'The Tension Between Artists and Critics is Crucial': An Interview with A.O. Scott

The New York Times film critic on the mistrust of critical vocabulary, making a case for his own abilities, and Ratatouille. 

February 9, 2016

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson...

Photo by Carmen Henning

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.” That’s Anton Ego, the spindly, sunken-eyed antagonist of Ratatouille, reckoning with the profession that has made him feared, respected, and isolated. It’s a mea culpa that’s also understandable as a cri de coeur, a Pixar villain reiterating a motto fit for a Marvel superhero: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Few American film critics wield as much influence as A.O. Scott, whose by-line at the New York Times makes him perhaps the highest authority in the land when it comes to new releases. And yet unlike other some other historically well-positioned peers—from Pauline Kael to Roger Ebert to Jim Hoberman—he’s never been the type to thunder down pronouncements from on high. Instead, Scott’s pieces almost always suggest a writer working through conflicting impulses in real time, as in his superb recent assessment of the Oscar-nominated Son of Saul. “To say that [the film] is a highly stylized, self-conscious and calculating piece of narrative is not to say that it’s a bad movie, only that it’s a movie,” he writes. “Son of Saul is an emotional experience that sits too comfortably within the norms of entertainment.” 

Scott’s recognizable critical voice—by turns excitable, knowledgeable and cautious—is amplified in his new book Better Living Through Criticism, which could be seen as a book-length meditation on Anton Ego’s comments (and sure enough, the character makes an extended cameo in the final chapter) as well as an unusual publishing event. Typically, when film critics write books, they’re focused works of film history or analysis, or else anthologies. But Scott doesn’t stay in his lane here: rather, he moves swiftly and purposely through the histories of visual art and literature to contextualize his ideas about where the critical impulse comes from, how it’s expressed, and where it leads—whether it’s towards some bright, shining, Kantian sublime, or a tetchy Twitter fight with Samuel L. Jackson, whose widely circulated attack on Scott after the latter half-panned The Avengers is a notable case of an artist publically inveighing against judgment.

Better Living Through Criticism is not an academic text, even though it integrates the work of many writers in that tradition; it is not a tell-all about the perks and temptations of signing into film-festival press screenings under the name of The New York Times, although it surely benefits from its author’s credentials. What it it does—and very well at that—is prompt the reader to examine his or her hardwired aesthetic preferences or prejudices while slyly hinting that sometimes they’re best left alone to do their thing.

Most importantly, it demolishes—so nicely and politely that you’d swear this New Yorker was Canadian—the old complaint (which has always driven me crazy) that critics don’t “enjoy” the things they write about. On the contrary, Scott makes the case that in criticism, the Cartesian divide between mind and body – or more accurately, judgment and feeling – melts away, leaving a single, wholly unified organism in its place: not just better living through criticism, but a hardy, vital new life form that, if nurtured correctly, can go forth and multiply.

Adam Nayman: One of the reasons I was excited about this book was that it features a critic who writes about film taking the opportunity to consider the other arts. You write extensively in Better Living Through Criticism about poetry, literature, paintings and performance art. It’s rare that writers with specialized byline want—or are permitted—to branch out. I think that ideally, these streams would cross more often.

A.O. Scott: It may be shifting a little bit. I feel like a lot of younger pop culture writers who are coming up now, either through the Internet or just outside of traditional newspapers or magazines, feel comfortable switching tracks. They can write about pop music, and television and film equally. But there is definitely a specialization that happens, and that’s natural. For some critics, movies are a driving passion, and the art form that they’re most drawn to. There are also some of us who are more eclectic, or maybe dilletantish. That reflects my own background. I became a film critic kind of by accident. Whatever relevant academic training I have is in literary studies. So it was fun to write about poetry, because I used to do that a lot more, and a lot of my thinking about how to practice criticism came out of studying literature. When I started out [writing the book] I didn’t know how it was going to go. I didn’t have a program of research laid out. So I was surprised to find myself thinking about Renaissance painting and Greek poetry and the Romantics, and all of that. It was also my favourite thing about writing this book—how far I could get away from my regular beat while staying true to the kind of writing that I like to do. 

