Arts & Culture

A.O. Scott reviews himself

long read

In a Q&A session, the film critic and Harvard alumnus explains his craft, and how he came to it

First of two parts

An early love of books, music, and film helped to set A.O. Scott ’87-’88 on the path to becoming a critic. Now one of two chief film reviewers for The New York Times, Scott said that “growing up in a household with a lot of books and a lot of cultural and intellectual interests was very important.” He concentrated in English literature while at Harvard, where regular trips to the Brattle Theatre and the House film societies introduced him to the titans of classic cinema. 

After graduation, Scott worked on a Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins but left before completing his dissertation because his “heart wasn’t really in it.” He started doing book reviews “just to have the experience of writing something that I would actually finish” and found that the more he did it, the more he enjoyed it. His efforts landed him a job at the New York Review of Books. Scott joined The New York Times as a film critic in 2002.

In a question-and-answer session, Scott spoke with the Gazette about his years at Harvard, his career as a critic, and his take on the current Oscar contenders.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me about your early life? Did your parents influence your current work?

SCOTT: They went to the movies some, and they took me to movies. But I think the influence was more growing up in a household with a lot of books and a lot of cultural and intellectual interests — and also growing up in college towns that had campus film societies and repertory houses and places where you could go see a lot of movies. I grew up in various academic locales. My parents met and I lived when I was a baby in Madison, Wisconsin, and then we moved to Chicago, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Princeton for a little bit. Then I went to high school in Providence, Rhode Island.

GAZETTE: I know you are the great-nephew of the character actor Eli Wallach. Did you ever meet him?

SCOTT: Oh, yes. My parents were actually married in his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, and he was sort of a family celebrity. We went and saw him and his wife, Anne Jackson, on stage. I have a very early memory of going to see them. They were touring with a play when we were living in Chicago, and I recall going to see them and going backstage. And they were always around at family events.

It would be exaggerating to say that he was a great influence, but he was a relative whom I knew. And my mother was certainly close to him, and my grandfather, his older brother, they were very close, so it was always fun to see him around and see him on TV or to go to a movie that he was in.

‘The most important bond between the critic and the reader is not agreement or persuasion but trust.’

GAZETTE: Now that you are in your current role, do you look back at his films and see them in a different light?

SCOTT: One thing that’s fascinating, just in terms of the history of movies, is how many different ethnicities he played. He was a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, but he played Mexican, Italian, any sort of olive-skinned ethnic group. He would be cast in that role. I think probably his best work and where he was most, best known, and what meant most to him was his work on stage, on Broadway going all the way back to the ’50s. But, certainly [movies like] “Baby Doll” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and then later on when he showed up on “Nurse Jackie” or in “The Holiday.” And he acted in “Mystic River.” The only time I ever met Clint Eastwood, he and I talked a lot about Eli, and that was fun.

GAZETTE: How did you meet Eastwood?

SCOTT: I was at a dinner in Cannes when he was there with one of his movies. It was one of these black-tie things that I occasionally, although very rarely, go to. But, you know, it was Clint Eastwood, so …

GAZETTE: When you came to Harvard, did you have any sense of what you wanted to study?

SCOTT: I was interested in writing and in literature, and I kind of came in thinking that I wanted to be a writer. I had partly, I think, got in because I’d taken some fiction-writing classes with the novelist John Hawkes when he was teaching at Brown, and he had encouraged me to apply to Harvard and wrote me a recommendation. I found that I was more interested in studying literature and writing criticism than writing fiction, so my interest kind of gravitated more into literature. So that’s what I did. I was a lit major, and I studied mostly romance language stuff and read a lot. I didn’t do a lot of extracurricular stuff. I was just sort of content to pursue my coursework and my reading.

When I graduated I was at a bit of a loss of what to do. I went to graduate school kind of by default, because I liked to read and I liked to write and I didn’t really know where you could do that. I had a fantasy of going to New York and writing for magazines or something like that, but I didn’t really have the nerve, and I didn’t really know how to do that. So I just sort of went on the academic track for a while until I could figure out how to jump off it.

GAZETTE: Where did you go to graduate school?

SCOTT: Johns Hopkins, in the English department.

GAZETTE: And you got your master’s there?

SCOTT: Well, I was going to get a Ph.D., but I spent about 10 years not getting that Ph.D. So I finished with an M.A. and all my courses and my doctoral exams all finished, but I never did write the dissertation.

GAZETTE: Why? What was the stumbling block?

