Clash of the Titans: Armond White vs. Darren Aronofsky
It's always the Fourth of July when you're around New York Film Critics Circle Chairman Armond White, who's like a human fireworks machine. Film criticism's resident agent provocateur, the New York Press critic has made a living writing "Did he really say that?" reviews, calling "Slumdog Millionaire" a "TV-slick fraud," "Milk" a "silly celebration of an ambitious pol" and "Benjamin Button" an "endless two-hankie Kubrick movie for fanboys." Let's just say, you have to be a contrarian if, like White, you thought "Transporter 3" was a better movie than "The Dark Knight."
White has been just as rough on this year's crop of films, including Darren Arnonofsky's "Black Swan. White labeled the film "junk movie decadence," describing Aronofsky as a filmmaker "who has come to specialize in specious deep thoughts." Oh, yeah, and he also thought Kanye West's "Runaway" music video was better than Aronofsky's movie too. And oh, double yeah, White didn't much like "The Wrestler" either, calling it "a pseudo-intellectual's version of professional wrestling bunkum." So you kind of figured that when White hosted the circle's awards dinner Monday night, with Aronofsky on hand to present the award for best cinematography to Matthew Libatique, his longtime friend and director of photography, that anything could happen. Which it did.
According to the New York Post's Kyle Smith, who was there, Aronofsky got right into the spirit of the occasion by saying that when he heard he was being asked to present the award, "I thought I was giving Armond White the compassion award because if you don't have something, you should get it." He added, referring to White, "Seriously, keep it up because you give all of us another reason not to read the New York Press." When some of the audience members murmured disapproval, Aronofsky quasi-apologized, saying "It was Matty's award. I was a dick. I'm sorry. It's just really hard when you spend years working on something and it just gets torn apart."
When White retook the podium, he was exultant, since all critics really want is validation, even if the only validation a disgruntled filmmaker can offer is that he actually read the critic's review. So White, appearing to brush something off his shoulder, said, "That's all right. Darren reads me. That's all I want."
It was clear that fisticuffs weren't going to break out since, according to Smith, unlike most of his undersized critical brethren, White is built like an NFL tight end. White merrily went on having his way with other winning films he felt unworthy of their plaudits. When Tony Kushner came up to present the award for best film to "The Social Network," White cracked: "Maybe he can explain why it won best picture."
Some film insiders have voiced disapproval at White's behavior, believing that filmmakers and their movies should be treated with more respect at an awards function. But I think White's critics are taking him way too seriously. After all, hardly anyone is outraged when a comedian makes fun of the A-list talent on hand at the Oscars and other fancypants awards season events. In fact, I'd be sorely disappointed if Ricky Gervais didn't heap some comic abuse on the front-row filmmakers at this weekend's Golden Globe Awards.
It's pretty clear that White, even though he isn't a comic, has an act too. He's the resident upheavalist, always eager to stir the pot with vitriol, vivid imagery and pungent comic overstatement. Like oh, so many boldfaced names in our crazy pop culture today, from Glenn Beck to Charles Barkley to Kanye West, White has his over-the-top schtick -- he's the critic as maddening insult artist -- and he's sticking to it.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Natalie Portman, left, with Darren Aronofsky at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival. Dan Steinberg/Associated Press