No intelligent person really thinks The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Cider House Rules, In the Bedroom or Chicago are good movies.” Chew on that quote for a moment while we ponder everything Americans hate about the idea of critics.
The man responsible for those words is Armond White, film critic for the weekly New York Press and long one of America’s pissiest arbiters of cinematic taste. He’s the kind of guy who, in his 1999 review of The Blair Witch Project, noted of those who actually liked the film that “the critical laxity, the aesthetic slovenliness, the moral dishonesty of praising BWP typifies why today’s film culture is in the toilet.” And that was one of his more polite commentaries.
The quote that leads this piece is pretty much in character for White, who wrote it in an Oct. 29 feature cover story for the Press. His subject was the response of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC)—of which White is a member—to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ban on the distribution of “screener” tapes and DVDs for awards consideration. Earlier in October, the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle had announced that it would not hold its annual awards in protest against the screener ban, which many critics and filmmakers argued would damage the chances for smaller films to be seen—and, by extension, garner awards consideration. At their Oct. 17 business meeting, NYFCC members were considering what, if any, action they would take.
In a 2,500-word airing of the NYFCC’s dirty laundry, White pilloried those among his colleagues who were considering some kind of statement of protest. He argued that film critics had surrendered their role as outside commentators on the art and business of film in favor of participating in the Hollywood marketing machinery and getting their home-viewing perks. Influencing the Academy Awards nominations through critics’ awards only mattered, according to White, if one accepted the premise that the Oscars were a legitimate barometer of cinematic quality. A real critic would care only about advancing the cause of quality filmmaking, irrespective of the time of year or the urge to feed the awards-hype beast.
And damn him, on this point, he’s pretty much on target. Film critics have thrown up their hands in surrender to the power of the Oscars, justifying their serfdom by acknowledging the “reality” of the gold statuette’s sway. Desperate to appear in any way relevant, they have latched onto the snippets of cachet their year-end awards and top-10 lists dispense.
The irony is that the reason critics have become largely irrelevant in the first place is the proliferation of pop promotionalism masquerading as journalism. Moviegoers have become understandably skeptical of people who call themselves critics when movie marketing campaigns render them indistinguishable from blurb-whores like Earl Dittman of Wireless Magazine and Clay Smith of Access Hollywood. Media outlets do puff-piece interviews with celebrities that contribute nothing to the discussion of film but star-fucker fawning.
That, I think, is the essence of Armond White’s thesis: Film journalists are failing in their responsibility of being teachers about the art and craft of film. Like it or not, American public, critics know more about such things than most viewers do—or at least, we have no business being employed to write about them if we don’t. It’s true that many people read movie “reviews” primarily as pieces of consumer advocacy regarding whether ticket dollars will be well spent. But any writer, over time, can develop enough audience recognition to become an effective barometer for a given reader’s likes and dislikes. Expressing an opinion demands no context. American film criticism actually needs to become more critical—not in the sense of being negative, but in the sense of demonstrating the exercise of discerning judgment.
But here’s irony No. 2, and it’s the one White seems oblivious to: His brand of intellectual bullying is what leads many people to believe—falsely—that critics are in it not to teach, but to show off their superiority. Too often, White appears incapable of acknowledging why a film he loathes might still have connected with some viewers, or why one he adores might inspire others to shrug. There are no shades of gray in his aesthetically absolute universe, an indefensible position when you’re discussing something you claim to believe is an art form. It’s even more indefensible when you alienate those who still have some things to learn about the difference between an enjoyable night at the movies and a great work of filmmaking. You don’t call a 10-year-old a moron because he hasn’t yet grasped that Garfield isn’t literature; you simply do the work of explaining why.
We don’t need Armond White telling us what “no intelligent person” would think about any given film. We need gifted writers who accept the responsibility of true educators—those who introduce the idea of standards with passion for their subject and respect for their pupils. Readers turn to softball “critics” so they won’t feel pummeled by narcissism masquerading as criticism. Somewhere, there’s a middle ground. It’s a lesson even an “intelligent person” like Armond White could stand to learn.