate to live in a world where we all agree all the time, and I find the idea of an 100% Tomatometer boring, as if the movie were in a glass case. No one wants to break it.
Armond White is notorious for shattering the Tomatometer, and if not for a smattering of other critics who didn’t like 12 Years a Slave, White would have been the lone wolf. These reviews get Mr. White press and traffic to his website, which is why you’ll see no links to his work here. White’s work thrives off the negative attention, which is why his negative review of 12 Years a Slave isn’t just mean. It’s deplorable, sharpening his own contrarian ax against the grind of slavery. White gets stuck on the use of torture in Steve McQueen’s work, comparing the movie to The Human Centipede and Hostel. It doesn’t matter to Mr. White that the horrors of actual slavery were much worse than a movie. Its violence makes it undeserving of a proper review.
White’s write-up of the movie is light on actual criticism and is heavy on self-congratulatory masturbation, as if film criticism existed to watch Armond White pleasure his own ego. Mr. White believes that one of the most powerful movies ever made about the slave experience doesn’t exist for education but “career advancement,” as if that’s what Henry Louis Gates could have possibly been thinking of. White’s basic problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it’s not the movie he would have made, as he finds the movie sadomasochistic and apolitical. However, what White seems not to understand is that the movie’s very existence is its politics. Getting a brutal two-plus hour slave movie made in a system that only wants robots and sexy dead people is a war cry against the establishment, one that should resonate with White.
The movie isn’t torture for the sake of torture. The brutality of 12 Years a Slave is a reminder of the poisoned blood that courses through our history’s veins, and at every turn McQueen reminds us that its legacies are with us today. Although folks like Paula Deen live in a world where the plantation South had a quaint grandeur, Mr. McQueen rebukes those ideas. He argues that America’s lingering system of racial exploitation is its downfall, and McQueen forces us to be present to that abuse. His camera might be still, in unbroken long takes that seem to last forever, but his politics are anything but. McQueen will likely take home an Oscar for his work here, the first black filmmaker to win Best Director — in 2013. Only two have ever been nominated.
Although the movie is rightly being championed as the best film of the year, the most sobering voice of dissent isn’t White, the visible troll. It’s a critic who liked the film, New York magazine’s ever-erudite David Edelstein. Edelstein’s review of 12 Years a Slave is a reminder to me why I’m a critic. Mr. Edelstein raises necessary criticisms about McQueen’s distance in the film. According to Edelstein, the director’s shots, as in Shame and Hunger, are “high-toned, mythic, frieze-dried” and lacking emotional complexity and humanism. However, Edelstein finds little depth to his “stark, deterministic” imagery, saying that he would enjoy the director’s work me if he “thought [McQueen] were searching for something more than his characters’ reactions to extreme degradation.”
What’s interesting about Edelstein’s review is that his criticism of McQueen’s imagery, where he stages scenes like tiny dioramas of claustrophobia, is exactly why I liked the film. I hated Shame, the director’s previous work, because it seemed like the film never got to know its main character. It was oddly un-interested in who Brandon was. However, McQueen’s cold camerawork is the perfect juxtaposition to John Ridley’s intimate screenplay. Rather than going over-the-top, McQueen let the scenes themselves speak for him. The long takes don’t speak of passivity but allow the film to unfold as if it were real life — because it was. This is just a movie, and McQueen’s film gives history the chance to look back at us.
Even though I don’t agree with David Edelstein, I don’t need him to be wrong for me to be right. Mr. Edelstein does what a critic should: ask questions. A critic must be honest, even when the truth hurts a little, and if the movie is worth our praise, it will survive the interrogation. 12 Years a Slave will live on as one of the best of the decade, and Armond White will be forgotten. For now, Armond White is getting the negative attention he deserves. However, eventually the attention dies and history will decide. I highly doubt it will be as redemptive for White as it has been for Solomon Northup.