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Film critic A.O. Scott’s new book is an artful guide to how criticism works

It's more complicated than you might think.

A.O. Scott.
A.O. Scott.

If you’re a movie buff, you may know A.O. Scott as the co-chief film critic of the New York Times, as one of the co-hosts of the final seasons of At the Movies, or even, depending on how long you’ve been reading online journalism, as a former contributor to Slate.

Of course, you may also know him simply as the guy who panned The Avengers and was subsequently "slammed" by one of the movie's stars, Samuel L. Jackson, with Jackson calling for Scott to lose his job and inviting his vast chorus of Twitter followers to echo the call.

That incident seems to loom over Scott these days. It is mentioned prominently in the publicity copy for his excellent new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Beauty, Pleasure, and Truth, and Scott has frequently discussed it in interviews. Although it was not the original impetus for the new book — Scott has said it happened after he’d been working on Better Living Through Criticism for about a year — it serves as a gateway into the questions the book is designed to ask: What is criticism? Is it even necessary? And just what kind of a job is movie criticism, anyway?

Scott does not definitively answer these questions so much as he illuminates their many possible and often contradictory answers, showing readers not only what criticism is but how it works and how it came to be.

Scott isn't offended by those who wonder how watching movies can be a job

Among many other things, criticism is a job, and a strange one at that. One of the book’s warmest passages relates a conversation in which a child of Scott's acquaintance finds out that Scott is a movie critic by trade and asks, "How exactly is that a job?" Good question!

Even to those of us who have dabbled in the profession, the idea that pop culture criticism — watching movies or reading books or playing video games and then crafting an opinion about them — is a profession, a business, a matter of employment, a way of bringing in a few extra dollars from time to time can seem a bit odd, and even unfair: As a critic, you get paid to do what many others do for free. And the role can be difficult to defend in ways that are grounded and practical yet not mercenary, especially to those whose questions about criticism are really attacks.

Better Living Through Criticism is, more than anything, a defense of criticism as a profession, but also as a craft, a calling, a habit of mind, a vital art unto itself, and an everyday practice open to all.

Indeed, Scott’s generosity and openness are defining characteristics of the book. He delves into the great critics from history and philosophy, but does not reject outright the idea that the reviews of books and restaurants and garden tools left on Yelp and Amazon are also a criticism too. For Scott, criticism is in some sense inescapable, an unavoidable result of conscious thought, and is in some sense synonymous with it.

Scott certainly cannot avoid it himself; he is helpless against the critical urge. Throughout this book on the nature of criticism, he offers multiple virtuoso demonstrations of it himself, contrasting German poet Rainer Maria Rilke with performance artist Marina Abramovic in order to illustrate the tension between art and artist, critic and object, viewer and spectacle. On Abramovic’s 2010 work "The Artist Is Present," in which she appeared at the Museum of Modern Art most every day for six weeks and allowed visitors to sit silently across from her, he writes:

One of the ways "The Artist Is Present" answers the "is it art" question is by inviting and rewarding a degree of critical attention, opening itself to a potentially endless cycle of interpretation and counterinterpretation. That is just part of how art and criticism cooperate, through a kind of symbiosis that often seems to marginalize — or do away with the need for — an audience of nonprofessional, unspecialized, agendaless spectators.

And here's how he describes the relationship between restaurant critic Anton Ego and mouse chef Remy in the Pixar movie Ratatouille:

Ego is not pathetic, though he is undoubtedly shrouded in pathos. His is a lonely vocation, exactly as lonely as Remy’s, at least at first. And that’s because, though one cooks and the other writes restaurant reviews, it is in essence the same vocation. Remy and Ego both devote themselves, for reasons neither one entirely understands but in ways that seem innate and involuntary, to the especially intense appreciation of something everyone else either takes for granted or enjoys in a casual, undisciplined way.

Scott is highly attuned to the interplay between art and criticism, and the ways in which they necessarily reinforce each other. His prose, meanwhile, is dense with insight, yet also loose and lucid, offering dazzling displays of erudition that draw from his vast personal reference library of artistic works of all kinds, from music and modern art to poetry, philosophy, and novels.

