Since joining the Times, as a film critic, in 2000, A. O. Scott has come to lead what sometimes seems the earth’s last sovereign generation of mainstream reviewers. In the daily paper, he’s a virtuoso of the short-form judgment, turning out work that’s insightful, unfussy, and pyrite-flecked with bons mots. Sometimes he writes essays about broader topics in the arts, and those are usually some of the Times’ best weekend reading. In his first book, “Better Living Through Criticism” (Penguin Press)—a title to stir every Jewish mother’s heart!—Scott works to make a case for his embattled craft. He probes its past; he states his goals. He wonders, “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”
It does sound a little defensive, though one understands the impulse. When Duke Ellington composed “The Queen’s Suite,” he was working from the blank page; he brought a previously unimagined musical offering into the world. Orwell’s hack, by contrast, produces his review by standing shakily on other works. Critics justifying their trade like to say that the judgment aspect of the job—the thumbs-up or thumbs-down—is the least interesting part: really, they just love movies or whatever it is they review. This sounds a little like a butcher claiming to have gone into the meat-slicing business because he likes working with animals. It is possible to honor and enjoy new work without grading and dissecting it. That is how many people live.
Scott recalls that he faced accusations of bad faith in writing about “The Avengers,” in the spring of 2012. He didn’t hate the movie, but he was irked by what he saw as its overprocessed, profit-seeking slickness. When the review appeared, Samuel L. Jackson, one of the film’s many stars, singled him out on Twitter (“AO Scott needs a new job! . . . One he can ACTUALLY do!”), and fans piled on. “The Avengers” went on to be one of the fastest movies ever to gross a billion dollars.
I've long viewed criticism as a beautiful art form that exists in an obligate symbiotic relationship with all of the arts. Any attempt to defend criticism in a way that attempts to chicken and egg this whole set of issues is doomed to failure and intellectual dishonesty.
Something many readers/reviewers of Scott's book have come back to is a reference to a speech by Anton Ego about criticism from the Brad Bird film Ratatouille. You might know the speech about how the bitter truth we critics must face is that there's more time, thought and effort put into a piece of common junk than the review written to designate it as such. But for people who aren't film critics by hobby or profession the thing that can be missed is that Ego's little speech is in the form of a preamble to a glowing review of Remy's cooking. The part that's weirdly easy for film critics to willfully forget is the part in Ego's commentary about how far more difficult than to write a bad review of a junky thing is to champion the new.
Weird, eh? How film critics who have complained about how there's no new ideas could even possibly take Ego's complaints more to heart than the advocacy. Such is life. One of the paradoxes of Ratatouille is that the critics who didn't perceive that the film posited a necessarily synergistic relationship between the arts and arts criticism latched on to one tiny part of Anton Ego's speech as if it stood for the whole when it very clearly didn't. It really does take less effort to make something bad than to say something is bad in many things in life.
Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways. They can be first responders: if they called the genius of Patti Smith before she was Patti Smith, their taste in other new music is probably of note. They can be scholars: someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteem. Or they can be seducers: they’ve wooed and won you with their work; you follow them because you like the way they think. The trouble is that each virtue is unreliable, and almost nobody fully embodies all three. We give critics broad mandates, and they’re constantly betraying our trust.
Seducers are rarely hung up on posterity or on their own self-justifying theories. They’re about evaluating in the now and showing you a good time tonight, baby. If Scott’s Times work didn’t already mark him as one of these, it would be apparent in how lightly he frets about his record. (“The only genuinely helpful guide to the practice of criticism would be a compendium of error and misdirection,” he writes, amiably.) Some people describe newspaper reviewing as “improvisational” criticism; you respond to what you see without the distraction of special preparation or theoretical commitments. A writer who can do that with charisma and insight, again and again, is a marvel. That is why it doesn’t much matter that “Better Living Through Criticism” is more slalom than argument. Building unified theories is not Scott’s job.
And it could be here that a person could ask whether or not building unified theories is really part of what criticism is "supposed" to do. Let's put it in a more blunt way, do we really turn to criticism as a literary form in order to have critics do our thinking for us? Watching for us? Yes, absolutely, but thinking for us? This is often what critics end up doing when they pronounce a judgment and it is the thing that an Anton Ego can be remembered for.
Why do we follow him, then? Scott did not go to film school. He has not made any movies. He may or may not have a detailed knowledge of the complete œuvre of Claude Chabrol. His powers of suasion come from his ability to make you feel that his experience was, or will be, yours. What the first responder and the scholar demand from us—“Defer to me; I see more than you do”—we give voluntarily to the seducer, who woos our consent. Possibly, this is why the “Avengers” misadventure so flustered Scott. We need not agree with every move a seducer makes—far from it—but the moment we decide that we’re no longer cool with this arrangement is the moment when authority disappears.
The moment gets lost when the seducer and the viewer turn out to have not been on the same page. If there was a disconnect here, to play with my riff tonight on how all art is vicariously living through an art work, then when the seducer abruptly announces that some forms of vicarious life aren't really worth living, after all, we want to know why. The scholar and the first responder at least have, respectively, a mountain of knowledge or the first opportunity to respond for the record. We can show them some deference on journalistic terms. If someone who adores Godard hates a Christopher Nolan film, fair enough. That happens. But if someone who is known for reviewing just about anything and being affable all of a sudden decides that something we enjoyed wasn't worth watching, well, it's back to what I was saying about vicarious living. Who are you to say my children or my pet isn't cute? The moment a "seducer" loses a connection to an audience can be thought of as the moment the target realizes how cheap the pick up lines are, perhaps, or that, even if these pick-up lines are great, how many other people have been told them before.
Maybe it becomes like the moment when you're in school and someone you thought was pretty cool suddenly makes an insulting remark about someone you like, or maybe someone you "like" like. And then all of a sudden you're not sure you trust this cool kid's judgment any more. And it's not like the cool kid came up with some reason, it's more of a reflex reaction. It's always possible for someone to write a charming, persuasive and wonderful case about X and then completely drop the ball about Y. It happens frequently.
It's been interesting reading different critics react to Scott's book on criticism because what more often than not emerges is a sense that Scott has managed to make a defense of criticism that cumulative comes off as some mixture of question begging/special pleading. There's a few more quotes about criticism and the arts we'll get to before long.