SCOTT: I think I’m just too shallow, or too much of a natural dilettante. I didn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on one thing, specializing in the way that you have to specialize. The short version of the story, although it was a long and more painful process of discovery, was my heart really wasn’t in it. As with anything, something that’s that demanding and in a way unrewarding, at least in the short term, requires a real passion and commitment that I didn’t have. So I liked reading and I liked writing and I liked thinking about stuff, and I made some very good friends and had some brilliant professors. But I kept switching my topic because I would read a bunch of stuff and pursue it for a while and then lose interest and do something else, which is a good temperament for journalism, you know, because there is always something new and you never are with something long enough to really get sick of it or bored with it, and you can go in and out.

I gradually started writing book reviews just as a kind of pastime or sideline, just to have the experience of writing something that I would actually finish and something you can get paid for. The more I did that, the more I liked it. I was lucky that it was … the mid and late ’90s, at the beginning of the first dot-com boom. There was a big media bubble there. There were a lot of magazines starting up, there was a lot of demand for content, and I was lucky and persistent enough to figure out how to make a living at it and got a job working at the New York Review of Books. That was the break. It’s a very interesting place, and I learned a lot there. It was a funny kind of office. There were a lot of very smart and highly educated people answering the phones and running the fax machines and doing all the clerical and secretarial work. That’s what I was doing, but you absorbed a lot in that place, just by doing that.

GAZETTE: Back to your Harvard time for a minute — were there any particular classes that you remember that were really influential? Any professors you recall who had a big impact on you?

SCOTT: Yeah, I do. It was the mid ’80s. I took a course my freshman year with Barbara Johnson reading [Jacques] Derrida and all that kind of stuff. It really sort of blew my mind. I took a few courses with her. She was a great teacher and really lively intellect. There was a course on linguistics, and we read Noam Chomsky, and it was fascinating. I did terribly. I think I got a C. But there was stuff that I read in that course that I still think about. And there was Roderick MacFarquhar’s class in the core curriculum on the Chinese Revolution. That was just a great class. I remember things like the structure of the Politburo in the 1960s.

GAZETTE: Did you take any film classes?

SCOTT: I didn’t study film formally ever, anywhere. Not as an undergraduate, not in graduate school. It was an entirely extra-academic interest of mine.

GAZETTE: When you were at Harvard, did you go to the Brattle Theatre?

SCOTT: I probably went to the Brattle a few times a week. That was a great film education, that repertory house. That’s where I saw [Andrei] Tarkovsky and [Akira] Kurosawa, and [Jean-Luc] Godard … and the Orson Welles Cinema on Mass. Ave. showed a lot of foreign films and art films.

But then there were also, at Harvard itself, House film societies. There were probably half a dozen or so film societies. I remember seeing “The Battle of Algiers” in the Mather House dining hall. There were a lot of places you could see 16 mm prints, or sometimes even better prints of things. People didn’t have VCRs in their rooms. It was still pretty new. I think my parents got their first VCR the year I started college, and a lot of stuff wasn’t available on videocassette yet. So there was still a demand for and an interest in and a kind of flourishing in a revival of repertory film culture around. It was something to do.

If something was coming around to the Brattle or to one of the film societies that you’d heard about, you would go see it because you didn’t know when you would be able to see it again. It was kind of an event if you were going to see Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice.” I remember sitting in, I think, a double feature of “Andrei Rublev” and “Stalker,” which is like, seven hours of Russian movies. You would do that because that was your chance. When were you going to see them again? That would be a very long Wednesday night.

GAZETTE: Did you go to the Harvard Film Archive?

SCOTT: Yes, I would go there, too.

GAZETTE: Where do you think your interest in film came from?

SCOTT: The fact that I am film critic and have been film critic now for longer than I have been anything else is a little bit of an accident. Film was one thing that I was interested in. I would say the three cultural pursuits that I was most passionate about when I was growing up were books, popular music, and film, and I don’t know how I would rank them. They were all just things that were very important to me. I listened to a lot of records, I read a lot of books, and I went to a lot of movies.

My interest was driven by a general curiosity about the world, about the stories that were told in these forms, about the emotions they communicated, rather than a sort of formal interest in the art forms. They were just what I related to, what I liked and what mattered to me. I think I was also interested in, from a fairly early age, in criticism — that is, in reading what other people had to say about these things.

GAZETTE: What was it about criticism that you found appealing?

