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A.O. Scott on criticism: "This is not a progressive kindergarten."

David Carr interviewed A.O. Scott on the subject of movie criticism in a "Sweet Spot" video posted on the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog last Friday. I urge you to follow that link, watch the seven-and-a-half-minute conversation and let me know what you make of it. Carr plays the clown, but I'm not sure how much of it is intentional because most of what he says is so ignorant, and he doesn't even attempt to support it or invest thought in the conversation. Scott, as you know if you read him regularly, is quite eloquent and calls bullshit on some of Carr's more outrageous fabrications.

To help pin down my own thoughts (following up on years of writing about this very subject, including a series of recent posts and comment threads -- "Avenge me! AVENGE ME!," "The Avengers & the Amazing 'Critic-Proof' Movie," "Continuing to argue for the irrelevance of my own opinions," "Cannes and Cannes-not: On being a movie geek"), I've tried to label the various formal and informal fallacies of logic at play here, and link to Wikipedia definitions of them. Of course there are so many (in the conversation and in the list on Wikipedia) that I may have mislabeled some, in which case please let me know.

So, it begins:

David Carr: It's that season when the so-called "big movies" -- some call them "critic-proof" films -- come out, and I was excited about "The Avengers" 'cause I liked "Iron Man." And then I read your review, which was... a little mixed.... I don't think everyone liked your review...

Jim Emerson: When you watch the clip, note the admonishing tone and expression Carr puts behind "a little mixed." It's the kind of thing critics get all the time because, well, everybody's a movie critic. There's no attempt to engage with what somebody actually took the time and effort to write, just the tsk-tsk that you don't "agree" with them, and therefore you're letting them down. (Because, as we all know, a critic's job is to predict your reaction, right?) Carr says he was looking forward to "The Avengers" (because he "liked 'Iron Man'"), but never gets around to mentioning whether he actually did see it, much less what he made of it.

Then there's "I don't think everyone liked your review..." -- a classic non sequitur fallacy. What in the world is that supposed to mean? First of all, what does "liked" mean (in regard to a movie or a review) when no reasons are given? What is the like or dislike responding to? Could anybody even try to write a review (or make a movie) that "everyone" would "like" (each for his own reasons)? If so, why -- and, even if a thing could be created with that goal in mind, what could it possibly say and how naïve would someone have to be in order to attempt it?

In this case, because the question leads into Samuel L. Jackson's tweet saying that Scott should lose his job and get one he can actually do (Scott did not suggest anyone should be banned from working in his review, by the way), I guess Jackson is meant to be one of the "not everyones." But, of course, that was a tweet -- just a nasty insult in 140 characters or less, not a reasoned response to anything Scott actually said. And, besides, Jackson's own role in "The Avengers" was small, a supporting part (Scott compared his character Nick Fury to a "master of ceremonies") in a very large-scale, $220 million production, so the review was hardly a personal takedown of him. At this writing, Jackson has 945,927 Twitter followers; the New York Times circulation averages 1,586,757. How many people read the movie reviews, I don't know. But let's acknowledge that each man has his audience and it's easy to see who offers support for his opinions and who doesn't.

[...]

A.O. Scott: A lot of people who are going to see it are having a good time.

DC: You're out to spoil that.

AS: No I'm not out to spoil that.

DC: A little bit.

JE: See Appeal to motive and Appeal to spite fallacies. To use the same insupportable illogic, I'll just say I think people who make this common assumption usually reveal more about their own petty-mindedness than about any critic's. Sure, there have been some prominent critics who approached their work as performance art, making their reviews primarily about their own wisecracks and insults. Those are, by definition, bad critics. Yes, there are bad critics, just as there are bad films and bad filmmakers. They do not represent everyone who is called a "critic." (That may sound like a "No true Scotsman" argument, but it isn't. You can't take the worst examples of something and make them stand in for the whole. That's a faulty generalization.)

I have often criticized critics for failing to express anything but their opinions, without providing a shred of evidence to demonstrate what they're talking about. I am glad that David Carr is not a critic because, given his childish (and disingenuous?) view of what criticism is -- even at the level of writing practiced by A.O. Scott at the New York Times -- he employs the same methods as the worst critics, the very ones he claims to dislike. Unless he can give some examples, he's just blowing smoke.

AS: But how could I spoil that? If you read my review and then you went and saw the movie and had a good time, how would my review of it affect that in any way?

JE: A point I have made many, many times on this very blog (and long before). Let's assume the preposterous worst -- that critics don't really have anything worthwhile to say about movies but just want to ruin them for other people. (If that's what you think criticism is, by the way, let me give you some advice: steer clear of it. Or be sure you only expose yourself to criticism with which you already know you agree so that you can pretend to confirm your existing beliefs without having them challenged.) But even if that were 100 percent true, how is it even possible for critics to spoil someone else's experience by explaining their own opinion about it (we're not talking about SPOILERS here). Carr admits as much: Some people don't agree with some reviews. So, that means they have their own experiences that are not, in fact, altered by something a critic has written. If A.O. Scott's review had actually spoiled "The Avengers" for somebody, that person would have had to deny his/her own experience and change his/her opinion to bring it in line with his. That, obviously, isn't what happened, because what people like Jackson objected to was that they disagreed with Scott's evaluation. They retained their own opinions.

DC: It's a little bit unfair because you're at least a critic who will enter big films and look around. And there's some who just have a reflexive opposition to scale.

JE: Notice how, when Scott asks him a direct question -- how can a negative review "spoil" a movie for someone else? -- he avoids acknowledging it and delivers a kind of ad hominem in reverse: Oh, but I'm not saying YOU are one of those other kinds of critics I just made up. (See also: Appeal to flattery.) That's irrelevant on so many levels. First of all, Carr makes up something (see Mind projection fallacy), then claims Scott is an exception to the something he just made up. But what does Carr's opinion of A.O. Scott's alleged ability to "enter big films and look around" have to do with anything?

Another glaring fallacy here is that Carr assumes it's a movie's "scale" that puts off the hypothetical critics he invents. (See Fallacy of the single cause.) Yet, even if some critics tend to dislike "big movies," what is it about them that they don't like? Is it simply their "scale"? Their "popularity" (even though most reviews are written before the films are released, so it's impossible for a critic to know how they will do at the box office -- whether any given film will prove to be an "Avengers" or a "John Carter")? Or could it have something to do with the ways in which many of these films are conceived, developed, written, directed? Or which audiences they are tailored for? The only way to know is to read individual reviews and see what the critic is saying.

So, again, it comes down to: Where's the evidence? Criticism has nothing to do with consensus (because everyone has their own reasons), but if you look at the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time in the USA, you'll see that all of them (except for "The Phantom Menace" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest") received predominantly positive reviews from the "top critics" listed on RottenTomatoes. So, let's just get real: Who, exactly, are these critics who "have a reflexive opposition to scale" and which movies are you talking about?

AS: That's another myth, I'm sorry...

DC: Whoa!

AS: There's an idea, which is, I think, very hard to substantiate, that critics are hostile to the popular forms of the art forms that they review. I don't think that's true. Most of the movie critics I know -- all of the movie critics who I respect -- are open to all different kinds of movies: big, small, kid's movies, serious movies, long, short...

DC: You're just defending your posse. C'mon...

JE: Worst possible meaningless argument. Avoid backing up your own unsupported assertions. Just ascribe irrelevant motives to your opponent. (See "Appeal to motive.")

AS: No, I'm not. I'm defending what it is that we do. And what I don't understand is why that should be a threat.

DC: Well, part of what's gone on is that people have begun to take back the sort of custody of the critical narrative, that it just doesn't belong to professionals, that it's been democratized. So, I was hoping we didn't get sort of locked in to a big throw-down about movies -- and I actually like your movie reviews, truth be told -- but broaden out to the value of criticism in general.

JE: OK, that's changing the subject (see moving the goalposts), with another irrelevant, condescending appeal to flattery thrown in, but let's see where he's going with this...

DC: We stopped down to talk to Roberta Smith, who reviews visual art for us and has been doing it for a long, long time.

AS: And knows a lot about how it's done.

RS: [There are] too many artists whose work I've written negatively about who have museum retrospectives, sell out gallery shows all the time, for me to think that I'm making or breaking careers. And I find that kind of liberating in a way. Everybody who's looking at art seriously, everybody is always voting in one way or the other. We all vote. My vote has a kind of immediacy and a kind of prominence for a while, but after a while it's just another vote. Collectors vote, people who talk to each other in bars and recommend shows vote, people who tweet vote. It's a mess, and that's what makes it kind of amazing.

JE: Brava! There was a time when a NYT review could kill a movie (I think of Vincent Canby's pan of "Cutter and Bone" -- later re-released as "Cutter's Way"), but those days are over. Carr himself theorizes that, because of the multifarious ways information and opinions are circulated on the Internet, more people than ever are taking back custody of the "critical narrative" from the "professionals." One of my longtime critical crusades has been to separate criticism from considerations of popularity. Critics "vote" with their writing and moviegoers "vote" with their wallets and those are two utterly distinct things and that's exactly the way it should be. Is it news that people are not sheep who simply go along with whatever a critic says?

AS: You want to enter into a discussion of it, you want to formulate your own ideas and clarify your own ideas and engage with other people's and other people's experience of that.

DC: You make it sound so warm and cuddly. But, in fact, you'll take something that people have sweated over for years on end, sunk their life into, and you'll grab ahold of it, you'll look at it, and you'll go tsch! and snap it right in half. And say, "You know what? This really is not very good."

JE: By this point it should be clear that these two guys are talking about two completely different things. Scott is talking about the larger aims of criticism; Carr is talking about the most base criticism on a personal level. In his appeal to pity, Carr wants Scott to feel guilty about hurting others' feelings with what he writes, disregarding all other values of criticism. He appears to have forgotten the point Smith just raised -- that everyone is free to comment on work submitted for public evaluation. And that applies to everything from art to consumer products. Movies can be both at the same time.

We've all read reviews that appear to have been written out of spite, or that rely on the same kinds of logical fallacies Carr does here (particularly ad hominem attacks directed at a person rather than at something in the work itself) but, again, that's bad criticism by definition and should be condemned as such, not portrayed as representing all or even most criticism. Movies are emotional experiences (among other things), and people respond to them emotionally. Critics, however, are expected to go a little deeper, to analyze and explain and interpret.

AS: Well, here's the thing: If you're engaged in creative work -- and I think most critics have enormous respect for people who are engaged in that work -- you are nonetheless submitting yourself to judgment. This is not a progressive kindergarten, all right? It's not: "You did a nice job, you tried really hard." What you're pursuing is excellence, is truth, is beauty.

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.

AS: Do you really think that's true? I mean, do you really think that there's no common project of deciding what's good and what's beautiful and what's true? I don't think it's ever arrived at for all time, but I don't think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we'd never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?

DC: And we also wouldn't have settled on certain things, whether it be the Sistine Chapel or the work of the Strokes, as common examples of excellence. So, there must be something... ?

AS: And it's hard to define, hard to formulate -- maybe impossible.

JE: I don't know how well the Strokes serve as "common examples of excellence," but point taken. If a critic believes the Strokes are important or excellent, then that critic must try to explain what he sees/hears in them. You may be like Harmony Korine, who recently told GQ, "I don't listen to music made by white people. I especially hate anything where a guitar is used," in which case you would not be interested in the Strokes at all. But that's your taste. Criticism is more than asserting one's taste.

DC: Well, it's not just because you said so.

AS: No. No. I would hate to think that people formulate their opinions just based on what I said so.

DC: Really?

AS: Yeah, I'm not interested in mind control.

[laughter]

DC: I think many critics are, though.

AS: See, you keep inventing these imaginary critics who do and think all of these terrible things.

JE: Now, I don't know if Carr thinks he's playing "devil's advocate" here (he's not, because he doesn't actually advocate for the positions he takes -- he just throws 'em out there as if their validity had been established, when in fact they're just unsupported suppositions on his part). I mean, is he genuinely surprised that A.O. Scott does not want to tell readers what to do or think, based on his word alone? Has Carr ever read what Scott writes? Who are these critics Carr imagines who want people to blindly bow to their will rather than consider their observations and insights? (OK, besides A----- W----, I mean.) Reading stuff like this makes me think critics should probably only write for other critics, because even other newspaper writers like Carr don't understand what criticism is, or what separates good criticism from bad criticism.

DC: I'm gonna make a monster movie about critics some time and then it'll be critically panned.

AS: No, critics will love it. We're filled, like all writers, with self-loathing--

DC: -- self-hatred --

AS: -- and neuroses and wounded pride.

JE: Is Carr unfamiliar with the Ebersisk (or Eborsisk, as it is sometimes spelled), the two-headed, fire-breathing dragon named after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (who, by the way, were among George Lucas's biggest supporters) in the 1988 Lucas/Ron Howard "Willow" starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley and Warwick Davis -- a movie that also featured a villain named General Kael? Or Bob Balaban's hateful film critic character in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Lady in the Water" (2006)?

DC: OK, I want to get back to this thing, though, when you ruin something. A couple years ago I wrote this book and it was generally well-reviewed. But there were a couple of reviews that just tore its arms and legs off. And I gotta tell ya, it hurt. It really hurt.

