Park Slope Food Co-op member A.O. Scott wields the power to shape mainstream consensus, to define for a large and varied nonspecialist readership what viewing habits, and what attitudes, constitute enlightened moviegoing. This is not just down to his platform at theTimes, but also because Scott’s criticism—lucid, witty, sensible—makes him the perfect ambassador. It’s not surprising that with his high-profile new book, Better Living Through Criticism, he’s turned to advocating for his entire profession.
What’s your favorite place in Brooklyn to go to the movies?
BAM. Especially the big room upstairs with the extra-steep amphitheater seating.
What are some films you’ve watched that you can point to and say, “That’s my New York”—films where what’s on-screen (visually, culturally, thematically) resonates with your experience of life in the city?
The Squid and the Whale and While We’re Young, for sure. Apart from Noah Baumbach movies, I’d say Do the Right Thing, The Plot Against Harry, Annie Hall and Wild Style.
In your interview with Adam Nayman, you say, about reaching an audience, “It can be tricky to try to engage with what the audience is seeing and responding to versus what you think is there. And for tactical and ethical reasons, you can’t just cite your own intellectual superiority.” And this jibes with the sense I get from reading your criticism generally, which is that the goal of criticism is to help people (the readers, but also the critic) be open to all the diverse ways of potentially looking at a piece of art. But are there ever moments where you feel like saying, “Well, you’re just *wrong*,” lines you ever feel like drawing? Is there ever a value in that?
It’s more than 50 years since Manny Farber wrote a polemic around the slogan “Blame the audience,” and I’m often tempted to revive it. It’s undoubtedly frustrating when you try to bring attention to a movie you think is great and your readers just don’t listen, especially when you run into people who whine about how there are no good movies to see. But “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?” isn’t an effective tactic. People rarely go to movies out of a sense of duty or shame. But the public often gets it wrong, just as critics do.
Of all the ways in which people slag off the profession of the critic (failed artist; gets off on hating art; slovenly, lives in mother’s basement or otherwise stunted; elitist snob; slavering fanboy; et cetera), which derogatory stereotype annoys you the most?
I think it’s the idea that critics are cynical about or hostile to the art form we write about. Exactly the opposite is the case. We’re motivated by love. Why would anyone see 300 movies a year other than out of affection and enthusiasm?
Read more about the 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture here.