In Confessions of a Book Reviewer, George Orwell wrote that even the harried and poverty-stricken literature critic was nonetheless “better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.” A.O. Scott used to review books regularly, and is now the New York Times’ co-chief film critic, a job that is rather more comfortable and dignified than Orwell probably could have imagined. (When not attending screenings, Scott usually works at home.)
Scott’s new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth, is less about movies specifically than it is about the job of the critic. Scott views criticism as both an art form and integral to the survival of other art forms. But his emphasis on criticism’s importance sits side-by-side with a near-populist, very pragmatic insistence that his criticism is meant to guide and aid consumers.
We met this week at his house in Brooklyn, which is lovely but unkempt in a way that recalled Orwell’s (intentionally overblown) description of a critic’s book-strewn apartment. The most notable features of Scott’s home were the two large, friendly dogs intent on interrupting all human interactions, including an interview, and given little censure by their owner. Scott, wearing slippers and otherwise happy to conform to stereotypes about writers who work from home, was chatty and welcoming, but also surprisingly serious. In his living room, we discussed the controversy over the Oscars, run-ins with needy Hollywood artists, and whether criticism should be nastier. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Who do you feel more loyalty to when writing criticism, the artist or your audience?
There are critics who see their job as to be on the side of the artist, or in a state of imaginative sympathy or alliance with the artist. I think it’s important for a critic to be populist in the sense that we’re on the side of the public. I think one of the reasons is, frankly, capitalism. Whether you’re talking about restaurants or you’re talking about movies, you’re talking about large-scale commercial enterprises that are trying to sell themselves and market themselves and publicize themselves. A critic is, in a way, offering consumer advice. I think it’s very, very important in a time where everything is commercialized, commodified, and branded, where advertising is constantly bleeding into other forms of discourse, for there to be an independent voice kind of speaking to—and to some extent on behalf of—the public.
Wouldn’t a third option be—and this isn’t really something you talk about in your book—to say that you aren’t on the side of the artist or the consumer but instead of some values, moral or ethical or otherwise, that need to be upheld?
I think it absolutely is, and I think this is what makes it complicated and what makes the book complicated. It’s simultaneously the job of critics, individually and in the aggregate, to articulate what those standards are. One thing that is always tricky is asking where those standards come from. Whose standards are they? They are not fixed in time, they are not self-evident, they are constantly in dispute and it’s part of the critic’s job not just to sort of declare or to defend these standards or values, whether ethical or aesthetic or whatever, but to explain them and to refine them and to figure out what they are and how they work.
What are the values you personally stand for as a critic?
You know, it’s hard for me to say what or to give an answer because it’s not like registering in a party. It’s harder than to say I’m a liberal or I’m a conservative. My default position is a kind of humanism. I think that art exists in the service of the dignity of human beings. I think the reason that cinema exists and the thing that gives it its power and charisma is the human face and the ways that it can represent the human face on a scale and with an emotional immediacy that surpasses any other art.
The Oscars are clearly a big topic in the cultural world right now, and I don’t think Creed or Straight Outta Compton should have been nominated for Best Picture, but—
I’ll fight you on Creed. Creed is a fucking great movie.
It was good, it was good. But my larger point is that if you had had one of them nominated, or if Will Smith had been nominated, the same things would be true about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, and yet there would be no protest.
I think that’s true, and I think that there is a particular problem with the academy and a larger systemic problem with the studios.
How are these two problems different?
There’s a question of the academy’s membership, and they’re now trying to change the rules and limit the terms. To that extent, it’s sort of a local problem. Another problem is that the function of the academy is to [ensure] prestige and to kind of represent the American film industry’s higher aspirations and goals. In this, it’s different from almost any other awards academy and show. I think what the Oscar nominations this year and last year indicate is how narrow that ideology of prestige is, and how it reflects a political ideology which is liberal in a very kind of old-fashioned and almost pejorative way. When it comes to race in America, it’s based on a kind of tokenism. We gave it to Forrest Whitaker, we gave it to Denzel Washington, we gave it to Halle Barry.
An “after all we’ve done for you” attitude.
“After all we’ve done for you.” The academy, with its upper-middle-brow notion of prestige, may have room for black performers and for movies about black people and even for black filmmakers who can fit within that, but it really has no room for what you’d call black culture or black popular culture. I think that Creed is a great example. Creed being shut out or Straight Outta Compton, one of the reasons they’re not seen as contenders is that they have to do with black popular culture and with African-American life in a way that doesn’t fit into any of these templates.
You mean, Straight Outta Compton is not about Beethoven.
