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Armond White Says Awards Shows Lessen “The Importance Of Criticism”

Armond White Says Awards Shows Lessen "The Importance Of Criticism"

Well, we suppose it wouldn’t be an awards season without Armond White chiming in. Last year, he was the center of minor storm of controversy after he allegedly heckled Steve McQueen during the New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony (and while he denied he did anything of the sort, he already had a reputation for being something of a boor during the show in previous years). But in 2014 he crossed the line and was ousted from the group, and the NYFCC also issued an apology to “12 Years A Slave” studio Fox Searchlight. But White is back in 2015 and is now worried about the state of film criticism, because if he can’t heckle filmmakers, what has become of the cinematic discourse?

Okay, I’m being a bit cheeky, but White’s guest column at The Hollywood Reporter finds him clumsily using his own ejection from the New York Film Critics Circle as a symbol that film criticism is in a perilous state. It’s a messy, all-over-the-place argument, but here’s some of what he had to say about the relationship between awards shows, critics, and consensus: 

I take my cue from the perspicacity of Sally Field, who’s known for her keen perception of how awards groups function. Two examples: Field’s 1985 Oscar gush “You like me! You really like me!” exposed the Academy Awards’ myth of meritocracy, revealing that awards organizations are really all about popularity (or, in my case, unpopularity). When Field appeared at the 2012 NYFCC awards dinner, she accepted her certificate with a revealing confession: “I don’t even read you guys!”
Circle members, dizzy at being in the presence of a real live movie star, audibly returned Field’s gush. That embarrassing, unprofessional fawning signaled the current decline: critics being disrespected and not taking their own jobs seriously. Awards shows have become a way of lessening the importance of criticism. No wonder Field and others don’t read critics. Groveling (and its flip side, intolerance) reduces the NYFCC to just one among dozens of celebrity-worshipping awards-givers….
….In this age of conformity, unanimity hides bias and truth-tellers get ostracized. Film criticism has lost its independence. Group-think not only removes honor from consensus opinion, it also promotes hostility to the practice of journalistic criticism. This was proved by the Circle’s attempt to demonize my singular, intimidating position as a critic. 

And yet, in his way, White does have a point that, in handing out awards, the discourse of film does become simplified. But, awards have never been about underscoring independent film criticism. The Oscars were started by the industry to celebrate their own films, and so it goes with critics group, who come to a decision and decide to honor a handful of the year’s best films that they collectively endorse. Does that practice become a stain on criticism? Hardly, especially when in the other 300-odd days of the year, Armond White (or his colleagues) is free to champion whatever movies he chooses, even if its in a format such as his annual, deeply intellectual “Better-Than” list. It’s also rather curious that after being a member for over 20 years, the first time White had a problem with the practices of NYFCC was when he was kicked out and has a book to promote (as mentioned in the last paragraph of his piece).

But White isn’t the only who thinks criticism is in crisis. David Cronenberg recently spoke to CBC and also raises his concerns about serious cinematic conversation being lost. “I think the role of the critic has been very diminished, because you get a lot of people who set themselves up as critics by having a website where it says that they’re a critic,” he said. “Even now if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics’, and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not.”

“Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant,” he continued. “…Some voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that. But I think it means that it’s diluted the effective critics.” 

And while Cronenberg’s assessment is a bit more even handed than White’s, does anyone go to Rotten Tomatoes for serious criticism? This is a site that measures the critical standing of a movie by tomato splats.

Meanwhile, where does expertise fit into all of this? There is an argument to be made that demanding expert opinions leads to a different kind of “group-think.” It’s a subject Noah Berlatsky tackles in a lengthy piece for the Los Angeles Review Of Books. Here’s what he had to say: 

The problem with demanding a certain kind of knowledge or a certain kind of expertise in criticism, then, is that it can end up presupposing, or insisting upon, a certain kind of conversation. And often that seems like the point: expertise is used as an excuse to silence critics — and especially negative critics. Gamergate’s response to Anita Sarkeesian is the most obvious example, but you can see it in virtually any fandom. Folks who adore, say, Game of Thrones, are way more likely to have read all the books and seen all the episodes of Game of Thrones. People who dislike Game of Thrones are less likely to put in the time. How can you watch one episode of Game of Thrones and dismiss it? How can you read half of Maus and think that it’s boring and pompous? What gives you the right? Expertise becomes a quick, efficient way to shut down naysayers. Those who love video games, or Game of Thrones, or Wonder Woman are the only ones who can truly understand; the haters are, almost by definition, stupid.

So, lots to chew on. Do you think film criticism is in trouble or are we simply witnessing a change in how we talk about movies?

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