This is a somewhat unconventional addition to the Slope movie column. Rest assured, movies will be mentioned, you will not be left stranded without movie fodder for your Friday flick night, but how could a person such as myself pass up an opportunity to tell other similarly-minded movie fans about the talk A.O. Scott, the New York Times’ premier movie critic, gave yesterday at Goldwin Smith Hall?
Kaufmann Auditorium was packed at 4:30 p.m., Scott drawing a bigger crowd than even the event organizers could have anticipated. Sitting in the front row, I was able to overhear him remark on his pleasant surprise that there was a fair mix of young and old among the lecture hall desks. Scott was surprisingly understated—though I’ve read his criticism for a few years now, I never bothered to look up a picture of what he looked like. For me, the words should stand on their own, the image of the critic is merely secondary. I don’t know why my stereotypical image of an art-medium critic is one of a tall, thin, snobbish man wearing hipster glasses and wool turtleneck sweaters no matter the season, who doesn’t care for anyone or anything besides himself and his opinions. But A.O. Scott by no means fits this stereotype. In fact, he rejects it.
His hour-long talk was centered around the enterprise of criticism in American media, addressing what he says is his most oft-asked question: “What gives you the right?” Scott spoke to the fact that criticism and the urge to judge is unique to the human species—it makes us distinct “despite its impoliteness.” Everyone has an opinion and wants to express it as the opinion. The opinions that surface are obviously a product of visibility to some extent. Not everyone can write for a widely-circulated publication; even less can write for the New York Times.
Critics of critics say that there is a sense of “superfluousness” and “intrusiveness” associated with critical opinion. Yet Scott points out that to an extent, criticism has its cognitive functions. It “help[s] people decide what to do and what to avoid.” He did not say this with an air of superiority. When asked by an audience member how the fact that he is writing for the New York Times impacts what he writes, he said that when he’s writing a review, he couldn’t possibly think of the weight that his position at the paper gives to his words. He wouldn’t be able to write a mean thing about anybody while thinking of the millions of people who will read it. He writes his opinions, which you can rest assured are well-reasoned. He said, “It’s the job of the critic to resist looking at something just as what it is.” In other words, he is looking at the layers, not just taking a movie like The Avengers and reading it at face value. This is good to hear, given the debate his review of that movie sparked between him, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackson’s fleet of Twitter followers.
As far as the art of writing critical opinion, Scott was asked (unfortunately before I could ask it) what aspects of film he looks at when reviewing a movie. He said there aren’t necessarily categories he focuses on—a good review should be aware of the intentions behind the piece being presented, and should evaluate the movie in the context of whether or not it fulfilled its intentions. A review should also consider if those were the intentions that should have preceded such a film. As a sort of movie critic/reviewer myself, I was intensely interested in his opinion on something that has always bothered me about the movie industry these days: originality. I asked him if he thought there was a general lack of originality in film today (incidentally, he thinks we should go back to using the term “motion picture” instead of film, as film refers to a photochemical process that for the most part is no longer used today to make movies). He said there are always going to be themes that are revisited in movies, and you can’t really escape that. That sense of a lack of originality tends to come from seeing ten overdone movies in a row, and out of the 300 or so movies he sees a year, he says that maybe 2/3 of them won’t be great. But that’s still 100 movies that are really noteworthy.
So I will leave you with those noteworthy films as my suggestions for this week, as per A. O. Scott. Off the top of his head, he said some of the best films he’s seen this year have been Blue is the Warmest Color, Kill Your Darlings, Enough Said, and The Butler. I’ll be at Cinemapolis tonight to see The Butler, so maybe I’ll see you there.