Notoriously contrarian film critic Armond White was dismissed from the New York Film Critics Circle yesterday, following a much-publicized ado at the group’s annual awards ceremony in which White at best made snide comments about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen to his tablemates audible to many others in the room or at worst straight-up heckled him. This followed years of similarly rude behavior at these events, those present have said. “White has the right to believe, and say in print, anything he wants,” critic Owen Gleiberman wrote at Entertainment Weekly‘s website. “But disrupting a public event is a squalid form of acting out that has no defense. And that’s why he was kicked out of the New York Film Critics Circle: because of a disturbing, and arguably disturbed, pattern of stubborn misbehavior.”
And so this seems pretty open-and-shut. Armond apologists and conspiracy theorists might suspect his unpopular opinions are being silenced by moneyed interests—opinions, by the way, I’m sympathetic to. I don’t like McQueen’s movie; Amy Poehler mocked it best: “I will never look at slavery the same way again!” But I don’t believe White’s colleagues have censured the thrice former NYFCC chair for his ideas but because, as Gleiberman wrote, his “‘contrarian’ impulses have slid over the line from being things that he thinks into a depressingly established pattern of reckless uncivil behavior.” And if there’s anything journalists should be, it’s civil to the people they give awards to!
Wait, what? As I thought about this controversy yesterday, I realized I was thinking about the wrong question. Armond’s ejection from the organization seems reasonable (if regrettably messy); but does the practice of bestowing honors to films and filmmakers and then hobnobbing with them at ceremonies and industry parties? “Critics should not be in the business of giving out awards,” Times critic AO Scott (who’s professionally forbidden to belong to any awards-bestowing critics groups) wrote on Twitter, continuing, “Criticism rests on the independence and integrity of the singular voice, and group voting+partying with the winners undermines that.”
Of course, it’s easy for Scott to say that: he’s one of the lead critics for the country’s leading newspaper, arguably the most respected, most read and most powerful critic in America right now. His singular voice is one that people hear; other critics may feel the need to band together to make themselves heard. I mean, I’ve been at screening rooms and it’s 15 minutes past the starting time and the movie’s still not on, and then AO Scott comes in and sits down and the movie starts—studios will hold the picture for him! I can’t think of anyone else for which that might be true.
Still, Scott also makes valid points. There are two issues at play here: whether critics should vote on awards, and whether they should then give those awards out in person. Scott says no to both. “voting=groupthink, antithetical to criticism,” he wrote on Twitter. “problem not that voting is unethical, but that it’s meaningless.” The only legit-sounding counterargument I’ve heard to this is that awards can help draw attention to overlooked films. I like using criticism as advocacy, so I’m sympathetic to this. But I haven’t yet seen a critics-group this year recognize a film that truly needed recognition: every one praised a piece of prominently lobbied-for Oscarbait: 12 Years, American Hustle, etc., the same movies that won Golden Globes and which will likely go on to win Academy Awards. I’m a member of the Online Film Critics Society (because belonging to any group has its useful perks, like year-end screeners), which named 12 Years a Slave the year’s best movie. But it was a movie I strongly disliked, so what does the group’s award and my membership in the organization have to do with each other? This is what Scott means, I think, by voting being meaningless: consensus is by definition middlebrow, unenthusiastic, dispassionate—nothing we should want our film criticism to be.
Maybe large parts of America are full of people who haven’t heard of movies like this, but for me they’re as cliche as the latest studio release. This year, I oversaw this magazine’s fifth annual film poll, in which our writers submit ballots of their 10 favorite films and I tabulate the results to declare winners. I like this exercise because I think it helps define the attitudes of our film section to people perhaps unfamiliar with them (or reinforce them for those who are); regional critics groups could do this as well for their individual regions if, again, they didn’t just all vote for the same few well-publicized films. In New York, where we have theatrical access to so many true indies, foreign films, resurrected forgotten repertory films, were the best things our city’s critics saw really the same ones everyone else saw? Granted, if you compare this magazine’s list to a website like Slant’s, you might see a lot of the same movies, just in a different order. But, say, by choosing Leviathan as our #1 Movie of 2013, I hope at least that people who were on the fence were inspired finally to check it out.
Still, does that mean I want to invite the directors to a dinner at reBar at which they’re given a golden L statue? There’s no defense to be made for hosting awards parties, or even attending others’ junkets. Armond White may have come off looking rude from this whole situation, but by drawing renewed attention to its annual ceremony, it’s the New York Film Critics Circle that’s losing its integrity.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart