The Steve McQueen Incident

On January 6th, 2014, after accepting an award for his critically-praised slave drama 12 Years a Slave at the New York Film Critics Circle awards, Director Steve McQueen was booed and heckled by a member of the audience.  Reports from Variety say McQueen’s speech was met with vulgarities and shouts accusing the the now-celebrated director of being a “doorman” and a “garbage man.”

You probably know by now that this wasn’t some sneaky protestor or drunken attendee, but rather notorious film critic and then-member of the New York Critics Film Circle Armond White.  Mr. White, who has built a maligned reputation for predictably panning movies universally praised by his peers and celebrating movies that are virtually uncelebrated, had used this  ceremony as a platform for contrarian jeering in past instances.

Mr. White’s subsequent expulsion from the New York Film Critics Circle was a deserved one.  His was certainly unbecoming behavior, not just vulgar and offensive on a professional level, but socially discourteous and rude.  But, in the realm of movies, what does it mean?

The Metrics

The internet makes things easier.  These days, there are a handful of online resources for determining the value of a movie. The most obvious and accessible include the following:  Internet Movie Database  displays a 1 to 10 rating score based on the votes of any user who wishes to one-click their opinion.  MetaCritic conglomerates the scores from all major critical outlets to assign assign moves a 1 to 100 score.  And, perhaps the most cited metric, Rotten Tomatoes, which displays a percentage score to measure what percentage of submitted reviews for a specific movie are positive.  On the Rotten Tomatoes scorecard, the Tomatometer, movies that fall in the positive are “fresh,” those in the negative are “rotten.”  This last site also functions as a measure of the behavior of critics, as a running tally is kept on each critic on the percentage of times that he/she agrees with the consensus.

For reference and understanding, here’s a list of some fan favorite film critics and the percentage of time they agree with the collective of their peers:

  • Peter Travers of People and Rolling Stone agrees with the Tomatometer 80% of the time
  • Christy Lemire of Ebert Presents at the Movies agrees with the Tomatometer 80% of the time
  • Will Leitch of Deadspin agrees with the Tomatometer 71% of the time
  • Vince Mancini of FilmDrunk agrees with the Tomatometer 72% of the time
  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times agreed with the Tomatometer 77% of the time

In contrast, Armond White agrees with the Tomatometer just 52% of the time.  It is this distinctly questionable rate that has earned him his reputation as America’s Most Hated Film Critic.  Thinking maybe it’s a fluke statistic?  Well, consider that White described Grown Ups (10 % on Rotten Tomatoes) as “cheerful… and heartfelt”  and saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (20%) as “further proof” that Director Michael Bay has “a gift for visceral amazement.”  And standing in traffic on the other side of the road, White described The Dark Knight (94%) as “a highly questionable pop enterprise” and described the now legendary supporting performance of late actor Heath Ledger as “one-note ham-acting and trite symbolism.”

Oh, snap.  You don’t mess with Batman, Armond.  Seriously…

The Dark Knight Rises Incident

On June 16, 2012, with national anticipation boiling after a near five year wait for the third and final entry in Christopher Nolan’s fabled Dark Knight trilogy, someone beat Armond White to the contrarian counter-punch.  Syndicated critic and host of the blog Hollywood and Fine Marshall Fine submitted the first negative review for The Dark Knight Rises, ruining the film’s perfect 100% rating three days before the film’s release.  The backlash was immediate and immense.  Within hours, thousands of comments had spilled in on both the Rotten Tomatoes link to the page and the Hollywood and Fine site where the review was hosted.  Fans were livid and the nature of their comments reflected as much.  The reaction was intense that for the first time in the site’s history, Rotten Tomatoes disabled its comment feature.  The server that hosted Hollywood and Fine crashed under the volume of bitter traffic.  A quick scan of the comments revealed reactions that ranged from personal attacks, to questioning his merits as a critic, to straight death threats.

The general baseline of the reactionary sentiment was steady throughout.  These fans, most of whom, again, had not yet seen the movie, dismissed Fine’s review as an attempt to “troll,”  an accusation diluted with the second, third, and forty-eighth submitted negative review.  Currently, the film sits at an impressive but not stellar 88%.  Even so, the mask had been pulled away long enough to sear the image of fanatic ugliness into the cultural conscience.

 Providing a Definition for “Trolling”

Trolling is a pretty expected phenomena these days.  Every forum, comment section, and thread displays a trolling attempt.  In short, a troll is someone who incites strong reaction by displaying contrary, controversial, or inflammatory opinion.  The motivations are nebulous and mysterious sometimes, but generally trolling falls into three categories.

1.)  Trolling for self-amusement.

2.)  Trolling to highlight one’s own position within the argument (self-promotion).

