Q&A with Film Critic A.O. Scott

A.O. Scott might just have the best job in the world. As chief film critic for The New York Times, Scott sees about 300 movies a year, penning reviews that reflect his love of film and his appreciation for the craft of criticism. Last year, he demystified the practice in his book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (Penguin Press, $17), which was recently released in paperback. On March 7, he’ll visit The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach to discuss the intersection of criticism and creativity. Here, he speaks with PBI about his work and offers advice for those looking to follow suit.

A.O. Scott

PBI: What was your relationship to film growing up? What sparked your love of cinema and how did you go about consuming it?

Scott: I grew up going to the movies a lot. I’m old enough that going to the theater was really the only way to see the movies, except when they showed up on television. When I was in high school, I started to develop a more serious interest and reading movie reviews. There was a repertory house just around the corner from my house in Providence, Rhode Island, that would show a different double feature every night. Some classic Hollywood stuff, some foreign film stuff but a lot of movies from the ’60s and ’70s, from the New Hollywood era. That’s where I caught up with The Godfather movies and discovered Robert Altman and learned about Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick and all of these movies that I missed out on because I’d been too young to see them when they first came out. Around the same time, my parents got a VCR and they had a friend who opened up the first video store in Providence. He was interested in finding some of the more esoteric or offbeat stuff, so he would stock foreign films and experimental films. And then in college, it was more of the same thing. There were all kinds of film societies on campus that would show various things. I never had any kind of formal education in film, film theory, or film history. I just was always an avid moviegoer, and also a reader of film criticism. It definitely was important to me to read Vincent Canby in The New York Times, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, and Andrew Sarris and J. Hobermen at The Village Voice. That was my education.

How did reading those critics inform how you viewed criticism and how you developed your voice as a critic?

I was definitely interested in criticism, not just in movie criticism. The first critics I really read who woke me up to the idea that this was a kind of writing that was interesting and a way of thinking that was appealing to me were probably music critics, rock critics in Rolling Stone and Cream and other great music magazines of the ’70s and ’80s. I was a huge music fan and [criticism showed me that] you can have an experience—you listen to a record or you hear something on the radio and you have whatever thoughts and feelings about it or reactions to it that are kind of unformed in your head—and then you go and read someone who had the same experience and is explaining their version of it to you. All of a sudden, you’re in this conversation. And sometimes you disagree. … One of the useful things about criticism is not just reading stuff you agree with or that supports your position but that’s saying the opposite. [It forces you] to sharpen your own argument, your own tastes, your own opinions. This is true with movie criticism, too. Critics offer their readers a kind of companionship. You’re sharing this experience. You read books or listen to music or go to movies sometimes in the company of other people, but in a way we experience these things for ourselves and by ourselves. It’s nice to find a connection or a companion to share it with.

I also just loved the way those people wrote. It was a kind of writing that appealed to me. I was always interested in writing and imagined I would be a writer of some kind. I dabbled in fiction and wrote some really terrible poems, as I guess everyone has. But in a way it was really criticism [that spoke to me], because it seemed like there was so much you could do. There was so much freedom—you could be funny, you could be serious, you could be argumentative, you could be mean—and you could write about anything. One of the things I still find about writing about movies is that movies are about everything, about every aspect of human experience and imagination. You get to write about all of these things.

How did you come to work at The New York Times?

It’s still somewhat mysterious to me. I’d moved into journalism and criticism as kind of an escape hatch from a very frustrating academic career. I’d been doing a lot of freelance stuff. The first job I had was at The New York Review of Books as an editorial pion. I’d been writing book reviews and other kinds of cultural criticism but had written very, very little on film. In fact, I’d written exactly one article on film in Slate, about Martin Scorsese. I’d done some writing for The Times before, and one thing I’ve learned since I’ve come to work there is that the editors are always looking around for new people. I’d done some writing for the book review, a little bit for the magazine. [In 1999] Janet Maslin announced she was stepping down as chief film critic. I’d been following the media gossip on who they were looking for, and certainly my name didn’t appear in any stories. So I was a little surprised when the culture editor at the time called me up and invited me to lunch. He didn’t say why but I figured, well, it couldn’t be bad. And when you’re a freelance writer, a free lunch is not something you ever refuse. … We had a very pleasant lunch in which we didn’t really talk about anything in particular. I had no idea until the coffee arrived what this was really about. He asked if I’d be interested in applying for a position as a film critic. It seemed like the longest of long shots but I wasn’t going to turn down the chance.

