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Bombast: Ad Hominem, Ad Nauseam

By Nick Pinkerton on July 18, 2014

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Some time ago a friend told me, with regard to my own online self-presentation: “It’s great how you tell everyone how terrible they are.” Now, the idea of being remembered as a critic at all is the height of delusional self-importance, but pretending for a moment that such things as legacies still exist, this is not precisely the one that I’d been hoping to build.

Emily Gould

Such matters have been on my mind since reading a piece on the subject of “being a colossal prick on the Internet” which the critic Glenn Kenny posted a few weeks ago on his website, in which the author reviews his history as an online shit-stirrer and town decrier. These reflections were prompted by a widely circulated Internet kerfuffle in which one Ed Champion unloaded 11,000 words of animus on Emily Gould (pictured above), a pioneering Gawker gadfly in the Wild West years of Web 2.0, since turned woman of analog letters. Kenny, recognizing something of himself in that frothing jeremiad, states that we should “spare a little compassion for” Champion, concluding that such excessive ad hominem rancor—as distinct from actual criticism—says more about the writer’s unhappiness and thwarted sense of ego than it does about his putative subject. Speaking from experience, I will confirm that there is some direct correlation between a dearth of paying assignments on the horizon and finding the time to form (usually unfavorable) opinions about the work of your peers. When you’re in the pink, you’re simply less likely to worry about what anybody else is up to.

It takes some cojones to write a mea culpa on the order of Kenny’s, but, odd as it may sound, I hope he hasn’t retired his shillelagh for good. I say “odd” because, as the score of humans with the inclination and ability to remember such things will recall, I’ve absorbed a few brickbats from Kenny myself. For the most part they didn’t rattle me too much, as I was reasonably comfortable that they fell wide of the mark, though once he caught me dead-to-rights inverting the names of Antoine d’Anthac (fictional) and Jean Anouilh (real) in a write-up of Alain Resnais’s 2012 You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, and sometimes I still feel the bruise from that one. As much as there is a temptation to blame your editors or proofreaders (kidding, of course) when something goes to print with a glaring error, the conscientious writer knows in their secret heart who the buck stops with.

Armond White

Why, then, am I speaking in favor of abuse and contempt? In the immortal words of Amanda Young in Saw: “He helped me.” While outright calumny doesn’t do anyone any favors, having one’s failings pointed out certainly can, especially if you happen to be inclined towards Maoist–style self-criticism. And if nothing else, being on the receiving end of an occasional dousing in Haterade or throwing of shade is palpable evidence that people are paying attention to what you’re doing—though it’s not necessarily evidence, as is often assumed, that you’re doing anything right. It is also a reminder, should any be needed beyond one’s own self-regulation, to keep your writing, your facts, and your ideas as tight and orderly as possible, lest any opening be provided for those who wish to see you face-plant.

Armond White, for one, hasn’t let the innumerable breaches opened by his ever-devolving prose style deter him from keeping up his pose as the last standard-bearer of critical excellence. See, for example, his review of Life Itself, Steve James’s documentary about the life and work of the late Roger Ebert, for the National Review. (White has also contributed to FILM COMMENT, in years past.) In the piece, White refers to criticism’s legacy of “rigorous practice and high aim” to which, implicitly, the piece’s author is the inheritor. This phrase is found in the same paragraph where the co-host of At the Movies is referred to as “Eber.” (His wife’s name is later incorrectly given as “Chazz.”) Further on, as he’s using the term “Internetters” and leaving a parenthetical dangling obscenely open, White refers to Ebert’s “epigones equally prone to intellectual banalities,” also dismissed as “disciples” and “followers.” (In their numbers we must count Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, whose long piece on his tenure at the last incarnation of Ebert Presents: At the Movies is one of the better film-related reads I’ve encountered this week.)

Pauline Kael Roger Ebert

White is the author of an annual “Better-Than” list which uses one presumably underrated film as a stick with which to wallop another presumably overrated one. Along these same lines, he rebukes Ebert’s legacy of “bonhomie and patronage” by contrasting it with the truly gallant career of Pauline Kael—who, of course, was never known to trade in favors. (I kid. Onetime “Paulette” Paul Schrader describes the height of Kael’s influence, when she tried to place him at a newspaper in Seattle, thusly: “[I]t was like the height of the British Empire: ‘You take Rhodesia.’”) That both Ebert and White benefited from Kael’s patronage at various points in their careers—she provides a pull quote on the back cover of White’s essential collection The Resistance—is a fact that White doesn’t explore in greater depth, though in a Cal Trask moment, he does squeeze an apocryphal report of Kael’s dislike for Ebert’s televised endeavors in his 2008 essay “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies,”* which ran in the now-defunct New York Press, and from which both the phrase “Internetters” and most of the salient points in the Life Itself review are lifted intact.

