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Criticwire Survey: Should Critics Give Out Awards?

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by Sam Adams
January 13, 2014 10:16 AM
4 Comments
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: In the wake of the controversy at last week's New York Film Critics Circle dinner, the New York Times critic A.O. Scott opined on Twitter that "critics groups should not be in the business of giving out awards." (His employer, in fact, bars critics from belonging to such groups.) What do you think: Should critics' groups reward their favorite films at the end of the year, or does the process corrupt them?

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I respect the arguments that staying away from the awards game entirely is a way to maintain more integrity about criticism as something separate from the marketing component of chasing statuettes. And the inevitable dilution of idiosyncratic individual choices into winners that reflect stuff that didn't manage to offend *anyone* is a legitimate concern, as well. But I also happen to belong to a regional critics group in Utah that has, over the years, done things no other such group has done: recognizing a director of animation as Best Director; honoring motion-capture and voice-only performances; giving credit to great genre films that too often are disrespected. Those winners have sparked intriguing conversations, and that's a crucial part of what criticism is supposed to do. Any given individual who belongs to a voting body is going to find something to grumble about when the votes are tallied and the winners decided; it's worth it, though, if you've gotten people talking about what it means to be a director of animation, or how a performance where you don't see the actor's face can still be great, or how science-fiction can make us think just as deeply as a historical drama.

Michael Sicinski, Nashville Scene, Cinema Scope

This is a tough question. Critics' groups have historically served a vital function, highlighting films, performances, and other aspects of the year in cinema that were decidedly not ratified by commercial success or industry imperatives. However, now there is an entire wing of "movie journalism" (and I use those scarequotes with every bit of irony they can drip) devoted to handicapping the Oscars. This means that critics' awards have been subsumed -- in some cases quite willingly -- under the umbrella of year-end studio promotional efforts, geared towards Oscar nominations and bigger box office. Is there a way for critics' groups to divest themselves from this industry-driven machine? This is a tough question, but it leads to several other questions. First, the chicken/egg or cart/horse problem. Does "consensus" just magically form around a certain set of obviously superior films? Or are critics' groups dominated by a majority of lazy twits who only bother to even watch what the studio publicists tell them are the important films "for [their] consideration"? I'm sure there are a number of people who have just really developed a particular taste, such that they will somehow think that August: Osage County is a worthier film than, say, Mud. But isn't it just as likely that a lot of them are relying on an apparatus to tell them what is "important"? Second, what are film critics for, ultimately? This whole question emerged from a discussion around an event sponsored by the New York Film Critics' Circle. But here's a thought. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gives a yearly award for Best Experimental Film. This, from L.A., which (pace David James) is not exactly the center of the filmic avant-garde in North America. Why doesn't the NYFCC have such an award? Isn't that a slightly better question that what Armond White may or may not have said to Steve McQueen (the former experimental filmmaker)?

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont'd)

Awards itself are not the interest of criticism, though they can serve a purpose. An ancillary part of criticism is a form of advocacy, to compel readers to seek out specific works. When the NYFCC voted Terrence Malick best director for The Thin Red Line in 1998, this probably meant a lot more people saw the film than otherwise did have. Of course, when there are 500 critics circles and all of them give awards to the same five movies, this doesn't do anyone good. The problem of advocacy is that its subjective: there are people out there who haven't heard of 12 Years A Slave, and then there are those who haven't heard of Claire Denis's Bastards, and then there are those who haven't heard of The Unspeakable Act or something that didn't even get a release, not to mention advocacy for the entire history of cinema (the best year of films list I read every year always comes from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, who just made their best films of 1923 list). As I said before, advocacy is nice - I can name a number of people this year who saw Sokurov's Faust on my recommendation - but it's not my primary interest, nor should it be anyone who really wants to be a critic. Our job is not interest in what is good or bad, but how it is good or bad (and even the good and bad part can be taken out). I'd rather read a dozen pieces on films I don't like when the articulation and argumentation is coherent and audacious than one piece on a film I like when the writing is lazy and typical.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, criticsagogo.com

Yes, because I think the awards serve not only to promote more challenging films themselves but also provide a a nudge or a guidepost for the Oscar selections, giving otherwise overlooked films a chance for recognition. Some recent examples of films that I doubt would have made much of an impression on the Academy had they not previously received awards from critics groups include The Hurt Locker and The Artist (2011). Despite the drawbacks and complications, the critics award bring attention to otherwise overlooked, worthy (usually) films, which I think is one of the purposes of our profession. (You might put this to the test by comparing the critics groups choices with the upcoming Oscar nominations).

