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Critics Critique A.O. Scott and David Carr Critiquing Criticism

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by Matt Singer
June 8, 2012 5:19 PM
6 Comments
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Scott Carr

How about a little incredibly heated light discourse about the nature of criticism before you pack it in for the weekend? 

Almost exactly one week ago to the minute, we told you about the episode of The New York Times' web series "The Sweet Spot" in which Times critic A.O. Scott and media columnist David Carr got into a good-natured but feisty argument about the purpose of film criticism. "The Sweet Spot" is back this week with another episode and another topic -- but critics don't seem ready to let last week's conversation go just yet.

At Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny wrote a passionate response entitled "I Believe in Criticism" in which he defends not just his profession, but its practitioners' right to speak with authority even if they don't possess any personal experience working in the film industry (an argument commonly made by those who hate critics, i.e. thin-skinned filmmakers). Meanwhile, over at Scanners, Jim Emerson penned an even more testy reaction, pouring over Scott and Carr's 7 minute debate line by line like it's the Zapruder film and he's trying to figure out which direction the Magic Bullet came from:

DC: But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth --

AS: No, but there is --

DC: There's only your subjective version of it.

JE: This reminds me of Roger Ebert's story about the reader who told him to keep his opinions out of his reviews. It's a straw man argument. Who said criticism could be, or could even endeavor to be, "objective" when by definition it can only be subjective? The critic's job is to lay open the standards he's applying -- and they may not be the same as yours -- and to show how he thinks the movie measures up to them. That's NOT to say that there are any pre-existing sets of standards (like technical specs you could apply in reviews of automobiles, computers or stereo equipment) that can be applied to all movies. But it's not enough for a critic to simply assert that a movie "works" or "doesn't work" for him; he has to explain why, using specific examples from the movie itself.

Emerson's piece -- which makes some damn good points -- has already spawned several additions (including a reaction to Carr's dismissive tweet about the imbroglio surrounding his critic-bashing remarks) and over 60 comments, with many from notable critics.

So whaddya say? Are all critics secretly (or not-so-secretly) failed filmmakers? Do you need to to work in the film industry if you want the right to criticize it? Are critics merely bowing to their own subjective whims? These are not questions for 5:00 PM on a Friday. So we'll have to get to them at a later date. And, I promise, we will.

Read more "I Believe in Criticism" and "A.O. Scott on Criticism: 'This is Not A Progressive Kindergarten.'"

6 Comments

  • Molly | June 10, 2012 11:06 AMReply

    I don't have a problem with critics expressing their opinion, but I have noticed in recent years the venom in which they defend them has increased. Critics need to accept they have an opinion - that's it. Just because many reviews are written exceptionally well does not make them inviolable.

  • MDL | June 9, 2012 9:43 PMReply

    If a filmmaker puts a film out for the public to see then they should expect criticism. The thing is a good many critics know much more about film history than the average filmgoer so they speak with more authority. Some filmmakers cannot handle that. If filmmakers want everyone to hold hands and nod in agreement to their work then maybe they should stick with 30 second commercials. That said, not all critics are right. But I would rather have critics than marketing machines.

  • SoulHonky | June 8, 2012 8:45 PMReply

    How many film "critics" actually write film criticism anymore? I think this is the crux of the problem with Scott and many others. They rarely write criticism of any depth, usually churning out fairly superficial reviews of films. These reviews are completely subjective but if the point of a review is to help guide people as to whether or not they should see a film, I believe these reviews to need to try to be more subjective and at least try to figure out, if the writer didn't like the film, what audience might go for it. For instance, when a friend asks about a movie, I feel like most people will state their opinion but then offer a guess of whether or not the friend should go check it out.
    Scott's "Avengers" review that sparked the ire of Sam Jackson is a good example. Even though I agreed with a lot of what Scott said, the fact is that his "review" was half a criticism of modern action movies and half a whining rant about how he doesn't like superhero movies and it added up to something that really wasn't going to help anyone decide whether or not they should see the movie nor was it a good topic for discussion after viewing the film.

  • David | June 8, 2012 8:08 PMReply

    Jessica's right. Emerson's and Kenny's overreactions are ironically thin-skinned and show that some critics can't take having the tables turned on them.

  • No | June 8, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    There is something unwholesomely ironic about this meta-criticism when IndieWire has posted that Stephanie Zacharek had been laid off.

  • Jessica | June 8, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    I think Emerson is overreacting. It's a lighthearted interview and I'm pretty certain it was made in an agreement between the two of them. Carr doesn't necessarily hold all those opinions, but those views are out there and he's just doing his job as he tosses out the questions and gives Scott a chance to respond to it. And Scott does it very well, with self confidence, intellegence and eloquence. I really can't see the problem.

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