Better Living Through Criticism does not just discuss criticism and how it works or informs our lives; the book takes the form of its subject in order to better reflect upon it, modeling great criticism in the process.

His radical openness is an asset — but it's also a weakness

Scott’s acceptance of so many art forms, and his belief that criticism can help illuminate most all of them, is one of the book’s great strengths. But it is also a weakness, as it sometimes seems as if Scott is unwilling to stand on any firm opinions at all, even about criticism itself.

In the book’s penultimate section, he tackles the modern predicament of cultural and aesthetic abundance — of having too much media and art and pop culture and entertainment to watch, to hear, to feel.

This is a problem, he says, that "cries out for criticism, which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper to our besieged sensoria. There is only so much time, so much money, so much cognitive space, and we might require some help in using it wisely." Yet he asserts that it is a problem criticism cannot solve, for criticism multiplies as rapidly as the art that it intends to sort and filter. This, he says, "leads us back to the question of why criticism exists in the first place. We know what we like, don’t we? And surely we know what things mean. But we don’t. We have no idea."

This sort of roundabout uncertainty can be found throughout Better Living Through Criticism. Scott sees possibilities and opportunities, contradictions and conflict — but not answers or solutions. Early on, Scott writes that "to judge" is "the bedrock of criticism." Yet in the book (unlike in his movie reviews), it is a duty from which Scott sometimes seems to shrink.

And yet, to the extent that this resistance to certainty and conclusion constitutes a flaw, it is one I can't help but admire, because it makes Scott more tolerant and more thoughtful without rendering him an opinionless pushover. It allows him to see the good and the bad in the works he criticizes, and to accept that both can coexist.

Ultimately, the key to criticism is conversation

Which brings us back to The Avengers and Samuel L. Jackson. Although the Hollywood Reporter’s headline declared that Jackson had slammed Scott for a "negative" review, the piece in question was less an utter pan and more a mix of observations, some positive, others less so. Here, for example, is a representative passage:

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 A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company. At times — when various members of a game and nimble cast amble in and out of the glassy, metallic chambers of a massive flying aircraft carrier, cracking wise, rolling eyes and occasionally throwing a punch — the movie has some of the easygoing charm of "Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks’s great, late western in which John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson did a lot of talking on their way to a big and not-all-that-interesting shootout.

I happen to disagree with Scott’s review, at least in part. He is of course right that The Avengers is driven by blockbuster imperatives, including an extended action finale in which much of New York City is destroyed before it is saved. But what I liked about that sequence — and the rest of the movie — was the way it used its blockbuster conventions to reveal its characters, showing us how they each go about their super business on their own, and finally, together. The destruction was not just mindless, pro forma spectacle, but rather was a way to both access their individual personalities and reveal their complementary nature.

I say this not to start an argument but because, as Scott suggests in Better Living Through Criticism, the essence of criticism is conversation, a dialogue between artist and critic, critic and reader, and — as often as not — a critic and him- or herself. It is in that dialogue, and the evolution of ideas and opinions it brings forth, that much of the productive work of criticism happens. It is the dialectic of argument and counterargument through which critical consensus is born, and destroyed, and born again.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Better Living Through Criticism comes most alive in a series of question-and-answer sessions interspersed throughout — in conversations that Scott has staged with himself. In these passages, you can see him wrestling with the ideas he's put forth in the rest of the book, poking and prodding at them for weak points, wondering if they all work together, defending himself from various personal criticisms — and in some cases admitting that his interlocutor may have a point.

There is a remarkable transparency to these passages, for Scott is not merely performing criticism, he is exposing its inner workings, like a magician revealing his tricks. Several times in the book, Scott describes criticism as simply "thinking," and in these segments you can see his thought processes play out. Scott may not ever land on a succinct definition of criticism — and, yes, I might think he’s wrong about The Avengers ­— but in Better Living Through Criticism, he does something that is arguably even better: He shows us how it works.

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