A.O. Scott is a chief film critic for the New York Times, where he has worked for 15 years. He thinks about culture from a lot of different angles: he has a degree in literature, a career in film criticism, and writes broad cultural think pieces. He also teaches at Wesleyan University. After his talk on “How to Be Wrong” at the Yale School of Art, the Herald spoke with him about his blind spots, how he feels about tweeters’ reactions to his articles, and what makes a good movie.
YH: How did you become a film critic for the New York Times?
Scott: The short version of the story is I spent far too long in graduate school in American literature, not getting a PhD in English, and I started writing journalism just as a way to pass the time, do some writing I could actually finish, make a little money— primarily about books. But I always had interests in other art forms, in film, and music, and television, especially film. I had written very little about film, but then I published a longish piece about Martin Scorsese in Slate in the fall of 1999, and it happened to be published right when Janet Maslin had stepped down as chief film critic at the Times. And they kind of found me. I’d done some writing for the Times—a book review, a little bit for the magazine—but it was a surprise that they would want me to apply. But I thought, why not? So I wrote some audition pieces, and then much to my surprise, I ended up with the job, having never been a professional movie reviewer, and with a very skimpy film resumé. But I managed to fake it for long enough and convincingly enough that I could still get away with it.
YH: Do you think of yourself as more of a film critic, or as a cultural critic?
Scott: I guess I think of myself as a critic. Or to back it up even further, I think of myself as a writer. And the kind of writing that I do is criticism, and the kind of criticism I do is film criticism. But I think of myself first of all as a critic. What I do doesn’t arise out of an exclusive or specialized interest in film, but from an interest in criticism as a way of thinking and a form of writing, that in my case applies itself to film.
YH: How do you deal with personal bias when you’re reviewing something?
Scott: Well, it’s always there, because you can’t be anyone other than who you are. So, you have your own tastes, you have your own political beliefs. There are things I find funny, there are things that offend me, there are things that bore me. I don’t try to disown them or suppress them, but I try to wear them loosely, and be aware that they’re there. And then I think the real blind spots—the real biases—are the ones that you’re not even aware of, that are completely invisible to you. And just sometimes someone points them out.
YH: When someone points out those blind spots, does it ever cause you to change your opinion on pieces that you’ve already written?
Scott: I believe that it’s important to stand by what you’ve said, even if you come to modify it. That is, there’s some value in having on the record the way you thought it when you wrote it. In my death of adulthood piece [“The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”], there was a lot of really, really interesting feedback on Twitter and in other publications. You know, people pointing out areas that I hadn’t really gotten into, things that hadn’t been part of the scope of the article, like religion and race, and feminist criticisms of some of the things that I’d said about patriarchy and fatherhood, and so on. And I could’ve absorbed all of them and written something else, but I was so pleased that the piece had provoked those responses. I believe what I believe, but I don’t set great store in being right. I would much rather be interesting or get something started— give readers and other people something that’s useful for them to think about, however they want to think about it. So yeah, sometimes I think, oh, maybe I misjudged that movie, maybe I was too hard on this one, maybe I overpraised that one, but I think it’s much more valuable to everyone else who’s going to see that movie and think about that movie just to leave it alone and let them do the work of correcting my mistakes.
YH: What kind of role do you think you inhabit as a Times film critic in an online world, where people blog about their own film opinions and websites pluck up material that others have written?
Scott: I get annoyed at the aggregation sometimes, at the click theft that happens. This is sort of a silly example, but every year, I work with some other people at the Times Magazine. We put together a bunch of videos of great performers and movie stars, and this time they were all kissing. So like, Reese Witherspoon and Benedict Cumberbatch were kissing, Rosario Dawson and Jenny Slate. Slate Magazine did sort of a snarky piece on it, but they embedded the videos in that piece, so like, they’re trying to have it both ways. They’re trying to take some of our traffic and make fun of us at the same time. And it just kind of bothered me. We worked very hard, the photographers and the photo editors, and the videographers, and certainly the movie stars. But I have gotten very much used to—and actually really grown to like—a lot about the current media environment. There’s a certain amount of obnoxiousness and silliness, but there’s a lot of intelligence too, that maybe would have been harder or impossible to discover. I’ve gotten a little bit hooked on knowing what people think of my reviews right away. I can go on Twitter and see who’s mad and who didn’t get it, and who’s raising all kinds of interesting questions that I didn’t think of, and I think that’s great. And I think the imperative for critics, and the challenge, is not to assume that you have a platform that automatically gives you attention and authority. You have to earn that. You have to say something interesting. You have to write something that people are going to want to read. You have to be clear and persuasive and entertaining and intelligent, and to feel that pressure on a daily basis, that’s a very good thing for a writer. It keeps you from getting lazy.
YH: And as we’re wrapping up: if you could give any advice to filmmakers, what would you say to them?
Scott: God. Boy. You know, I don’t know, I would say maybe don’t listen to advice from film critics. But what I would say—it’s a little abstract—I feel like a lot of filmmakers tend to work in safe territory, either in conventions of genre or style that are script-like, familiar, that they can master fairly easily, or in subject matter that’s very comfortable and close to home. And I would urge them to push themselves into new territory. And it’s not that you have to go to Antarctica or, you know, into the jungles of the Amazon, but in some way, literally or psychologically or whatever, go someplace where you don’t know what’s going to happen, and figure out what you’re doing there. Because the kinds of films that are the most boring and the most common are the ones where you feel like everything is known in advance, where the characters are not operating in a meaningful zone of freedom. What is going to happen to them has been determined and thought out in advance, and the audience is taken from one beat to another without any room. So, leave room in your films. Leave room for what you don’t know, for accidents, for characters and collaborators to discover themselves, and also for the audience to risk getting lost. I think there’s tremendous fear of losing the audience. But it’s worth the risk, because the very greatest films are the ones where you experience as a viewer, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, a kind of freedom, a kind of vertigo, a kind of uncertainty, a sense that anything is really possible.