Interview with A.O. Scott: Part 2

In Part 2 of our interview with The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, he answers some quick “lightening round” questions on his favorite (and not so favorite) characters and movies, before sharing with us his thoughts on the art of criticism. For more of our conversation, see Interview with A. O. Scott: Part 1.

Buffer: We’re going to go through some quick “A or B” type questions just to have some fun. We’re calling this the “Lightning Round.”

A few of us are “Trekkies,” so we’re wondering: Kirk or Spock?

A. O. Scott: Spock.

Buffer: Why Spock?

A. O. Scott: Because I’m a cold blooded rationalist! Actually, there was something much more moving in Spock, when he would approach becoming a somewhat emotional being. That’s always much more moving and emotional to me than Kirk’s screaming. Kirk was fun, and of course he was the captain, but he was a little too overdone.

Buffer: Superman or Batman?

A. O. Scott: Superman. He was Jewish. Pure tribal loyalty.

Buffer: AMC or Regal?

A. O. Scott: They’re both awful. They’re right across the street from each other on 42nd Street. That said, the Regal chain has a soda wheel.

Buffer: Who would play you in a movie?

A. O. Scott: William Holden.

Buffer: Who is your favorite movie character, and who is your favorite arch-nemesis?

A. O. Scott: My favorite movie character is Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Who also might be the arch-nemesis.

Buffer: What are your guilty pleasures?

A. O. Scott: I don’t associate pleasure with guilt. I don’t like bad movies, so any movie that gives me pleasure I will feel perfectly virtuous about, and I will defend. You can Google my review of Freddy Got Fingered, a defense of the artistic accomplishment of that movie. Which was so embarrassing to the producers of that movie that they still won’t mention it. There was even a documentary about Freddy Got Fingered ten years later, and the producers say, “Yeah, the critics all hated it!” And I say, “That’s not true!”

Buffer: Favorite TV show?

A. O. Scott: Broad City.

Buffer: Least favorite movie?

A. O. Scott: That’s so hard—the bottom just gets deeper and deeper. A little digression: there are just so many bad movies that the worst movie can’t just be a bad movie; it has to be able to be mistaken for a good movie. It has to have negative sublimity, and be bad because it could have been great, or wanted to be great. So probably, given all that, American Beauty.

Buffer: Favorite popular English rock band: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

A. O. Scott: Oh, such a tough one! I feel like I’ve flipped on that one at various times in my life, and continue to flip. Right now The Rolling Stones, in terms of what I want to listen to more. But in terms of canon of greatness, it probably has to be The Beatles.

Buffer: Have you watched many Bollywood movies?

A. O. Scott: Yes, I did a piece on Bollywood a long time ago and have watched a bunch. Obviously there are tons. My next-door neighbors in Brooklyn are from India, and the grandmother of the family would bring me many Bollywood films and say I have to watch them. She had a very compelling case as to why they were so much better than American movies, and why American movies were completely stupid.

The cool thing is that one of the copy editors at The New York Times, a books editor named Rachel Saltz, who lived in India and has a PhD in Sanskrit, is a Bollywood fanatic and is our designated Bollywood critic. I think we’re the only general interest English-language American newspaper that has one.

Buffer: You recently wrote an article in which you said that the New York Film Festival served as an entryway for movies from Europe and Asia but also as an introduction to snob culture. What at recent film festivals have you seen being introduced?

A. O. Scott: I think film festivals are really important for exactly that reason. The American movie culture is very narrow, very parochial. The percentage of screens in the country that are devoted to non-Hollywood, non-American, or non-English language films is only 1 or 2 percent a year. There is now a lot of new interesting stuff coming from South America, South Asia, many Eastern European countries (including Romania, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, and Russia) and especially francophone West Africa, like Senegal, and the festivals have become an important conduit for those films.

It’s exciting to be able to know something about those films and, therefore, about those countries and those cultures. I think movies offer a window into different parts of the world that no other art form quite does, because you see not only how the other place looks but you also get something about how that place tells its stories, what the society looks like, stuff you wouldn’t necessarily see if you were travelling. For instance, you wouldn’t walk into a factory or someone’s house and immediately get a sense of what family relationships are like. I’m always eager for that, and that’s what I feel movies bring.

Movies give you a sense of how big the world is and how many stories there are. This fact has sometimes kept me from getting jaded or cynical about my job. If I only had to review Hollywood movies, I would be much less optimistic about the state of film.

Buffer: What are your favorite foreign language films?

A. O. Scott: I have a strong bias for Italian movies. I would say maybe Lucchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, which has just been restored. Another is Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low. More recently, there have been some Romanian movies I really enjoy, like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Another Romanian favorite is Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, which I think is just an amazing movie—really odd and funny and interesting. I also like a lot of Werner Herzog’s movies, made in German, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Buffer: Finally, favorite blockbusters?

