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

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by Sam Adams
January 8, 2014 11:20 AM
33 Comments
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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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33 Comments

  • Wowie Zowie | January 15, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    A real artist could withstand being "heckled" a bit while accepting an award. What's the point of a work if it doesn't stand up to such criticism? The issue here is a movie that cruises on PC feel-good sentiments that have more to do with the subject matter than the film itself, and White effectively burst that bubble. It's not like White shouted out "dickhead" at a director because he didn't like him.

  • ROBERTO CLEMENTE | January 13, 2014 4:52 AMReply

    Kick him out immediately, while you have the opportunity.

    Re "PERSON" below, the proof is multiple firsthand accounts by people who were at the ceremony. Similar events also took place in 2011:

    http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/01/11/armond-white-darren-aronofsky-nyfcc-awards/

    As a critic, I would like to point out the difference between two terms that are all too frequently confused in the popular imagination about what it is that critics do-- perhaps in part thanks to Siskel and Ebert's famous "thumbs" system. "Critique" is what critics are supposed to do: it involves closely reading the work of art, intuiting and articulating its form and uniqueness, and advancing a judgment as to quality based on this intimate understanding of the work. "Polemic" is something that critics CAN do, but it is far less interesting. Here the goal is predetermined from the outset: to completely and utterly reject the work of art at hand. For this, you don't need to read it-- you just need to attack and dismiss it. To me, this is identical to unconditional praise-- both are rather thoughtless and unsophisticated.

    As a writer, White has never risen above polemic. And yet with his behavior at the awards ceremony, he found an entirely new register to debase his own practice. Yelling at someone in public is not criticism at all; it is pure aggression. Arguments, good or bad, are made in writing, not in speech. If he had yelled "I love you! You're the best director ever!" it would have been every bit as disrespectful, because the venue and the occasion were not for Armond White and his speech.

    As a critic, you can critique, you can diatribe, you can harangue, but ultimately there needs to be a baseline respect for artists. White has absolutely none. If some "circle" of critics has to exist, there is no way he belongs in it.

  • Person | January 15, 2014 11:43 AM

    Was it a solemn occasion that was hideously interrupted by Armond White's uncouth rudeness? Or was it a looser affair, made looser by drink, in which a certain amount of boisterousness was to be expected and even encouraged? Using the occasion to criticize Whit'e abilities as a critic shows what is potentially wrong about this whole situation: White is being made into a pariah.

  • Person | January 10, 2014 6:58 PMReply

    Without any proof, it would be quite egregious to kick White out of the Film Critics Whatchamajig. Not that that would stop New Yorkers, whose city seems to have lost all of its charm in its ultra-gentrification.

  • Tim F. | January 9, 2014 1:28 PMReply

    Sam-

    Can you expound on this part a bit? :

    "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." "

    Are you implying that Armond is having an unhealthy influence on other writers/viewers/the public? And why does it matter if commenters leave comments saying that 12 Years is "white liberal bullshit? Maybe they truly think it is. What's the problem with someone thinking that? I remember some writers stating a similar short-handed opinion about Beasts of the Southern Wild last year. I don't agree, but it's their opinion.

    Now, tossing out such a phrase should come with a full-throated back-up if called upon, but comment sections don't usually provide that place. (BTW... i don't like the 12 Years myself, but "white liberal bullshit" is not among my reasons why).

    -Tim.

  • Tim F. | January 10, 2014 12:14 PM

    Thanks for the response.

    I completely agree that it's juvenile and unacceptable to yell such things at a guest. (I could argue that having more of an interactive forum in some other setting could be entertaining, but that's obviously not the kind of atmosphere the NYFCC wanted.) I also think Armond does a disservice to his own work by yelling out something like "white liberal bullshit" because his actual review or argument against the film, in my opinion, is laid out well out in City Arts. But people who are hearing of him for the first time will now likely just perceive him as a simple bomb thrower.

    Having said that, I think the aftermath has been a bit silly. Surely the *level* of it is tied to Armond's relationship/run-ins with the critic community in the past, and NYFCC has every right to do what they want with his membership, but every time an "incident" happens with Armond there seems to be a collective "this-is-our-chance-to-squash-him" from fellow critics. I don't get that. Especially since he's already been pretty successfully pushed to the margins as it is. This all feels personal.

  • Sam Adams | January 9, 2014 10:30 PM

    Apparently that part is not as clear as I'd like, so I'll update and answer here as well: My point is that it's a profound mistake to allow any link between White's views on 12 Years and his behavior at the NYFCC awards. Let's stipulate that the film is "white liberal bullshit" -- does that make yelling that out at its director any more acceptable? White, of course, would like to foster a link between the two -- while still denying he said anything -- but it's absurdly credulous for anyone else to buy into it.

  • Oliver | January 9, 2014 3:57 AMReply

    Kick him out. If French film directors can do it to Claude Autant-Lara, New York film critics can do it to Armond White.

  • kelly | January 10, 2014 6:54 PM

    Just because someone "can" do something, doesn't mean they should. What an ass to take French repression of free speech and use it as a model for America.

  • SANKER FROM INDIA | January 9, 2014 3:05 AMReply

    Armond White is the strongest voice in criticism? Did he ever have one of his tweets cover AN ENTIRE PAGE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES?!

  • Daniella Sandler | January 8, 2014 11:30 PMReply

    I read one of White's reviews years ago of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. It was perhaps the only one I came across that echoed my position on the film, so I thought I'd found a kindred spirit. Then. He. Went. Insane. If the NYFCC can't boot him out after… is it three years of this now, they won't have anyone to come to their dinner and accept their awards in the future. The great Pauline Kael would be ashamed of him if she we alive to see this.

