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[Marxism] Armond White: do movie critics matter?

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Subject: [Marxism] Armond White: do movie critics matter?
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 25 Mar 2010 09:48:25 -0400
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(Armond White is a colleague in NYFCO who was banned from a 
screening of "Greenberg", the new Ben Stiller vehicle, because he 
panned previous films by the director mercilessly. The key 
sentence in this article: "Over recent years, film journalism 
has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film 
industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial 
system.")

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/do-movie-critics-matter
April 2010
Do Movie Critics Matter?
Armond White

It’s always a good year at the movies, even if the great films can 
be counted on a few digits and never get mentioned at the Academy 
Awards. That’s why we need film critics—to help us understand the 
state of movies, our cultural life, and our general moral and 
political being. On the occasion of the New York Film Critics 
Circle’s Seventy-Fifth Anniversary and Awards dinner, my duties as 
the circle’s chairman led me toward one unavoidable fact: The 
practice of critical thinking about film is under assault.

It seems that film critics, as a breed, survive even though so 
much else in our culture is moving further and faster away from 
intelligence, individuality, morality, and literacy: As the 
filmmaker James Toback put it, “the deterioration of life as we 
know it.” Still, film critics persist, just as great movies—such 
as Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, 
and the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man—persist, in the face of 
technological changes that leave little room for art, reflection, 
or human expression.

Those activities and qualities need our attention in order to be 
nurtured and preserved. But how—unless there’s true critical 
guidance? When the film circle was founded in 1935, its first 
chairman, Frank S. Nugent (who eventually went on to be a 
screenwriter for the legendary John Ford on such classics as Wagon 
Master and The Searchers), wrote about the circle’s creation and, 
in a New York Times article, quoted the circle’s constitution: “to 
represent, as an impartial organized working unit, the profession 
of film criticism; to recognize the highest creative achievements 
in the field of motion pictures and thereby to uphold the dignity 
and significance of film criticism.”

After seventy-five years, belief in that constitution has 
declined. There are few examples where critical practice exhibits 
those basic principles and ideas. Most editors and publishers 
today cut out or limit criticism’s traditional media function. 
Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I 
took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline 
Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the 
public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an 
audible hush—not applause.

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been 
considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a 
partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased 
prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing 
consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked 
only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if 
Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no 
longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to 
advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to 
be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies 
because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and 
experience.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of 
journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, 
in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the 
critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual 
critics worry about their job security while editors and 
publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject 
their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but 
not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of 
commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines 
content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no 
longer read.

Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes 
the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and 
flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack 
the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this 
war between traditional journalistic standards and the new 
acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.

By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, 
half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s 
free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film 
criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as 
related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also 
differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” 
whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t 
practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means 
of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a 
torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually 
based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the 
French academic’s notion of cinephilia).

The popularity of movies used to be celebrated during the 1960s 
pop-art era, when popular culture was considered a new form of 
mass, democratic communication that united all classes and was 
open to heterogeneous creative temperaments. Hollywood always 
catered to a populist impulse that seemed, in itself, to call for 
outbursts of excitement or vitriol.

This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s 
being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin 
Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned 
into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten 
Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus 
as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post 
(surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the 
reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the 
critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. 
This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently 
observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

By dumping reviewers onto one website and assigning spurious 
percentage-enthusiasm points to the discrete reviews, the Internet 
takes revenge on individual expression—the essence of criticism, 
if not a definition of democracy itself. This shows an oddly 
anarchic tendency in pop culture to vulgarize professionalism—to 
distrust it. As surely as the Rotten Tomatoes fanboys rabidly 
anticipate high percentages for the Hollywood blockbusters geared 
to their adolescent taste, this distrust demonstrates our 
journalism’s failure to encourage cinematic literacy.

Art appreciation—once a staple of a liberal-arts education that 
taught music, literature, and fine art—derives from knowledge of a 
form’s history and standards, not simply its newest derivations or 
mutations. Movies also must be given the acceptance and protection 
that distinguish them from television and equate them to the other 
fine arts. Only critical expertise can provide this grounding and 
guidance.

But it cannot happen in an atmosphere that is hostile to the idea 
of learning, reflection, and personal (rather than herd-mentality) 
expression. Personal expression turns average journalistic 
criticism into its own justifiable work of art. Disrespect for 
expertise and personal response in criticism comes down to a 
vulgar, if not simply craven, attack on intelligence, taste, and 
individual preference. All opinions are not equal; the opinion 
most worth disseminating is the informed opinion, based on 
experience and learning. If criticism is to have a purpose beyond 
consumer advice, it is important that critics not follow trends 
but maintain cultural and emotional continuity—a sense of 
mankind’s personal history—in their reporting on the arts.

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker received this year’s top awards 
from the New York Film Critics Circle, her Iraq-war action film 
offering another instance of the circle’s acknowledgment of 
topical relevance in popular art. It wasn’t my personal choice, 
but I accept it as proof that politics are an important component 
of the understanding of art—and increasingly so in this era of 
polarizing political and moral positions. It is the film critic’s 
constant struggle to get filmgoers and filmmakers to understand 
that politics and morality are still part of the artistic 
equation, even at the movies.

Without using morality, politics, and cultural continuity as 
measures of value, there is no way to appreciate the state of the 
culture or to maintain intelligence. Without criticism, we will 
have achieved naivete.


This essay is adapted from a speech given by Armond White, 
chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, at the group’s 
annual awards banquet on January 11, 2010. With movie luminaries 
such as Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Mo’Nique, 
Kathryn Bigelow, and others in the audience, White’s remarks were 
met with stony silence.


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