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How does a professional film critic compete with social media?

March 4, 2016 at 8:16 PM EDT
A.O. Scott has been the New York Times’ film critic since 2000, so it’s safe to say he knows his craft. But in a world dominated by social media, where anyone with an Internet connection can become a self-styled critic, what separates a professional from a wannabe? That’s one of the issues Scott tackles in his new book, “Better Living Through Criticism.” Jeffrey Brown talks to Scott for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Loving this and hating that. When everyone’s a critic on social media, what’s a professional critic to do?

Jeffrey Brown has our “NewsHour” Bookshelf conversation.

SAMUEL L. JACKSON, Actor: Gentlemen, what are you prepared to do?

JEFFREY BROWN: When the movie “The Avengers” came out in 2012, with a cast of big stars, including Samuel L. Jackson, New York Times film critic
A.O. Scott wrote: “The secret of ‘The Avengers” is that it is a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant ATM for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.”

A.O. SCOTT, Author, “Better Living Through Criticism”: So, the day that review appeared, Samuel L. Jackson sent out a tweet saying, “Avengers fans, we need to find A.O. Scott a new job, one he can actually do.”

JEFFREY BROWN: One he can actually do?

A.O. SCOTT: One he can actually — yes.

And I thought, well, there is probably isn’t any job I could — other job I could actually do. And I thought, well, what is this job and how do you actually do it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott’s answer comes in the new book “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.”

He’s been reviewing films for The Times since 2000. But his first love was literature. He never took a film class. And his book goes well beyond film, to all kinds of art forms, to how we see the world, how we make judgments.

Is this where you write the reviews?

A.O. SCOTT: Sometimes. There have been reviews written here.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talked about it at Gorilla Coffee near his home in Brooklyn.

A.O. SCOTT: One of the things you often hear about critics is that we’re failed artists, kind of taking revenge on…

JEFFREY BROWN: You couldn’t make a movie, so you’re…

A.O. SCOTT: I couldn’t make a movie. But I would never want to make a movie. It would be terrible.

So, I kind of wanted to think about, well, but what is this? I think criticism is something that helps to sustain and support creativity and art and the appreciation of it.

So, I wanted to kind of explain how that works and what the basis of it is, and have criticism properly understood as something that we’re always doing that is a part of our lives and a part of our culture and a part of how the whole messy human enterprise of figuring out who we are and what our lives means. It moves forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in making the case for criticism as a kind of way of thinking and judging, there’s an implicit, actually explicit critique of our culture, right, that we don’t do that enough, right, that we don’t value looking hard or judging.

A.O. SCOTT: Right. Yes, I mean, that was one of the impulses behind the book, was to make a case for that kind of thinking, that kind of discussion, that kind of discourse, because I think there is so much premature certainty and overinflated argument.

And I just also wanted to push back against, I think, the passivity that sometimes befalls us as consumers.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other thing that you run up against all the time is the everyone’s a critic today, right, in the age of social media.

A.O. SCOTT: Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t have to go to you, obviously. I can go to a million other places, and I can damn well write my own review if I want.

A.O. SCOTT: Right, and you can.

But I think that’s a good thing. And I think that what it means is that critics in positions like mine can’t just sort of assume — can’t rest on our laurels, can’t just figure, well, I’m in The New York Times, so I’m going to say what I say without challenge.

We’re going to say it, we’re going to be challenged, and we’re going to have to prove ourselves, or outwrite the competition day in and day out.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re in an age of sequels and reboots and packaging of everything.

A.O. SCOTT: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do — where do you see the world of film nowadays?

A.O. SCOTT: It’s a complicated question, because, you know, it’s easy to complain generally, and it’s correct to complain about the lack of originality, the sequels, the endless recycling of all these products.

But I think that there is, even within that system, the possibility of some real creativity. And I think also…

JEFFREY BROWN: You have to hope so, right, since you’re going to be watching a lot of movies.

A.O. SCOTT: I do hope so.

And one of the most interesting things and, in a way, confusing things about doing my job now is that the boundaries between what is — what are movies and what is TV are less and less clear.

So, there’s a lot — I don’t feel like there is any shortage of really interesting and kind of novel stuff to watch. I think the challenge is finding it and helping it, in a way, helping those movies or TV shows or whatever they are, wherever they come from, find some kind of audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is part of the job of the critic.

A.O. SCOTT: Yes.

And it’s a very important job now, because we’re in the state of kind of cultural superabundance of glut.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sort of wonderful and horrifying at the same time.

A.O. SCOTT: It’s wonderful and horrifying at the same time.

It’s paralyzing. And we need to figure out how to help ourselves and how to help each other kind of navigate that. And it’s also true that no single critic in any discipline can kind of take it all in and then dole it out.

So, you — it’s sort of like you have to find someone, I think, who you can trust to kind of accompany you along that path and sorting through all that stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Find someone you trust, and get yourself to a screen, book or work of art, but, first, have another coffee.

From Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find more of our book conversations on our Arts page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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