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There will be criticism

Q&A with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott

New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott

Carmen Henning

We’re all critics. Or at least we should be.

That’s the working philosophy of A.O. Scott, the chief film critic at The New York Times and author of the book “Better Living Through Criticism.” He will be in Tulsa at the Philbrook Museum of Art on Fri., March 22, to speak at a special 6 p.m. screening of “There Will Be Blood,” P.T. Anderson’s 2007 epic that he and fellow Times critic Manohla Dargis named the Best Film of the 21st Century so far.

In anticipation of that event, I talked with Scott by phone to discuss criticism as a way to engage life along with other issues trending recently in the world of film.

Jeff Huston: Before we dive in—you’ve spoken in Tulsa a couple of times before.

A.O. Scott: Yes, I’m a big fan of Tulsa. My wife’s sister and brother-in-law live there. Visiting family is the hidden agenda of the trips. But I’ve had a really good time there: in the arts district, at the theater (Circle Cinema), and I’m looking forward to the event at the Philbrook for “There Will Be Blood.” It’s a movie that pays endless dividends, so it’s worth talking about and thinking about, along with anything else that people who come out want to talk about.

Huston: Your book “Better Living Through Criticism” is a defense of living critically—not as a disposition but, rather, as a discipline. Could you nutshell that philosophy for us?

Scott: Well, criticism is part of our experience, part of the way that we think and talk. My interest wasn’t to defend criticism as a particular profession but as a way of looking at the world. If art and culture matter to us, if they make our experiences as human beings meaningful, it’s worth thinking about why they’re meaningful, and how they’re meaningful.

Huston: One way you put it in your book is that criticism is not art’s enemy but art’s defender.

Scott: Yes, exactly. People often think of criticism—at least how critics practice it—as hostile to art. Or that criticism is opposed to creativity or to the enjoyment of art. But I would say that criticism is the name for the experience of our enjoyment. By judging works of art, by thinking about them, arguing about them, that’s what I mean when I say that we should all be critics. We should always keep that process alive, and not always settle into our own tastes and assumptions and ideas.

Huston: One of my favorite quotes from your book is, “A work of art itself is a piece of criticism.” I doubt that many people view art as criticism, but only as the victim or recipient of it. Unpack that idea a little bit.

Scott: I think there are two ways of looking at it. One, that art is an act of interpretation; it’s in critical relation to reality. But in a narrower sense, people who become artists are almost always drawn to it because they’re interested in some other example of it. As a kid, Martin Scorsese spent so much time in theaters, and he got the idea that maybe he could do something like that, or something different, but it gave him some inspiration and something to work with. Or Keith Richards and Mick Jagger listening to blues records. One of the ways that art renews itself is that new artists come along and see what has come before them and have to figure out how to make room for what they want to do. Sometimes it’s imitating the past, sometimes it’s breaking with the past, but it’s always engaged with the work that has come before. That is fundamentally a critical position.

Huston: People often disparage critics by saying, “What right does a critic have to criticize a work of art? Who are they to say?” But to me, since art is itself criticism, that’s the equivalent of saying, “What right did Mike Nichols have to make “Primary Colors” since he never ran for President?” Or what right did Kubrick have to make “Dr. Strangelove” since he’d never been in a war room?

Scott: Yes, exactly. And that’s one of the great things about the human imagination: We all judge things, all the time. If you walk out of whatever movie it is and turn to your friend and say, “Wow, that was terrible,” who are you to judge that? But that’s the whole point. Critics might have a louder megaphone or bigger platform, but fundamentally it’s the same thing. It’s what we’re all doing.

Huston: You’re a student of criticism, of many fields and disciplines dating back centuries. You cite many examples in your book. What have you learned from being so literate in criticism?

Scott: The thing I’ve learned most is that it really is a matter of the critic’s voice more than the critic’s opinions. Susan Sontag is one of the most brilliant and demanding and knowledgeable and consistently wrong critics that I can think of, but she’s an amazing writer. I go back to her again and again to be in the presence of that voice, to watch her think. I find this true of other critics I admire, the sense of being in the presence of an interesting thinker.

