A.O. Scott is one of the few film critics working today whose fuller personality comes through in their prose. From his weekly reviews for the New York Times – always animated, hyper-readable, and often subtly profound – one senses not only a critical taste at work but a human voice, which is to say a disposition, a temperament, a character. I can picture Scott, puffy-cheeked and bespectacled, scribbling notes to himself at Cannes or Toronto. But I can just as easily picture him at home in a Brooklyn brownstone asking his kids about their day at school, putting on a record, or talking to another critic (Manohla Dargis? Greil Marcus?) on the phone.
This is the paradox of inhabiting one of the most prestigious posts in America for a cinephile. Freed from the aspirational desire for insider acceptance Scott can espouse the mantle of an approachable, down-to-earth everyman. Caricatured from above as the epitome of the middlebrow, and from below as a snobbish killjoy, Scott instead occupies a rare and reassuring center. His reviews are learned yet light-hearted, well crafted yet casual. He is never shrill. There is something disarmingly affable about the way he dispatches even his most damning judgements. (“The Day After Tomorrow,” began one review, “a two-hour $125 million disaster – excuse me, I mean disaster movie…”) With a single m-dash or pithy question – “Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy?” he asked of Almodovar’s Broken Embraces – Scott will get at the core of a film lesser writers could spend paragraphs circling around, never to quite touch. And as with the best critics of any medium, Scott is most himself – most humbly eloquent – when caught up in admiration. “A movie, like an individual’s life, is a singular thing,” he wrote of Boyhood. “It can’t be comprehensive; it can only be, as comprehensively as possible, itself.”
Precise, poetic insights such as these demonstrate Scott’s unmatched skill at distilling the nuances of a two- or three-hour film into the suggestive brilliance of an eight-hundred-word response. But as every journalist knows enforced brevity is both a hindrance and an enabling constraint. When Scott has been given more space, in extended profiles for the Times Sunday Magazine – on Olivier Assayas, for example, or on the literary journal N+1 – the added room has tended to dilute his voice, the trademark verve fading into the uniformity of a house style. Such is the conundrum of the columnist. Like an expert sprinter pining for a longer race, the fear is that they will hit a journeyman stride on the second lap.
All of this makes Scott’s first full-length book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth, released last year by Penguin, something of a wager. Will it be puffed up and padded? Or an extended treat? The answer – as Scott himself might put it in his even-handed way – lies somewhere between these two poles. Like the eponymous bird of its publisher, Better Living Through Criticism is an endearing if awkwardly moving creature. It is at once a personal meditation on the role of the critic delivered in the broad-brush style of a commencement speech and a surprisingly sunny and effervescent beach-read on aesthetics.
Scott’s most serious purpose – certainly his most central – is to mount a defense of criticism through a defense of art, and vice-versa. The two, he says, need each other. Criticism is not an ancillary or parasitic activity, as it is so often misunderstood, but something primary. It is, as he puts it, “art’s late-born twin” (p. 17), a kind of life-giving life partner. Taking on the pejorative clichés that abound about the critic-as-failed-artist, Scott flips the platitudes on their heads. “It would be too much to say that every artist is a failed critic,” he writes, “unable to appreciate what exists without adding to it, but it does not seem to me inaccurate to say that all art is successful criticism.” (p. 22)
Part of the motivation for the project is of course personal, and the book can often read as thinly veiled professional self-justification. At times there is indeed an affected petulance to Scott’s shadow-boxing. After tallying a list of major cultural figures who were also first-rate critics, he ends a paragraph with a boyish riposte: “So there!” Later he answers his own rhetorical question. “Who has ever paused to admire the shape or inflection of a review or critical essay? Readers of Walter Pater, that’s who.” (p. 195)
But the impulse to clarify his intuitions about the significance of the critical act seems genuine rather than vain – at once introspective and philosophical. These twin orientations that in turn motivate the book’s divided structure. Traditional chapters take the reader on a kind of guided tour of the age-old perplexities and dichotomies any working critic must still navigate: between originality and imitation, form and content, art and commerce. Interleaved with these theoretical explorations are more playful interludes from an imagined dialogue between Scott’s critical id and his more sceptical and populist super-ego: one eager to believe in the nobility of the job and the other ready to call its bluff.
