Annette Bening’s sincere, intelligent speech at last week’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards ceremony should be the cultural decree of the new year. It was the finest, calmest explanation of the relationship between critics and artists that we’re ever likely to hear in this era of media-crazed sensationalism.
"Something my husband often says that I think is very true is that actors are like gardenias: very, very fragile and sensitive to criticism. And I think what’s also clear [here tonight] is that critics… feel very vulnerable to criticism as well," Bening said. "We have a symbiotic relationship. We need each other. We need you to write carefully and thoughtfully about the cultural, political and sociological context that filmmaking lives in. We need you to keep a close eye on us. It’s part of how it always has been in terms of performance and criticism. It’s not new. And we want your approval—desperately—that’s just in our nature. There’s something very important about that, and there’s something important about being able to try to function under the watchful eye of criticism. That’s how it all works."
As NYFCC Chairman, I felt Bening’s speech was like music (I told her so). It’s climax was the simple statement: "It’s not new." Sadly, this symbiosis is something that most film critics and audiences don’t understand. Cowed by editors and publishers who have relinquished truth and intelligence to the promotion of power and money—resulting in the overweening tabloid nightmare that is today’s mainstream—some reviewers prefer the tired, poisonous myth that critics are hostile and inferior to filmmakers and performers. They forget that it’s up to critics, not film producers or publicists, to maintain critical authority and standards and not bend to the will of marketers. Bening’s speech asserted our interrelationship as well as our equality; it was the first such statement I’d ever heard in 24 years of attending NYFCC events.
Prior to Bening’s speech, director Darren Aronofsky presented the cinematography award to Matthew Libatique, his photographer on Black Swan. He used the occasion to make a weak joke about my negative review of the film, published by this newspaper. He got the old antagonisms rolling, then naive Michelle Williams and gullible Mark
Ruffalo followed suit, perhaps nervously thinking this is what film folk do in the presence of critics: a rare chance to settle scores. That’s precisely the inanity that Bening responded to, extemporizing about her colleagues’ apprehensiveness and the clearly misunderstood function of criticism. She termed it our mutual "vulnerability"— humanizing the confusion in a gracious, almost sexy-maternal way that was compassionate as well as sophisticated.
Compassion and sophistication are what we’ve lost in this age of media transition and chaos, exacerbated by the Internet where no standard of quality or principle exists. Bening’s words have received little attention in the media; instead, a deliberate distortion of the Jan. 10 gala has viciously misrepresented the truth. (Numerous bloggers spread the rumor that my compliments to the guests were in fact insults that made Bening cry.) I recognize this as a pitiful attempt to maintain the status quo—keeping critics and performers at bay as a way of perpetuating the power advantage of exorbitantly paid Hollywoodians over their Fourth Estate handmaidens. Even at last year’s NYFCC soiree, the audience of reviewers, gossip columnists and showbiz invitees guffawed when George Clooney boorishly lampooned the performer-critic relationship, snidely bragging he wouldn’t invite a certain critic to his Italian villa. Clooney’s bad manners went uncriticized as the acceptable thing to do. Now, Internet gossip spread a false account of the evening: Gawker and other websites twisted Aronofsky’s attack on me into malicious reports that I offended the attendees. These lies merely intimidate readers and journalists to be subservient to celebrities.
Yet something more egregious has occurred. The attempt to damage my reputation bounces back on the entire critical institution. The evening that I had introduced as "a celebration of film and criticism" got perverted into after-the-fact mudslinging that revealed criticism as a viper pit of enmity and discord—uglier than anything Bening’s thoughtful words could allay.
Public Indecency is what the police call an offensive, unwanted display of private parts. It’s also what Entertainment Weekly critic (and blogger) Lisa Schwarzbaum and The Village Voice’s critic Jim Hoberman committed when they took to the Internet with sick fantasies and vituperation about what happened at the Critics dinner. The Schwarzbaum and Hoberman duo are so consumed with envy and anger regarding my third tenure as the NYFCC
Chairman (the only African American to ever do so) that they broke solidarity with the organization through their public hostility. %u2028Revealing their pettiness once again, this cabal of New York film elites— who clog festival juries and committees, yet are incapable of discussing art, politics, religion or history—have forsaken critical debate and resorted to personal insult and deliberate mendacity. Their narrow-minds and small hearts are apparent in the rivalry they raise, yet don’t have the integrity to openly engage. It’s sordid to have to admit this: the lies Hoberman and Schwarzbaum have perpetrated about me actually sully themselves and, what’s worse, it embarrasses the entire practice of film criticism.
