This morning, the members of the New York Film Critics Circle, including me, voted to expel Armond White, the former critic of the now-defunct New York Press (and currently the editor and movie critic of CityArts), from the group. To me, it was a sad moment – pathetic, really, though Armond brought it on himself. A week ago, at the Circle’s annual awards dinner, White made a rude and bellicose spectacle of himself, as he did the year before, by heckling one of the winners – in this case, Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, a movie that White, in his review, had dismissed as “torture porn.” Make no mistake: He has every right to dislike 12 Years a Slave, a movie that he considers not a powerful historical docudrama but a sensationalist feel-bad fantasy that is subtly designed to make white people feel good about their own guilt.
That’s a provocative view of an acclaimed film (Armond tosses out provocations like grenades and eats acclaimed films for breakfast). But last Monday night, during the awards ceremony, when McQueen got up to the podium to accept his award for Best Director, there were loud and disdainful comments coming from White’s table, and a number of witnesses who were within earshot quoted him as calling McQueen an “embarrassing doorman and garbageman,” and saying, “F— you, kiss my ass!” White has claimed, to writers from The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times, that he wasn’t heckling, that he and others at his table were just talking amongst themselves. (He has also denied that he said any of those words.) But I was sitting about 40 feet away from him, and though I couldn’t make out everything that was said, I can testify: Everyone at my table lurched around to see where the loud, jeering, disruptive comments were coming from. This unquestionably fit the definition of heckling. It was all meant to be heard by the room at large. When White later claimed that his comments were “sotto voce” (a musical term that literally means “soft voice”), he was either lying or lying to himself, or perhaps both.
The reason that the whole incident, to me, was sad is that Armond White is a critic I have defended, and at times championed, for being an extraordinarily vital voice: not a soft one, to be sure, but a demanding and even important one. As a critic, he is passionate, perverse, furious, infuriating, insightful, obtuse, humane, ruthless, fearless, out of his gourd, and, at his best, outrageously exciting to read. A lot of people despise him, because he can be a bully in print, and he wears the I-stand-alone perversity of his opinions far too proudly, like a military armband. Yet much of the dismissal of Armond is itself way too dismissive. He’s an embattled critic, but one who is often at war with the lockstep tendencies in our culture, and that’s a noble crusade. Sure, there are days when he says that a Transformers movie (or a bad Brian De Palma movie) is superior to anything by Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh, and you want to go, “Enough, stop!” But there are other days when he slices through the piety of adoration that surrounds certain movies. He’s a reckless master at unmasking cultural prejudices.
When you want to read a critic, it’s often because something in his or her voice inspires and incites you far beyond their good judgment (or lack of it). You want to crawl inside their head. You want to see things the way they do, even if you don’t agree with them. I’ve often remarked that I agreed with Pauline Kael even when I disagreed with her more than I did with other critics when I agreed with them. White, who idolizes Kael, is capable of provoking that kind of response. Not that I’d really compare him to Kael; he’s more from the take-no-prisoners literary-terrorist school, an heir to Lester Bangs and the young-gun James Wolcott of the ’70s Village Voice. When you read Armond, he isn’t always reasonable, but at times he’s something more enticing. He parades his unruly, belligerent perceptions like hardcore psychological rock & roll.
Does Armond White simply have his own idiosyncratic opinions? Or is he a contrarian, a bomb thrower who’s deliberately out to rile people up? I would say that both are true, but for most people the contrarian label sums him up, and you often can’t tell where the fearless free-thinker leaves off and the bullying, didactic iconoclast begins. And that’s the problem with Armond’s criticism. He writes like he’s the last honest man in America, but contrarianism, by definition, isn’t completely honest. It’s self-hype, designed to provoke a reaction. I truly do believe that Armond White comes to the vast majority of his opinions honestly. He’s a gay African-American fundamentalist-Christian aesthete, and if that doesn’t make him an individual, I don’t know what would. But it seems to me that Armond, over the years, has become so invested in the idea of how different his gaze is from everyone else’s that he has turned individuality into a species of megalomania. The subtext of too many of Armond’s reviews is: Only I see the truth! And it’s that need to be the only truth-teller in the room that, too often, seems to be driving him. A lot of great critics have anger – it was there in Kael, and in Lester Bangs – but Armond’s blistering attacks reflect not just anger but rage. That’s a dangerous place to write from.
I’ve known Armond White casually, as a fellow critic, since the early ’90s, and seeing him around at screening rooms, movie-industry parties, and, yes, awards dinners, what I’ve always observed about him is that as contentious as he can be on the page, he has always come off as a strikingly friendly person – not only to me, but even to critics he’s bashed. For all his bluster, he’s got a hearty, understated demeanor, a twinkle in his eye, and a gentle jolly chuckle. You can talk to him about a film he’s disemboweled on the page (one that you loved), and he’ll say what he thinks, but the words always come out a lot mellower than what he wrote. I suppose that could make the more forceful torrents of his writing look scarily “compartmentalized,” but the way I’ve always seen it, Armond cared, to the point of anger, about art, but he was a civil and even gracious person because he recognized that even the people whose work he didn’t respect (filmmakers or critics) were human beings. When he went kamikaze on the page, he was acting like the critic version of a performance artist, transforming his opinions into scalding drama (which is part of what critics do).
Yet this all began to come crashing down at the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner back in 2011, when White was chairman. Emceeing that year’s awards, he insulted several of the winners from the podium (introducing Tony Kushner to present the Best Picture award to The Social Network, he said, “Maybe he can explain why it won”), and then, last year, when he was no longer chairman, he heckled from his table in the same way that he did this year (at the time, the object of his wrath was Michael Moore, to whom he yelled “F—- you!”). And now that he has done it again, what’s become clear is that Armond White’s “contrarian” impulses have slid over the line from being things that he thinks into a depressingly established pattern of reckless uncivil behavior. Ultimately, the two have nothing to do with each other. Words and ideas are one thing; actions – destructive ones – are another. White has the right to believe, and say in print, anything he wants. But disrupting a public event is a squalid form of acting out that has no defense. And that’s why he was kicked out of the New York Film Critics Circle: because of a disturbing, and arguably disturbed, pattern of stubborn misbehavior.
What’s bizarre, and distinctive, and revealing about this situation, however, is that Armond obviously feels that he has the right to disrupt a public event. He’s not just a mindless crank tossing dumb insults from the back of the room. He’s a mindful crank who has turned the trumpeting of his opinions about movies into a form of (un)civil disobedience. He believes he’s justified because he thinks he’s the only truth-teller in the room. But that suggests that he’s a critic who’s now getting high on hate, and bringing that impulse out into the open. A lot of the people in the room last Monday night could hear Armond White, but in another sense he has stopped being a critic who anyone can hear. His writing and his heckling have merged into the sound of one hand clapping for itself.