A.O. Scott Talks Shop
We met A.O. Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times and author of Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art (2016), during office hours. As we had both just completed his course, “The Art of Film Criticism” at Wesleyan University, Scott had become known to us as “Professor.” Considering what we are all about here at Reverberations, upon discussing the creation of our new Dialogues section, we couldn’t think of a better inaugural interviewee. We were thrilled at the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss the craft of criticism, hear his opinion on a plethora of different art forms, and share in a mutual fandom over the one and only, Bruce Springsteen.
Linne Halpern: When you know that you’ll be reviewing something, how does that influence your engagement with the art itself? Do you have any strategies for engaging with the work without fixating too much on what you’re going to say about it?
A.O. Scott: I try to avoid other reviews and discussion of the movie so that I can approach it with as blank a slate as possible. This isn’t ever really possible because there’s always some kind of pre-awareness that you have. The ideal would be to just walk into the movie theater without knowing anything but the title of the movie.
I am prepared to pay attention in a way that will generate a review. I usually only get to see things once. So, in a way, I have to see them twice at the same time. I have to be the person sitting in the seat watching the movie and be the person reflecting on that experience. I sometimes start writing in my head before it’s even over. I have to immediately start trying to translate my thoughts and feelings into prose. I can’t really prevent that from happening, and I’ve stopped trying.
LH: Do you take notes?
AOS: I do take notes. They’re barely legible, even to me. It’s dark. Here’s what the notes look like (pulls out thin, red notebook.)
Sage Marshall: Are those actual words?
AOS: Those are words (laughs). Let’s see. What movie is this? I mostly take notes so that my mind doesn’t wander, but I do spend an embarrassing amount of time squinting, trying to figure out what I wrote. That says, “she went to New York for two weeks.” I don’t know who “she” was. Ah, the movie was I Called Him Morgan (2016.) I have crates full of this. I’m hoping to sell them to an archive when I retire.
SM: One of the things we get often from our writers is: “I’ll write about something when I’m really inspired or when I really engage with something, but that hasn’t happened recently.” What advice do you have for people to write about art that doesn’t inspire them?
AOS: I think it’s never a good idea to wait until you’re inspired in any kind of writing. Poets don’t wait for inspiration. Novelists don’t wait for inspiration. Painters don’t wait for inspiration. The difference between being an artist or an amateur is precisely around that question. As an artist, you get up in the morning and it’s your job. I was talking to a painter friend who is working on a new project. Right now he’s in the stage where he’s taking long walks and doing crossword puzzles. It isn’t a matter of inspiration, but it’s sort of a gathering your forces.
I think that the challenge for critics is that quite a lot of what we write about is not inspiring. It’s more a matter of habit. If you want to get really good at criticism, then you have to exercise that critical faculty all the time. Something might turn out to be really interesting but might not initially inspire you or blow you away. Sometimes, the interest only emerges from the process of thinking about it afterwards. If you just wait for inspiration, then you’re not really exploring the full range of encounters between your own mind and art. You’re in a more passive position of waiting for something to come to you rather than going out and meeting it.
LH: In your book, you write about this concept of everyone being a critic. It was really important to me that we were creating this space for young people on the internet. Oftentimes, submitting to digital publications can be a very intimidating and elitist process. We’re interested in publishing people who don’t necessarily identify as writers. We’re also interested in opening up the definition of what art can be and what can be criticized.
AOS: That’s great.
LH: I’m wondering what your idea of considering everyone as a critic means in terms of actually publishing criticism. Do you think that the genre allows for spaces like this?