One of the strategies in the book is that you’ve selected works of art that feature surrogates for the critic: the enraptured narrator of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” or the man at the jazz club in Philip Larkin’s “Reasons For Attendance.” There is even a whole chapter about Anton Ego, the imperious restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille.  Did you set out to find these analogue figures, or were they already in mind when you were mapping out your overall structure?

It was a little bit of both. I certainly had thought a lot about Ratatouille, and about the character of Anton Ego, and about the representation of critics in art, which I know is a slightly different thing than what you’re asking about. As it became clear that I wasn’t just talking about criticism but also about taste and the experience of art—what it is to encounter and behold something that moves you—I started hunting down, whether by remembrance or accident, works where that [process] was represented. I remembered having read Henry James’ The American, with the opening scene at the Louvre. I happened to be reading Teju Cole’s novel Open City and I was struck by the passage at the folk art museum with the colonial-era paintings. The Philip Larkin poem “Reasons For Attendance” was something I found while I was looking for a different piece by him. I read it and realized it was sort of the whole argument of the book in those twenty lines, which was pretty serendipitous.

The argument could be made of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that the critic’s recourse to sensuous description is also a profound form of intellectual appreciation. One of the things that your book makes very clear is that thinking and feeling are not separate components of criticism; you seem to see them as inextricably linked.

I think that there’s a neurological circuit that runs up your spine to your brain, so you feel things sensually or viscerally or emotionally and then immediately start converting that experience into thought. For me, that’s not separable. Theoretically, you can distinguish between thinking and feeling but they’re joined in a loop. A lot of what I write does come down to emotional responses, and I write around and through those feelings, but the cerebral and analytical part doesn’t shut off. People ask me if I ever get to watch a movie without “being a critic”—like if I’m seeing something with my family or with my wife, do I just get to have the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying it. I don’t get the question, because there isn’t really a difference. I’ve always been kind of a critic temperamentally. Pleasure and thinking are not distinct. To enjoy something is to enjoy thinking about it.

Is the act of writing itself pleasurable for you?

It can be. I mean, writing can be agonizing, as you know, as anybody who writes knows. It’s awful. I also can’t live without it. There is some pleasure too, in the struggle for the right word or the right structure or formulation in tone. There’s pleasure in finding it and feeling like you’ve got it. Writing is something I avoid for as long as I can, and then when I do it, I enjoy it. 

The anxiety of writing is expressed in the book through the intermittent dialogues that you have with yourself. It underlines the idea that a critic can be of two minds about their opinions even as they develop and express them. Hedging is part of the process.

It can make readers impatient. It may make readers of this book impatient. I have a tendency to try to look at arguments from both sides and to work dialectically. “What is the persuasive case on the other side of this?” It’s fascinating to read critics I admire and respect who are 180 degrees away from where I am, and who are convinced that a movie which I loved is terrible. That’s the comedy of criticism, which is is that if a thing is interesting, there will be strong, antithetical positions about them. I try to entertain those. Those dialogue sections of the book, which I cribbed from Oscar Wilde in The Decay of Lying and The Critic as Artist, were meant to represent that ambivalence, or that quarrelling with oneself. They were also a way to effectively dramatize what criticism is, which is an endless argument. It keeps going.