SCOTT: It was a way of having imaginary conversations with people who had seen what you saw. For me, very often these things were solitary. I would go to the movies alone a lot. Reading books is a solitary experience. I would listen to records in my room. And, you know, you want to share this in a way. Sometimes you would share it with your friends, but you could also find people to share it with out in the world.

I would always read Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and Vincent Canby in The New York Times, and then later, by the time I got to college, The Village Voice critics and also The Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone, Cream, and The Music Press. I think when I probably had the first idea of being a critic, I would have wanted to be Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs, or one of those guys, kind of the “Almost Famous” fantasy. But I think that movie criticism was something I was always interested in.

My interest as a writer and as a reader and as somebody interested in film, books, and music was always critical. I think I was temperamentally suited to this kind of writing. I was a book critic before I was a film critic, and happily could have kept doing that. I could have imagined being a television critic or a music critic. I don’t think I could probably do those things now because I’ve just gotten used to what I do.

GAZETTE: Does it help you to have a wide range of interests as a film critic?

SCOTT: Certainly there are people who get to it, and not only in film, through a passion for a certain art form, whether it’s classical music or opera or film. And there are people who have come at it, as I have, as part of a more general set of interests.

GAZETTE: Do you think one is better than the other?

SCOTT: I don’t know; I think either way it works. I tend to think that in the end, and I tend to be more and more convinced, that criticism is above all a matter of voice and temperament, and I think if you can write well and think clearly, that’s the goal.

I’m not by nature a specialist, and I have some suspicion of specialization or of ways of writing about anything that strike me as too dependent on a kind of inside knowledge or sort of esoteric sense of what’s being written about. I think that sometimes it’s a problem in some criticism, that there are styles of film criticism and film critics who are, I think, morbidly obsessed with the art form at the exclusion of everything else, so you always have to be thinking in terms of cinema above all. There’s something a little false to that because I believe you should always be thinking about whatever you are interested in thinking about.

One of the great things about writing about movies is that movies are about everything. They almost uniquely contain more of the human experience, real and imagined, than just about any other art form, and present it in more different ways. So if you are writing about movies, you should also be writing about politics, love, sex, fantasy, the future, the past, anything. Why create artificial constraints and constructions that prevent you from writing about those things?

GAZETTE: Building off of that, in your opinion, what qualities should a great critic have?

SCOTT: I think that a good critic has to be a good writer and an honest thinker, and I think that the most important bond between the critic and the reader is not agreement or persuasion but trust. You have to, ideally over time, develop a relationship with your readers so that they will understand where you are coming from, and whether or not they agree with your opinion they will trust it. That is, they will be able to figure out the distance between your views and their own.

I think clarity of thinking and argument is very important. You have to explain yourself. You can’t just fall back on a kind of easy automatic language of judgment and just throw adjectives on things and hope that they stick.

GAZETTE: With the wealth of social media, do you feel in a way that thoughtful criticism is under siege in a sense, that today, in some ways, everyone is a critic?

SCOTT: Here’s the thing: If everyone is a critic, does that mean that criticism is under siege or that it’s flourishing as never before? I am just revising a book that will come out next year which is about exactly this question, it’s called “Better Living Through Criticism,” and it’s a sort of defense of why criticism matters and why it’s necessary, but not necessarily as the province of professional critics.

One of the things that I try to challenge a little is the idea of critical authority, that there used to be critics — whether it was Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, the great theater critics like Brooks Atkinson or people like Edmund Wilson — who had a kind of authority in which they would hand down their judgments and the public and the culture would follow along. I think that’s always been a myth. I think there’s always been a misunderstanding of the function of critics, which is to initiate and guide a set of arguments and conversations about the value of particular works of art and the standards by which works of art in general should be judged, standards that are always changing, always evolving, always contested.

In writing this book, I went back and found exactly the complaints that people make about the Internet now. That anybody can get up and say anything at any time is something that people have been upset about since at least the 18th century. This started with the rise of print culture, which seemed to be similarly leveling and dangerously democratic for people who are interested in upholding cultural standards. So, just the proliferation of voices and opinions and the kind of cacophony among them is nothing new. Far from being a threat to criticism, it is just what criticism is.

There’s always a great wish, including on the part of artists and professional critics, that it would just stop. I mean many, many artists, filmmakers, and movie stars wish that there would be no critics. But if there were no critics, there would be no art. They are joined at the root, and the noise and the confusion and even the sort of stupidity and arrogance that are often described as what criticism is are necessary to the whole creative enterprise.

Next, a look at the Oscar races, and more.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.