Contentious critic Armond White expelled from New York critic’s group over heckling

It would be very easy to say something glib about Armond White’s expulsion from the New York Film Critics Circle, but I don’t think it’s an easy situation, and I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that should be dismissed with an easy joke.

I didn’t make a huge deal out of it when I got the news earlier this year, but since I know you can keep a secret, I’ll tell you that I was over-the-moon excited and a little overwhelmed to be admitted to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. I am a newly minted member, and that means that for the first time ever, I voted on the awards for the organization, something that may strike some of you as odd if you’ve been reading my work for a while.

After all, I’ve been writing about movies online since 1996, and in those 17 years, I have been fairly consistent in my opinion about awards shows, and in particular, the Oscars. I have never pretended to be excited about awards or what they “mean.” I think there’s something really unpleasant about the way a full third of the film year seems to be focused entirely on whether or not someone gets a gold statue to put in their house, instead of the films themselves. I am not going to just randomly change my position now, either. I still feel the same way, with a single exception.

When LAFCA voted in 1985 to give Terry Gilliam both Best Director and Best Picture for his unreleased “Brazil,” they struck a powerful blow in favor of the artist at a moment that it needed to happen. They made a decision as a body to do this thing that flew right in the face of a major studio, and they did it in a company town. They sent a message with their awards that year, and it forced a real reaction and got “Brazil” its American release. I was 15 years old when it happened, watching the drama unfold in extreme slow-motion since news did not travel the same way, and particularly film news. I felt like it was the most insane gangster move any film critics group ever pulled.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it happened as Gilliam was struggling to get Universal not to edit his film in a way that would destroy it, and it seemed likely that the film would not get a US release. Gilliam pretty much burned down his entire future career as a studio filmmaker with his tactics, but it was amazing to see someone fight for his film in public. He ran an ad in “Variety” that famously appeared as an open letter to Sid Sheinberg, the head of the studio, asking when “Brazil” would be released. Terry didn’t just bite the hand that feeds… he cut it off at the wrist, then used it to flip the bird back at the hand’s owner.

At the height of the drama, LAFCA managed to get a look at the movie without the studio’s knowledge, and when they announced their awards for the year, “Brazil” won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Again… this was an unreleased movie at that point. Talk about a pointed message. I never would have seen that film in a theater in Tampa in 1986 if that hadn’t happened, and more significantly, I might never have seen it as Gilliam intended at all. When I was asked to join the organization that did that, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I may not believe in awards in the larger overall sense of reducing all of art to a horse race, but when critics can come together to actually change things and to shine a light on films that genuinely deserve the help and the attention, that is a good thing, and I will proudly participate in that.

When we voted this year, there was some friction in the room, and people were very vocal both about the things that pleased them and the things they didn’t. I wouldn’t say it was all hugs and rainbows when things were over, either. As with any case where you’re voting as part of a body instead of as an individual, not every award we gave pleased every person who is part of LAFCA. Even so, no one felt the need to disrupt the actual awards ceremony. We all have our own individual forums where we are more than welcome to write about any films we want to, any way we want to, and the same is true of Armond White.

After all, White has made his name by being a very vocal advocate of the disruption of pop culture. I think that’s the best way to describe what he does, although there are plenty of people who like to call White a contrarian or even a troll. The thing is, I think there’s an important role that White fills in his best moments. I think there’s value in trying to embrace all of pop culture. I walk into every film hoping that it works, hoping that I’ll get something genuine out of each experience. I have a huge appetite for trash, the crazier the better. And I certainly know the feeling when you’re out on a limb all by yourself, the only one who loves a movie, no matter what the consensus is. I wish more people threw a monkey wrench into the way films get digested, though. I think too few people ask questions about why people like what they like, and there is value in challenging the mainstream.

When I reviewed “12 Years A Slave,” I described it as a no-apologies horror film, and I don’t think that description is a stretch. The film is designed to immerse the viewer in the experience that Solomon Northup went through, and I think it plays like a nightmare that the viewer can’t escape. While White hated the film, I don’t disagree with him calling it a horror film as well. It’s just that he sees that as an insult, a reason to dismiss what McQueen accomplishes in the movie, and I see that as a mere description. I don’t think horror is any less worthy of discussion than any other genre, and I think it’s important that we challenge the notions of what qualifies a film as part of a specific genre. So often, people have very narrow notions of how you can describe things, and I like that White has his own way of viewing things.

I’m not sure how I feel about him being one of the other people endorsing “Man Of Steel,” but when you look at the annual column he does called the “Better-Than List,” I think the value of it is that it pushes back against what becomes a sort of homogenized voice over the course of awards season, with the same short list of films praised over and over and everything else disappearing from the conversation completely. I may not agree with everything he says… hell, I may not agree with ANYTHING he says… but that’s never been terribly important to me with critics. What I look for is a voice and a genuine attitude towards the films being reviewed. I want passion. I want someone who will fight for the things they love and rail against what they hate. I want people to demand more of the mainstream.

I think Armond earned his expulsion from NYFCC, and not just with this latest incident. Owen Gleiberman wrote about the decision today, and since he was one of the people who helped make that decision, I think his explanation is important to read to understand what the NYFCC was thinking. I’d like to hear White’s reaction, and I’d really like it if he did it in print. I know he did an interview with The /Filmcast right after the incident, and he seems to categorically deny having yelled anything. I know several of the people involved here, and they’re not people that have ever struck me as having had any particular feelings about White one way or another. He basically forced their hand here. Armond doesn’t seem to feel like it matters if he is or isn’t part of the group.

There’s a larger question that IndieWire asked today about whether or not critics should vote for awards, and I think I answered the question from my perspective at the start of this piece. I think there’s good that can be done. I think they’re best if they’re not seen as precursors to something else, but rather as the end of the annual process for the critics involved. I’m not interested in the Oscars, so why would I care whether or not the votes of LAFCA have any influence on that race? I’m more interested in the idea that you can do something for movies that resonates over time, that you can have some lasting impact, like the “Brazil” situation.

Armond White is in danger of giving up any real place he has in the larger conversation about movies if he buys into the role of outside agitator. I don’t mind if someone’s resolutely unimpressed by movies that audiences embrace, as long as they come to that place honestly. I don’t care about empty poses from anyone, whether I agree with them or not. I’d be more impressed by Armond if he chose to own the actions that supposedly happened at the NYFCC ceremony. If he yelled something, he should be happy to stand behind it, the same way you would with something in print that you published. I might think he was an ass for yelling, but I’d still have to respect that he took full responsibility for his own actions and behavior.

I suspect this incident will actually put Armond in a higher profile position, and I hope that if he does get a bump in awareness from this, that he focuses on fighting the cultural battles that he genuinely believes in, and isn’t just falling into a pattern of endless and ultimately pointless contention.