JE: I hate to get personal and anecdotal, but Carr does, so I'll admit: I've written (and co-written or consulted on and otherwise created) a lot of stuff -- screenplays, stage works, stories, sketches, poems, jokes, songs, videos, thousands and thousands of articles, essays and reviews, etc. -- and, yeah, I can tell ya it hurts when somebody rejects them. Nobody can tear the arms and legs off them, however, because the works themselves are not mangled; they still exist just as they did before they were criticized. But when people -- including movie critics -- put themselves into their work and put that work out for public scrutiny, they open themselves up to being hurt... by criticism. Or by trollish insults. Happens all the time.

What are the alternatives? I despair at the lack of skill with which most people "debate" ideas, and the diminishment of civil discourse in public life (political, cultural, you name it). But what, exactly, did those reviews Carr mentions say? Were they criticisms of his book that he felt were inappropriate? Were they personal attacks? Did they point out flaws he thought were not applicable -- or did the criticisms hurt because he recognized them as true? We don't know, because he doesn't say. I've experienced all those things, but are we really willing to sacrifice even the possibility of a meaningful exchange of ideas for a policy of, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"? How about we just focus on the work instead of wasting time with non-arguments designed only to insult someone?

An aside: For me, it's easier to read a review (in which someone at least has to say SOMETHING) than it is to handle a face-to-face confrontation in which a person simply says, "You suck!" That's happened to me several times over the last 35 years, and my inadequate response is usually something like: "Oh."

AS: After a while you do learn that it does hurt, you know, that it's somebody's work and effort there.

DC: So, have you, A.O. Scott, mellowed?

AS: Um...

DC: Sounds like it. Sounds like a little!

JE: Now I'm just exasperated. Will this sophistry never end? Grow up, Carr. "Mellowed" from what? In what way? Scott is saying he realizes that his words can hurt people's feelings. He's not a sociopath, utterly lacking in empathy, so what are you trying to say?

AS: I don't know. Maybe a little, But every time I think I have, something will come along that just makes me mad. Like "The Lorax," you know -- a very popular movie that everyone went to see...

DC: You pounded on this darling little children's character...

AS: It's a hateful and despicable movie.

DC: Whoa!

AS: It's a crime against childhood. It was an insult to the imagination of one of the great [unintelligible] artists of the 20th century, Dr. Seuss. It's an abomination.

DC: Boy, I hit the critic button, there.

AS: But other than than, I've mellowed.

DC: Do you ever, right before you go to bed or when you wake up the next morning, think to yourself: "Who am I? Who am I to say this stuff? Who appointed me, really, Emperor of All Things Good and Horrible?"

AS: Well, I don't think of myself as "emperor" of anything.

DC: You're a film critic for the New York Times. You've got a big box of lightning bolts on your desk. It takes a certain form of arrogance, is what I'm saying.

JE: Well, that isn't quite what Carr is saying -- especially since he made a big to-do about how people are reclaiming the critical conversation from the professionals. Emperor of All Things Good and Horrible? What a grotesque exaggeration. And if he really wants an answer to his own question, he should ask who hired A.O. Scott to be a movie critic for the New York Times. Who "appointed" him? Whoever hired him and gave him a desk with a big box of lightning bolts, I guess. And about this "arrogance" thing -- Carr's assumptions here are as arrogant (and narcissistic) as can be, and yet he uses the word like he thinks it's a bad thing. You don't think it takes "a certain form of arrogance" to make a film, to perform in public or before the cameras, to write a review? Of course it does. Wallflowers need not apply. Saying that someone in showbiz (and that includes the people who write about it, whether they're critics or gossips) is exhibiting "arrogance" is like saying a firefighter exhibits "courage" when entering a burning building. You couldn't do the job without it. But that's not all there is to it. Skill and experience are also required.

So, who does A.O. Scott think he is? I can't answer for him, but I'd venture that he thinks he's a writer with something to say, who cares about his subject (movies) and knows quite a bit about them. There's no career track for movie critics. The best critics do it because they love it, and they bring everything else they've ever done to the task. As I've long said, writing about movies allows you to write about everything that movies are about. That is, everything.

AS: I'll plead guilty to that, but criticism is its own thing, its own taste. And people who want it --

DC: -- who want someone to come and spoil their fun --

AS: Yeah, people who are masochistic --

DC: -- who intellectualize something beyond...

AS: -- and insecure: Those are my people. That's my constituency -- the people who need their lives ruined. I'm here for you.

