Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you

Editor's note: this column was originally published as a part of a series of articles about The Social Network at The Junior Varsity.

The main character is tragic; at once both simplistic and infinitely complicated. He clearly wants to be recognized for his brilliance, but his grating manner of interpersonal communication ultimately separates him from those with whom we suspect he'd most like to connect.

Obviously, I am referring to New York Press film critic Armond White, renowned Rotten Tomato/Metacritic spoiler, and one of the isolated professional film reviewers to dismiss David Fincher's latest directorial effort, The Social Network.

What I, along with most professional critics and a modest majority of filmgoers, saw in The Social Network was an expertly told (albeit fictionalized) character study of real-life Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, as played by Jesse Eisenberg and scripted by Aaron Sorkin, is an antihero that alienates the few people close to him during his single-minded effort to create what would become the defining social digital phenomenon of the decade. It is beautifully encapsulated in the final shot; without spoiling it, a simple repeated act and well-chosen song beg the question of what our fictionalized Zuckerberg gained and lost in the creation of Facebook, but also, what all of us gain and lose by participating in any of the digital networks that have evolved in the past several years.

I enjoyed the film, as I have much of Fincher's work, specifically Zodiac, as it tells a story with an intelligence, grace, and sophistication rarely seen in major Hollywood releases. I wouldn't go so far as to call Social Network an instant classic, but I have no qualms saying it's among the best studio films of 2010 so far.

That is my opinion. I formed it after seeing the film, taking it all in, reflecting on what I've seen, and in part letting my own life experiences shape what I felt about what I saw on screen. I do have some previous biases towards Fincher and Eisenberg, but tried to judge The Social Network on its own merits, which I felt were numerous.

Armond White, however, would disagree.

He doesn't read The Social Network as a cautionary tale. He sees it as a celebration of calculated capitalism that glorifies a character otherwise universally interpreted as both tragic and unapologetic. White sees the fictionalized Zuckerberg as a justification for an online community that he (perhaps appropriately) dismisses as uninformed and vulgar. Following outcries over his negative reviews of The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3, and Inception, White went so far as to pen a column dismissing the ever-growing phenomenona of message boards and sarcastic blogs that mindlessly rally around tentpole pictures, and ratings sites that dilute film criticism down to a game of pure numbers and percentages.

I mostly agree with those general sentiments. Coming from Mr. White, however, they are... peculiar.

White's célébrité stems from his infamously contrarian reviews of popular cinema, often favoring smaller independent films over their big-budget counterparts. Preferring the art-house to the box office isn't new or noteworthy. What is, however, and what makes him truly infamous, is his inconsistency.

Last year, Roger Ebert came to White's defense following a negative review of District 9,stating that White's comments of empty symbolism were appropriate (sentiments I likewise stated in one of my early reviews on IHYFM). Ebert, though, was unfamiliar with White's overall body of critiquing work, and when directed to a list of films White dismissed as well as some clunkers he praised, Ebert was quick to state:

"I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise Transformers 2 but notSynecdoche, NY. Or Death Race but not There Will be Blood. I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll."

I only became familiar with White recently, following his negative review of Toy Story 3 (and praise of Jonah Hex), which drew fire for not only missing the incredible humanity and bravery of its main characters, especially in the face of certain demise, but for incorrectly identifying Hamm as one of the villains of the franchise.

As I became more familiar with White's work, it became readily apparent those minor incorrect details were a hallmark of his reviews. His piece on The Social Network indicates the Winklevoss twins were played by two actors, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, when the credit roll of the film credits Hammer as playing both twins and Pence as one, an obvious indicator that Pence was a body double. If that seems too subtle a miss on White's part, his review of Machete is more glaring. The review begins with this statement:

"Spoiled alert: That over-the-top image of Danny Trejo firing a machine-gun-mounted-motorcycle while being propelled by a fireball in the Grindhouse spoof-trailer forMachete never appears in the movie itself."

I saw the film. That image absolutely appears in the final reel of the movie. Obvious misses like those, along with frequent spelling, grammatic, and syntactic errors, parallel White often missing the bigger picture of films he reviews.

