Everyone's a critic, and that's how it should be, argues A.O. Scott, in his new book Better Living Through Criticism. As the New York Times respected film critic, Scott has spent the last 16 years weighing in on every manner of movie, and has learned to save his wrath for the projects that truly deserve it (ahem, Adam Sandler). Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why it's okay to be pissed off at the Entourage movie.
Silence your inner snob
I think with film critics there is a tendency to undervalue certain types of popular entertainment: genre movies, series, franchises, and to ignore what these things mean to their audiences. Even to be a bit condescending. That's something that I can feel operating in myself, and I try to push back against it. If reviewing a movie like Furious 7, it's very easy to roll my eyes and think, oh here's another one of these dumb movies about people going around the world racing cars, but it's worth stopping to think that these movies mean something to the people who like them, so what might that be? What might their value be?
Critic, criticize thyself
Everyone comes into criticism with their own preferences. Those aren't something you abandon, but it is important to be aware of prejudice, both the negative and the positive. I have a very high tolerance for very low humour – like really dumb fart-joke-level humour. I embrace what I like, but I have to remind myself that there are others who might not share my enthusiasm. Or since I was a teenager I've always loved Italian movies. Some of my favourite movies of all time are Italian movies, but there is also this thing where I hear people speaking Italian on screen, especially if they're very good-looking people, I kind of am just going to like the movie and I sometimes have to say to myself, 'You know what? That wasn't actually very good.'
In every good critic there is a crusader
I don't want to be too annoying or preachy, but I think that the ethics of movies are important in terms of how you look at them. The Entourage movie pissed me off in so many ways and I thought, "I'm not going to shrug this off. It is so aggressively bad on so many levels that I need to call it out." A lot of my career as a film critic has coincided with my life as a father of young children, which made me particularly disgusted by how cynical a lot of children's entertainment was. I was appalled by how this happened with a number of adaptations of Dr. Seuss books, Dr. Seuss being one of my great cultural heroes. It wasn't that they were just bad movies – they were a greedy and cynical betrayal of Seuss's ideas about children and childhood.
Variety is spice of criticism
There are some very fine and important movie critics who are singularly devoted to cinema. There are music critics who are the same way. I'm made a bit differently. I've always had eclectic interests. Growing up I cared a lot about pop music and I was a voracious reader. I have had periods of intense interest with art and sculpture. It's not that I could necessarily go out and be an art critic or even a television critic for that matter, but I think having as broad an acquaintance as you can with different forms of art and with the world makes me better at my job. I'm very greedy in that way – I want to know stuff. When I see a movie, I want to know everything I can about what it's about. I don't want to appreciate movies in isolation, but to understand how they fit in with other art forms and the things that happen in the real world.
The value of distraction
I'm not someone who requires solitude to work. There is always distraction and noise to a certain degree, and I like that. I work downstairs in my home and people come and go – my wife, my dogs, my kids. Sometimes I'll leave the house and go sit with all of the other laptop people in the coffee shops around Brooklyn. I like the feeling of having the newspaper far away and being free and on my own and able to just focus on my own thoughts, my voice and my perspective. If every time I have to review a movie I thought about how I was doing so with the full weight of the New York Times–that would be paralyzing.
The necessity of narcissism
I think there is a certain amount of arrogance necessary to be a writer – the act of sitting down and deciding that you have something to say and deciding that it's worth listening to. I don't think there is necessarily any more arrogance involved in being a critic at the New York Times. Partly because the institution is arrogant on your behalf, so I don't have to worry about that. When I was a younger freelancer, I had to go out in the world and share my thoughts as A.O. Scott when no one in the world knew or cared who A.O. Scott was. That took quite a lot of hubris.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.