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The Politics of Film Criticism

Armond White, the past president of the New York Film Critics Circle, was charged with heckling Steve McQueen at their awards ceremony on January 5th. Just as McQueen was picking up an award from an adoring Harry Belafonte for his direction of “12 Years a Slave”, someone from White’s table yelled out “”You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. F— you. Kiss my ass.” Witnesses automatically assumed that White (an African-American) was the culprit because he despised the movie. However, he vehemently denied the charges.

Now heckling someone at a film industry awards ceremony is not the sort of thing that would generate much press attention, but in this instance coverage has encompassed the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times as if McQueen had been assassinated rather than heckled. One wonders if Judd Apatow was up there being awarded for directing a comedy starring Seth Rogen as a porn star afflicted with impotence and someone yelled out that Apatow was a big dick himself, would anybody care?

One can understand why the Hollywood Reporter would have covered the original story but its dissemination to the major media requires some explanation. In my view, it has a lot to do with the role of a film such as “12 Years a Slave” in fostering liberal expiation for racism and the almost cult-like devotion to it within the industry. White had the temerity to label McQueen’s film as torture porn and that had much more to do with the willingness of his professional peers and the press to call for punitive measures than any amount of heckling, which by all admissions lasted no more than 30 seconds or so.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the injured sensibilities of the pro-McQueen camp than David Denby’s blog posting on the New Yorker magazine titled “Privilege and Bad Manners”. Denby’s article was just an opportunity for him to denounce White’s review:

As is so often true with this critic, he launched into accusations against the filmmaker and the audience’s motives without doing the necessary exposition to establish the body of the movie—its plot, its tone, its visual style, and narrative strategy. Instead, the review was filled with sentences like the following: “Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise.”

Over on Rotten Tomatoes where my reviews appear, Denby is part of what they call “Top Critics”. When you see a full-page ad for a “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle”, two inside favorites to walk away with a wheelbarrow full of Oscars, you will inevitably see a blurb from someone like David Denby. He called McQueen’s movie the greatest ever made about slavery in America, an accolade that only makes sense given the lackluster competition. Hollywood, as we know, has had little interest in making movies about John Brown’s raid in Harpers Ferry or Reconstruction that express resistance to slavery and oppression. Black suffering is much more its cup of tea. And those that did address such events were racist, such as “Santa Fe Trail” and “Gone with the Wind”.

I took a look at some of Denby’s recent reviews on Rotten Tomatoes just to remind myself what elevated hackwork looks like nowadays. One item stuck out. Denby described “American Hustle” as “into the magical sphere—Shakespeare rules over it and Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are denizens—where profound human foolishness becomes a form of grace.” Poor Shakespeare, Lubitsch, and Sturges must be spinning so rapidly in their graves at such an odious comparison that a generator attached to their toes could supply the electrical needs of Cleveland for a year.

I first ran into Armond White’s film criticism in a weekly newspaper called the New York Free Press that had been launched as a challenge to the increasingly irrelevant Village Voice. The publisher, a conservative named Russ Smith, was not interested in promulgating conservative ideas except in his own prolix weekly column called Mugger. He wanted articles that were lively and readable. Besides hiring White, he gave Alexander Cockburn a roost. Talk about contrarian heavy artillery! Cockburn had been fired by the Village Voice for taking $10,000 from The Institute for Arab Studies to pay for a trip to Lebanon to research a book on the Israeli invasion, something that he had not mentioned to editor David Schneiderman. This was just the excuse he needed to get rid of a powerful critic of Zionism.

Smith’s weekly launched in 1988 and ran through 2011, not a bad run. I used to pick it up in a box on the street (it was a free newspaper that was funded through ads, especially for massage parlors) mostly for Cockburn but also for Armond White. Smith gave both writers free rein and the results were some of the most savagely uninhibited and brilliant prose to be read anywhere.

Before his stint at the New York Free Press, White wrote for The City Sun, a Brooklyn weekly, between 1984 and 1996. That’s where I first ran into his reviews. The City Sun was a kind of Young Turk challenge to the Amsterdam News just as Russ Smith’s paper was to the Village Voice. Andrew Cooper founded the paper with Utrice Leid, who had the misfortune of trying to bring WBAI into the mainstream after the paper folded. Looking at the station’s descent, one wonders if our protests to unseat Leid as station manager were ill-considered. Although Black owned and run, the paper was open to contributions from all quarters, including an article by a Nicaragua Network activist on my organization Tecnica’s work with front-line states in Africa.

Spunky papers like the New York Free Press and the City Sun are unfortunately no longer economically feasible with the advent of the Internet. It has been up to online publications like Counterpunch (with its fine print magazine as well) to step into the breach.

Print publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times have survived but only by becoming ever-increasingly devoted to the goals of corporations, whether they are in the petrochemical industries or the entertainment world. Recently the Times published what amounts to a 5000 word Monsanto commercial for genetically modified crops by Amy Harmon, while A.O. Scott continues to hype nearly every film that comes his way. When Monsanto or Sony places a full-page ad in the paper, they can expect special treatment from the publishers.

My good friend Richard Estes, who has interviewed me a number of times on his KDVS radio show in Davis, California, sized up the Times in a comment on my blog about Amy Harmon’s pro-GM article:

Go the library and read the NYT from 25-30 years ago, and compare it to today’s paper, you will be amazed by the difference. While the paper may have always served the same interests, it now does so in a way that is openly propagandistic, without the subtlety and journalistic skill that its writers used to possess. The independence that people like Tom Wicker and Anthony Lewis would sometimes display is long gone. Much the same is true, on a smaller scale, with my local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee.

There is a name for what most US newpapers have become: a greensheet. Back in the day, greensheets were small neighborhood, frequently suburban, newspapers supported by car dealer, insurance agent and realtor ads. They ran boosterish articles about the opening of new restaurants, local musicians and artists, small business developments, the July 4th parade and high school sports teams. Now, we have greensheets on a regional, national and international scale.

Armond White has become a lightning rod for criticism because he is a “contrarian”. In a period of deepening incestuous ties between big business and the media, contrarianism begins to look like the only reasonable course.

I know what it feels like to buck the Hollywood consensus even though I am a small-bore pistol compared to Armond White. When I dared to rate “Gravity” as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I got dozens of complains from incensed fans. Someone named Michael told me:

Oh and congratulations Louis. Your review dropped “Gravity” from 98% on Rotten Tomatoes to 97%. Your upset with other critics liking “Gravity” has left it’s [sic] mark. You must be proud. Your job is done.

I only wish that there was a website that aggregated reviews of the capitalist system that was the counterpart of Rotten Tomatoes. Then, you would really see “rottens” flying off the old Macbook like you’ve never seen before. Oh, I just realized. There is one: CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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