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Film critics square off in war of words

The e-mail was signed "John Doe." It implored me in admirably idealistic terms to support New York Press film critic Armond White, who was not only NOT invited to a New York critics' screening of Noah Baumbach's film "Greenberg" (opening here Friday), but actually disinvited by phone by a publicist.

White's disinvitation was, it seems, at the behest of either the director himself or producer Scott Rudin (or both.)

The result was nothing if not predictable. White did wind up seeing the film and his review/diatribe on the whole matter appeared online Wednesday.

At issue, according to White, was a 12-year-old White review of Baumbach's film "Mr. Jealousy" in which White quotes himself referring to Baumbach's mother, former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, thusly: "Her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, 'Mr. Jealousy' might suggest retroactive abortion."

White claims to regard it as a "calumny" that he called for Noah Baumbach's abortion. Given what he actually wrote, though, I'd call that a perfectly reasonable interpretation. One can certainly understand the comment being taken badly.

In his review/broadside, White then goes on to blast Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman with everything he's got for siding with those who wanted him left out of "Greenberg" screenings.

Before anyone goes off scoffing at a tempest in a teapot, let me just offer this thought: If someone actually served you a pot of tea with a visible tempest going within, you'd say "Hey, look at this! A tempest in a teapot! Is that cool or what? We've got to get this on TV -- or at least the Internet."

To those who watched the genuinely trivial weekly TV pillowfight of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, it may come as a surprise that real battles between critics can become ferociously high-minded (as this one is, in its essence) and bloody (metaphorically speaking). Real animus is involved, not TV whining or feuding for the sake of drawing attention to one's self.

I don't regularly read White, but I know that he is considered a "contrarian" with intemperate proclivities. I do regularly read (and respect) Hoberman, though I must admit in this matter, it's hard not to vote for White, for all his rhetorical excess and unfortunate way of putting things 12 years ago.

Back in the mid-'70s, I was, as this paper's TV columnist, disinvited by NBC from its seasonal press tour for treating a previous TV season a bit rougher than the network preferred. I wrote about it and then so did local correspondent Doug Smith in Variety and, as a result, all manner of national columnists and critics, all on my side. The disinvitation was eventually rescinded by a tanned, fit, perfectly coiffed gray-haired NBC publicist who looked like someone who'd play a bartender on "The Rockford Files" (or, "Castle" now).

Overcontrol by publicists has never been the wisest tactic. In his current screed about it, White also continues to make a perfectly reasonable case that Baumbach's parentage may often result in critical indulgences that other filmmakers his age might not receive (his father is novelist and former film critic Jonathan Baumbach).

Inside baseball? Sure, but if the baseball writer you're reading is also the godfather of the pitcher you're reading about (or his father's best friend), you'd want to know.

Which, I suppose, is why Jerry Roberts has written "The Complete History of American Film Criticism" (Santa Monica Press, 478 pages, $27.95), which is not only something of a first of its kind but impressive to boot.

Teapots, it seems, make for pretty good stories.


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