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

"Should" is a strong word here, but critics are fine to give out awards in the form of collectively, democratically naming the best of the year as a group. What they shouldn't do is have a ceremony where they're in the same room as the talent handing them a trophy, whether they're directly hobnobbing or not. Awards in this sort of sense should be more for the public than the individual winners, much as our reviews are.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

I'm torn on this one. One thing is critical organizations voting for films in different categories to arrive at some sort of critical consensus. This I support because it can help promote movies that might go unnoticed otherwise, and it starts establishing a critical canon for future generations. But the same organization, holding an actual ceremony where they get to rub elbows with the artists who they awarded is more problematic. Can anyone truly stay objective after meeting a famous actor or filmmaker? I'm sure there are those who can. But I'm also sure they are in the minority. I have trouble doing so even after an interview, much less a friendly celebration with dinner involved.

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren,The New York Post

Are critics supposed to be so adversarial, sequestered like jurors from anybody involved in the film business? We're not pronouncing sentence on the prisoner in the dock. The simple act of reading a critic's work gives a pretty good idea of who's writing in good faith.

I am amused by the idea that the enticement of being in a vast ballroom with a star I admire would skew my judgment. In that case, we should conduct all interviews with celebrities by Skype, lest having a cappuccino with a sex symbol induce us to say nice things we don't mean. Me, I got a much better look at Julia Roberts when I was shopping in the 3rd Avenue Kiehl's store than any star at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner. Except Harry Belafonte, and him I deliberately waylaid so I could shake his hand and thank him for his commitment to social justice. Perhaps to maintain my objectivity, I should have made sure he knew I didn't much like "Hava Nagila."

I see little, if any, difference between a best-of list compiled from selections submitted by individual critics -- for example, Sight and Sound or Indiewire -- and a set of awards given by a particular group. There's the same creation of a middle ground that smooths out the far reaches of individual taste. Looking at the list of honors given so far to, say, Inside Llewyn Davis is no substitute for reading intelligent critiques. This is not something a critic need explain to anyone who cares enough to be reading in the first place.

Certainly the awards mean something to artists. Read filmmakers' autobiographies, and you are quite likely to find them proudly mentioning what they won. I don't think that is a bad thing, for critics to lay down their arms once a year and show some group appreciation for the people who create. All of us -- including the artists -- know that a great critic's writing about a film will outlive any number of plaques and statuettes, just as a bad critic's work will be forgotten much more quickly than any movie.

Miriam Bale, Fandor, New York Times

I have never been a member of a critics' association (and won't be as long as I write for the New York Times). But this description of how a voting meeting at one of these groups essentially ended Renata Adler's career as a film critic has always haunted me.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star:

It's perfectly OK for critics to give out their own awards; I happily participate in the process. But it's important that we don't fall for our own bullshit. We should bestow prizes based on honest assessment, not in a futile effort to impress other critics. And we should never, ever, assume that the actors and directors who party  with us one night of the year are our dear personal friends. That way leads to madness, and compromise.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer and others

I'm agnostic about critics' groups. I am a past member of the NYFCC and a current member of the National Society of Film Critics. On the plus side, the critics' groups can recognize small movies that might otherwise go neglected. On the negative side, the groups that bestow awards on actors or filmmakers look like a mutual backscratching society. But having attended many of those dinners, I believe the host does not make fun of the guests.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

The question here to me is who are the awards benefiting--those who give the awards, or those who receive them, or both parties? There is always value in recognizing distinguished achievements, whether it is acknowledged by a committee or an individual, but it's the self-serving quality of awards that I find meretricious.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

It isn't the mere solitude of writing that protects the critic from groupthink. Independence of thought isn't a given but an ideal to aspire to; meanwhile, a group of like-minded people, making a collective statement that stands out from the collective statements of other groups, can express (in distilled and symbolic form) ideas that exert a salutary influence in a chosen realm. That's called a party, as in politics. There's something inherently political about the practice of criticism; it's no coincidence that the most important idea in the history of film criticism is the politique des auteurs, and its proponents were no disinterested theorists but future filmmakers who conceived the cinema -- its past and present -- with themselves as its future, and whose polemical thrust forced the industry's doors open in order to make it so. Awards don't matter--except for those who win them and those who don't. A few weeks ago, Martin Scorsese said of his Oscar for The Departed, "It certainly helped me get financing for a couple of pictures," and at least three glorious, original, deeply personal, uninhibitedly inspired movies are the result. Those are the moments -- when the camera is rolling, and when we're watching the movie -- when the exalted spirit of pure creation transcends practical cares. And critical writing is at its best when critics try to give voice to that spirit. But there's a reason why great art is often called powerful; that pure creation opens its own place in the world. Art is a way of making things happen, and, as such, it, too, is inherently political in a way that has nothing to do with opining on issues of the day. Making movies is one form of action, writing criticism is another; but so are organizations' awards, repertory programming, festival curation, the founding of a cinematheque, the editing of a magazine or a website...

