A.O. Scott, New York Times film critic, on why critics' opinions matter

Studio 360
A.O. Scott

A.O. Scott

Carmen Henning

Before you spend $14 on a movie ticket, wouldn’t it be nice to know that only 7 percent of people who saw it liked it?

But art isn’t a popularity contest. So is it a critic’s job to tell you what you’re going to like, or to tell you what’s great? And what does “great” even mean?

A.O. Scott wrestles with those questions in a recent book, "Better Living Through Criticism." He’s one of two chief movie critics at The New York Times. His reviews are often witty, always thoughtful and open-minded. He realizes, though, that many times people just don’t trust what critics say. 

“[There’s] a general hostility to or suspicion of criticism which is that you're either overthinking and taking too seriously things that are just for fun. Or you're dragging down things that are that are perfect unto themselves and either way you're just kind of like not getting it,” Scott says.

Scott thinks weak critics in the past have disliked certain things out of a “snobbish dismissal of popular culture." Now, however, he thinks the trend is swinging in the opposite direction. 

“It's been replaced by a kind of, what I think of as a sort of pseudo-populist counter snobbism, which is automatically dismissive of anything that is too difficult,” Scott says. 

The critic is constantly searching himself for bias toward new works — bias that might be based on some of his own past preconceptions. 

“One of the problems that critics have — and I know that I have had it and i don't think that there is a single one of my colleagues in the film critic world who doesn't have it — which is a kind of bias in favor of certain artists that kind of sinks in so you can’t … it’s hard to judge each thing on its merits,” Scott says. 

Over the course of his career as a critic, Scott has seen big changes in both television and film. 

“Television is still a medium that lives in the kind of in the medium shot and in the medium range, and it is also very verbally driven,” Scott says, “Television has gotten much more visually sophisticated and there's more directing that you see in evidence.

"It is still, as is often pointed out, a writer's medium, and what I find is I can be sitting in the next room while my family's watching television and listening and I can get everything that happened and I can feel like I haven't missed anything. Cinema, let’s say ... I can watch it without the sound and still know what's happening. And I think there is a sense of visual nuance and focused attention and therefore of intimacy and quiet," he says. "That works in film and not in television.” 

Scott, however, says there’s still room to value the work of a critic, even if you disagree with them.

“I find that there are critics whose taste and ideas I disagree with, who I find very interesting to read because I nonetheless think that they're good writers and smart people and that their perspective on the world is fascinating to me, even though it's completely alien.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.