Independent Judgment In The Age of Mob Rule

A few days ago, Armond White at National Review published his retrospective assessment of Rob Reiner’s cult favorite comedy, The Princess Bride. His basic take on the movie, which as he notes with disapproval is often affectionately cited by conservatives (i.e., NR writers and readers), is that it lacks both artistic and moral coherence, and owes its enduring popularity to the fact that the generation of viewers who grew up with it in the late 1980s has never fully grown up at all, morally or aesthetically, but has remained addled in the adolescent snarkiness of leftist Reiner’s TV-level deconstruction (aka diminution) not only of old Hollywood romanticism and heroism, but of traditional notions of virtue, love, and righteousness.

For his trouble, not at all surprisingly (at least to this observer, who has enjoyed very similar experiences in a different but analogous context), White’s critique has received ten times his usual number of online comments, with Princess Bride lovers (did I mention it is considered a cult favorite?) sweeping in from far and wide in the world of overgrown adolescence to vent their anger at the infidel who has dared to sully the purity of their perfectly preserved childhood pleasure.

Snippets from a random scroll through the almost unanimous comment section: “Moronic review.” “Lighten up Francis.” “For myself, I must regretfully say that I can no longer consider your opinion to be worth anything.” “White is a critic that seems to live in his own world and fails to see movies the way most of the rest of us do.” “Easily the dumbest and most out of touch column I’ve ever read on NR.” “OMG, Armond, you’ve crossed the line with this review.” “Seems like the author doesn’t like fun.” “I love The Princess Bride. It is as close to a perfect movie as can be made, with almost as many memorable lines as Casablanca.” “If you dislike ‘The Princess Bride’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid,’ get your head examined, buddy.” “Armond is officially dead to me as a reviewer.” “This movie is a beloved classic. You are overruled, Mr. White.” (An informed and considered judgment may now be overruled by majority opinion? Is this the new shape of American conservatism?)

In short, the commenters, in both number and vociferousness, effectively prove White’s point about the source of this movie’s inflated reputation. Raw indignation, the incensed how-dare-you invective bleeding from the readers’ souls, speaks volumes. White, I judge from long precedent, will continue to write what he pleases, unaffected by the vitriole, as long as NR’s management is willing to put up with the hatred he inspires in so many NR readers who wish to delude themselves with the fantasy that their entertainment preferences bear no relation to political or historical concerns, thus allowing them to cling to their self-destructive and immature notions of fun, sans squeamishness or self-examination. And his willingness to do so is worthy of a moment’s consideration. How many writers about popular subjects today would (or do) respond the same way to such widescale public animosity. And I mean today in particular, in our age of “social media” immediacy, with its protocols of brute force egalitarianism and flagrant relativism entrenched and aggrandized in every public forum, so that a writer who would dare to challenge prevailing opinions must forever submit his work while wincing and ducking, like a soldier running into the open to retreive a wounded friend amid sniper fire on all sides — the wounded friend in this case being the quest for non-relative, non-majoritarian truth.

Armond White is National Review’s primary film critic, and hence heir to the desk long occupied by debonair contrarian John Simon. Like his honored (by literate people who understand that film is merely one of the arts, and not by a long shot the greatest of them) and reviled (by movie buffs and Hollywood insiders) predecessor, White is a fierce iconoclast and given to long, unapologetic streaks of negative judgments when current movie trends happen to run up against the demands of personal integrity — personal integrity being the very first thing one is asked to hand in at the door if one wishes to be a popular movie reviewer, the kind who gets quoted on movie posters and invited on mainstream talk shows.

White, though an effective and unique writer, lacks Simon’s dry wit and cutting mastery of language — the literary style that confounded opponents with clarity rather than with obscurity, into which latter weakness White sometimes falls. But he displays the same courage of his convictions, and most importantly the same intransigent insistence on treating cinema as an artform, rather than as a time-killing amusement. Hence White, who like Simon is a longtime fixture in the New York critics scene, shares the status, or condition if you will, of being a permanent flashpoint or whipping boy of New York’s pseudo-elite, who love to hate him for refusing to get on board with the zeitgeist, whether cinematic or political. Like Simon, or for that matter any other critic who takes art and art criticism seriously, White will never praise a film as “fun for the whole family,” “pure entertainment,” “a sweeping epic,” or “a rollicking good time.” Neither will he jump on any bandwagons related to current politically correct attitudes, or insiders’ club preferences du jour.

For example, in 1993, Simon excoriated feminist favorite Jane Campion’s hideous Cannes Festival winner The Piano, while pointedly slicing up the insiders’ refusal, in the midst of their politically fashionable (at that time) praise of Schindler’s List, to acknowledge that the film’s strength was the kinetic vision of its director, Steven Spielberg, who at that time was still dismissed by the intelligentsia as a lightweight entertainer. Simon’s simple one-word comment on the New York film critics’ overlooking of Spielberg’s direction that year in favor of Campion’s: “Ridiculous.” (In fact, Simon himself had never previously been an admirer of Spielberg’s films, but unlike his lowbrow “elitist” colleagues, his critical judgment was determined by his eyes and mind, not by prejudice and preconception.)