3.) Trolling to reveal some weakness in structure or questionable element in the commonly accepted institutional perspective.

It’s hard to speculate toward White’s motivation, but it is indisputable that the critic who insults movies like There Will be Blood (91%) and Up (94%) while praising Jonah Hex (12%)for its “confronting the hideous compromises people make with their social conventions and desperations ,”  the critic who lamented that the Harry Potter series was the “dullest franchise in the history of movie franchises” while simultaneously asserting I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry to be a “Modern Classic,” is very much a troll.

Let’s Talk About Metrics

What if every early performance of Shakespeare had been immediately measured by a two-question survey handed out to the audience?  What if Picasso masterpieces had first been displayed with “Like” and “Dislike” buttons at the base of the exhibit?  All subsequent art would be tired abstract portraiture and Hamlet would have eight sequels, four spinoffs, and countless ripoffs.

Ask any English, theater, or musical theory student what “criticism” means in their academic circles and they will explain that “criticism” means much more than determining whether a work is “good or bad.”  Distinguishing a work as good or bad is normal, standard, dare I say pedestrian.  To want everyone to agree with our black-and-white assessment of value is a very human desire.  A critic should be disciplined enough to divorce his/her self from these basic urges.  A critic’s role should be expanding the conversation started by the artistic subject under investigation. A film critic’s job is to explore what a film says about the culture it displays, to chase what the film says about humanity beyond the boundaries of the film’s culture and story, and to investigate the effectiveness of the film language employed to express these statements.

But instead, the internet culture’s knack for collecting and simplifying information has stripped the aim of criticism to a much more basic function.  Quick dose, single serving, immediate feedback, collected into an individual numerical value.  Predictably, with a score system in place, there has resulted in fans an unhealthy desire for uniformity in opinion (see The Dark Knight Rises Incident).

Measured uniformity in opinion is not healthy for the medium.  Standardized metric serves two groups:  casual movie-going fans and studios.  Need proof?  Consider that Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy had a ruinous influence on the next D.C. Films release, lending existential despair to the most joyless Superman exercise in movie history.  Rest assured, small time independent production companies do not understand film daring and creativity any more than the larger ones.  Where Dreamworks, Paramount, and Michael Bay will use box office intake to justify churning out half a dozen empty Transformers movies, independent studios will utilize the tool of standardized audience opinion to formulate their releases.  Remember that There Will Be Blood, considered by most to be one of if not the greatest film of the 2000s, opened the door to allow free-reign to P.T. Anderson for his follow-up, and the The Master  ended  up being  borderline self-parody.

If cinema is ever going to elevate itself into the realm of higher art– and it hasn’t yet– the responsibility for that elevation will fall onto both the artist and the critic.  As critics and fans, we should feel it our obligation to contribute more to the conversation than “Did I enjoy this?” or more accurately stated in the present, “Did we enjoy this?”  None of the high arts land on so simple and soft a discussion.  We need to be talking deeply and intelligently about the medium as art, not as product.  Right now, we aren’t doing that enough.

Armond White, Our Ugly Savior

Sorry, fellas.  I love, but someone has to say this.

Sorry, fellas. I love you all, but someone has to say this.

In his reviews, Armond White does not assign scores– no grades, no stars, no numerical assessments.  He does, even if from the most contrarian angle, attempt to inspire discussion.  An investigation of his 12 Years a Slave review reveals White’s belief that the film belongs in the torture porn genre.  White goes on to charge that the movie as belonging amongst those that “pretend ‘a conversation about race.’ The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.”

Given the critical community’s long history of having to back away from praise gifted to movies that investigated racial issues in ways later decided clumsy and inherently racist (start with Birth of a Nation and move through White Dog, Driving Miss Daisy, and the 2004 Best Picture winner Crash), maybe, right or wrong, White’s point is one that should be required investigation.  I would posit that, for purposes of the art, his forcing us to pump the brakes is far more significant an event than an opportunity to hit 100 on the Tomatometer.  While the rest of us race to choose the next big thing, it should be considered that someday we will have to answer for the simple grades we stamp on these films and we should be preparing for that now.

As unpleasant and incendiary as his opinions might be, Armond White is proving, in some ways, to be more important than any living critic.  Intentionally or not, he’s rebuking a flawed system (for which we are all partly responsible).  He’s a punk rock purist, now lifting his fight off of the page and infiltrating the ceremony, pulling screws and bolts from the machines that are carrying us closer and closer to un-daring uniformity.  Yes, Armond White is a troll and trolls are ugly. But so are the faces of the angry village mob who rise together to slay a monster.  A single troll,  no matter how loud, doesn’t really have the power to do damage to institution and sanctity of film.  A collective worldwide army seeking to eliminate all dissenting opinion absolutely does.