  • persh | January 10, 2014 11:30 PM

    I disagree. Kael would be ashamed of the critical establishment all echoing the same party line.

  • Peps | January 8, 2014 10:48 PMReply

    Armond White is a turd

  • Anderson | January 10, 2014 6:55 PM

    Yeah, like Obama is too. If you ask me, it's sort of racist to call a black person a turd.

  • Schizopolis | January 8, 2014 9:50 PMReply

    I always thought Armond White is the type of intellectual that exploits his own intelligence to serve his selfish ego. His tasteless heckling of McQueen only confirms it.

  • Atomu | January 12, 2014 7:48 PM

    Armond White and "intellectual" are mutually exclusive terms, and his critiques bear this out. If this fool was a regular nobody, trolling movie forums, he would have been ban-hammered and forgotten long ago. His supposed stature as a critic has insulated him from natural consequences for far too long. It's time to turn him out and move on.

  • Norm Schrager | January 8, 2014 8:19 PMReply

    Critics talking about critics, talking about writers and analyzing journalism. It's masturbation. Anyone ask a reader what he or she thinks?

  • bailey | January 9, 2014 8:29 AM

    YOU'RE ON A WEBSITE ABOUT CRITICS.

  • Sam Adams | January 8, 2014 9:16 PM

    What do you think?

  • Jeremy Fassler | January 8, 2014 6:48 PMReply

    Thank you for speaking the truth. I usually comment anonymously, but I see no reason not to say something with my name here: Armond White is a troll, a bully and a tasteless hack. This man does not deserve the title "contrarian," since his opinions do nothing to challenge what we think we know, the way true contrarians like Christopher Hitchens did. Any person who seriously considers the comedies of Adam Sandler to be humanist masterpieces, or rants against giving a lifetime achievement award to Sidney Lumet, or heckles an artist like Steve McQueen, is a troll, plain and simple. People can pretend as long as they want to have respect for this man, and make excuses for all views, but I have to draw the line here.

    Gene Siskel once said to a fellow film critic during an argument, "There is a difference between having an opinion and being wrong. When you say that The Valachi Papers is better than The Godfather, you are wrong." He might as well have been talking to Armond White, who wasn't around when the argument happened, but doesn't that statement's utter wrongness make it sound like something he'd say?

  • Stacia | January 10, 2014 1:16 PM

    Though many of your points are well taken, I believe much of the problem when it comes to dealing with trollish critics -- of which there are a handful, as we all know -- is equating opinion with fact. Okay, you don't think Sandler films are humanist masterpieces, and I agree with you, but is this really the same tangible sort of issue as heckling at an awards ceremony or making somewhat slanderous claims against fellow critics?

    I get what you (and the ghost of Siskel) are saying, but I would find it extremely troubling for any organization to remove someone because they believe it is quantifiably wrong to consider a Sandler comedy humanist. Even if someone (probably Whammo, or maybe Fisher Price) invented an accurate Review-O-Meter, it wouldn't matter, because a critic who is properly contrarian would at least be creating a springboard for discussion, or giving a new perspective to film that could have some value. Even White manages that to a degree, until he starts veering off into unsubstantiated facts or tangents or, you know, yelling at people accepting awards.

  • PRESIDENT MAO | January 8, 2014 6:41 PMReply

    All I can say is: YEAH, BITCH! At least that attention whore that is Armond White is punished for his sins...

  • surfduddy | January 8, 2014 4:22 PMReply

    New York Film Critics Circle is a small frat that can easily be bought off. We all should be mad at all of them. Shills.

  • Sam Adams | January 8, 2014 5:03 PM

    Anything to back that up with?

  • David | January 8, 2014 1:18 PMReply

    Armond White and his supporters are nothing but trolls. Do no feed the trolls.

  • Rick | January 8, 2014 1:06 PMReply

    There is a bigger issue obviously if he thinks basic polite behavior to not heckle someone because a bunch of other people said that person deserves an award as "subservience." That because he is paid to review movies that means he has to always be criticizing whatever is happening just in front of him.

  • Christopher Inoa | January 8, 2014 12:44 PMReply

    Kanye West for all his faults, continues to impress musically. Armond White is more like the Skip Bayless of Film Criticism. A small man who needs to feel that he is the smartest guy in the room, even when his opinions make no sense.

  • Schizopolis | January 8, 2014 9:54 PM

    They're both egomaniacs, but White is obviously more immature.

  • Richard Parkin | January 8, 2014 12:28 PMReply

    White's self-proclaimed "strong voice" is worthwhile when he stands up and makes a passionate argument on behalf films dismissed by other critics, but obnoxious when he rails against those that have been praised. He devotes too much energy to the latter.

  • Lou Lumenick | January 8, 2014 12:23 PMReply

    I just wanted to note that despite what some people are claiming, there is nothing in the New York Film Critics Circle's bylaws specifically prohibiting members from disclosing vote totals -- or anything else that happens out our meetings. (You can find the bylaws in the membership section of the NYFCC website). I have published vote totals several times in the past, as did Jim Hoberman last year, and other members have felt free to anonymous leak details from the meeting to various media outlets for years.

  • Tickle Me Film Crit | January 13, 2014 7:42 PM

    Article VI, Section B, next-to-last sub-point:
    "Only the final vote from the final ballot shall be revealed to the public."

  • David Glassman | January 8, 2014 12:11 PMReply

    White and Lumenick each have their own mixed up, serious issues with both anger and basic human interaction, true, but it's not like the rest of this group is made up of a bunch of really nice, really cool film critics who are interested in awarding the best.

  • Brian | January 8, 2014 11:57 AMReply

    Please.. his reviews are badly written and have little insight. Nobody is going to miss him if he stops writing for NY Post.

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