CRITICAL CONDITION: An In-Depth Q&A With New York Times Senior Film Critic A.O. Scott

Film Head

Artwork via collageOrama

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA A.O. “Tony” Scott has been the New York Times resident film critic for going on 16 years. He has a razor-sharp intellect, unimpeachable taste, the chops to formulate persuasive, deep-end-of-the-pool aesthetic arguments and advance them in elegant and indelible prose — no matter what Samuel L. Jackson says. His new book, Better Living Through Criticism, mounts a robust defense of the necessity of professional arbiters in the age of Yelp and Metacritic. In advance of his reading/signing at the Free Library tonight, we got Mr. Scott on the horn in Seattle during a rare stretch of downtime in the whirlwind of his ongoing book tour. DISCUSSED: Scorsese, Oscar Wilde, Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, Creem, Robert Christgau, Walt Whitman, Trouser Press, Yasujir? Ozu, Son House, La Dolce Vita, Harry Smith, Mad Max, Robert Bresson, Herman Melville, Randy Newman, H.L. Mencken, Sly Stone, the fascism of Dirty Harry, the Tao of Susan Sontag, his knockdown drag ’em out Twitter fight with Samuel L. Jackson, why Roger Ebert initially labeled him a fraud when he first started reviewing films for the New York Times, what the sam hell the endings of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are supposed to mean and, most importantly, what is the hands down very best Coen brothers movie.

PHAWKER: Congratulations on the book — great read. Very thought-provoking and persuasively argued and, as always, you’re an elegant prose stylist — if one straight man can say that to another straight man, without having his intentions misunderstood…

A.O. SCOTT: I’ll take it. I’ve never refused a compliment.

PHAWKER: Good policy. Before we talk about the book, let’s talk a little bit about your backstory. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a film critic, and that you were AOScottwell-suited to the profession?

A.O. SCOTT: I was always interested in criticism. I mean, I don’t know if when I was a kid if I formed an ambition to be a critic, but I always read a lot of movie criticism. I loved reading Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. By the time I was in college, I was reading J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice. I also read a lot of music criticism. I read a lot of Rolling Stone and Creem and Trouser Press. My first critical heroes were probably rock critics— Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. And then I went to college, I studied literature. I graduated from college without much of an idea of what I wanted to do, so as one does, I went to graduate school to postpone the decision for as long as I could. I was in a PHD program in English, and then as I tried to disengage from academia, I started writing book criticism. I really started out professionally not as a film critic at all, but as a book critic. I came to film criticism a little bit by accident. I’d written some pieces on film in Slate, where I was doing a lot of stuff in 1998 and 1999. I’d written a piece about Martin Scorsese, kind of a long, fairly ambitious critical assessment of his career [called The Vicar Of Cinema]. A few weeks after that came out, I got a call from the culture editor at the New York Times, who took me out to lunch and asked me if I wanted to apply for this job as a film critic — which I thought was ridiculous. I really thought it was kind of crazy, but I wasn’t going to say no. I thought, “Why not? I’m not gonna get this job, but I may as well apply.” I wrote a couple of audition pieces, and then in a sort of long, slow and inscrutable process, the New York Times decided they wanted to hire me. Next thing I knew, never having published a movie review, was a newly-appointed film critic at the New York Times. I still to this day don’t really know how it happened, but it’s too late for them to take it back.

PHAWKER: Were there people asking “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?”

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, everybody. Notoriously, Roger Ebert. You can still Google this interview he gave to Salon where he said exactly that. He’s like, “Who is this guy? These people seem to think anybody can be a movie reviewer. Has he seen six films by Ozu? Bresson?” That was the line that sticks in my head. I read it and was like, “Goddamnit, I have so. I’ve seen Bresson movies. I know who Ozu is. Stop picking on me, Roger Ebert!” Later, we became friends. He was always very kind to me after that. But initially there was a lot of skepticism within the film critic world, like, “Who the Hell are you?” “How did you get this job?” I was aware right from the start of having a lot to prove. And feeling maybe even more than you normally do like a complete and total fraud.

PHAWKER: When did you finally feel secure in your new position?

A.O. SCOTT: A couple weeks ago. [laughs] Within a couple years. I think that the first two years were pure terror, and then I began to settle into it. I began to feel more confident, and more like I knew what I was doing. No one seemed to have written the definitive article “New York Times Film Critic Has No Idea What He’s Doing.” So I breathed a little sigh of relief. Also, the newspaper was and continues to be a very supportive place to be. There were certainly editors and colleagues there who helped to build up my confidence. Even though I have the neurotic fear that I’d be discovered as a fraud, I also have the usual writer-y arrogance that I can do anything better than anyone else.

PHAWKER: There you go. If you get the ratio between self-loathing and arrogance right…BetterLivingThroughCriticism

A.O. SCOTT: That’s the key to success, right.

