“The donning of sackcloth and ashes for this once-mighty art form is an annual ritual,” wrote New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in a recent piece on the Telluride Film Festival, a yearly retreat for filmmakers and critics alike that also serves as a debut for many of the fall’s most anticipated films. He goes on to posit the festival as a “standing rebuke” to the “fatalism and gloom” of critics who would suggest cinema’s death, boldly going so far as to include hyperlinks to Huffington Post and GQ articles with which he took direct issue. (As spectators, all we can really hope for is that the opposing sides drop diss tracks about one another.) Scott, who serves alongside Manohla Dargis as the Times’ chief film critic, claims that Telluride standouts like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann provide testimony to the medium’s ongoing vitality. Of the latter, he writes, “It’s something new under the sun, a thrilling and discomfiting document of the present and also, like every movie that matters, a bulletin from the future.”
Forward motion, then, and an eye toward progress seem Scott’s criteria for a worthy cinematic experience. Yet the critic speaks with a certain tone of nostalgia, waxing lyrical about the “old-time cinephile religion” and “cathedrals of cinema,” invoking a religiosity around the film-going experience that grants a sense of urgency to the art form. Scott seems determined to fight a one-man war in support of his cinematic ideals, and to simultaneously convince us of criticism’s essential role in our relationship to art.