Likewise, White annually produces a year-end list that he calls the “Better-Than List,” summarizing all the popularly praised films of the year by comparing them to lesser-regarded films that he views as far better treatments of similar subjects or themes. And White, who is black and homosexual, is particularly infuriating to the mainstream in his rejection of most, or perhaps all, of the Hollywood movies about race and “LGBTQ issues” that tend to get all the praise and Oscar nominations based entirely on politics rather than artistic merit. The keyword there, of course: merit. Criticism based on anything else is propaganda, money-grubbing, or both. But almost all film criticism today is based on anything but genuine judgments of artistic merit, partly due to the craven career and monetary concerns of the writers, and partly due to the elephant in the room of modern film criticism, namely the fact that most movie reviewers are merely overgrown adolescent movie fans who have little interest in, let alone knowledge of, the history of film, and even less interest in or knowledge of the history of the arts in general.

Hence White, like Simon, is wont to receive a lot of negative feedback of the sort one would expect from readers raised on TV sitcoms and Siskel and Ebert film reviews: “This guy hates everything,” “If you don’t like movies, why would you want to be a movie reviewer?,” “Stop looking for deep meaning in everything,” “Relax, man, it’s just a movie!,” “Well everyone else says it’s brilliant (or awful), so you don’t know what you are talking about,” or “Why can’t a movie just be good entertainment sometimes?”

Above all, these two National Review critics, classic and current, are similar in refusing to give a pass to films that, in their minds, fail to live up to the standards of genuine art. That is, they refuse to insult their readers, or belittle themselves, by reducing “movie reviews” to salesmanship, and film to commercial product. Where Simon, whose doctorate was in comparative literature, tended to challenge readers by including educated references to literature, theatre, and music in his film criticism, reminding us that film does not, or rather should not, exist in a world safely apart from (and beneath) the realm of beauty and truth that establishes the standard for all other artforms, White tends to find his deep-diving reference points in the history of film itself, often breezing through comparisons to D. W. Griffith, Jean-Luc Godard, or John Ford to illuminate the inadequacies or dishonesties of the latest popular “masterpiece,” “historical epic,” or “important social statement.”

Though on the whole I prefer Simon’s classically oriented criticism to White’s pop culture focus, I respect White for many of the same reasons I respected Simon, and also for one significant reason that is inapplicable to Simon and other opinion writers of his era, but uniquely applicable in assessing the critical and moral merit of anyone writing in a popular forum today.

When there was less tangible feedback, and all of it received at a temporal distance from the writing and publishing process, it was easier for a person of reasonable character and intellect to speak his mind with at least the quasi-courage of one who knows his thinking and writing are taking place largely in isolation from any readers, whether friendly or hostile. The instantaneous public response to one’s every word entailed by universal social media activity, on the other hand, along with the fact of online publications using comment sections as a draw to hold their impatient and self-obsessed readers, makes feedback in the form of immediate and unfiltered mass judgment an inescapable environmental condition of the writing process itself. That is, the popular response, by being so easily and unavoidably anticipated, effectively makes it more prompt than response, psychologically. The inevitable results: constricted voices, increasingly monolithic and predictable alternatives (this is the “tribalism” so apparent on all issues today), and in general a subtle, ubiquitous, fear-induced deference to presumed majority opinion even before sitting down to write, i.e., self-censorship. These results, of course, are precisely the ones most anticipated and hoped for by the progressive intelligentsia that was longing for such “democratic discourse” for a century before Facebook was born, before “online comments” even existed as a phrase in the English language. This is mob rule and mass intimidation masquerading as free speech, and spiritual tyranny hiding behind a mask of equality. Its effect, intended and real, is to round off the rough (i.e., non-compliant) edges of public discourse, and suffocate serious (i.e., private) thought with the constant throb of group chanting. Stated more directly, its effect is to banish honest minds and fresh perspectives from the public square, by coercively and commercially favoring (or shall we say “prioritizing”) people who say what some large segment of the crowd is saying, and say it with obedient full-throatedness, which is to say without so much as a hint of contrarian nuance or ironic detachment, let alone with the genuine “elitist” elevation of a legitimately independent mind.

Why not conclude this appreciation of Armond White’s jackpot in the reader hatred sweepstakes, then, by quoting a couple of typical observations from his intransigently independent critique, delivered under sniper fire, of The Princess Bride?

TPB owes its reputation to a generation who came of age at precisely the moment when Reiner, All in the Family’s liberal “Meathead,” found his second career (credited as “director” of the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap), introducing mainstream media’s confusion between historical fact and pop flattery. It tricked the culture into smugness….

In Criterion’s booklet, 45-year-old writer Sloane Crosley admits, “For my generation, this is not just a movie; it’s a facet of our adolescence and a building block of our worldview.” So it’s no wonder modern conservatives cannot reconcile their politics with that childhood appreciation. But loving TPB into adulthood shows cultural immaturity. Reiner and [writer William] Goldman wrecked the visual and moral beauty of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Max Ophuls’s The Exile, Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers, Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo in The Flame and the Arrow.

En garde, ye chanting mobs!


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