The New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner is traditionally a festive, elegant affair honoring the filmmakers and actors voted best in their category each year by one of the most prestigious critics’ groups in the country. But after last night’s edition – the 76th in the group’s proud history – all talk of the pleasures of Colin Firth’s charming acceptance speech as Best Actor or Michelle Williams’ sweet presentation to Mark Ruffalo as Best Supporting Actor was drowned out by chatter about critic Armond White and director Darren Aronofsky.
White, the notoriously contrarian film critic who publishes in the free weekly New York Press, was the 2010 chair of the NYFCC (of which Owen Gleiberman and I are members), and therefore, by custom, the emcee of the event. And reliably contrary to most of his voting colleagues, he didn’t like many of the choices made by the rest of the group: He disdained Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, and The Social Network, among others, in reviews that coincidentally have whipped up publicity and generated page hits for his publication even as they have confounded or infuriated or amused readers. Aronofsky, of course, is the director of Black Swan. And in presenting the NYFCC award for cinematography to Black Swan’s Matthew Labatique, Aronofsky couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a verbal swipe at the evening’s host, saying, “I thought I was giving White the compassion award because if you don’t have something, you should get it. Seriously, keep it up because you give all of us another reason not to read The New York Press.”
Then White couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond: “That’s all right. Darren reads me. That’s all I want. And because he reads me, he knows the truth.” The proceedings became ruder from there, more self-referential, more uncomfortable. Introducing Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner to present the best picture award to The Social Network, White offered, “Maybe he can explain why it won best picture.” And closing the evening – his final moment at the microphone – the emcee threw in a gratuitous swipe at director Noah Baumbach, another filmmaker on his s— list, saying, “I thank the Circle for not awarding a single award to Greenberg.”
We all left – okay, I left – feeling sour and lectured to and embarrassed. Represented by an ungracious spokesman, all critics were made to look as sour and bitter and ungenerous as caricature (and Ratatouille) would have us. Judged by snark from one irritated director, everyone in that business was made to look ungracious.
It’s a complex thing, the relationship between critics and the artists we write about. We are not, most of us, filmmakers ourselves, or actors, or screenwriters, and yet we analyze the work of those who are with a sincere trust in our own critical talents. When we praise artists in the course of writing about their work, it’s natural that they feel good. When we criticize their work, it’s understandable that they may feel bad. The possibilities of hurt feelings can’t stand in the way of our critical thinking. But without a mutual appreciation and respect for what both parties do for the love of movies, then, well, we’re all missing the point. Even for critics, a dressed-up evening in the company of those who make movies – even movies we may have criticized in print – ought to be an occasion for pleasure, admiration, joy. Even for the moviemakers, a party night out with critics ought to be fun. Or at least a chance to remember that we’re all decent, thoughtful people, working together on the side of art.
I debated whether this post might be too tricky, talking inside-baseball about an organization to which I belong. But then I got to thinking about the damage done by rudeness in all its forms when we talk about movies. I got to thinking again about the bewilderment of last night, all of us movie critics and movie makers alike ready to party yet being provoked, against our will, to rumble. Then I decided to use this as my podium.