Schwarzbaum’s betrayal of the Circle should disgust any rightthinking person. As a former Chairman, she should know the position’s enormous pressure and protect the Circle’s unity, yet she has behaved contemptibly. She and Hoberman resemble children who can’t win an argument and so want to pout. In screening rooms and meetings, they huddle together, sniggering and giggling in packs like the not-cool kids in junior high school.
Hiding behind the facade of publications with larger circulations, they assume professional integrity that doesn’t exist. Oddly, they welcome being pissed on by movie people, then display the obnoxiousness of middleclass cowards who resent less-empowered people not like themselves.
Yes, racism motivates Schwarzbaum and Hoberman. They pretend to be hip and ladylike, but they’re simply the type of class oppressors unique to the bourgeoisie. Blue-collar people would likely be straightforward and more honest, but these pseuds harbor unexamined ethnic prejudices, political partisanship, intellectual pretenses and jealousy.
is, they’re shills: uninterested in free expression or different points
of view. Their lives are committed to promoting Hollywood and
controlling culture and criticism. Their dishonesty is symptomatic of
the media’s corruption. For years now, Hoberman hasn’t been able to
stand the heat of the New York Press’ competition. They cannot abide any challenge to their influence—a danger epitomized in the dubious consensus surrounding The Social Network, which
is nothing more than a memorial to in-group ruthlessness. Tellingly,
the film remains unsupported by public enthusiasm. Yet Hoberman is so
incestuously positioned in media and suspiciously connected to the
bohemian and art scenes that he’s got New York film culture toadying and
cowering before his most sinister whims.
of Internet clones—what one secretive critic termed "Hobermice"—
imitate his bigoted art and race preferences and follow his telepathic
command. It’s called hegemony. A real despot, Hoberman makes Internet
hoards bend the truth. (The Gawker rumormonger is, in fact, married to
Hoberman’s Village Voice editor.)
As for Schwarzbaum, a less interesting intellect, her position at Entertainment Weekly makes her a minion of the status quo while her personal connections—she’s buddies with pseudo-historian and former EW editor
Mark Harris, who annually freeloads as Schwarzbaum’s escort to the
event, then disparages the NYFCC in print—confound basic social
gentility. Schwarzbaum’s the sort who comes to your party, brings her
rude friends, eats your food, drinks your liquor, walks out in a huff
without saying "Thank you," then complains in public that the host is
publication that brainwashes its readers into consumerist idiocy, is
home to Schwarzbaum’s lifelong mantra "The Oscars matter!" It’s the
mentality of autograph hounds, which is how Schwarzbaum and the
Hobermice, in their post-awards-dinner tantrum, want to reduce the
NYFCC. That’s why they extol the elitism of The Social Network, the prizewinner I duly acknowledged at the podium.
For the record, here’s how I introduced presenter (and Schwarzbaum pal) Tony Kushner: "Our Best Film Award goes to The Social Network, the
movie that made the mainstream recognize the significance of the
Internet and how it has changed all our lives. We would be remiss if we
did not take a moment to remember Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers
student bullied by the Internet who then placed his suicide note on Mark
Zuckerberg’s Facebook the week The Social Network premiered.
This film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg portrayed a
selfabsorbed soul who took his frustrations out on his friends and the
world. By coincidence, it reminded me of Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline or Change— which
I always tell him I want Spielberg to film—where the black Southern day
worker Caroline memorably prayed, ‘Lord, don’t let my sorrow make evil
of me.’ By lucky coincidence, Kushner is here to present the New York
Film Critics Circle’s Best Film of the Year Award to The Social Network and its producers Scott Rudin, Michael Deluca, Dana Brunetti and Cean Chaffin. Surely Kushner, whose great play Angels in American showed
how spiritual and social connections transformed lust and duty to
family, friends and country into moral responsibility, will explain why The Social Network is deserving."
presentation—glib and fastpaced—avoided addressing hegemony just as
Hoberman and Schwarzbaum always ignore it. Their fit of public indecency
brings pettiness, sour grapes—and their privilege—into the open when
normally it never affects public perception of the critical ranks. Yet,
this is the awful state of things in criticism—an expanding yet
Attacking me doesn’t add to the aesthetic appreciation of film—by which The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right look
more like TV than cinema—it only exposes Schwarzbaum’s pathetic,
vindictive need to manipulate film culture. Now that that awful truth is
out, we should take heed and beware the mainstream’s tendency to avoid
discussing "the cultural, political and sociological context that
filmmaking lives in" as Bening suggested. It exposes the shameless,
indecent Schwarzbaum and her ilk as frauds. Envy makes evil of them.
who was at the lavish Crimson event space last week knows it was a
lovely evening and that the gossip is a lie. Only the tabloid public and
swarms of undistinguished bloggers can be duped into believing
Schwarzbaum and Hoberman’s slander. They have placed a pall over
journalism. But everyone should remember Annette Bening’s wise words.