AOS: I think that it does. I think that there are so many activities that are part of the human repertoire that are sometimes at risk of being overly professionalized. That doesn’t mean that the distinction between professionals and amateurs isn’t an important one. It’s the same, in a way, in criticism as it is in the arts. You wouldn’t tell someone that they couldn’t paint or couldn’t write poems. All of these things that people like to do whether they do them for money or without any kind of ambition. I think that criticism is exactly the same way. It’s available to all of us and there should be as many outlets for it as possible. But, as with anything else, there will be different ways of doing it and people will do it more and less well. There will continue to be a place for professional critics just as there will be for professional artists. Not just because some people are better at it, but because some people want to devote their time to refining the craft. If you think about cooking, there are people who can cook at home and make better meals than you can get at any restaurant. Professional cooking is a different thing. You have to be able to do it whether you feel like it or not.
I do think there was an idea when Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp started to happen, that professional critics would become obsolete because everybody could do it. I don’t think that’s true. You still need people who can focus and organize an argument and give us something to think about. People have always been critical, people have always had arguments and people have often developed those opinions in conversation with professional critics.
SM: Yeah, we’re definitely still trying to publish interesting and well-written pieces with a specific focus on young people. So what you’re saying is great. As critics ourselves, when we try to write about art from a personal experience, sometimes it’s hard to not be so formulaic with our arguments. We often write things like, “I was in the movie theater, and I left the theater very angry…” I’m wondering if you have some suggestions for not being so formulaic.
AOS: I would say to think about the personal voice more than the personal experience. Most peoples’ experience of seeing the movie is going to be the same. This is how culture works. It’s a very standardized thing, but there are exceptions. Sometimes, there are works of art that arise at particularly significant or dramatic moments in our lives. I think that’s especially true of young people. Maybe there’s a book that you read the summer before you go to college that opens your mind, or that one song at your senior prom…I think that criticism can be personal without necessarily being autobiographical or confessional. It is really the matter of the voice and sensibility and learning to write in a style that can express who you are. I think that the best critics give you that feeling.
We read some of Pauline Kael this term and she’s someone who says very little about her life in the thousands and thousands of the published pages of her criticism. That Shoeshine piece we read was a bit of an exception. When she retired, she said in the preface to the collection that she published, “People ask me sometimes if I’m going to write an autobiography, well, but I think I already have.” And it’s true. Those are very personal pieces. I think that’s true of Roger Ebert in a very different way. You read him, even if you never saw him on television, and you have a very distinct sense of who he was. I think that the cultivation of voice is what infuses your writing with individuality. You would think that this would be the most natural thing in the world, but it’s actually the hardest thing about writing. Language exists outside of you, and you somehow have to take possession of it.
LH: You mentioned how something may mean something to you at a moment in your life, but then not at a later moment. There’s a section in your book where you write about a song from when you’re sixteen not meaning the same thing to you in your forties. I’m wondering if you ever went back and reconsidered something you wrote about previously.
AOS: That’s very interesting because that’s where my personal experience is in a little bit of tension with the professional record of my published criticism. In some ways, you have to leave your own work where it is. Not to overdo the parallel between critics and artists, but it’s somewhat the same. Painters or filmmakers may be very tempted to go back and paint over what they did when they were younger, re-edit or re-shoot the films that they made before they knew any better, but they generally don’t. I think that it’s generally a good idea not to. A third of my life has gone by in this job. I was a different person and a different writer back then. I had seen thousands fewer movies at thirty-four than I have now. I do go look back on my work sometimes, and it’s a sort of private embarrassment. I mostly just leave it alone.
I do sometimes like to go back and write about movies that meant something to me as a child or as a college student that I didn’t review. When Rogue One was coming out, I wrote an essay on Star Wars and what it meant to me. But, it wasn’t just about me, it was about what it was like to be eleven the summer that this movie that we now call A New Hope came out. It’s interesting to see what that moment feels like with forty years of hindsight.
SM: One of my main points of contention with your book is that you mention how people have been judging things for thousands of years and that’s how people are and we can’t avoid that. Sometimes I find that the art itself doesn’t exist in a hierarchy. You shouldn’t judge it for good or bad; you should just take it for what it is and write about that.
