If you think you’re getting a collection of New York Times writer A. O. Scott’s film reviews, you might be disappointed. It is not a collection but an original investigation of the act of criticism in all kinds of art.
Scott examines the critic and the creations he or she looks at in language somewhat academic, occasionally eloquent and mostly entertaining. A Harvard grad in English literature, he does parade his literary chops by chewing on such non-celluloid topics as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” T.S. Eliot, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Edmund Wilson and others.
In what I found to be the most interesting chapter, Scott makes an extended foray into the Louvre, examining it as both a museum experience and a repository of great pictorial art of the world. And he does a close scrutiny of performance artist Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present,” her event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where she sat face to face with a stream of museum goers from opening until closing daily.
I found Scott’s more general investigations of the critic’s role over the centuries to be less compelling, although his phrasing can be terrific. For example, on the “dark side” of our web age, with the invasion of bloggers and amateurs into professional critical ranks, he writes:
“Where once there was civility, there will snark come to be. Vigorous public debate gives way to cyberrage, or is smothered in a shaming blanket of smarm. Online, we curl up in echoey cocoons of agreement , from which we occasionally venture to launch hostile forays onto the comment boards or Twitter feeds of our designated enemies.”
Sound too fanciful for you? “Better Living Through Criticism” is not all alliteration and Olympian pronouncements. Scott acknowledges early on that while he did not write the book solely to “settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson,” who started a Twitter war with him after Scott wrote a snarky review of “The Avengers” in 2012, this “Internet squall” did play a role in answering the question, “What does a critic do.”
Scott never quite answers the comment but he does let us know where he’s coming from in interwoven Q&As telling about his background and adolescent influences (Stanley Crouch on jazz, Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis on rock, J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris on film, Peter Schjeldahl on art – all in the Village Voice of the 1980s). As for film, he says he got to 1960s New Waves and 1970s New Hollywood “a little too late;” instead his “touchstones were ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Star Wars.’”
My biggest disappointment is that I have not seen “Ratatouille,” a Pixar animated film featuring a rat-chef and a restaurant critic named Ego. In his final dialogue, Scott calls a “movie about the symbiosis between artist and critic, the perfect summation of everything I believe.” So, ‘bye – I’m headed for Netflix.