A. O. Scott: I like the X-Men series a lot. I also like Spiderman 2 with Toby Maguire, as well as the Hunger Games series. I like most of the Harry Potter movies; it definitely got better as it went along. This year, I have to say Mad Max: Fury Road, which is in my Top 10, maybe Top 5.

Star Wars was an event in my life and for many in my generation. I am exactly the age where it was kind of an earthquake. It was like the Beatles. Movies were different after that. It took me a while to realize that I don’t like those movies all that much, but I’d seen them all 12 or 15 times.

Buffer: How do you approach movies that have a lot of cultural significance but may or may not be good movies? In the last few years we’ve had The Interview, Selma, and Suffragette. These are movies that have national or international significance, but how can you separate that from the technical aspects of a piece?

A. O. Scott: You have to consider the quality of the work. Just the fact that you approve of its themes, or approve of its politics, that can’t be the whole thing. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the work has certain intentions, and to think about the question of cultural significance: what difference will this movie make to an audience?

I saw Suffragette and it is not a great movie. It has some weak points in the story and it’s a little bulky in some ways—a lot of critics have been hard on it for that reason. But would I want my daughter or would I want a 15-year-old girl to see this movie? Yes, because it does something. Whatever its merits as a work of art may be, it reaches its audience in a way that you have to respect. I think that’s true not only of movies that have that kind of social critique, but let’s say the second Twilight. I remember going to see that at a sneak preview in Chicago, which was crowded with 12-year-old girls (and their mothers) who loved it, who were completely screaming and yelling when Taylor Lautner takes his shirt off. I might not be part of the intended audience of this movie, and I, as a critic, have critical things to say about it as a piece of cinema, but it’s clearly connecting with its audience. One of the challenges of criticism is to understand that many movies exist in a very specific and direct relationship to their audience, which may not have anything to do with what a critic like me may think of as merits.

Buffer: A lot of us use television as a way to relax or de-stress. But since that’s part of your job, do you still find watching movies or television relaxing?

A. O. Scott: I tend to do other things. I really like watching movies and I really like watching TV, but I fall behind on a lot of the dramas. They are just too intense, and if I’ve seen eight movies a week I don’t necessarily want to watch drama. But that’s why I like Broad City. There’s nothing but joy to be had from that.

I tend to watch more comedy on TV than drama because it’s less demanding. It’s less stressful. But I definitely need a certain amount of time in a week when there’s not a screen in front of me with characters doing things on it. So, I listen to music or cook, and I read. For a long time, just because of my habits as a book critic, I was in the mindset of always reading. It’s only just in the last few years that I feel like I’m just reading for fun and it’s not part of some larger professional responsibility. And I think for a long time we feel this pressure to keep up with everything, and to just be aware of and have a 360-degree sense of popular culture. You can sustain that for a while, and then you’re in your late 40s and it stops being possible. You are full. This may be a sign that the end is coming, but there will be stuff, music or things on TV, that you just don’t know. I don’t conclude that it’s bad or worthless. It’s just so not for me.

Buffer: Have you ever reviewed a movie and felt really strongly about it one way or another but later on completely changed your feelings?

A. O. Scott: Not completely, but yes. I’ll never tell you what it was, because I have a very strong belief that, in a way, the job of the critic is to be wrong, to let stand the judgment that the rest of the world and the passage of time can correct. It is not the critic’s job to correct himself—it’s cheating in a way. I could say that yes, I wrote this review, and ten years later I want to take it back. But, enough other people have already taken it back for me. These judgments are like wet paint. These movies have just come into the world at that moment. In a sense they are not finished really until an audience has seen them and until they’ve entered the cultural bloodstream: passed through and gone on to whatever future. The job of the critic is to make a hasty, provisional, and frequently wrong judgment. If you kept going back, you’d just be doing that all the time.

Buffer: Do you have a pet peeve about films?

A. O. Scott: I have so many. The whole thing about when you have two characters in a car, the expectation of the truck that is going to smash into them. It happens far more in film than in life. Filmmakers will play with that expectation; they will create tension and foreboding in the scene and have no intention of the characters being in a car accident.

A lot of movies don’t know where to end. I sometimes feel as if every single movie I see goes on a few beats too long. Someone making the movie either does not know when they are done or doesn’t trust the audience. I feel like when the story is at that minute or even 10 seconds before, that’s when you should end the movie. I don’t know what you guys thought of Bridge of Spies. This is a particular Spielberg problem: multiple endings. I like that movie pretty well. The last shot should be the one of Tom Hanks’s character on the bridge in Berlin. The story is complete He didn’t need to get home and see Amy Ryan. He didn’t need to get on the streetcar and see the same woman who gave him the dirty look before smiling at him now. There is nothing that those scenes are doing that is necessary to the movie. The movie is remaking points that are already made. I sometimes think that people should look at their watches, and two and a half minutes before the movie is over they should just leave.

