The aroma of 237 term papers past mouldering in the rarely visited basement of a university building somewhere pervades the creamy pages of Better Living Through Criticism, the first book by A.O. Scott (Tony to his friends), co-chief film critic for The New York Times. Ghosts hover, too – the ghosts of hectoring professors, thesis supervisors and teaching assistants past, stressing the importance of "defining and defending your premises," "qualifying your terms," "strengthening the argument."
How could it be otherwise for Scott? He's the son of two blue-chip academics, his mother a professor of French history at Princeton, Dad a teacher of American history at the City University of New York. Scott himself attended Harvard, then Johns Hopkins, studying English, only to bow out of the PhD program because, as he told one interviewer, "my heart wasn't really in it … I think I'm just too shallow, or too much of a natural dilettante." Yet even after 16 years in the well-remunerated ranks of The Times's full-time reviewers, the charms of the professoriat are strong: For the last several years the Brooklyn-based Scott also has taught a weekly course at Wesleyan University, where he's distinguished professor of film criticism.
All of which is to say that the rather academic style Scott deploys in Better Living Through Criticism is no affectation or act of intimidation but an honest achievement. Indeed, when I first heard that this book wouldn't be a collection of some of his Times reviews (that apparently is coming but not until next year) but a real book of original material, I was pleased. After all, nothing is lazier and more likely to deflate a critic's reputation than a compendium of now-hoary opinion pieces on movies, most forgotten or forgettable, written to the deadline-driven demands of daily journalism.
Unfortunately, it's the wrong style for a book with the title and subtitle it has. Or, to put it the other way, the title, a riff of sorts on the old DuPont advertising slogan "Better things for better living … through chemistry," and the subtitle, with its prescriptive, instructional and self-help flavourings, are at once too frivolous for and misleading of the book's content and the way that content is delivered. Both, in fact, feel rather jerry-built, conceived, I'd be prepared to argue, in haste after the final manuscript was delivered and author, editor and marketers struggled to find some snappy summary of its myriad tangents and purposes. Too bad Pauline Kael already had taken Reeling and Taking It All In.
It's a peculiar book, in other words. Partly a defence of criticism (or at least the sustained, serious, rigorous [and paid] criticism that Scott admires and, mostly, practises), partly "a manifesto against laziness and stupidity," partly a history of artistic creation and aesthetic judgment, partly an argument in favour of criticism as "an art in its own right" (even as it is "the late-born scrawny, jealous twin of art itself"), partly a consideration of the rise of rude 'n' rowdy digital culture. And only intermittently (very intermittently) a source of advice (i.e., avoid "the promiscuous hurling of adjectives" and "the fallacy of the decoy intransitive"). Scott organizes the book into six mostly long chapters which he intersperses with four dialogues with himself – that is, between what you might call his scolding super-ego ("You need to get over yourself," it asserts at one point. "It's only your opinion" at another) and an ego that's variously assertive, defensive, paradox-loving and self-deprecating.
Eclecticism in the defence of a point of view is no vice, of course. However, Scott never seems to settle on just what point of view or synthesis he wants for Better Living. It's coherent without cohering, a work less of Scott the critic than Scott the eternal graduate student, forever citing his references (the "usual suspects" include Wilde, Kant, Eliot, Sontag, Henry James, Walter Pater, Harold Bloom), covering his keister, piling nuance atop nuance, saying "yes" and "no" at the same time to the same proposition. Stylistically, this means lots of highfalutin questions ("How do you begin to translate an experience or an object into words, and, simultaneously, to make an argument, render a verdict, make a stand?") as well as sentences festooned with parenthetical, often unnecessary asides like this one: "Every generation of artists seeks to crawl out from under the overhang of past masters – to improve on them, to challenge their authority, or just to do something different – and they seek out allies as they do." Irritating? Uh-huh.
Occasionally, Scott tosses an epigram – "No self-respecting critic can be an apostle of moderation"; "criticism is not parasitic but primary"; "culture now lives almost entirely under the rubric of consumption" – that, like a splash of cold water to the face, temporarily refreshes the otherwise torporific politesse of his prose. Among the most provocative (or so it seems upon initial contact) is his assertion that "it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong." At first I thought this had to be a misstatement, perhaps a parody of Rimbaud's famous exhortation that for the poet to become a seer he must undertake the systematic derangement of the senses. Even the most assiduous critic is, after all, human and, inevitably, prone to error, be it though tiredness, lack of interest, boredom, honest bewilderment. In other words, A.O. Scott is bound to "go wrong" sometime, even without a God-given charge to do so!
Then I realized that what Scott likely means is that the serious critic has to go out on a limb and not fall back on shtick and description – has to willfully extend himself or herself, grope towards the truth, risk an opinion, persuasively argued and unsullied by commercial considerations, for which he/she may be ridiculed. It's an admirable stance – but how often can it be put into practice, at least in Scott's case? Perhaps if Scott were faced with a steady diet of Last Years at Marienbad and Solarises he'd have to exercise that "sacred duty" with great consistency. But writing for a mass-circulation publication like The Times where, it seems, as many as nine movie critics are reviewing at a time, means your staples are going to be The Martian, Dirty Grandpa and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, garnished only occasionally by the genuine challenge of a Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1 or Film Socialisme.
Not that Scott is wishing for such a high-protein/high-roughage diet. A true Gen-Xer (he turns 50 this year), he came of age when all those distinctions between high-brow and low, mid-cult and no-brow began to blur and fade. Forget that double bill of The Seventh Seal and 8 1/2, this is a guy who ranked Wall-E, Pixar's hit animation from 2008, as the best film of the first decade of the 21st century! Neither Bergman nor Fellini, in fact, have any profile in Better Living; Bringing Up Baby, though, gets nine pages of exegesis, The Searchers with John Wayne three and Ratatouille – which he admits moved him to tears – 11.
Amusingly, it's this very real affection for pop culture that ensnared Scott in a minor controversy in 2012, a controversy that subsequently came to serve as a wellspring of sorts for Better Living. In May of that year, like critics everywhere, Scott published a review of The Avengers, the film adapatation of the Marvel comic of the same name, starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. Scott's critique was, as ever, judicious: while there were things he liked, they weren't enough to overcome the film's "grinding, hectic emptiness"; it was, at heart, "a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant A.T.M. machine for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company." This assessment raised the ire of Jackson who, in a tweet, #Avengers fans, announced : "AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!" Scott, according to Jackson, had "intellectualized" a "piece of bullshit pop culture" that also happened to be "a fucking great movie."
Twenty-five years ago, in the pre-Internet era, this tiff wouldn't have amounted to the proverbial hill of beans. Certainly Jackson is a fine character actor and, based on the few interviews with him that I've read, a bright guy. But he hardly has those big reserves of crediblity and critical authority enjoyed by, say, Martin Scorsese, The New York Review's Daniel Mendelsohn or even Jackson's running buddy Quentin Tarantino. Nevertheless, Scott, perhaps because he wanted more Twitter followers, felt compelled to rise to the Jackson beef and the tiff rolled on from there. In the book, Scott describes Jackson's complaint as "valid and vital" and I guess one should be pleased by Scott's openness to finding inspiration and themes wherever and whenever. Still, I keep thinking, "Is this what The New York Times's senior film critic has to do these days, squabble with the dude who's Nick Fury and Mace Windu?" It all seems a touch, well … bogus.
Better Living Through Criticism then is not a great book. It affirms what we already know – that Tony Scott is an intelligent, literate guy – without pitching that intelligence and literacy to a higher, more urgent, even necessary key.
James Adams is a national arts correspondent for The Globe and Mail