AOS: I guess some of it is the matter of the definition. By “judgment” I don’t necessarily mean praise or condemnation. I take your point because I think that the first step is to encounter something on its own terms and try and figure out what those terms are. Then, that’s where the process of judgment should really begin because judgement without understanding is really just prejudice. Saying, “I don’t like hip-hop. I don’t like poetry. I don’t like painting,” that’s not criticism, that’s just ignorance. Everyone is entitled to their own ignorance, but not necessarily to present it as judgment or criticism. I really do agree with you that we should be open to different and new experiences even if we don’t understand them. We have to be willing to do the work of trying to figure out what they are and, in a way, let them work on us.
I guess “judgment” should be the act of thinking and interpreting and evaluating. It begins with exactly what you’re describing: seeing this thing and thinking about what happened, and what it’s doing.
LH: As a millennial woman, I very much relate to a lot of the content that is currently being created for women. I grew up loving rom-coms, etc. How do you, as a professional critic, reckon with emotionally responding to work that doesn’t necessarily relate to you? And then also, what is the best tactic that you’ve discovered for addressing one’s own privilege in writing?
AOS: Those are related and important questions. The idea that there’s any objectivity in criticism was never a particularly tenable idea and still isn’t. This is one of the reasons that I really insist on the importance of the personal. You’re not necessarily the sum total of your sociological or gender or racial or economic traits; you’re a very complicated person. A person who has an imagination and a capacity for empathy that makes it possible for you to be interested in and respond to things that aren’t made for whatever group you’re a part of.
One of the things I love about the arts, in general, is how open they are. When you’re sitting in the dark of the theater, you can be whoever you want to be. When you’re reading a book, you can identify with the heroine of a Jane Austin novel not just if you’re a modern woman, but also if you’re a modern man. I don’t want to ever give up on that idea of universality or, at least, of accessibility: the idea that anyone can appreciate anything. It is also true that there are important differences, and you can’t just pretend that they’re not there because that’s one of the ways that privilege and power are reinforced. You just have to be honest about it, without necessarily making too big a deal about it. For example, reviewing a film like Moonlight (2016)—a big example from last year—it’s important to acknowledge myself as a middle-aged, white man, writing about the story of a young, queer, black man. But, it’s also important to make sure that it’s not all about me, and that it’s about that movie about that young man.
So, I guess my answer is to always write as honestly as possible, and not assume that you’re going to tell the whole story. We’ll contribute to some larger dialogue or conversation about it as best as we can. You’re not going to be able to make everybody happy. Some people are going to be mad at you and that’s alright. You don’t need to get defensive. I think that a lot of times what happens, for example, when male critics write about Feminism or something that is about or by women, women object to the way that they’ve been written about. Especially on social media now, there’s an impulse for the critic to get defensive and to strike back. I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to always be looking to blame people for who they are, but on the other hand, we’re all coming at these things from different angles, different perspectives. That’s how we know that these things are important.
SM: In your book, you share Rilke’s poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” We’re curious if you have thoughts about the way that art forms other than prose writing, or what is considered typical criticism, can respond to other works of art. What role do you see these other forms of response playing as a part of the genre of criticism?
AOS: The part of the book where I was thinking about how art is a form of criticism itself was one of the most interesting parts for me to work on. There are so many movies that do this. It’s one of the reasons that the French New Wave is so fascinating to me. A lot of the filmmakers started out as critics. They were obsessed with Hollywood movies and were writing about them. Then you look at a movie like Breathless, famously, which is kind of Godard continuing his criticism and appreciation of old, Hollywood movies, using a camera and film instead of the pages of a magazine. I think it also exists in popular music and in painting. One of the most powerful forms of criticism within the arts is just what we call influence: how a given artist responds to the work of a predecessor.
Very recently, there was an amazing exhibit at the Met Breuer in New York of African-American artist, Kerry James Marshall. She paints very consciously in the style of Dutch, Italian, and French old masters of the Renaissance, Middle Ages, and Early Modern periods. She evokes these styles to paint modern, African-American subjects. The kind of painting that was done of European aristocrats in Amsterdam is being done of not-famous, not-rich, ordinary, working-class, Black people in American cities. That is a very powerful and interesting form of art criticism. There is a lot of that in music, too. I think especially now with the way that sampling is used in hip-hop as a sort of dialogue with the music of the past, it also becomes a critique of it.
