What’s a critic’s job? What kind of mindset is required? Who needs critics, anyway?
A.O. Scott, since 2004 the New York Times’ chief film critic (a title he now shares with L.A.-based Manohla Dargis), held forth on the art of criticism during a lunchtime talk Tuesday.
On a surprisingly un-steamy day, when the midtown park was filled with office workers and tourists enjoying the mild sun and gentle breezes, Scott carried on a lively dialogue with Scott Adlerberg, Brooklyn novelist and resident film expert for the park’s “Reel Talks” series.
Tuesday’s program was titled “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth,” also the title of Scott’s 2016 book.
“You have to leave yourself open to the possibility of being surprised,” Scott said, regarding the frame of mind he tries to adopt when reviewing, regardless of a film’s genre or budget, or his own expectations.
The two covered a lot of ground, including:
- The omnipresence of superhero movies. “They’re a big part of any film critic’s job now,” Scott said. “They could be better, they could be more ambitious, and they could be more fun.”
- Related: The strain of authoritarianism that seems to run through the various superhero universes, and how it may (or may not) reflect society at large.
- The “blockbuster imperative,” which serves to keep superhero movies and other big-budget tentpole productions from taking chances, instead often sticking to tried-and-true Hollywood formulas.
- The extreme defensiveness some readers express in response to negative reviews of any given movie. Scott recounted a 2012 Twitter war with Samuel L. Jackson, sparked by a review of “The Avengers.” “Why does it make people feel so mad … personally insulted and wounded?”
- Related: The “Twitter mob” — “fans who see themselves as victims, not bullies.”
- Critics’ usefulness as scapegoats, for those looking to engage — even if never in real, live conversation — with someone on the opposite side of the fence regarding a movie.
- The critical gunfight over Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” released in 1969. The Times’ Bosley Crowther, who had reviewed movies for the paper since the 1940’s, served the role of “the designated square” by shooting down the controversial, antiheroic crime film. Pauline Kael, a verbose and later celebrated critic, wrote a 9,000-word response to Crowther’s review. “She kind of made it a cause,” Scott said.
- Related: The critic’s role, often unwanted, as a defender of “standards,” or accepted conventions of filmmaking.
- The Times’ Vincent Canby’s dismissive review of George Romero’s now-classic b/w zombie shocker “Night of the Living Dead,” also released in 1969, as “made by some people in Pittsburgh.”
- The seemingly short leap made by film critics — the New Wave’s Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer, Americans Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader — from reviewing to making movies.
- Related: Quentin Tarantino’s similar obsessiveness and analytical bent (although he never worked as a film critic), which served as a springboard for making movies.
- Scott’s antipathy toward “the rule of the algorithm” — the tendency of apps and other digital tools to keep viewers from straying beyond their genre safe space.
- The “death of cinema” paranoia, which dates at least as far back as the introduction of sound.
- Movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. “It can be useful as a snapshot of collective opinion,” Scott said.
The free-admission “Reel Talks” series at Bryant Park continues Monday, Aug. 6 at 12:30 pm, with “Lucy at the Movies: The Complete Films of Lucille Ball,” with Adlerberg interviewing film historian Cindy De La Hoz.