I wonder if these passages aren’t also a way to head off certain criticisms of the book. Or maybe they’re a kind of pre-emptive response to people who are suspicious of a book written on behalf of criticism by the movie critic for The New York Times…

It’s partly that. I didn’t want this to be a brief on behalf of my job, or a defense of my authority or profession. I didn’t want to write a book about why critics are awesome, but rather about why criticism is important, and to insist on the distinction between the profession and the activity. I wanted to knock myself down right away and approach the reader not as a priestly authority—with all of the weight of the New York Times behind me—but as a person trying to figure stuff out, which is all I ever feel like I am, and all I ever can be. So it’s pre-emptive, but it’s also acknowledging my position and the absurdity of it. The question that haunts every critic, however well-employed or well-paid or widely read, is “well, why should anyone listen to you? What gives you the right?” In a way, the answer is “nothing.” I don’t have a license or a relevant credentializing degree. This is something where I am making the case for my own abilities every time I sit down to do it.

Film criticism is, in my experience, a very charged lightning rod, because cinema is a largely democratized art form. People don’t generally claim to be able to do the job of an architecture critic, or an opera critic, but everybody goes to the movies…

That’s true, and it’s definitely the case with television now, which is newer as a self-conscious art form and as an object of serious criticism. And yes, everybody goes to the movies, which is ingrained in the history of film critics, with James Agee, and Robert Warshow and Otis Ferguson. The first important film critics approached their jobs very explicitly in this way. “A man goes to the movies, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man,” is how Warshow formulated it. Agee was the same way. In The Nation, he told his readers he was an amateur, and that he would just write about what he saw. He was one of the greatest film critics ever, partly because he was an extraordinary writer, and he kept that amateur status out in front while finding intelligent things to say. In France or Germany, the intellectual culture is different and the ideas about film are a bit different; here, movies are a vernacular art and they demand a vernacular form of criticism. They resist specialization and expertise. If you read an opera critic or an architecture critic or even the theater critic in a newspaper, you feel like this person is an expert, and that their readership should defer. Not so with film criticism.

When there is specialized knowledge, it’s untrustworthy. It’s elitist, or it’s a word that is misused so frequently—at least in regard to film—that it’s completely lost its meaning: “academic.” There is a stigma there.

It’s a real stigma. There’s also a strange sense of a divide about what we’re all looking at. There’s a mistrust of a critical vocabulary that isn’t tied to the immediate experience. We were talking about thinking and feeling going together, and emotion as the seedbed of that experience, but it’s also important to stand back and think about the thing that made you feel that way. It’s striking how often film critics will think and speak in a different register—about form, about what the director is doing—than the stories or the characters, whereas many people will only want to talk about that other thing—whether or not they liked the people on the screen, or approved of what they did. Or they’ll have prejudices about genres. Just last night, I was out with some friends who didn’t understand what the big deal was with Mad Max: Fury Road. They said that it was terrible and boring, and just a lot of action. They don’t like action movies. It can be tricky to try to engage with what the audience is seeing and responding to versus what you think is there. And for tactical and ethical reasons, you can’t just cite your own intellectual superiority. You can’t be didactic or instructive. W.H. Auden has this great line about how if somebody only likes soggy boiled cabbage, there are only two ways to persuade them otherwise. You can prepare them a delicious dish of sautéed cabbage, or you can say “the best people all like it this way.” Both of these ways might work, but one is better than the other. 

You made reference earlier to the idea of an “intellectual culture,” and it’s in fashion to suggest that in America—or I guess North America—said culture is on the wane. A lot of people blame the Internet for this. One of the things that I found comforting about your book was the suggestion that thinkers and intellectuals have always complained that they are living in the end times, and that it’s actually the upheavals they’re so afraid of that end up pushing things forward instead of bringing them down…