LH: I think that is really interesting because we named the site Reverberations to get at the idea that art can create this echo-like effect with call and response. I’m curious to how social media has perhaps created opportunities for further responses or “reverberations” if you will.
AOS: It makes literal or concrete something that has always been going on. People were always having these arguments in their heads, and now you can have them in reality, in real time. The digital space is interesting because it is both public and intimate, personal and impersonal at the same time. It’s a strange thing for someone who’s been around and remembers what it was like before…
SM: I still think it’s weird.
AOS: Yeah, it is weird! There are people who I spend a certain amount of time with every day who I don’t actually know. Some of them are other film critics. It adds an entirely different dimension to understanding their work. I mean I would’ve read them in wherever they publish, but now I know that they just walked their dog. It’s like, “Oh! We have these friends in common!” It can get exhausting and noisy. There is a lot of group think, a lot of instant backlash and counter-backlash. This is not just true of movie twitter by any means, but of all the arts and in politics. But, I think in spite of that, there is a lot of content that can be very interesting and constructive.
SM: Linne and I are both English majors and we know that you studied literature and also wrote about books before you wrote about movies. We’re wondering how the way you studied literature influenced the way you came at movies. Then, how do you think literature is developing today in relation to how you think movies are developing today. What parallels and differences do you see?
AOS: That’s really interesting. For me, I think the main point of contact was narrative. I kind of became a film critic by surprise, I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing. I figured I had to have some kind of skill that I could transfer (laughs), and that skill was talking about narrative. These are storytelling forms. Most of the literature that I reviewed were novels or narrative non-fiction. So I thought, “I understand how stories are told and how they work.” Then I set myself up with the task of figuring out how to think about the other aspects of film, the visual aspects, the performances. For me still, the greatest challenge is how to write about acting, partly because I’ve never done it and don’t understand how it works. When you’re writing about books, you know the medium. With film, you can get there a little bit because it’s still very much an intentional thing, but, acting seems so intuitive and not premeditated that it is a great challenge to write about.
The similarities between film and literature are very interesting. I’m not confident that I read enough anymore to be able to answer your question. I do think there are a few trends that reverberate between writing and film. One is a real turn toward the personal. There’s this whole thing called auto-fiction, fiction that is almost indistinguishable from a diary or real life. You know, How Should a Person Be? Or Knausgard or Ben Lerner…
SM: I love Ben Lerner.
LH: I love How Should a Person Be?
AOS: They’re not all that far away from Mumblecore or from Girls or from this idea of the raw material being right here. There’s something that is more honest and authentic about writing that way. It’s also a greater challenge. What am I going to say about day-to-day life that is going to make me interesting? I think that those tendencies are aligned. Both amongst filmmakers and writers, there is a tendency to try to play around with genre, to take what seems like worn-out genres and to find something new there.
SM: I, personally, see somewhat of a parallel between the way the literary world is structured and the film world. In book publishing, you have distinctions between commercial fiction and then literary fiction. You have some overlap, but generally, they’re distinct categories and people write about them as distinct categories. In the same hand, in the film world, you have mass market films and you have indie films. I’m wondering if you think the distinction between the two will ever blur more of you think they’ll remain distinct and separate?
