A Lonely Holdout in District 9
One of my fellow film critics has caused a bit of a dust-up: Writing in the New York Press, Armond White trashed District 9 in his review, in stark opposition to the majority of film critics. (Including me.) The bad review caused a major stir on Rotten Tomatoes, as users are now actively campaigning to have him thrown off the site. Now his fellow movie critics are debating the value of contrarian opinions. Slate came up with this handy widget measuring how much White goes against the mainstream opinion. (Answer: only half the time, which is still more than most. This makes sense; what makes mainstream opinion mainstream is the fact that most people agree on it.) On his blog, Roger Ebert defended White’s review before seeing this chart of White’s likes and dislikes, after which Ebert called White a troll, albeit “a smart, well-informed troll.”
Reading White’s review, I thought it was an angry screed. Then again, every review of his that I’ve ever read struck me as an angry screed. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point in this instance. The film is an apartheid allegory, and if we read the aliens as black South Africans under apartheid, then it’s troubling that they (with the exception of Christopher) are just a suffering undifferentiated mass who aren’t interested in gaining political power or changing the system. As Christopher says, they only want to go home. (Then again, the ending of the film casts some doubt on whether that’s the only thing Christopher will help his fellow aliens do.) Of course, we’re free to read the metaphor more literally and say that the aliens are not, in fact, oppressed black South Africans, and that they might very well have different desires and mental processes that another culture (in this case, human culture) might have trouble understanding. White’s objecting to the use of apartheid as a metaphor in a lowbrow populist piece of entertainment, which I don’t think is valid. I think he’s on more solid ground when he objects to the inexactitude in Neill Blomkamp’s use of the metaphor, and especially in the characterizations of the Nigerians. Because he writes from the viewpoint of an African-American who’s been writing about movies for a long time, his objections should be listened to.
I think the issue here is White’s style rather than the fact that he didn’t like the movie. Really, given the abrasive way he writes, I’m surprised it took White this long to get in trouble. He could have devoted more energy to teasing out the ways in which Blomkamp’s use of the aliens sends the wrong message. Instead, he piles metaphor upon metaphor and calls people names, some of whom have very little to do with the movie at hand. This is hardly new; he’s been writing this way for more than 20 years. He seems to think that the entire world of cinema took a wrong turn at some point in the 1970s, and as one blogger said, he seems determined to offend absolutely everyone at some point. Add that tendency of his to the unique type of hype that has surrounded this film, and you get this controversy. If Armond White had just been a bit more diplomatic, he could have provided a valuable counterpoint to the adulation that has greeted District 9. (Like Jonah Weiner did.) He blew his chance, largely because diplomacy is foreign to his nature. Writing angry all the time will get you attention (TV news pundits would no doubt agree with this), but often it gets in the way of making a logical argument, and in this situation, White needed to make a logical argument.
There’s a whole set of side issues going on here. How valuable is a contrary viewpoint? As Dana Stevens points out (using the Transformers sequel as an example), just because someone’s opinion goes against the grain doesn’t mean it’s right. A critic who constantly goes against the consensus for its own sake is no more useful than one who parrots the consensus every time. She also makes the point that since most movie reviews are published at the same time, movie critics aren’t really in a position to consult each other and bring their reviews into line with everybody else’s, or buck the trend, as the case may be. From personal experience, I know that critics talk to each other after the movie screenings let out, but we’re pretty strong-willed creatures, and we’re not easily swayed by what our colleagues say, even the ones we respect.
However, every working critic is going to find himself or herself alone at some point, whether that’s loving a film that everybody else hates or vice versa. (You don’t have to go back too far to find an example for me, though even there I wasn’t completely alone.) When that happens, you’re best off making the most persuasive argument you can and coming down decisively. Armond White did the latter but not the former. Still, he shouldn’t be tossed off Rotten Tomatoes. Contrary opinions are always good to have, especially since that voice in the wilderness will eventually be me and you and everybody else over one movie or another.