White’s shortcoming as a critic today isn’t his truculence, but the numbing repetitiveness with which he clangs away at the same points. Rather than engage with the phenomena of transient images passing before us on a screen, he prefers to analyze the presumed sociological effect of these movies, largely in terms of the wish fulfillment and back-patting reassurance that they offer the inscribed audience—and assigned critics. (See, for example, his review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which could easily have been written, in toto, without seeing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.) This is a pseudo-science if ever there was one, though it provides the writer with an inexhaustible army of straw men to put the torch to, the classic example of this approach being Kael’s “The prissy liberals who wouldn’t give a man with the D.T.’s a quarter for a shot (‘He’ll waste it on a drink’) are just the ones who love the message they take out of Ikiru.” White is, in his fashion, a principled critic, but once you’ve learned the approximate dimensions of those principles, including their many curious loopholes, there’s very little reason to go on reading him for insight, unless you’re a like-minded individual looking for the same brand of gratification that he rebukes critics and their sheep-like readership for seeking in films—reassurance, that is.

Life Itself

White, at least as he comes across on the page, isn’t a critic who exudes a great deal of warmth, while Ebert, judging from the (almost-) unanimous sense of loss that greeted his passing, did. I know critics who consider White a mentor figure, though the image he projects, particularly in the way that he addresses young writers, is that of a gatekeeper who would ward off pretenders to the citadel of criticism with a flaming sword—in marked contrast to the jocular, make-room-at-the-table invitation offered by Ebert. (By virtue of his incomparable name recognition, Ebert was virtually guaranteed to sit at the head of the table, but many nearly-as-well-established figures can’t be bothered to condescend to their professional inferiors.)

I am either uniquely qualified or uniquely unqualified to offer observations on these men. I’ve never met or otherwise interfaced with either. I have read (conservative estimate) 10 million words of White’s writing but, while I was moved by Ebert’s princely comportment during his long illness, as was practically everyone who was aware of it, I have not read him regularly since using his “The Great Movies” essays as a kind of training-wheels canon in my early years as an Internetter with an interest in the Seventh Art.**

My returning to White time and again—a habit of which I’ve been cured in recent years—indicates a certain addiction to bellicosity, and who am I to deny it? A little fighting spirit keeps film culture sharp, on the edge, where it needs to be. Pugnacity was certainly essential to what Phillip Lopate called the “heroic era of moviegoing” in America, a phrase quoted by White in his “What We Don’t Talk About…” screed, and one that named a dangerously seductive myth. Those of us who didn’t experience this period firsthand are encouraged to imagine that film culture at the end of the Sixties was a sort of Monster Island, resounding with the thunderous footsteps of Kael, Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Renata Adler, and Dwight Macdonald instead of Godzilla, Baragon, Mothra, and Rodan, titanic figures exchanging polemics in place of atomic heat-rays.*** Kenny, who wrote about music in the Village Voice in the early Eighties, writes of his early education in the “old-school type Voice pissing-match tradition,” which has been described to me by other veterans of the paper from the same period as a kind of internecine between-the-cubicles warfare in perpetuity, it being vital to the origin myth of the once punchy and self-destructive paper that the tree of journalistic liberty must be refreshed weekly with the blood of co-workers.

Village Voice

The classic film-section example is the house-divided cover dedicated to Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which pitted Sarris [Anti] against J. “art-house acid” Hoberman [Pro], though there are a plenitude of other instances. The Voice was even willing to provide a platform for outsiders to attack its own, as in the February 22, 1973 edition, where we find Whitney Museum film curator David Bienstock given a full page to respond to Jonas Mekas’s criticisms of New York’s showcases for independent film in his “Movie Journal” column. (Typical excerpt: “[I]s his attitude governed by the fact that he does not control these showcases, preferring to give them as little acknowledgement for their efforts as possible because he deems them competition with his own projects?”) Mekas was by then programming at the still-young Anthology Film Archives, having emerged victorious from a grapple with Amos Vogel for control of avant-garde cinema in New York, though this was only an undercard for film culture’s Ali-Frazier rivalry of the day: Kael-Sarris. The bad blood began with Kael’s rejoinder to Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” her “Circles and Squares,” which was published by Film Quarterly. And the acrimony was still fresh as late as July 1980, when the Voice ran a two-and-a-half-page piece by Sarris called “The Queen Bee of Film Criticism,” ostensibly occasioned by the release of a new volume of her collected criticism, When the Lights Go Down, which fairly bristles with lively put-downs:

