2 May 2016

Film critic AO Scott

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 2 May 2016

These days when anyone can be critical about anything on Twitter or blogs or social media – so what is the role of the professional critic?

Ao Scott has been New York Times film critic since 2000. In his first-ever book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, he argues that we need criticism and critical thinking now more than ever for art and creativity to thrive.

Read an edited snapshot of their conversation:

Jesse Mulligan: There’s a great story in the book about a child of a friend of yours who finds out you’re a film critic and says ‘How is that a job?' What is the answer to that question?

AO Scott: In a way the whole book is trying to answer that question and kind of arises from the thought that it is a very peculiar way to make a living, to do for work what most people do for fun - to go to the movies and take them maybe more seriously than most people do or maybe than one should and then to write about them. I was trying to think not only about the specifics of the job, but how that is connected to the ordinary, common everyday experience of seeing movies, experience various kinds of art and reacting to them and judging them and evaluating them and talking about them with other people.

JM: I’ve got 1,000 people I follow on Twitter. Why do I need a critic in 2016?

AOS: I think it’s always a matter of who you trust and you who you are interested in reading. One difference between people on Twitter and people who write longer criticism is that it’s more involved, there’s more of an argument. If you want to think further, if you want to go further and in way extend the conversation that you’re having beyond just ‘Is this good’ ‘Is this bad’ ‘Did I like this or didn’t I’ a critic is there as a kind of companion. I think always what readers want from critics and what critics hope to cultivate from their readers is not agreement. It’s not ‘I say you should like this’, but trust.

JM: Can you indulge me and tell me what happened between you and Samuel L Jackson?

AOS: Of course. That’s the story that starts out the book. I reviewed The Avengers. It wasn’t actually that negative of a review, it wasn’t a total pan. I had some problems with it. There were some things I liked and some things I didn’t like so much. A lot of the writing is quite clever. Josh Whedon is a very good writer, but I did feel like it suffered from that blockbuster imperative to be this large-scale action movie. And what was interesting and fresh about it kind of got smothered in all of that.

So the morning that my review went up on The Times website I went on Twitter – as I do if I’m feeling lonely or bored or like procrastinating – and my feed was full of these angry people who were calling me all kinds of names and telling me that I needed to get a new job and I should just shut up and leave them alone. And it turned out it was at the instigation of Samuel L Jackson who had tweeted "Avengers fans, we need to find AO Scott a new job, one he can actually do’. And I thought it was very funny… So I tweeted back a few clever obnoxious things… I quoted my son saying ‘Why does Mace Windu want to take the food off our table, Daddy?’ It was good. I plagiarised. My son is much cleverer and much better at these things than I am.