It’s also not about Ray Charles either. It’s not about a black artist whose radicalism has been blunted or can be softened. Creed is striking because of how few boxing movies, with the exception maybe of Ali, have African-American protagonists, which is very odd given what the sport of boxing has been for the last 60 years. I think the thing that is to me so special about Creed and about Ryan Coogler as a director, which I think the academy is really unable to see, is how deeply embedded that movie is in the reality of its black characters’ lives. Not as racial signifiers and not as symbols but just as a guy trying to make it and this girl he falls in love with and these neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
I didn’t think Creed was one of the eight best movies of the year, but the problem with that argument is that the Oscars are not a meritocracy. There are all kinds of people who get nominated who didn’t do that great a job and they tend to be white men.
Rocky won best picture in the year that was also the year of Network and of Taxi Driver.
Rocky is really not a better movie than Taxi Driver.
No one would say it is, probably including Sylvester Stallone himself! There is a track record of safe, mediocre movies by white directors about white people, starring white people. Some people have floated the idea in defense of this exclusion, that it’s just colorblind meritocratic judgment. There’s no way that you can actually say that with a straight face.
Leonardo DiCaprio is about to get a Best Actor Oscar for his 20th best performance where he doesn’t do anything but grimace.
Right, just because he grew out all his facial hair and grunted. DiCaprio’s performance in Wolf of Wall Street was just …
Tremendous, amazing, but again it is this idea, it’s part of the pretentiousness of the Oscars in a way that is consistent with their notorious bias against comedy, against comic storytelling and comic performances.
Eddie Murphy not getting a nomination for The Nutty Professor was the most astonishing example.
Incredible. That’s a great example because it’s such a tour de force. Again, it’s not an Oscar movie, but look at what Melissa McCarthy does in Spy.
Are you conscious of who a New York Times reader is, or do you feel like you’d be writing the same review if it was for 20 friends on your private blog? Your friends probably read the New York Times, but you know what I mean.
I try not to think too much demographically or sociologically about who New York Times readers might be. One of the things I love about writing for the New York Times is that the idea of it is that it should be for everyone. That may not really be true but it is a mass circulation, general interest publication. There is an idea that we’re producing a newspaper for people who are intellectually curious, who are smart, who are engaged but who aren’t necessarily specialists. In terms of writing about film, I like the fact that it’s not necessarily a highly specialist sort of cinephile that I write for, it’s not an insider.
It’s interesting that you like writing for everyone because I think some critics might say, “I want to write for the 10,000 people in America who are just dying to know about the latest translation of Flaubert.”
I write primarily for myself in that I write to figure out what I think about anything and I can’t really figure that out without writing. I don’t trust thoughts until they’ve gone through the discipline of the writing process. Sometimes I think I’m writing to make a joke for my friend Michael who lives in Kentucky and teaches English there and who is like the most pop culture obsessed person I know, to see if he gets it.
The purpose of the book is philosophical, but it’s also meant to be useful. The tongue-in-cheek aspects of the title and subtitle are definitely there. It’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek. It’s not a self-help book.
I should hope not.
It also kind of is.
Because you think that criticism and critical thinking can nourish souls?
Yes, exactly. Just in the way that art can help make sense of what it is to be human, to live in the world. In a way, I’m just saying we’re all doing criticism anyway.
All this seems to fit with my larger impression of you, which is that you don’t seem to really get off on being mean the way many critics do. I’ll be reading your reviews and sometimes think that, reading between the lines, you may not have loved a movie, but you want to take the extra effort to come up with something that was interesting about the movie.
I think this is something that has evolved. When you’re younger, there’s more aggression and there’s more of a sense that there’s no middle ground. I used to feel when I started reviewing movies, and when I reviewed books, that I was tougher, I was more uncompromising. When I started reviewing movies, every time I saw a bad movie I would get personally affronted. You want to sort of take revenge and there’s a certain kind of sadistic or self-righteous pleasure in doing that. I’m just going to tear this shit down.
I think one of the things that changed is my sense of when that was warranted, because there are so many bad movies, and so much mediocrity. There’s a distinction to be made between a movie that just doesn’t succeed, or isn’t very good, which is a lot of them. On the other hand, there are movies like Entourage where I think my outrage is activated. As I was saying before, I’m against cynicism and nihilism and corruption and dishonesty. There are movies that seem to me to be all of those things and those are the ones that really make me angry. I really struggled with this [Holocaust] movie Son of Saul. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
I have not.
Somehow in my head I always think of it as Better Call Son of Saul, which is a terribly inappropriate joke.
Holocaust jokes always play well so don’t worry about it.
This was a movie that was formally very impressive. There were things that needed to be acknowledged and that you kind of have to admire, but there was something about it that felt to me very suspect, very dishonest in a way, very easy.