I was thinking very much about the present, and about the Internet, and the displacement of traditional forms of criticism by social media, by marketing algorithms, by Yelp and Amazon and consumer-generated reviews, and how on the one hand this seems utterly terrifying and on the other like a great triumph. There have been a few articles saying “at last, we’ve gotten rid of critics, and now we can decide for ourselves.” It’s not that simple, of course. And this same fight has been going on since at least the 18th Century, when there was this idea of a sort of unauthorized mob of opinion-makers challenging cultural order and authority. It’s something that seems to come into being along with wider print circulation, starting with newspapers. What’s happening there, on the conservative side, which is usually the side that has the floor—whether it’s Matthew Arnold, or Coleridge, or T.S. Eliot—is they’re saying “look, if we can just sort this out, and get rid of the wrong kind of criticism, we’ll be fine, and we’ll have clarity and good taste will reign.” But the condition of culture and productivity is mess—it’s disorderly. Realizing that about the Internet made me feel a little more optimistic. In principle, and in temperament, I am a cultural optimist. One of the figures who pops up a lot in this book, and who was a major influence, is Emerson, who is the philosopher of not worrying too much about claims on historical greatness and embracing the present with open arms. That’s my faith. But that faith gets tested. There is a way that corporate control can be asserted over the human imagination, and independent thought and free discussion can be foreclosed or managed or turned into something awful. Social media can be wonderful and democratic and also tribal and belligerent and ugly and abusive and stupid. On any given day, it’s both. I want the book to be taken as optimistic but not as complacent. I don’t quite believe that we’re going to become automatons being spoon-fed thin gruel…

That’s a different Pixar movie. That’s not Ratatouille. It’s WALL*E

Yeah. The danger is always real, though. We are an extremely intelligent species with extraordinary minds to generate insights about ourselves. But we have to use it! We have to oppose lazy thinking, and clichés, and stand for excellence and accomplishment and originality and genius, and it’s not easy because we’re always figuring out what those things are as we go along. The answers aren’t permanent.

I suspect that there be a lot of interest in the chapter you’ve titled “How to Be Wrong.” There’s something exciting about being wrong when you’re a critic, at least if you’ve risked something in the process. It can be more fulfilling to be off base than to try to plant another flag in occupied territory.

There are some works in cinema and literature that become embalmed because a consensus forms around their greatness. They seem less alive. There’s less argument about them. That’s one reason that dissenting or contrarian views are so important. I love Mary McCarthy’s reviews on Eugene O’Neill, and when she takes an axe to Tennessee Williams—these great masterpieces of American drama. They’re intellectually bogus to her. A Streetcar Named Desire is this overdone, shallow Freudian melodrama. I love it how she makes those cases with such vigour and sharpness, even if it’s not ultimately persuasive. The fact that these things have lasted and are held in such high regard may in some way prove her wrong. But being right… there is a great feeling when you’re winning the debate. It is important to stake out positions and defend them. So it’s not about trying to be wrong or not caring if you right—you want to be as right as you possibly can be. I suppose that sounds very abstract. 

Not to me. I wrote a book about Showgirls, so I’m well aware of worrying about being wrong, and about abstract ideas of good and bad. I want to end by going back to the beginning of your book and the imbroglio between yourself and Samuel L. Jackson over The Avengers. Reading over that material, I thought that the only thing more frustrating than an artist telling a critic how to do their job would be an artist who goes in the other direction and directly panders for a good review. There’s more integrity, maybe, in telling a critic he or she is full of shit than trying to suck up. 

Art should have the integrity of its own expression. When you’re a reviewer for The New York Times, you see a lot of movies that seem to have been made to get a good review in The New York Times. There is a certain assumption about the tastes of a Times critic or Times reader. I’m not literally suggesting that a screenwriter and a director have had me in mind. I think you see this a lot on the festival circuit, too. There are movies that you sometimes encounter that have a constituency that is a particular faction of critics, who will proclaim it to be a great masterpiece while the rest of the world is puzzled by it. The relationship between artists and critics can be complimentary and fruitful, but the tension is crucial. I take Samuel L. Jackson very seriously. I’m not trying to make fun of him. He’s stating something very clearly and forcefully, which a lot of people think and don’t always say. I don’t hear very much from people I write about, which is a relief. That would be confusing and complicated. I don’t socialize much with filmmakers. Sometimes, people do ask me how my work will influence artists and I recoil at that question. I want artists to surprise me. I’m not writing instructions.

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson and is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and a staff writer for Reverse Shot.