JE: And so it ends with an ironic whimper. I just hope people see how Scott is mocking Carr here, while Carr is trying to do the same to Scott. The Times has been promoting this with the teaser: "A. O. Scott gets hot as David Carr criticizes critics and cultural criticism." But you know, both men do have something to say at the conclusion: If you really believe criticism is the practice of dictating taste, as Carr does, then you should only read it if you're a masochist. Otherwise, you won't get anything out of it.

(Thanks to Paul Brunick for inspiration.)

UPDATE (06/07/12): Carr responds evasively with an ad hominem generalization via Twitter:

@carr2n In re, critic's criticism. Vid is a 6 min. entertainment and I had a fun role to play. My take: Y'all take yourselves WAY too seriously.

@randois responds: "You take yourselves too seriously" should be the new Godwin's Law."

Actually, I don't mind being told I take what he said "too seriously." As I've said elsewhere, the level of "entertaining" thought he exhibits (under the banner of the New York Times) is so commonplace and so low that it's apparently shocking when somebody is called to account for the emptiness of their arguments. See "Well-Shot and Needs Editing," on which I commented: "It's all part of my never-ending OBSESSIVE VENDETTA against vague and meaningless techniques of 'discussion,' from casual conversations about movies to the more structured televised 'debates' between presidential candidates that do not involve any actual engagement or meaningful exchange of ideas." But, of course, I've been a writer all my life, so naturally I'm biased: I believe that words have meanings so I should recuse myself from nonsensical arguments because I'm inclined to take them too seriously.

ADDENDUM (06/07/12): I thought it might be of some value to the discussion to add something I received in an e-mail from a friend and colleague:

My dream is to one day communicate directly with the rabble, the folks who agree with Sam J's Tweet and Carr's putdowns--and with studio people and filmmakers, many of whom remind me of producer Budd Yorkin scratching his head at Blade Runner footage, vowing to take over the project from Ridley Scott to make it make more "sense." We live in a "Budd Yorkin's 'Blade Runner'" kinda time, where the big popular movies make sense and poetry is mostly outlawed.

Implicit in both Scott's reasoning and Carr's foaming-at-the-mouth is a kind of complacency about the mega-corporations that manufacture taste and guide a mean, stupid, narcissistic culture in the name of "giving the people what they want." Both of these dudes seem resigned to accepting the multiplex as a place where loud and imbecilic flicks are the majority. The difference is that Scott shrugs while Carr applauds.

In my response, I said:

The way I see it, there are two distinct but somewhat overlapping issues here (Venn diagram time!): 1) finding a way to talk non-superficially about movies with somebody who may be resistant to the very idea -- which means finding common cinematic values ("I like 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' so, shut up -- end of discussion!"); and 2) sharing ways of critical thinking (people don't have to agree on conclusions, but in order to communicate they have to find some common ground when it comes to what constitutes valid or invalid ways of thinking -- which is why I tried to point out logical fallacies [invalid arguments] here).

So, before you can have any hope of discussing with someone how taste is manufactured by corporations, for example, you have to find a common understanding that 1) they think that's something worth talking about, and they understand what you mean by it; and 2) they're willing to engage your arguments seriously, rather than just dismissing them with ad hominem attacks ("Oh, you're just bitter!") or straw man arguments ("You think Ridley Scott is the Emperor of All Movies!"). I think those are worthwhile things to attempt but, as Matthew Weiner said of Don Draper's attempts to be a "good person" in "Mad Men": "You can try to be a good person, but you will fail. All of the time!"

ADDENDUM (06/08/12): I just read this piece in Salon this morning about a guy whose four-year-old son was devastated when his five-year-old best friend set out to hurt him by saying the kid's favorite album, "Abbey Road," was "bad." That's just it. If you're just playing around on that level, trying to pose as "cool," you reduce the discussion to a playground spat between four- and five-year-olds:

So when the apple cart exploded, I had the impossible task of trying to lay out a simple plan that would keep him happy for all of his days -- and away from these battles. I started by saying, "Yes, Abbot was probably being a little mean, and that was its own thing, but more importantly -- just because somebody doesn't like a thing you like, you shouldn't stop liking it." (I have, at this point, become one of those asinine parents I always prayed I wouldn't become -- calmly trying to reason with a hysterical 4-year-old). It is possible, I said, that Abbot, as crazy as this may be, doesn't like "Abbey Road." But you still can. I promise. "Abbey Road" was great before we came to the playground, and it is still great now....

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