The Socratic back-and-forth takes as its closest model Oscar Wilde’s “The Artist as Critic,” which lends the book one of its epigraphs. (Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” provides the other.) But Scott’s style trades in Wilde’s magisterially disorienting wit (or, for that matter, Sontag’s penetrating severity) for a much more easygoing lingua franca. The result is an odd blend of the chatty and the weighty.
Q: Okay. But what I’m asking is––
A: What good am I? What’s the point of what I do?
Q: If you want to put it that way. I might not have been quite so hostile.
A: No worries. Opposition is true friendship, as William Blake said.
The informality risks losing the higher end of the brow spectrum. Self-styled sophisticates will not make it very far. Some may not even make it to the subtitle: the title itself, with its self-help ring, will seem to them at once too tongue-in-cheek and too candidly sincere.
Meanwhile Scott’s many loyal fans may find themselves confounded but for different reasons. There is precious little here about the movies. Certain individual films do make cameo appearances. Pixar’s Ratatoille (2007) supplies a model for the forbidding aesthete in the restaurant critic, Anton Ego. And the failure of Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) to impress its contemporary critics sharpens the question of critical myopia. But Better Living through Criticism is only intermittently about the seventh art. The questions it poses apply to aesthetic experience as such: art in the abstract. And the cast of thinkers Scott assembles can read like a syllabus: Burke, Kant, Arnold, Emerson, Eliot, Wilde, James, Orwell, Steiner, Bloom, Sontag. Part of what has always made Scott such a distinctive film reviewer is the sense that he does not fetishise the medium itself. His points of reference extend far beyond Hitchcock or Tarantino, and his sense of history begins long before the Lumière brothers. Scott is that rare contemporary critic with an endlessly inquisitive mind, whose specialist knowledge of an art is no more than the point of departure for their thinking – never its end.
The larger canvas of a book allows Scott freer range, but he still brings with him the tools of his trade, and seems more content to sketch than to paint. The knack for brevity – for encapsulating centuries-old dilemmas in a nifty sentence – means that great thinkers are boiled down with SparkNotes efficiency and put in conversation with the world of iTunes and Amazon. There is an op-ed generality at work (“…from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg…”) that can sap Scott’s ideas of their particular force. Reading through the book I often wished he had paused to contemplate a single work of art with greater patience. There is a peculiar irony in this as Scott expresses his own exasperation with the attention-addled state of our culture: the superficiality of response that can follow from what he calls “the too muchness of it all.” (p. 7)
And yet the put-down pick-up quality of Better Living Through Criticism is a virtue of sorts. Scott writes for a broad readership, which is to say a distracted and distractible one, and his inviting charm meant, for me, that every time my attention meandered I would soon find myself returning to savour another riff on an age-old conundrum, or an age-old conundrum newly recast in up-to-date terms. Perhaps the best thing to be said about this way of proceeding – for both the writer and the reader – is that it can sneak increasingly endangered concerns for art into the mainstream without seeming dowdy or pretentious. “So then what you’ve written is a manifesto against laziness and stupidity?” Scott’s alter ego asks at one point. “You could put it that way. But why cast it in such a negative light? This book is also, I hope, a celebration of art and imagination, an examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and of the various ways we refine that impulse.” (p. 11)
Scott is never stuffy but he still means, through his delightful style, to arrive at positions that are serious – and seriously held. “It’s the job of art to free our minds,” he declares, “and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Although the sentiment is never politicised it curiously echoes another expressed by a Marxist critic half-a-century prior. “The most imaginative and revolutionary artists,” wrote John Berger in 1957, “create as an act of faith in the future. The duty of the critic is to guarantee that faith by understanding.” Berger eventually left the confines of journalism (and the eight-hundred word review) to become a full-time novelist and artist in his own right. Scott is unlikely to follow a similar path. This is partly because his greatest talents still seem to depend on the regularity of deadlines and the circumscribed format of the newspaper review. But it is partly also because the bar he keeps in that department is so high. At a time when the center appears to be slipping, when pundits in every sphere of politics and culture are turning increasingly extreme, Scott’s companionable yet committed voice can work as a balm. Why quit your day job when at your day job you remain a national treasure?
A.O. Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin, 2016).