To go back to the work of Fincher, White's review of Zodiac criticizes a script that provides no definitive answers as to the identity of the real-life Zodiac killer. His error is two-fold — not only did the best real-life suspect die before he could be charged, but the film clearly makes its case for the probability of that suspect being the culprit during the final ten minutes of the film. He blasts Fincher for referencing Dirty Harry, oblivious to the historical context as well as lines of dialogue that explain Dirty Harry was a film made about Toschi and the Zodiac killer long before the case was close to being solved. Similarly, White described a rowing race in The Social Network as "egregious" and "affectless" without seeming to realize the metaphoric importance of the Winklevoss twins narrowly losing a race.

White clearly misses what seems obvious to many of us. However, and this is the really frustrating part of the White persona, sometimes he's right on the money.

Although not a wildly unpopular sentiment, he has blasted the Oscars as being ultimately meaningless. He acknowledged the manner in which The Hurt Locker operated outside of obvious war film conventions. He praised the indie comedy The Foot Fist Way for encapsulating everyman angst in a hilariously vulgar yet begrudgingly likable protagonist. He wrote one of my favorite sentences I've read regarding The Social Network, stating that Eisenberg's Zuckerberg was "the most obnoxious movie protagonist Noah Baumbach didn't write."

His knowledge of film history is impressive. On occasion, his insights are unparalleled. However, his insistence on the veracity of his opinions, which often unfairly compare films (Blade Runner shouldn't have been made because Metropolis did it better, for example), or drift so far off base as to not even resemble film criticism (most of his review of Life As We Know It criticizes The Social Network, David Fincher and his Kubrickian aesthetic, and tacitly blames Zuckerberg for the suicide of Tyler Clementi). White is, as Ebert proclaimed, a troll that knows his film history. As I see it, were it not for the troll, the man from Detroit who would rise to be the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle could have been an influential film critic that did more than recount the cast of a film and give it an arbitrary numeric rating. The troll, however, all but consumes a reviewer that shows an occasional flash of brilliance.

Therein lies the tragedy of White dismissing The Social Network.

Whether Armond White likes it or not, he is Mark Zuckerberg.

He has alienated himself from a potential adoring public by his manipulation and cocksure certainty of his own brilliance. Despite his declaration of the majority of filmgoers to be crude and ignorant consumers, I refuse to believe there is not a part of White that envies Ebert or Maltin — critics that likewise have a vast knowledge of film history, but are also revered by critics and movie fans alike for their frank and astute movie criticisms. Perhaps more accurately, I imagine White envies his mentor, Pauline Kael, who had a widespread fanbase and degree of artistic influence despite her occasional bashing of mainstream offerings and championing questionable indie titles.

Whatever his ultimate goals or aspirations may be, White's reputation as a knee-jerk antagonist have been all but sealed, thanks to his mostly bewildering, and always self-important, cinematic opinions. His poor analysis of The Social Network, viewing it as a celebration of cutthroat capitalism instead of a tragic cautionary tale, is all too fitting as it was a lost opportunity for White to engage in some honest self-reflection.

In that respect, perhaps White isn't Zuckerberg. His tendency to ignore mainstream successes and champion otherwise overlooked films mimics the work of Kael, only Kael did it far better than he seems to be able.

He's the Winklevoss twins.

Someone get me David Fincher. I think I know a great subject for his next biopic.


  1. here in spain we have to put up with a man called carlos boyero who said once spaguetti western was the worst thing that had happened to film history... a man also that is focus on sink spanish filmmakers like almodovar. in short, an asshole.
    this is my first time here and i´ve really enjoyed your blog. my hate for christopher nolan brought me here but then you remembered me he made some films before the dark night... not my favourite ones, but i liked memento

  2. Thank you Dunia! Nolan definitely has some good flicks in his resume even if he's not the master that fanboys would make you think he is. Also, anyone that says Spaghetti Westerns are an awful thing can suck my Sergio Leone.