“She not only knew how every movie had been put together, and what shameful compromises had to be made, she could also read the minds of the filmmakers, the players, the viewers, and, best of all, the reviewers. It was, of course, all an illusionist’s trick, since anyone with Pauline’s degree of claimed clairvoyance would have been rich and famous much sooner in life.”   

Some of the same gladiatorial spirit, though on a far more demotic/dumbed-down level of discourse, was kept up in the testy “cross talks” between Siskel and Ebert. Discussing his tenure on At the Movies, Vishnevetsky describes the cross talk as “the unscripted back-and-forths which are the core of the show,” and recounts how they were monitored for quality by the show’s director, a non-moviegoer and, as a layman, theoretically the ideal sounding board for their ability to retain viewer interest. In today’s film culture this formula is echoed in tens of thousands of round-table podcasts and transcribed conversations, which for the most part replace fighting words with low-stakes affability.  

At the Movies

All of which is not to say that one has to go far to find invective. The Internet didn’t originate chippiness among the chattering classes but helped to elevate it to a new level by fostering a deadening of empathy, favoring quick press-send rashness over tempered contemplation, and in many cases offering the protection of anonymity. I was recently reminded of the existence of “The Rock Critical List,” a 1999 screed attributed only to one “Jojo Dancer aka The Gay Rapper” that is a collection of staggeringly vicious, ad hominem attacks on 10 of the more prominent practicing music writers of the day. (It also happens to be rather well written and savagely funny. The author’s nom de guerre, by the by, comes from Richard Pryor’s self-directed 1986 auto-biopic Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.) In Daniel Nester’s recollection of “The Rock Critical List” for The Morning News, victim Simon Reynolds is quoted saying, quite perspicaciously: “In some ways the R.C.L. was an advance glimpse of the free-for-all of semi-anonymous invective that is the blogosphere.”

A film culture in which there’s nothing worth putting in the boot over is hardly worth having at all, so the question arises: how to find a middle road between numbing “If I link-a you and you link-a me” collegial circle-jerks, and sweeping denunciations with all the precision of a nail-bomb going off at a marketplace? I’ve written about critical straw-manning before, in a piece where I quoted at some length the conclusion of Decency & Disorder 1789-1837, Ben Wilson’s cultural overview of the period that Lord Byron dubbed the Age of Cant, and its warning (“Accusations of cant should be used sparingly”) still seems like a good one to me. My natural inclination is to throw elbows like I’m playing Bill Laimbeer in NBA Jam, but I shall endeavor to practice such temperance as Wilson commends until next week. Adios, ya flaming phonies.

* Serious question: Is the “Ye-Ye” in a list of films given in White’s article meant to be Edward Yang’s Yi Yi? Is this a rhetorical device?

** My relative lack of acquaintance with the most famous American film critic of all time is more a matter of happenstance than conscious avoidance. I never had formative experiences watching At the Movies, common among my generational coevals, and mostly remember Siskel and Ebert for their contentious appearances on late-night chat shows. I was familiar with Ebert’s prose reviews from the handful that were included with the CD-ROM (!) Cinemania ’94. Cinemania was a pre-IMDb database whose indexes were only rivaled by those of VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever guide, and it was the nearest identifiable thing that I had to a cinephile gateway drug, packaging laughably low-quality multimedia material (for some reason I remember a highly pixelated version of a battle scene in The Birth of a Nation and the audio from the climax of Rosemary’s Baby) with excerpts assembled from several film-related books and review collections. Among the source texts was Ebert’s Video Companion, though Maltin’s consumer guide was far better represented, and Kael (whose 5001 Nights at the Movies capsules were included) made a far deeper impression.

*** Of the critics from this period considered essential today, the outlier with regards to calling out other critics by name is Manny Farber, who rarely if ever picked a fight, perhaps because his termitic explorations took him too deep Underground to keep track of what was going on in the surface world. The exception is his typically conflicted eulogy for James Agee—I suppose he thought that if you were going to go hunting, you might as well go after big game. Because he didn’t cross over with the other critical kaiju, we might compare him to Daiei Film’s Gamera.

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