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New York Film Critics Circle to Vote on Armond White’s Expulsion

New York Film Critics Circle to Vote on Armond White's Expulsion

Last night at the National Board of Review’s awards ceremony, someone gave Blue Is the Warmest Color‘s Adele Exarchopoulos one of the “Prize Winner” trucker caps from Nebraska. This story, unfortunately, isn’t about that. But look how adorable she is. I bet everyone had a great time.

The members of the New York Film Critics Circle, it is safe to say, are not having a great time — with perhaps one exception. The fallout from Monday’s dinner, where NYFCC member Armond White and his guests yelled obscenities at Steve McQueen as he accepted the Best Director award for 12 Years a Slave, continues to spread in a mushroom cloud of bruised feelings and bad will.

According to Variety, outgoing NYFCC chairman Joshua Rothkopf sent an email to the membership the following morning with the subject “Ruined.” 

“It amazes me that we have members who are so self-serving, they would sacrifice the decorum of the group … solely to satisfy their egos,” Rothkopf added. “Never thought I’d write this, but after months of event planning and two years of service as an officer, I’m happy to be done with it.”

The email chain also reveals that the NYFCC will be voting on whether to expel White — as well as New York Post critic Lou Lumenick, who blogged the details of the Circle’s voting meeting, apparently in contravention of its bylaws — at an emergency meeting this coming Monday.

White, after spending most of Tuesday silent, started to punch back toward the end of the day. When fellow NYFCC member asked White if he had in fact been yelling at McQueen, White responded, “Wrong question, John,” and added, “I was not in a position or vicinity to yell at McQueen. It was talk among my tablemates. The Variety and Wire lines are outright misquotes and lies. You might want to ask why the gutter bloggers continue to misquote and distort the event and NYFCC history.”

To the Hollywood Reporter, White offered a lengthier defense:

The comments that I supposedly made were never uttered by me or anyone within my earshot. I have been libeled by publications that recklessly quoted unnamed sources that made up what I said and to whom I was speaking. Someone on the podium talked about critics’ “passion.” Does “passion” only run one-way toward subservience? … Among some Circle members and media folk, there is personal, petty interest in seeing me maligned. I guess the awards themselves don’t matter. It’s a shameless attempt to squelch the strongest voice that exists in contemporary criticism….

Did I make sotto voce comments to entertain my five guests? Sure, but nothing intended for others to hear and none correctly “reported.” I don’t even know what it means to call Steve McQueen a “garbage man” or “doorman” even though the racist implications are obvious. None of this makes sense which is what happens when online journalism reports a malicious lie.

Before proceeding, let me make my position clear: Armond White is lying. I was in the room that night, halfway between White’s table at the back of the room and the stage, and though I didn’t catch their substance, his words were clearly audible. Either White doesn’t know the meaning of “sotto vocce” or he needs a remedial lesson on using his inside voice. (Although it’s indistinct, you can hear someone yelling at 6:30 in the audio clip here.)

I’ve spoken to Dana Stevens, who was at White’s table until the persistently loud and unpleasant comments by him and his guests forced her to move, and to Vadim Rizov and Katey Rich, who were seated perhaps 20 feet away. Rich said she saw White’s guest cup his hands and shout toward the stage, which clearly does not constitute “talk among my tablemates,” and saw White yell “White liberal bullshit!” with her own eyes. It’s possible some of the quotations are imprecise, but since White won’t even admit he made the comments, let alone clarify them, we’re unlikely to do better.

Why does this matter? The issue of intra-group decorum, while vital to the Circle itself, is not of especial importance to outsiders. Nor does it matter because it makes critics as a whole look bad, as David Denby argued on the New Yorker‘s website. It matters because of pieces like John Semley’s “Armond White is the Kanye of Film Criticism,” and because of people who’ve left comments, on this blog and elsewhere, saying things like, “But 12 Years a Slave *is* white liberal bullshit.”

No one does more to further the idea of White as a bold contrarian than White himself, aka “the strongest voice that exists in contemporary criticism.” But bold contrarians don’t yell out public comments and then pretend they didn’t, which is the very opposite of speaking truth to power. Notwithstanding its rhetorical lapses, White’s review of 12 Years a Slave made a fitfully powerful case against the film, but yelling “Fuck you!” as its director accepts an award is not criticism. It’s cowardice.

Update: David Chen of Slashfilm has an posted a 40-minute audio interview with White. It’s an occasionally exasperating listen, but essential for anyone who wants to understand the issues at stake. White makes solid points about the declining state of journalism, including the failure of Variety‘s Ramin Setoodeh to contact him for comment before running his original story, and about the way entertainment journalists ignore or downplay the Circle’s annual celebration of their winners in favor of minor controversies. But he also calls Slate’s Dana Stevens “a hater,” and accuses her of flat-out fabricating her account of his behavior, insisting that his accusers bring forth “confirmation” of his remarks — which seems to mean a clear audio recording of a type unlikely to ever surface. (Even then, we’ve been poring over the Zapruder tape for decades.) Chen, who’s had White on his podcast several times to discuss various films in the past, is audibly nervous confronting White with some of the charges, but he does a commendable job of pushing past White’s evasions, though even that doesn’t always result in a solid answer.

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