PHAWKER: In the book, you provide one of the most articulate definitions of fine arts criticism that I’ve ever read, which is: “An examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and all the various ways we refine that impulse.” Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think that one of the central themes in the book is that the creative impulse and the critical impulse go together, that we have this drive as a species to make beautiful things, to make representations of our situations in the world. To create meaningful objects and stories and pictures and art, basically. We also have this appetite to appreciate these things, and to think about these things, and to judge these things, and to try and understand why they have so much value to us. I think that criticism, as I understand it, starts in that very primal urge to find the things that give us pleasure, and that provide us with some kind of meaning in the way that art does. That’s why I think that you can’t have art without criticism. That critical impulse is right there on the ground floor in the same part of our being as the impulse to make art.

PHAWKER: I don’t know why, but while you were saying that, I was flashing on what I’m thinking is the first act of criticism in the history of mankind, and that was a caveman pissing on someone’s cave painting.

A.O. SCOTT: [Laughs] But it could also have been… I mean, we think of criticism as negative, but I think the first act of criticism might also have been the caveman coming back to the cave and seeing the drawing of the bison, and going, “Oh my God, that’s amazing! Woah! How did you do that?!?” That’s criticism, too.

PHAWKER: Sure. Well, I mean, criticism is essentially having an opinion about something, and being able to express it persuasively. “I like this, and here’s why.” “I don’t like this, and here’s why.”

A.O. SCOTT: Exactly.

PHAWKER: You mention noted critics who influenced your thinking and writing as a young man. That list includes Greil Marcus, Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag. I’m wondering if we could go through that list and could you tell me what you learned from each of them that is still useful to this day? Let’s start with Greil Marcus…

A.O. SCOTT: Greil Marcus, I had the great pleasure of appearing with in San Francisco onstage the other night, which was a great thrill. But for me, he’s somebody who took this kind of really basic act of putting on a record, and turned it into the most extraordinary intellectual adventure you could have. You know, you’re listening to a Bob Dylan track, or a Robert Johnson track, or Elvis Presley, or his other kind of touchstones. And you’re hearing the whole drama of American history. You’re hearing all of these questions of cultural identity. You’re hearing all of this stuff about love and sex and regret and ambition. You’re going beyond the music itself. He’s writing in one minute about Randy Newman, or Sly Stone, and then he’s talking about Melville and Whitman. There’s that sense that when you’re really listening, when you’re really paying attention, the whole world is opening up. He writes with such passion and excitement, but also, such intellectual clarity. He was just somebody I always came back to. He was a great guy to listen to. When I started reading him, he was writing a lot about current music in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he was always sending you back to look for older things. Like, yeah, alright, you’re listening to this Rolling Stones record, but you need to listen to Robert Johnson. You need to listen to Son House. You need to dig up the Harry Smith American Folkways recordings. It was a great education to read him. It still is.

PHAWKER: Pauline Kael.

A.O. SCOTT: Pauline Kael is like the great voice in American arts criticism. I don’t think there’s anybody who writes about movies or any popular culture as a critic who doesn’t contend with the influence of Pauline Kael. Very opinionated, very contentious and challenging. She wouldn’t just say, “I didn’t like this movie.” She would say, “I didn’t like this movie, and if you did, you’re a sap, you’re an idiot, you’re neurotic, you’re sexually repressed.” It was a very personal — both for her and the reader — kind of criticism. I always found her really exciting to read. Sometimes, I would find myself in violent disagreement. I would have seen a movie that I thought was fantastic, and I’m reading the New Yorker, and I would get really mad. But then I’d have to think, “What if she’s right, and I’m wrong? What if this movie I thought was great really is pretentious nonsense? Or what if this movie I thought was trash is actually full of spirit and energy and vibrancy?” Reading her was like having this brilliant, slightly intimidating friend who would come to the movies with you, and just argue with you afterwards. I go back and read her a lot, and I find her judgment varies, and her taste is not mine. But I love the voice, and I love the energy, and the aliveness of the way she does criticism.

PHAWKER: Is there a major cinema figure that you disagree with her on? Say, a director?

A.O. SCOTT: Yeah, Clint Eastwood. She hated Clint Eastwood. She didn’t like his politics…AOScott

PHAWKER: It went back to Dirty Harry with her, didn’t it?

A.O. SCOTT: Yeah, it was. And she was appalled by how reactionary — I’d say fascist — Dirty Harry was. Even as Clint Eastwood kind of blossoms as a director, she still held a grudge. She was very impatient with some of the great European art films of the sixties. Antonioni and Fellini. She was sort of disparaging to La Dolce Vita, which is maybe one of my favorite movies of all time.

PHAWKER: Speaking of Antonioni, before we move onto rest of the list, I have a couple of questions I’ve always wanted to ask the likes of you. What is the meaning of the end of Blowup?

