On Oscar weekend, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott praises ‘Carol,’ offers a few predictions, and advises all of us to be critical thinkers in life, not just while watching movies.
The lights come up. Then what?
A.O. Scott has to consider for a moment how he critiques films for The New York Times. How he sits for two hours or so, watching something that cost millions of dollars and sometimes years to make, then distills it down to a review people will use when deciding whether to see, say, “Carol.”
“I am thinking about it, and I am moved and intrigued and enchanted,” Scott said of his process, which he writes about in his new book, “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth.” (The book recently brought him to The Elliott Bay Book Co.)
“I have been taking notes,” he continued — still on “Carol” — “and noting the colors and the way (director) Todd Haynes shoots the faces and everything.
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“And I am struck by how it was a two-way mirror, and a mini-capsule of the literature of love.”
After time to think and another viewing, here’s how he put it in his review: “At once ardent and analytical, cerebral and swooning, ‘Carol’ is a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros. With sparse dialogue and restrained drama, the film is a symphony of angles and glances, of colors and shadows. It gives emotional and philosophical weight to what might be a perfectly banal question: What do these women see in each other?”
It reads beautifully, and looks so easy.
But being a critic can be hell, Scott writes in his book.
The book traces criticism back to Aristotle, and is less a defense of it than an exploration of its role in the human experience.
Critical thinking, Scott writes, informs almost every aspect of artistic creation or civil action, of interpersonal life.
“Criticism is a slowing down, it’s thinking,” he said. “It’s taking an account of your own experiences and not rushing to arrive at a thought or judgment, and bringing that into conversation with other people.”
We can all be critics in our everyday lives, he said.
Pause before consuming more information, before turning to the next article, the next painting or another’s opinion. What did you really think? Your view of something is unique; no one else shares the context that your life experience has given you.
“Your gut is also important,” Scott said. “It starts there. It’s the thing you know for sure. It is the thing that made you feel this way.”
Another way to sharpen your critical mind is to venture out of your comfort zone, and watch or read something you might not otherwise:
“Don’t stay in the narrow track of your taste, and leave all the other stuff alone.”
Don’t get “trapped by Amazon algorithms, by the way things are marketed,” he said.
Best of all, Scott said, “It’s OK to be confused. The effort to making sense of those things, something that isn’t familiar right away, is engaging.”
Scott, 49, grew up in Northampton, Mass., the son of two college professors. (The A.O. stands for “Anthony Oliver,” but he didn’t want that byline, nor “Tony Scott,” so he went with the moniker used by his grandfather, an immigrant who had a construction company in Ohio.)
“It was a house where ideas were taken seriously and arguments were encouraged,” he said. “From an early age, my parents were interested in what my sister and I had to say. It was a natural part of family life.”
There were books and New Yorker magazines all over the place.
“It was a fruitful environment,” Scott said.
He went to Harvard and wanted to be a writer, “But I couldn’t figure out how to get there.”
He started writing freelance book reviews for The Nation and Newsday, then landed at The New York Review of Books, first as an assistant, then as a critic.
(Ask him about his favorite book, Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” and he lights up. “The details of character and situation and telling the stories of a generation,” he said. “The only reason people didn’t recognize it as the great American novel is because it was about all women.”)
The New York Times approached in 2000, asking if he’d be interested in film criticism.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK. It sounds absurd, but OK.’ And then you have to show up and work and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, how the hell do you do that?’
“But the paper is very supportive.”
So are his wife and their two children; the family lives in Brooklyn.
You can’t sit with The New York Times’ chief film critic — a title he shares with Manohla Dargis — and not ask for his Oscar predictions.
Scott reluctantly offered a few:
“The Revenant” for Best Picture, “even though ‘Spotlight’ might do it,” he said.
Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor. Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor. And Brie Larson for Best Actress.
As for the cinematic images that have stayed with him, Scott’s answer was quick: “Anita Ekberg with a kitten on her head on ‘La Dolce Vita.’ That’s one for the ages.”