Buffer: You have a new book coming out called Better Living through Criticism. The very title is a promise. What are you promising?

A. O. Scott: I came up with this idea a few years ago, because I had this feeling, as one does, of being misunderstood. Not even personally, but that there are all kinds of ideas about criticism—about what it is, what it is for, what is wrong with it, why it is useless—that just seemed to me mistaken or misguided. There is an almost endless litany about critics: about critics being out of touch with audiences, or being haters, or being failed artists, or hostile to art—none of which I felt was true. Is there a way of justifying criticism and what it’s good for? Not even as a justification for my own job, but just as an activity.

I’ve always felt that criticism is not only the property of professional critics—a formal discourse by self-appointed experts who tell the rest of the world what to think—but is what happens when you go to a movie and argue with friends afterward. It is part of the appreciation of works of art, and how they take their place in our world and culture. Criticism is how we talk about and argue about what we value and why.

Criticism is also a part of how art itself gets made. Artists—filmmakers, writers, painters—are engaged in conversations with previous works of art and other artists, and are thinking about why some things are better than others. On the one hand, we seem to want to think that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. I like what I like and you like what you like and there is no point in arguing about it because we are all different and it is all subjective anyway. And we kind of believe that, but on the other hand we also believe the opposite. We do think that some things are better than other things.

The book is an argument in favor of thinking about and taking seriously the artifacts, representations, and stories that surround us, and why it matters to do that. It has some practical aspects too, but it isn’t really a how-to book or textbook, though I do try to offer some suggestions and guidelines.

Buffer: How do you feel about the institution of the Oscars and the controversies that have sprung up more recently around it?

A. O. Scott: I feel very resigned to it; I feel it is terrible actually. The Oscars have existed for a long time and for most of that existence they weren’t all that important. They were mostly the major studios’ annual chance to celebrate themselves, and they were a trade show in a way that could be very glamorous and exciting to watch. But, the commercial fortunes of parts of the industry weren’t built around it in quite the same way. Critics certainly didn’t take the Oscars very seriously.

But now there is this situation where the chance of getting an Oscar is hugely important to the commercial fates of non-blockbuster, non-franchise movies. What happens is that you know the vast majority of the serious movies (which is another problematic category) come out in the last three months of the year. You have this brutal situation where all these movies come out and a lot of them just fall by the wayside. There are just too many for audiences to absorb, and the rest of the year there are fewer of them. And it has helped to break the habit of movie-going among adults, because from January through August the movies that are non-genre movies or not big movies are few and far between. Then there is this glut in the last three months of the year organized around trying to win Oscars.

I think it has a distorting effect on the habits of audiences, on the way films are released, and on the media coverage that is just Oscar obsessed. Why is the most exciting thing you could say about a movie, “Brie Larson will get an Oscar nomination for this”? Who cares? It becomes a sloppy and cynical way of evaluating things and a substitute for criticism.

Also, the Oscar show is always terrible and the host always gets blamed, whether it is Seth McFarlane or Anne Hathaway or Neil Patrick Harris or Chris Rock. Some people are going to get upset. But it is also hard to imagine anything changing, so we are stuck with it. It is part of how movies are now. The best that I think critics can do is to try to keep distance from it and try to keep critical scrutiny, but it is hard. And there are bizarre things. This movie coming out in two weeks that no one has ever seen, Spotlight, is the Oscar front-runner for some reason. What data was that based on? Nobody knows. It is all publicists generating “buzz,” feeding it to journalists reporting it as “news,” at which point it sort of becomes true. That’s a messed up way for culture to happen.

Buffer: Since we are nearing the end we wanted to ask: what’s next for you? Are you interested in maybe making movies? Continuing your criticism?

A. O. Scott: I am pretty happy doing what I am doing. And certainly the more I know about movies, the less I would want to be involved in making them. I admire people who do, but it would not be a good fit for me. I think at some point I will decide that the cycle of daily reviewing is enough. Roger Ebert never got tired. Literally right until the end it was the thing he loved doing. I don’t think I have that in me. As long as movies keep giving me something new and exciting I will want to keep doing film reviews, and I hope that when that stops I will have the presence of mind to say, “I’ll go write features for a magazine or a book. Or I’ll do something else at the newspaper.” I am very content at the paper. I have a lot of freedom there. And there are fewer and fewer places to go. I’ve become a dinosaur.

Interview conducted at Princeton University on October 27, 2015. This interview has been edited and condensed.

For the first half of this interview, see Interview with A. O. Scott: Part 1.