AOS: Well I think that this has changed a lot. In some ways, movies have become more like books in exactly what you’re talking about. Up until the 60’s, there were really only commercial movies. I mean there were also art films sort of, and there were prestige movies that were very commercial. Since the 80’s, there is the phenomenon of the blockbuster, the franchise, the tent-pole movies. They really dominate the commercial landscape, and then there’s the indie movies, the Oscars movies, the art house movies, whatever they are. The situation now is closer to replicating the book publishing industry. You have these big, commercial books on the best-seller lists, especially fiction, and then you have the literary fiction. Sometimes there’ll be some crossover, sometimes a commercial author will get critical attention and become more prestigious like with say, Stephen King. A literary author will sell a lot of copies whether it be Jonathan Franzen or Elizabeth Strout. But, the funny thing about movie reviewing is that the tradition of film criticism is to just sort of take it all as one thing, which is kind of weird when you think about it. It’s true in no other art form. There’s not a critic who reviews all recorded music. There’s a jazz critic, a classical music critic, a pop music critic. In general, book critics ignore what’s on the bestseller lists. But, the movie critics do it all, which is something about the field that I really like. But, it’s hard. It’s sort of weird from week to week, to be combining all of these different things.
SM: Do you like the distinction? Would you rather there be more indie films in the mainstream?
AOS: I’m always frustrated by distinctions like that. I’m a utopian in that I believe it should all just be out there. It’s not a designation of quality. There are commercial films that are wonderful and imaginative and artistic and original, and there are art films that are mediocre and lazy and second-hand. I’m generally in favor of people trying to shake up their own taste in a way; I get frustrated when I feel like audiences don’t. So, I really love the fact that as a film critic, my territory includes Fast and Furious films and also Chantal Akerman films.
It’s a challenge not pre-judge different types of movies in advance, without saying, “Oh, here’s this commercial movie I’m going to be condescending to,” or, “Here’s this art house movie I’m going to celebrate.” Or conversely, as sometimes happens, here’s something popular, it must be good.
SM: Before we end, do you have any questions for us?
AOS: So this publication covers all different kind of art forms?
LH: Yeah, we’re really open to anything.
AOS: So give me an example of something each of you has written.
SM: One of my favorite pieces that I wrote is this really long essay on The Office and the way that I keep just watching it over and over again.
SM: It’s just like the only thing on my Netflix. So I tried to consider why I keep returning to this narrative.
AOS: That’s interesting. Was there any point where it lost you? Certain seasons that you think are weaker than others?
SM: Sometimes, yeah. I always sort of don’t like the seasons after Michael Scott leaves. I really can’t stand Andy.
SM: I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of my connection to it is with the characters, and that is sort of why I keep coming back to it. I can put an episode on from any season and just watch it. How about you, Linne?
LH: I wrote a piece about Bruce Springsteen’s memoir.
AOS: Oh cool!
LH: That meant a lot to me.
SM: Also about his music too.
LH: It was exploring the memoir in relation to his music.
AOS: Are you a Springsteen fan?
LH: Yes! It’s sort of like a family thing for me. And so the piece was very much about my relationship to Springsteen through my dad and my brother. I’ve seen him live many times. I’m a bit of a groupie.
AOS: That’s so fun.
LH: And yeah, just sort of the connections between all those different things and my experiences with them.
AOS: That’s fascinating. I wrote a profile of him once.
AOS: Yeah. It was a weird assignment. I’m a huge Springsteen fan. I wrote it much more as a fan than as a critic.
LH: Oh for sure. Anything that I write about him is completely out of fandom.
AOS: Yes, exactly. And just like the fact that I was sitting and talking to him is just like…
LH: That’s crazy!
AOS: It was crazy!
LH: I literally wouldn’t know what to do. He held my hand one time at a concert, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
AOS: Yes, yes. It was like the high point of my life as a father, because we saw him backstage at Madison Square Garden. He gave me a big hug…
LH: Oh my god, that’s incredible…
AOS: Like he hugged me in front of my children. I’m never going to top that.
LH: I’m sure that if my father could’ve had that experience, he would’ve felt the same.
AOS: Writing that was very interesting—critics sometimes lose sight of or don’t always know how to write about themselves as fans and don’t always know how to engage their own very personal or emotional connections. I think it’s very important to do that.
Linne Halpern '18 is an English and American Studies double major at Wesleyan University. She is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.