Last Thursday, around a hundred students and interested film lovers braved the cold rain to crowd into the Memorial Chapel and listen to a lecture by The New York Times chief film critic, A.O. Scott. The Times, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), and the Film Studies Department organized the lecture, and Film Studies Professor Lisa Dombrowski introduced Scott to the crowd, heaping praise on the film critic.
“On a dreary night, things are about to get better,” she promised.
To loud applause, Scott took the podium and gave brief opening remarks. Scott described the current climate as very anxious for film criticism, stating, “It is an anxious time for print media.” He claimed, however, to be placing his bets on the film industry, saying, “We’re going to be going to the movies for a long time.” He also described his job and the role of criticism.
“If criticism is anything at all, it’s not the pronouncements of an expert, but a conversation among people who care about an art form. It’s history, complexity and value. And it’s everything that that art form is about.”
Scott quickly opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a back-and-forth from the eager crowd and the critic ensued. The first question was about Scott’s career path and how he got where he is.
Scott described a lifelong interest in criticism, saying, “A lot of what I read when I was a kid and a teenager was criticism; The New Yorker, The Times, Rolling Stone. Rock critics of the ’70s were a big influence. They seemed to not only share [my] interest and enthusiasm but expand it. It was a way of explaining to me what I heard and thought and give me another’s opinion to bounce my own against and sharpen my own against.”
Scott graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1988. In the twelve years between his graduation and The Times he wrote for a variety of publications, and his work has been featured in A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays, a collection by Mary McCarthy. His film knowledge has also been on display on television; a frequent guest critic on Ebert and Roper, Scott collaborated with Roper on best movie lists for 2006 and 2007. In 2009 Scott’s expertise landed him another job: co-host (with Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips) of At The Movies, the show founded by legendary film critic Roger Ebert. At a school where film is a valued and strong department, Scott’s credentials made him a welcome visitor.
After writing for some time out of college he was asked to apply for a job at The New York Times, something he said surprised himself and everyone around him. From this invitation blossomed his current career.
Scott also shared his view on what makes a movie a classic. His simple answer: “If people keep watching it.” He quoted Hemmingway and the author’s definition of a classic book.
“Hemmingway said a classic book is one that never goes out of print. It can also bring things back that have been forgotten. A classic movie is ultimately one that keeps holding on to people’s attention long after its initial relevance has gone away. Look at Casablanca—it was part of a propaganda effort to make the US help fight the Nazis, but obviously it has lasted far beyond that initial relevance because it has characters and aspects and lines that people relate to.”
Perhaps the most entertaining question of the night was when Scott was asked to name an epic portrayal of warfare pre- gunpowder society. Scott laughed and asked the audience for its input. Answers ranged form Lord of the Rings to Spartacus and Braveheart. 300 was firmly shut down.
Scott’s lecture and visit to campus were successful all around. His lecture ran over an hour and he answered as many questions as he could, all in a witty and friendly manner. His knowledge and experience were apparent all night. As far as this reporter can tell, no one walked out of the chapel displeased with how they spent their Thursday evening.