A.O. SCOTT: [Laughs] I don’t know.

PHAWKER: OK. Good. I think as a younger man I thought knew what it was, but as an older man, I realize I don’t know. I’m not sure if that’s the accrued wisdom of aging or my incipient decrepitude. On a related note, and I realize that this would take a book-length thesis to explain, but briefly: What’s your take on the very end of 2001: A Space Odyssey?

A.O. SCOTT: [Laughs] Oh, God. I don’t know. I guess I love it. That’s another one Pauline Kael had no patience for whatsoever. She was not a 2001 fan. I don’t think she was a big Kubrick fan, but definitely 2001 she thought was a very immature piece of work. I saw it in a theater when I was pretty young. It would come around again when I was, like, ten or something. I was totally terrified. I found the ending to be like the worst bad dream I’ve ever had. The imagery was so powerful, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know why the old guy was in the room, and that baby. I sort of still haven’t gotten over that bewilderment. I suppose it is the next stage of evolution, or of being. It may be a kind of an image of what we now call The Singularity, where technology and the humanity fuse into some kind of new creation, new birth. I don’t know how much intellectually I buy it. I think in some ways, that movie, on an intellectual level, is a little bogus. On the level of visual sublimity and pure power of images and sounds, it definitely still works for me.

PHAWKER: Don’t you think also that the literal meaning of the end of the film is intended to be unknowable?

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, exactly. It’s trying to find the limit of what we can imagine — this is as far as we can think. This is a picture of the end of our consciousness now, and something that a future consciousness might understand.

PHAWKER: Let’s move onto one more from the list of influences you cited, and that’s Susan Sontag. Tell me about her.

A.O. SCOTT: I mean, Susan Sontag for me, is like maybe the greatest critical mind that has ever lived. What I mean by that, is when you read her, you see her mind at work. You’re witnessing the act of thinking in a way that is so powerful and so exciting, that the subject matter isn’t that important. The argument itself isn’t that important. She’d change positions at different times. I’d sometimes read her, and I think she’s completely wrong about everything. I always go back and read her again, because she’s tackling these problems. Both local critical problems like, ‘What are we gonna say about Godard? Or Bergman?’ or specific works of literature. And much larger problems, about what is the meaning of the rise and spread of photography in contemporary culture? What is camp? What are the ways we think metaphorically about illness? Can we really interpret works of art? These are all very large and challenging questions. She just kind of walks into the arena with nothing but her own brain to tackle them — and all the books that she’s read, which are more than most of us. There’s just something so charismatic and so powerful about that. For me, I don’t think I write the way she does, I don’t think the way she does. It’s almost like watching an athlete, you know? A mental athlete. An intellectual athlete. It’s like if you’re gonna watch Michael Jordan play basketball, or Muhammad Ali box. Or Roger Federer play tennis. This is the highest level of this thing.BetterLivingThroughCriticism

PHAWKER: You point in the book that the days of criticism as a full-time, white-collar job with sick days and vacation time and 401ks etc. may be numbered. Briefly make the case for the necessity of professional critics such as yourself in the age of Metacritic and Yelp.

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think it’s wonderful to have lots of voices out there, and lots of information and opinion. I think though, that individual voices that can cultivate trust in readers, and can give people that are interested in criticism a place to go and a place to start thinking, is very important. These numbers can tell you interesting sociological information. They’re sort of like polling. The Metacritic or the Rotten Tomatoes score is an interesting piece of data. But in the end, none of us are, in our own lives or experiences, pieces of data. We need a more substantial, fully human conversation. I think criticism, as it’s been practiced by professionals and non-professionals, by professors and by journalists, at its best, can offer that — a place to go to do the thinking that we have to do that’s not just the processing of the opinions or data points, or metrics.

PHAWKER: You previously got into a Twitter war with Samuel L. Jackson over your panning of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. At one point in the book you sum up your criticism of the film as this: “The Avengers, shows what can happen when playful storytelling collides with the imperative global profit that drives so much of the 21st century Hollywood productions.” Jackson’s response was, to summarize it, “It’s just a dumb popcorn movie, just enjoy it…but also, at the same time, it’s a great fucking movie, so shut the hell up.” But what seems lost on Samuel L. Jackson was that you were mounting a much larger argument than just thumbs-up or thumbs-down-review of that movie. You were taking the giant corporations that own the Hollywood studios to task for sacrificing art in the pursuit of commerce. You were essentially arguing for the necessity of an inviolable creative space, where artists like Samuel L. Jackson can thrive. That proved to be a thankless job.

