A.O. Scott is one of the leading film critics of the New York Times. His relaxed, witty writing (which includes literature reviews and essays) has won him numerous fans, who eagerly anticipate his incisive thoughts on all things cinema. Scott will give a lecture, titled “Criticism as a Way of Life,” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Klingenstein Lounge. Senior Writer Ben Tietz spoke with Scott about the role a critic has in the world of journalism, the way the Internet has affected the public’s views on criticism as a profession and which recent films moviegoers should keep an eye out for at local theaters.
Ben Tietz: Is it exhausting, being a top critic for a major national newspaper?
A.O. Scott: It’s a very intense and demanding job, but not one where anyone’s going to feel sorry for me when I complain about it. It’s a big job because of … the sheer volume of stuff out there to be dealt with. I produce around 200 bylines a year, 150 reviews and then 100 “think pieces,” which include news analysis, essays, whatever. It does have a high profile, so anytime I say something stupid, people notice and call attention to it.
BT: What do you think a good review should do for a reader?
AOS: The main point of criticism is to initiate a conversation. There are a lot of different things going on, even in a short newspaper review. There’s an element of consumer service there. When you write anything, you want it to be interesting for people to read. You want it to be entertaining, thought provoking, funny or unsettling or whatever. You want to produce a good piece of writing, and hopefully what it will do is just get people thinking about whatever you’re writing. There’s a tendency, especially with movies more than books, to consume them passively, and criticism is opposed to that view. It says, ‘Well, if it’s worth your time and it’s worth your money, then maybe it’s also worth thinking about.’
BT: Do you find certain types of film easier to review?
AOS: It can be hard to tune out the hype and buzz and write a clear, honest review. It can also be hard to write about movies you really admire. The easiest kind of movie to write about is a really bad one because you can just kind of kick it around and abuse it. To write well about something you think is great without just descending into gushing adjectives … can be very challenging.
BT: What do you hope to communicate to the students at your lecture?
AOS: I want to defend criticism as an approach to the arts, as a way of writing and as a way of life. I think there’s a misunderstanding as to what criticism is and what critics do; a lot of newspapers and magazines are getting rid of critics. There’s a lot of interest in criticism migrating onto the Internet, onto the blogosphere. That raises a lot of questions, like, do blogs count? Do they represent a vital new form of critical writing, or the end of the line?
BT: Regarding online, do you think it’s good that criticism has become more communal and that academic scholarship has become less important?
AOS: I’m not sure how important academic scholarship ever really was. Most of the people who have written reviews for newspapers have been journalists, rather than people with a background in film studies. I think it’s a double-edged thing. On one hand, opening up a conversation is a wonderful, democratic thing. I don’t think professional critics are necessarily specialists or authorities, or even experts, but what they do is to try to give voice to something that’s common. There’s a phrase [online] I hate more than anything: “People who liked this movie also liked …” because I think that shuts down the natural instincts of curiosity and inquiry.
BT: Are there any recent films that may have gone under the radar that you think we should be paying attention to?
AOS: There are many. The Oscar nominations just came out, and I always notice what didn’t get nominated. There’s a wonderful small movie called “Wendy and Lucy” about a young girl on her way to Alaska to find work. It’s a short, simple movie that says a lot about the state of American life. There’s also an Italian movie coming up that was overlooked for the Oscar foreign film category called “Gomorra.” It’s tremendous. It’s about organized crime in Naples, and while it’s a mafia movie, it’s an antidote to all those other movies you’ve seen that romanticize organized crime. It’s a very powerful piece of filmmaking. There are too many to keep up with, but those are two to watch for.