Film critic uses quirky taste to set self apart
Michigan native Armond White remembers beginning the first stages of his film critic career by using the family typewriter to write about movies.
White, notorious for being a controversial critic in New York City, is a self-proclaimed lover of not only film, but music and pop culture, which he spoke about during Wednesday’s lecture, a part of the MSU Film Institutes in the Communication Arts and Sciences Building.
“This is a profession that started as my hobby, but I did study it, and sadly it seems like only in film are you allowed to criticize the form without having studied it,” White said. “There’s a difference between a blogger who reviews films and a film critic who has studied film as an art.”
During the lecture, White lived up to his reputation, discussing subjects such as how Lady Gaga’s music videos cultivate no real purpose, and although he owns one, he believes Blu-ray players are just a phase along with 3-D movies.
“I do what I do because most of the critics I encounter never say the things I think they should so that’s why I write the way I write,” White said. “Other critics don’t see what I see and don’t understand where my opinions come from.”
He concluded his lecture by surprising attendees and featuring Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video as one example of how Jackson was a talented filmmaker as well as music artist who was able to portray difficult concepts through his dance and music skills. White also recently published a book on Jackson called “Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles,” and has authored numerous other works.
“He talks about not being an elitist, and that’s nice because he writes about pop music. And I mean, how many people would have the nerve to show ‘Black and White’ and raise that as a significant film,” associate film studies professor Jeff Wray said. “It’s the controversy he brings to the table that sets him apart — he knows what he’s talking about and there’s no other critic like him.”
White also is the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, where he said he takes his role very seriously.
“I felt the state of criticism around the world was in bad shape and something needed to be done to remind people that criticism is a worthwhile profession and a profession that should be continued and perpetuated,” White said. “I want to draw attention to criticism and the circle because lately criticism has been disrespected and debased.”
After working at Wayne State University’s college paper, White graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, and credits his journalism education as molding his strong opinions, which he said don’t take into consideration the opinions of the commercial film industry or big names in Hollywood.
After graduation, he didn’t land a job in the journalism industry and decided to further his education at Columbia University. While at Columbia, he created his own films and said his teachers and close circle of friends challenged him to become the intellectual film critic he is known for being today.
“I tell it how it is and I write what a film deserves,” White said. “Liking it or disliking it is irrelevant. Understanding the intelligence and creativity is key, and too often critics dismiss films for being different.”
White watches five to 10 movies a week and said he rarely prepares for watching a new movie by reading the plot synopsis and press kits. He gives each film he views a fair chance by having an open mind and said he writes his reviews in a manner that shows whether he was interested or not.
“If the film is quirky that is what interests me. A quirky film will most likely astonish and excite me, and that’s what is beautiful about filmmaking,” White said. “There are so many different ways to tell a story, but you must be open minded to be astonished.”
Assistant film studies professor Karl Schoonover said he looks to White’s reviews for a fresh, honest outlook on new films and to open his mind about aspects of film he otherwise would not consider as key elements.
“He’s trying to differentiate himself from other critics, and it’s useful in his writings when he refers back to other films. … I’m always interested to see what he likes and dislikes and why because you can never predict his opinion,” Schoonover said.
White flies back to New York City Friday morning and plans to continue writing for as long as he is able to do so.
To learn more about the film workshops featured in the MSU Film Institutes series, visit english.msu.edu/film.