I wrote some audition pieces because I hadn’t actually written a movie review, ever. So I had to pretend like I knew how. I had two very young children at the time, so I’d seen, I think, maybe one movie in a theater in all of 1999. Kind of hard to imagine given the way my life is now. I wrote these pieces, and they kept calling me back to meet with other editors, but it was weirdly low key because there was not like a job interview. … Then they offered me the job. I was thrilled and excited and also in a complete state of panic because that was in December and in three weeks I would actually have to be a film critic. I had no idea what any of that involved.  I had a freelance contract at Newsday where I was writing a Sunday book column. But I’d never worked at a daily newspaper. I’d never been a regular film critic. It was like one of those panic dreams you have where suddenly you find out you have to teach a class in advanced calculus or translate ancient Greek. That was 17 years ago. Fake something for long enough, you figure out how to actually do it.

How do you and your fellow critics at The Times divvy up the reviewing duties?

Manohla Dargis and I share the title of chief critic. Traditionally, the chief critic is in charge of the assignments. Basically, the way we do it is with tried and true kindergarten principles of we take turns. It seems like such a mysterious thing but it’s very simple. We get a list a few weeks ahead of the movies that are coming out. We take turns picking first, and we pick what we want and then we assign the rest. We send the list out to Stephen Holden and Neil Genzlinger, who are also on staff. And then we have an excellent regular roster of freelancers who pick up the slack. We try to review as many of the releases as we can. We used to have a policy of reviewing everything but there are too many releases and too little space. Also, Manohla and I take turns on having first dibs on movies by important directors or that are a part of big franchises. Over the course of a year it balances out.

What’s your process for watching a film you know you’re going to review?

I try to see a movie with as blank a slate as I can manage. I might have opinions about the cast, the director, or the genre, but I really try to put that all aside. With very few exceptions I’ll see it projected in a theater. About three-quarters of the movies I review I only get to see once, so I have to take good notes, pay close attention, and, in a way, see the movie twice in one sitting. I need to have the experience of watching it and also be reflecting on that experience and analyzing it at the same time.

What movies are you most looking forward to seeing in 2017?

This is the thing I’m worst at. Ask me the day after the Oscars.

Are you an Oscars fan?

No. I feel like I’ve made my peace with them but I also think they’ve taken away the importance in the way films are distributed and when they’re released. It’s harmful because one of the things that happens is there’s a huge logjam of releases in the last three months of the year. I think it’s contributed to the decline of the movie-going habit among adults. For most of the year, from January to August, there’s very little out there that grownups might want to see. And then all of a sudden, as soon as the Toronto Film Festival is over, there’s too much. There’s this very Darwinian thing that happens where all of these films are in competition with each other and are rivals. I think it’s terrible to think of La La Land and Moonlight as rivals. Why choose between them? I used to complain about the Oscars a lot [but] they’re not going anywhere. No one’s listening to my complaints so I’ll just accept it.

If you could time travel to one era of cinema and see those films anew, which would it be?

The late ’50s, early ’60s, what you think of as the New Wave period, because the art form was opening up and maturing. There was so much going on globally, like the French New Wave movies and directors like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, as well as British films and Hollywood movies like The Manchurian Candidate. There was something thrilling, too, about how artistically adventurous a lot of those movies were.

What advice would you give to a budding film critic?

See as much as you can. Read as much as you can, and don’t only read film criticism, because that’s how you’ll find your own voice and figure out what you want to say. And even find a group of people and start your own thing. A lot of careers and good publications have started that way. With the internet and social media, the barriers to entry are lower in terms of getting your voice out there. Making a living is certainly not easier, not that it ever was.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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