A.O. SCOTT: [laughs] I certainly hope there are no grudges. I remain an admirer of Mr. Jackson’s work. But I think you have it exactly right, that I’m in favor of movies like The Avengers being as good as they can be, and for filmmakers like Joss Whedon to be able to be as free and original as they can. I definitely felt, and often feel that the imperatives of commerce often compromise that, and get in the way of what seemed to me what was most fun and most interesting about that movie. One of the points I make in the book, is that even though movies like The Avengers are put there for entertainment and to some degree, our distraction, our escapism, they’re also worth taking seriously. They’re huge investments of money, and they’re asking to be part of our imaginative world. We should take them seriously, and we should demand as much as we can from them.

PHAWKER: Do you think that in 2016 art is losing the battle with commerce? Or do you think there’s an equilibrium that is more or less maintained with some fluctuation? How is art faring these days?

A.O. SCOTT: I feel like in 2015, art fared OK, even at the level, maybe most surprisingly, at the level of big studio commerce. I mean, it’s funny, because you think you’ve got it figured out. You think you’ve figured out the ratio or the trend, and then something comes along, and turns it on its head. Every critic on the world has been complaining about reboots and sequels, and big blockbusters, and how those were ruining the movies. All of a sudden, in 2015, some of the most interesting movies, some of the best movies that made lots of money and excited fans, but also got critics’ juices flowing, were exactly that. You had Mad Max: Fury Road, which is like, one of the most critically-beloved movies of 2015. It’s a reboot of a franchise that is almost 40 years old. The year, of course, ended with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is maybe not a great movie, but certainly a movie with much to like in it, and a certain integrity. And then in between, to me, most astonishingly of all, was Creed, which I think is just a fantastic movie, a really terrific boxing movie, and amazing, wonderfully insightful story about a young man in your city of Philadelphia. He moves there and kind of finds himself, falls in love, learns his craft, takes care of an older friend in a time of need, figures out the truth about his own identity. In that movie, I remember when I saw this at the first press screening, I was like, “What is this? The seventh Rocky movie?” So, every now and then, the commercial system can surprise us with works of popular art that can restore your faith in the great democratic promise of movies. But if you talk to me a year from now, I may be back to complaining about how soul-less and corporate everything is.

PHAWKER: The Rocky franchise is a good example of how a great movie can be diminished over time through repetition of sequel after sequel after sequel. I would agree that in last decade, the reboots have been, in my opinion, huge improvements over the originals in almost every instance. Especially the superhero stuff and Star Trek.

A.O. SCOTT: I think so, too. Creed is kind of an astonishing example of it, because it does so much with that story.

PHAWKER: A couple of more questions and I’ll let you get back to your life. Speaking of thankless jobs, in the book you also dismantle the prevailing argument against critics, which is that they’re all failed artists. Embittered, failed artists. What’s your response to that? “So what?”AOScott

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I have a few responses. One is just that it’s in many cases not true. I don’t regard myself as a failed artist. I don’t think that my interest in criticism comes from a disappointment in not being able to be an artist. I kind of would say a few things: good critics are successful artists, who practice the art of criticism. More than that, artists, who are successful artists, are also successful critics. Every work of art is itself a work of criticism. It grows from an engagement with other works, and with the rules of procedure, and the discipline of the art itself. I think every good critic is an artist, and every good artist is a critic.

PHAWKER: You quote H.L. Mencken talking about the difference between a reviewer and a critic, and in his estimation: a reviewer gives a thumbs-up, thumbs-down response to art, while a critic brings his or her own ideas to the work in question, and has them compete against the creator’s ideas. It’s similar to the Oscar Wilde quote at the beginning of the book about how the highest form of criticism “reveals in a work of art, what the artist had not put there.” But at what point are you just transferring onto art things that do not apply or don’t fit, or has its own agenda?

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think that criticism exists in a state of tension, because there’s the work of art, and there’s what I think of it. Sometimes I think that I’ve accurately evoked what the artist is doing, and what the work of art really is. Other times, I think I’ve imposed something on it that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with. Sometimes, what we bring to it, what we impose on it, what we dream up about works of art can be very interesting, and can have its own validity, its own reality. I think that works of art are, in a way, completed by the people who experience them and consume them over time. The artist put them out in the world, and if they keep living, they keep living through what other people make out of them.

PHAWKER: Last question: What is your favorite Coen brother’s movie?

A.O. SCOTT: My favorite Coen brother’s movie is probably Inside Llewyn Davis.

PHAWKER: Interesting. Because?

A.O. SCOTT: Because it just is, I don’t know. It’s the subtlest, it’s the purest. It’s the one that seems to me to tell a very important and uncomfortable truth about the fate of artists and art in the world, and the way that the world can sometimes be very cruel to art, and artists. It’s a very inspiring movie about failure.

PHAWKER: Oh, and you were doing so well up until now. I hate to do this to you, but the right answer was, of course, Barton Fink. But you’ve gotten all the other answers right, so I’m gonna let that one slide.



[Tony Scott illustration by Rachel Idzerda]