And Now Let’s Review …

A.O. Scott conducts his own exit interview as he moves to a new post after more than two decades of reviewing films.

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By A.O. Scott

A.O. Scott started as a film critic at The New York Times in January of 2000. Next month he will move to the Book Review as a critic at large.

Who the heck are you, anyway?

That was the first question I heard after The New York Times hired me as a film critic in the final weeks of 1999. A reporter from Variety found my home phone number and gave me a call — the late-20th-century equivalent of sliding into my DMs.

It was a reasonable thing to ask, and the simple answer was that I was a freelance book critic and youngish father of two small children. I had seen a lot of movies — plenty of people in those days had seen a lot of movies — and reviewed none of them for any publication. I was almost as puzzled as the guy on the phone about my sudden career swerve, and immeasurably more frightened. How could I be vain, dumb or deluded enough to believe that this was a job I could actually do?

And now — more than 23 years later, the middle-aged father of two grown children and the author of 2,293 published film reviews — I’m done.

Though I continued to dabble in literary criticism during my tenure on the movie beat, I’m ready to return to it full-time, as a critic at large for The New York Times Book Review, starting as soon as I find my reading glasses and rebuild my attention span. On my way out the door, as the final credits metaphorically roll, I thought I might try at long last to answer some of the questions I’ve heard most frequently over the years since that phone call.

Did you always love movies?

Yes and no. I’ve often been infatuated by movies, but I’ve also frequently been frustrated, confused and enraged by them. Ambivalence isn’t neutrality; it’s the simultaneity of strong, opposed emotions, and I think it defines my experience as a critic. Sometimes I’ve hated movies; I’ve never been indifferent.

Movies have been part of my dream life and my worldly education since my first traumatic encounter with the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” I’m still in awe of their power (the movies, not the monkeys) — to conjure up intense emotions, to invent new worlds and to disclose unsuspected truths about the one we inhabit.

The thing I love most about the movies is their ability to obliterate reason and abolish taste. You know the jump scare is coming, but you jump anyway. You suspect you should be offended by the joke, but you laugh helplessly in spite of yourself. Why are you crying? You don’t really know, but you can’t argue with tears.

It’s inevitable that movies sometimes abuse their power and mistreat the people who love them most. When my kids were little — they were my regular companions at Saturday-morning preview screenings — I often objected to the pandering cynicism of “family-friendly” films like “The Lorax” and “Despicable Me.” I also marveled at the artistry of Studio Ghibli and the sublime ingenuity of Pixar in its glory years.

Similarly, I was pleased with the first couple of “Spider-Man” pictures, impressed by “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (which my brilliant colleague and fellow chief critic Manohla Dargis reviewed) and admiring of the way George Lucas connected the mythic dots in “Revenge of the Sith.” But I’m not a fan of modern fandom. This isn’t only because I’ve been swarmed on Twitter by angry devotees of Marvel and DC and (more recently) “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s more that the behavior of these social media hordes represents an anti-democratic, anti-intellectual mind-set that is harmful to the cause of art and antithetical to the spirit of movies. Fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behavior, and its rise mirrors and models the spread of intolerant, authoritarian, aggressive tendencies in our politics and our communal life.

But I will always love being at the movies: the tense anticipation in a darkening theater, the rapt attention and gasping surprise as a the story unfolds, and the tingly silence that follows the final shot, right before the cheers — and the arguments — start. I wouldn’t miss any of the movies I’ve seen, even the bad ones.

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