Huston: How would you assess the current state of film criticism right now?

Scott: It’s in an interesting state because there’s a move among younger critics and some digital publications to break down some of the disciplinary boundaries. In the past, critics have stayed in their own lane. I think that younger critics are more interested in using their writing to engage more broadly in a cultural criticism.

This has some advantages and some disadvantages. It’s interesting to talk about how a movie reflects the culture right now, whether it’s about politics or gender or race or other hot topics. What is sometimes missing, though, is a sense of history, a history of a particular art form. A movie is not just a reflection or an artifact of the present; it’s part of a longer continuum of an art form. In the same way, a lot of criticism right now is very political, and that, too, I have mixed feelings about. The political interpretations of movies can just drown out everything else. 

Huston: Why isn’t there a market for TV criticism like the old Siskel & Ebert show? Couldn’t it be on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu? Or is film criticism simply too ubiquitous right now?

Scott: I think that might be part of it. It might be too ubiquitous, but it also might be too perishable. Streaming platforms want something that can stay around, that’s archivable. Archivable content is at a premium. Streaming platforms are also invested in their algorithmic models, and criticism is the enemy of the algorithm. 

Huston: So, shifting gears: Spielberg vs. Netflix, and this debate about if films on streaming platforms should be eligible for Oscars. Where do you stand on all of it? The best example about my concerns regarding Netflix is the movie “Moonlight.” If that had debuted on Netflix then we never would’ve heard about it, it never would’ve won Best Picture, and we still may not have heard about Barry Jenkins, its director.

Scott: I think that’s exactly true, and I think the way that Netflix treated “Roma” proves that. They sent it to major festivals. They did a version of a theatrical rollout. But I have mixed feelings about this. Netflix also acquires a lot of other films, they put them up on the platform, and they disappear into the cloud. They don’t become a part of the cultural conversation. Whether a movie is playing at home or in a theater is less important than if a film has a chance to enter the cultural bloodstream. 

Huston: Regarding this year’s awards season, the toxicity of our national political conversation seeped into the Oscar bubble. Have we passed along
our bad habits?

Scott: There is that danger. There is so much anger out there, and manifestations of that anger will attach themselves to anything that comes along. I thought this was a very politically fraught Oscar year, and an interesting polarization within the Academy. In particular, the split between “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman” for the two screenplay awards was quite fascinating, from the point of view of cultural analysis.

Huston: On a more positive note: in your book you say that, “Art frees our minds. Criticism lets us figure out what to do with that freedom.” Unpack that thought a little bit more.

Scott: I remain idealistic about art. Whatever the awfulness or contentiousness of our political circumstances, the power of the human imagination is an extraordinary thing. A work of art has the power to shake us out of our complacency. Not necessarily changing our opinions but getting us to think in a different register. The more we have of that, the better.

Huston: Your top three film critics not named Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael. Who would they be?

Scott: Otis Ferguson, who wrote for The New Republic in the late 30s, early 40s, then died in the war. Vincent Canby, my predecessor at the New York Times, who I think is under-appreciated. And finally, another predecessor, and based upon a kind-of-crazy book: Renata Adler. She only had a year-long tenure at the Times in 1968-69. It did not go well for her or for the paper, but it led to a wonderful book, “A Year in the Dark.”

Huston: And to close, a three-part question: what should people watch, read, and listen to? Let’s start with watch.

Scott: Any film by Luchino Visconti. He’s one of my top-five filmmakers. Of all the great Italian directors, to me he’s the greatest. A true poet of the cinema. 

Huston: What should people read?

Scott: “The Privileges” by Jonathan Dee. Fantastically readable, it’s a shrewd picture of wealth and its consequences. It says a lot about where things are now and how they got here. Plus, it’s short and it’s funny.

Huston: And finally, what should people listen to?

Scott: Cardi B! And that’s sincere. For some reason, I don’t know why, but my Apple playlist goes back-and-forth between Warren Zevon and Cardi B.

Huston: What’s that algorithm?

Scott: I don’t even know. Who could’ve predicted?

Huston: Thank you so much for the generosity of your time and your thoughts.

Scott: It’s been great talking with you.

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