New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently published his acclaimed book “Better Living Through Criticism,” an argumentative essay in favor of criticism, and how it’s one of the most important, most urgent disciplines in these modern times. On the Film Comment podcast, host Violet Lucca moderates a conversation between Scott, herself, and film/television critic Matt Zoller Seitz to discuss Scott’s book, the state of modern film criticism, video essays, realism, “Vertigo,” and everything else under the sun. The result is one of the most interesting, thought-provoking conversations on the Internet this week. Be sure to listen to the full conversation linked above, but below are some excerpted highlights that should pique your interest.
MZS on negative experiences: “I do find it kind of sad, but perhaps inevitable, that people don’t like to have a negative experience at a movie. I actually like to have a negative experience at a movie. And one of the things I tell people when I go to film festivals or I’m speaking to journalism students or anybody who’s interested in what we do is the goal of experiencing a movie, a television show, a painting, a poem, a play, anything should not be to come away saying, ‘Yes, that was satisfying.’ That’s not it. What you’re paying for is the experience of watching the thing.”
A.O. Scott on superhero movies: “It’s very frustrating because so much talent is sucked into these films. They’re very good writers and performers and technical people working on these things that are so constrained by the imperatives of the franchises and by the sameness and the sameness that whatever wit or originality or fun might be in there is just so often extinguished.”
MZS on problems with film journalism: “It really bothers me when I see what passes for a lot of film journalism is, ‘I wonder if blah blah blah.’ You look like such an idiot when you write a story like that because these are artists, they can’t wait to talk about all their own work. They can’t wait! … I read a story online saying, ‘Was that a shot of Christopher Reeve that I saw in that montage sequence in “Man of Steel”?’ Well, you don’t have to pose it as a question. You can actually call the studio and put me on the phone with the editor of this and you can have your question answered that afternoon. There’s a lot of things that don’t need to be crowdsourced.”
A.O. Scott on questions of “realism”: “I’ve been obsessed since I was a book critic and remain intrigued and troubled by the whole question of realism and what we mean when we talk about it because it can mean so many different things. It changes from one generation to the next, and it may or may not have anything to do in the end with the literal accuracy of what’s being depicted. When I think about realism, I also find myself thinking at the same time more and more about allegory, about the way that stories, narratives, plots are in a way always allegorical, and people often have a literal-minded response to a movie’s story. ‘Well, that wouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have happened that way. That didn’t make any sense.’ But of course, if it’s at all an interesting movie, the things that happen and the things that people do are being arranged in a certain way to evoke something that has some meaning that may just not be a matter of literal naturalistic accuracy.”
MZS on writing about form: “I do think, and I repeat this all the time to the point where people wish I’d shut up about it, but the one thing I’d love to see more in mainstream criticism is more discussion of form, more discussion of how form articulates content. There are still, still, still, still too many film reviews being written that are basically book reports, and they’re ignoring the essence of the movie, which is how it says what it’s saying or what you think it’s saying.”
A.O. Scott on amateurs vs. professionals: “As we know, the distinction between being a professional and being an amateur is not necessarily a distinction between being better or worse than someone else. There are people who can cook better meals than you’ll eat at any restaurant that just work in their own kitchen.”
MZS on mentors: “Seeking out mentors is really important. If you’re a critic or you want to be a critic and you’ve come into this and you’re in your 20’s, find a mentor. It doesn’t even matter if they’re a critic or a professional journalist, just find a mentor. Work out whatever deal you have to and find ’em.”