Armond White row: Critics have got better, not worse

White is overstating it wildly when he claims that film criticism has lost its independence

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You can’t help but feel a measure of sympathy for Armond White, expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle after 27 years as a member for allegedly heckling Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years A Slave, at an awards dinner.

Maybe he did it. Maybe he didn’t. Still, it seems unduly harsh to boot him out of the Circle on the grounds of what was, at worst, bad manners – if he had been the critic for The New York Times, you can’t imagine he would have been dismissed so summarily.

It also risks sending a message to the Hollywood studios that the media can be brought into line. In this digital age, we critics are a nervous bunch anyway as outlets shrink and the competition from film reviewing websites intensifies. Publicists harass us, asking for advance tip-offs about our opinions, quotes for posters and how many stars we’ve given a film. It is also true that, come awards season every year, a strange consensus emerges. The same films are championed in critics’ polls, as if all the reviewers are of a single mind.

Nonetheless, White is overstating it wildly when he claims that film criticism has lost its independence and that we are now in a world of “group think, unanimity and conformity”.

His views seem tinged with nostalgia for some lost golden age when Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were in their pomp and film criticism was somehow more fiery, contentious and independent than it is now. Such an age never really existed. There were plenty of dull and conformist critics in Kael’s era too, not to mention those – the so-called “Paulettes” – who slavishly followed her.

As for awards shows bringing critics and those they write about too close together, there is nothing new in that either. In the UK in years gone by, after press screenings of films, the critics would go and have lunch with the directors and actors. Then, they would write their reviews. This hardly seemed a system to guarantee independent thinking.

If you want bile, contrarianism and quirkiness in film reviewing, there is far more of that out there today than ever before – and it doesn’t all come from Armond White either.