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound

At times like this it may be useful to take a step back and observe how the digital information age has liquidated much of what we once called "critical insight" into a series of numbers (ratings, as well as top whatever lists and gawking at industry figures) and objects: not just awards but blurbs, tweets, tweets that turn into blurbs, and even editorial soundbite generators like this survey ;-). It's no coincidence that critics' awards and critic rating aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes have boomed during this period of informational excess. They proliferate because they help to facilitate a quantifiable, data-driven assessment of quality -- how many awards? how many stars? -- that thrives in a reality where we are perpetually bombarded with an overwhelming amount of qualitative data to process. 

There might have been a time, way, way back, when the NYFCC awards carried a certain air of distinction, back when informed critical opinions were harder to come by, and opinions themselves held more sway over the things that stood for them. Now, in an era where awards, ratings and opinions alike are passed around like cheap booze at a frat party, that mythical moment has passed. Looking at this kind of landscape, it's no wonder a pre-Data Age critic like Armond White acts out; it's kind of a wonder more critics don't.

I must express skepticism towards the implied distinction made in this week's poll question between a press-and-industry circle jerk like the Golden Globes and "legitimate critics' associations" such as the New York Film Critics Circle, especially given that the seemingly sole purpose of either is to dole out awards once a year. What might truly separate the two is precisely something like Armond White's outburst, or at least a more thoughtful and classier version of it, one that turns the occasion into something that showcases what critics are truly good at doing: challenging others with thoughtfully expressed opinions. Imagine a smart, articulate critic standing up to deliver a Harry Belafonte-caliber oratory on everything that's wrong with 12 Years a Slave -- in Steve McQueen's face nonetheless! Now that would be something you don't see at any old awards show, something that shows that today's critic isn't just another cog in the publicity machine. And it's what would turn another rote entry in the industrial award-hoarding cycle into an event that's truly critical, in every sense.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

I see no reason why critics can't give out awards. I do think the awards season has become (or has always been) absolutely ridiculous in how studios campaign for their films and the people involved. However, I can't agree that, simply by the act of awarding a film or actor or director, critics lose their integrity. There are, of course, plenty of ways in which a critic can lose his or her integrity during the awards season--such as, say, attending wine-and-dine-style meet-ups with studios before voting--but giving an award doesn't need to be associated with a lack of ethical fortitude. It all depends on each voter for an awards-giving body being willing to say no to this or that studio-funded gift or party or what-have-you.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Admittedly, before I was asked this question, I had always taken critics awards in stride, accepting them as simply a natural part of the critical landscape. Now that I've been asked, however, I am starting to wonder just how useful they actually are. Theoretically, of course, they offer opportunities for critics to stand apart from awards-season hype by virtue of unconventional choices... but how often does that really happen? Among the slew of critics-group awards in December, I was seeing most of the usual suspects being cited: 12 Years a Slave, Her, Gravity, etc. Usually, critics awards end up being merely an extension of consensus and hype, despite the extra weight one might assume from such honors coming from a critics group. Usually you'll get more genuinely fascinating against-the-grain choices from individual ballots within a critics' circle than in the awards themselves.

In the end, I wouldn't get rid of critics awards entirely, but perhaps they should be taken with a similar grain of salt as one would (I hope) apply to the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

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4 Comments

  • Mavis' hubby | January 20, 2014 1:28 PMReply

    Here's your answer: you boobs can do whatever the hell you want in fringe-land, nobody cares.

    And don't mistake truncated truth for flippancy.

  • Dan Mirvish | January 13, 2014 5:32 PMReply

    How about asking filmmakers this question?

    It's a huge conflict-of-interest for critics to host these sorts of awards ceremonies - where the actors are invited. For a group that prides themselves on being journalists they should know that it inevitably leads to this sort of behavior. As a filmmaker, how can I trust that a member of the NYFCC isn't liking my film just because he or she wants to invite my actors to their awards show - or disliking my film because an actor spilled a drink on her lap at last year's ceremony? And as a reader, how can I trust that the reviews and year-end-lists aren't tainted by whom the critic wants to have a drink with, rather than what they objectively thought of the films.

    At least the HFPA and the Golden Globes are somewhat unapologetic about their priority in putting on a good show and inviting and hobnobbing with as many stars as they can get. And after 70 years of it, they've made themselves far more relevant than they have a right to be. But the NYFCC should ask themselves - do they really want to have the same "journalist" reputation as the HFPA? If so, then put on a show, and invite Armond White to MC next year: They'd probably get better ratings than the Oscars.

  • Joe H. | January 13, 2014 11:28 AMReply

    There's nothing wrong with critics naming their top picks and awarding them. It's after all part of the fun, and they often have better choices than the major award ceremonies. Josh Spiegel raises some good points.

  • Rick | January 13, 2014 11:03 AMReply

    I think Christopher Campbell has the right idea

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