Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Oh, Armond

Awards season was going so well. Oh sure there have been the usual little controversies - Harvey Weinstein's underhanded marketing tactics and grumbles over the state of the Best Foreign Film shortlist again - but it's been a good year overall. There' no shortage of possible contenders, and no real consensus about anyone leading the pack. The various regional critics' circles have been putting forth a variety of different picks. The New York Film Critics Circle picked "American Hustle" for Best Film, but the Best Director award went to Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave." And then came the awards ceremony a few days ago, where McQueen's acceptance speech was heckled by one of the critics and his associates. That critic? Armond White.

If you've been around film culture much you already know who Armond White is, the famously contrarian and provocative film critic currently writing for CityArts, and previously for the New York Press. He's chaired the New York Critics Circle multiple times and there have been other abusive outbursts before, most memorably toward documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. I've read several of White's reviews over the years and heard him speak on podcasts and other venues. I don't always agree with him, and I'm pretty sure that some of his positions are designed to be controversial (he claimed 2009's "Precious" was worse than Eddie Murphy's notorious "Norbit," and compared "Jack and Jill" to the Greek classics for example), but he's no slouch as a critic. I agree with many of his points and I like that he keeps the critical conversation interesting.

I'm fully behind White's CityArts review of "12 Years a Slave," for example, where he took McQueen to task for the use of extreme content in his depictions of slavery, which he felt sensationalized and detracted from the portrayal of the African-American experience. There's been overwhelming praise for the film that has positioned it as a major awards contender, and it was important to see a dissenting opinion, especially from an African-American film critic who was perhaps in the best position to deliver it. Were the comparisons to torture porn like "Human Centipede" a bit much? Sure, but it got the point across. And he's certainly not alone is his opinion - Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, has called "12 Years a Slave" "slavery porn" and Slant magazine's Ed Gonzales accused it of "artistic posturing."

But heckling McQueen at an awards dinner? Throwing F-bombs and comparisons to garbage men around to follow up a great presenter speech by Harry Belafonte? Good grief, it's hard to take Armond White seriously after this. There were other ways of showing disapproval for the society's pick for Best Director. White could have refused to attend the ceremony, refrained from clapping, or stayed seated during the standing ovation that Belafonte received. People would have gotten the message loud and clear. Shouting obscenities makes him look like a spotlight hog and a bully. Moreover, the controversy really does nothing to help his position or the wider discussion of the film. Only the gossip sites are happy about this incident.

What really gets me is that now McQueen is trying to deny he heckled anyone, in spite of a roomful of his colleagues being present at the event. It's not just one source who identified Armond White as the heckler, but a dozen of them, and mostly critics with a lot more credibility than he has. The New York Film Critics Circle has already delivered an apology to McQueen and is taking action to possibly oust White from their ranks - an unprecedented move. I knew an apology from Armond White wasn't likely, but denying his actions really makes me lose a lot of respect for him. We need critics like Armond White around to keep everyone on their toes, but what can his opinion really count for after this?

Part of me wonders if this isn't all an elaborate bit of reverse-psychology, perpetrated by White to improve the Oscar chances of "12 Years a Slave," which is facing a lot of stiff competition. McQueen has a lot of momentum on his side, but he's been a bit awkward in public appearances and the film itself is a notoriously difficult watch. White has now brought more attention to the film and its director, and has set up a great opportunity for Belafonte and McQueen to get a second chance to do things right on a much larger stage.

Anyway, right now matters are still unfolding. Now that he's in the spotlight, Armond White is far from done talking. We're still awaiting a decision from the New York Film Critics Circle regarding disciplinary action. Rumors are still flying about who actually said what, and who actually heard what.

And it's still early in awards season yet.

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