By Shaun Poust
When I met New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, I caught him in what he called a “moment of vanity.” He was outside Emerson Suites taking a picture with his phone of the sign labeled “A.O. SCOTT, EMERSON SUITES, 7:30.” Apparently, speaking at IC is a bigger deal than I thought.
Scott spoke as part of the writing department’s Distinguished Writers series. His speech was titled “Criticism as a Way of Life,” and it emphasized the importance of approaching all art actively with an open mind.
I later spoke with Scott about film criticism and the movie industry.
Buzzsaw: How much do you think cultural differences between audiences and filmmakers affects people’s reactions to foreign movies?
A.O. Scott: More than any other art form, movies have the power to dissolve differences. Yes, there are different narrative styles and different forms of acting, but there is something transparent about the cinematic image. The accessibility of a Chinese movie to an American audience is much greater, immediately, than that of a Chinese novel; there’s less translation involved.
B: What is there to say to the large portion of the movie-going population missing out on foreign language and older films?
AOS: You always have to patiently push against this prejudice because you can never really shame people into seeing movies. It never works to say, “This is an important movie. This is good for you. What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you seeing this movie?” No one will ever see a movie for that reason. So you just try to appeal to some natural sense of curiosity and adventurousness, and just keep reminding people that these movies are out there.
B: I’m sure you’ve heard people say that, while a movie “isn’t very good,” they “had a lot of fun”? I see that as a contradiction in terms; it is like an internal elitism, a refusal to acknowledge certain emotions as valid. What are your thoughts?
AOS: I think that there is a suppression of a critical response, and I think it’s very unfortunate. I also think it’s selling yourself and your own experience short. It’s sort of like saying, “This was terrible food; but I was hungry, so it was fine.” I think, if you can, you should avoid eating terrible food. It puzzles me that people hold their entertainment to such low standards, being satisfied with less than they know they deserve. It’s fun to go to the movies, it’s fun to eat popcorn, it’s fun to be with your friends. But I don’t know… I can’t have a good time at something I think is truly bad.
B: Maybe people feel that if they embraced a critical mindset they wouldn’t be allowed to enjoy comedies or action movies–you know, “fun” movies.
AOS: I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions, and it’s certainly not true of critics. Critics–good ones–are very open-minded and are happy to admit to liking what they like. I think that people associate criticism with a somber, overly serious attitude toward things, and with the destruction of pleasure. It’s odd for me to think that in order to have a fun at a movie, you have to turn off your brain or suppress your more complicated and more interesting responses. It’s an attitude that ultimately stirs the interest of the movie studios: they have an uncritical public that’s willing to accept whatever they give them.
B: WALL-E was your No. 1 movie of 2008. It was not nominated for Best Picture, and I imagine that you didn’t think it would be when you wrote your list. So, my question is: What relevance do the Academy Awards have?
AOS: I think that, at this point, their influence is almost entirely negative. First of all, they distort the release schedule of movies. All of the serious dramas have to come out in November or December. Then you have to whittle it down to five movies. All the talk is about Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, and no one even talks about these movies in interesting terms. They talk about them as though it were a horse race. There are a lot of other movies people could be seeing and talking about. Looking at the list of Academy Award winners over the years doesn’t tell you much about the movies that you should see and the movies that have lasted.
B: Now, the lightning round. Favorite movie?
AOS: The list always changes. Right now, The Leopards.
B: Least favorite movie you’ve seen recently?
AOS: Seven Pounds.
B: Favorite movie candy?
AOS: Sour Patch Kids.