November 7, 2013

New York Times Film Critic A.O. Scott Visits Cornell

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Audience members filled the aisles and lined the walls of Kaufmann Auditorium Thursday to hear A.O. Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times, speak about topics ranging from the 300 films he sees each year to a 2012 Twitter feud with Samuel L. Jackson.

Scott said the most common question people ask about his profession is, “what gives you the right to be a critic?”

Scott said criticism comes naturally in daily life, starting out as one of the first skills we master as children and being something we continue to perfect throughout life.

He added that critics often land near the bottom of respected professions “along with lawyers, politicians, journalists and mafia hitmen.”

“There’s a sense that the work that critics do is at best superfluous and at worst intrusive,” Scott said.

Scott also spoke about the effects new technology and social media have had in changing the definition of who is considered a critic. In May 2012, actor Samuel L. Jackson took to Twitter upon reading Scott’s negatively-leaning review of The Avengers, a film that Jackson had starred in.

Scott said the incident ignited an online feud in which Jackson’s fans attacked Scott’s criticism. Although The Avengers went on to become the second fastest film to reach $1 billion at the global box office, according to Scott, the many people analyzing the film via Twitter showed that the role of “criticism is wobbling, that it is in a state of confusion.”

Bloggers, “anonymous lunatics on Yelp,” Amazon users and composite indicators on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes were examples Scott said proved the vast quantity and prevalence of ratings and critiques on the Internet.

“There seems to be more of this than ever before,” Scott said. “A lot of the alarm about digital culture … has exactly to do with that terrifying abundance, that there’s so much of it coming from all directions and this fear that we will not be able to pick and choose the right things.”

Scott said that when reviewing movies, there is not one standard to hold every film to. He tries to keep a film’s intentions in mind while he writes a review, he added.

For example, with Zero Dark Thirty, Scott said, it would have been impossible to analyze the film without acknowledging the film’s heavy political context. However, when reviewing The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Scott said he remembers making sure he looked at it just as a movie, forgetting the cultural debates and media attention surrounding the film.

Following an audience question about the use of the word “film” in an increasingly digital world, Scott said that a shift back to the term “moving pictures” could better suit the fact that people now encounter videos on different types of screens.

“Is a video of a cat jumping up on a counter that you watch on your phone ‘cinema’?” Scott asked. “No, but it’s something, and all of these different types of screens have something to do with each other.”

Adding to his point about modern technology’s influence on the film industry, Scott said at some point people thought television would kill cinema. Later, they pointed to VHS players — now, some fear the Internet will hurt cinema.

“I think people will still go to the movies, but the question is which movies will be worth leaving the house for,” Scott said.

When asked about the Academy Awards, Scott said that they are a “fascinating thing.” Scott said that on one hand, he feels that the Oscars serve a positive purpose by giving bumps to certain films. He added, however, that they do distort the industry by affecting the coverage of movies and their release dates.

“This has been a very good year, with a few good ones yet to come,” Scott said of the potential Oscar candidates.

The talk, titled “Everyone’s a Critic,” was the Daniel W. Kops ’39 Freedom of the Press Lecture, which is sponsored by the Kops Freedom of the Press Fellowship Program.