The other thing that would make me angry is superhero franchises, which seem to me to be the worst trend going. Even if every individual movie isn’t bad, the genre shows contempt for the audience.
For a while romantic comedies were in abysmal shape. But how do you keep this argument going and how do you make exactly that point, that you’re mad at the system, and also not keep writing the same thing? What happens with the superhero movies with me is a kind of fatigue. You worry that you are just going to resign yourself to this. My Avengers review, which is in a way the starting point for the book, was an attempt to make the case that “well, there is some skill here, there’s some talent here, there’s some wit here, but a lot of it is wasted because of this corporate imperative to make all of these movies the same and to make every movie part of this brand empire that is the real thing that’s being made.”
You talk about Samuel L. Jackson in your book, and his Twitter response to your Avengers review. Has the Internet’s presence in your life, and the responses it generates, changed you as a critic?
It absolutely has, and I think mostly in positive ways.
It’s a lot less lonely, because writing is very lonely. First of all, to have Twitter, which is my main Internet vice or addiction. To have the company of other writers. Then there’s also just the feeling that people are reading you, that you’re not just sort of tossing something out into the void and thinking, “well maybe.”
Some people in your position might say that they spend their whole life writing and thinking about books and movies, and all these idiots on Twitter have an opinion, and their opinions are stupid.
The fact that there are always other people out there in the world sort of contending with or competing with me just means that I have to be better. I just have to write better. I can’t take anything for granted. I have to find the readers that I need and cultivate their trust in a way.
Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, “Wow, I blew it”?
Yes, there have been many, many such times and I will take them all to my grave with me and never admit to them because the job of the critic is to be wrong. I think it’s much better to have my mistakes corrected by other people than to try to correct them myself.
You were wrong about Brooklyn. I had to sit through that movie. But more broadly, do you ever think you were wrong not in your judgment of a movie but in some moral or aesthetic stand you took?
I think probably so, but criticism or reviewing is a present tense, very in the moment thing. Part of what we’re doing is the opposite of a definitive judgment. It’s a very early, very provisional, kind of putting down a marker and initiating something that’s going to go on for a very long time. I read some of my favorite critics, like Susan Sontag or Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, and over the course of their careers they were wildly inconsistent.
What I very much believe in is trust. This is also one of the reasons that individual critics retain some degree of importance in spite of aggregation and Yelp scores. That you can open up the newspaper and find the person that you know. That takes time to cultivate and to learn, and in a way you sketch out a character that you’re going to become and that you grow into. Every writer’s voice is a construct and a persona, and A.O. Scott in the New York Times or in the pages of that book, is not necessarily the person sitting here now.
I hope the person sitting for this interview is the A.O. Scott in the New York Times.
Down in the basement, there are a bunch of underemployed graduate students who can churn out this stuff every month.
What critics writing now do you like most?
Alex Ross for sure. He’s amazing. That’s like pure critic fandom for me. Staying at the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum is for me the critic of the moment. The art form, the voice, everything kind of happening there. I don’t watch as much TV as I should probably but there’s such vivacity, such intelligence. I think she’s tremendous.
It’s amazing in 2016 that you’d have a movie critic of the New York Times say I should be watching more TV.
Yeah, it is.
How do you guys decide at the Times who reviews what?
We take turns. Manohla Dargis and I are co-chief critics. We get a schedule a few weeks in advance and we just take turns picking what we want. We’ll take two or three each and then we assign the rest. We also take turns on major directors or franchises.
Have you heard from other actors or directors about reviews of yours?
Very rarely. I have a nice distance. I’m in New York and most of the industry is still in Los Angeles. There is one particular director who I will not name, a fairly well-known director, who has on several occasions gotten kind of obsessed with who was going to review a movie. Some years ago he had a movie that he was really determined that I should review rather than Manohla, and he actually got ahold of my home number and said, “I really want you to review this movie.”
Will you say who it was? Does his name rhyme with Teeven Peelberg?
No, no. Not even close. As it happened, we had already assigned it and Manohla was going to review it and she loved it and I didn’t like it at all so his instincts were completely wrong. More recently, he tried it again but the other way around. He had his publicist get in touch with her saying, could you do this?
I wrote a somewhat notorious piece about Sideways; the headline was that it was the most overrated film of the year. It was about how certain aspects of that movie may have tickled the narcissism of my colleagues. It wasn’t particularly negative about the movie itself. I was at the Cannes Film Festival and I was standing outside and someone standing next to me just kind of walked up to me and said, “You know I think you’re right, it was overrated.”
I turned around and it was [Sideways’ writer and director] Alexander Payne. We ended up going to see a movie together.