NY Times Film Critic A.O. Scott Challenges America to Think

Feb. 6, 2017
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A.O. Scott is perhaps America’s most recognized film critic. From his perch at the New York Times, he regularly wades into the unceasing stream of movies pouring into cinemas and brings back thoughtful analysis. His book, Better Living Through Criticism (out now in paperback from Penguin press), is not, however, about film, albeit movies are among its reference points. The title may be offered with an ironic nod, yet is true to the author’s point. Maybe we’d all be better off if the false and oft-repeated assertion—“everyone’s a critic”—were true.

Blabbering an opinion, whether from a bar stool or a blog or a podium at the White House, doesn’t necessarily make the blabberer a critic. Critical thinking is actually hard work of the mind involving something of which the average drunk, blogger or presidential spokesperson often seems incapable: intelligent reflection.

Perhaps Scott was inspired to write Better Living after his digital encounter with a celebrity blabberer, Samuel L. Jackson. The star of Snakes on a Plane decided to launch a full-court assault on Scott, who had the temerity to criticize aspects of his movie, The Avengers. In a ham-fisted way, Jackson did raise eternal questions about critics: how and why do critics pass judgment on the work of others?

Scott provides a thoughtful response on behalf of his profession. He doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions of how and why because there are none that can easily be squeezed onto a bumper sticker or into an elevator pitch. One of Scott’s conclusions is that criticism isn’t a parasite feeding on the body of the arts but can be art in itself—a creative and imaginative endeavor based on the work of others (which of course is much of what is called art already is).

Scott’s ideas have ramifications that extend beyond the A&E pages. Especially after the recent election, his reflections on anti-intellectualism as America’s “civic religion” seem especially pertinent. Thinking isn’t all there is to life, but a life without thought and a society where thinkers are marginalized is a set-up for disaster.

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