Armond White attends the 2010 New York Film Critics Circle Awards at Crimson on January 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
by Veronica Miller
Armond White has been a problem for a while now.
The New York movie critic has built a solid and well-wrought reputation as a contrarian critic in the film world. At best, he film criticism is described as “unique,” and at worst… well, any number of unfriendly adjectives have been bandied about.
The late Roger Ebert once referred to White as a troll — “a smart and knowing one,” Ebert wrote in 2009, “but a troll.” Cracked.com likens White’s reviews to the way a “punk teen picks out clothing: to seem different and piss everybody off.”
He’s had pubic run-ins with acclaimed movie directors, and has been tagged as America’s “most-hated critic.” And his latest antics do little to deflect those notions.
During Monday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, White was heard heckling 12 Years A Slavedirector Steve McQueen as the filmmaker accepted the NYFCC’s award for best director. No matter that McQueen was accepting the prestigious award after being introduced by Harry Belafonte; according to reports, White had no use for decorum or even common decency.
According to Variety, White was allegedly heard calling McQueen “an embarrassing doorman and garbageman,” and yelling, “F**k you, kiss my a**!”
That White would be upset about McQueen being given a “best director” award is not a surprise — White has long made a career out of slaying cinema’s sacred cows. He panned the otherwise critically-hailed 12 Years, calling it “tragedy porn” and likening it to horror movies such as Saw and Human Centipede.
But while a critic has a right to expressing his opinion — however profoundly absurd it may be — that liberty doesn’t extend to public nastiness, disrupting events with unsolicited profanity and shouting obscenities and insults at filmmakers as they accept awards.
In this case, White took the reputation he built with paper and ink and turned it into a scene from a reality show, giving observers yet another clue that this confounding critic might actually buys into what he writes.
For a while, it was easy to believe that White’s peculiar take on cinema could be an elaborate, written piece of performance art — this is the critic who panned otherwise beloved movies like Doubt,American Gangster and Gone Baby Gone, while praising Norbit and the Wayans Brothers spoof Dance Flick.
This is not to say that all critics and audiences have to agree that certain movies are great. But when one takes notice of the movies Armond White has loved — and to be clear, Death Race is also on that list — one has to wonder whether this is all just a ruse, or if White actually believes what he’s writing. After Monday’s outburst, it’s looking more like the latter.
But what’s the end game here? White’s critiques have drawn their fair share of attention over the years, but rarely do they add any depth to the discussion of what they claim to be about — the movies themselves.
Rather, Armond White’s opinions serve more as lightning rods for incredulity, sparking discussion not about the art, but about just how “crazy” Armond White and his opinions are. He writes as if the goal is to make enemies, levying personal attacks against movie-makers and insults at the audiences, lacing reviews with obscure cultural references as if to condescend the reader.
For someone who once served as the head of the New York Film Critics Circle, refocusing the conversation about cinema onto yourself and heckling people along the way is counter to the mission of thoughtful and valuable arts criticism.
The NYFCC has recognized this, apologizing to McQueen, calling an emergency meeting and stating that they may be looking into disciplinary action against White. White, meanwhile, maintains that reports of his outburst are false, saying his comments at the banquet were meant only for those sitting with him, and that they’ve been misrepresented in reports.
But White has no anxiety about the “emergency meeting” the NYFCC has called. As for whether he’ll be removed from the group, White says, “I don’t care what they decide.” He maintains that people in both media and film wish to see him maligned. Trouble is, much of his work has already done that job for them.