A.O. Scott has spent much of his career in darkened rooms, though he says he’s never fallen asleep on the job. Still, the New York Times chief film critic concedes that staying awake can be quite the battle.
Scott has been writing criticism for most of his professional life, covering books for the New York Review of Books and Newsday before hopping over to the newspaper of record. His first book, Better Living Through Criticism, was published in February. In a series of essays and dialogues, the collection offers a thoughtful defense of criticism and an acknowledgment of its limits. Scott tackles hard questions with a craftsman’s rigor: What is beauty? How should we think about art? What do critics get wrong? Why is “Ratatoullie” such a great film? Many of his questions are by nature unanswerable, but Scott never hesitates to join the discussion.
In his own words, here’s Scott on underrated films, that time Roger Ebert fell asleep at a screening and his "very trashy and plot driven" dreams.
I tend to go to sleep on the early side, when I can. Usually by 10 p.m. When my first child was very little, which was a long time ago, she would always wake up at like 2 or 3. I still wake up most nights, for a period of time, around 3:30. And then usually I’m up by 6 a.m.
I’ve never had any trouble falling asleep. I fall asleep pretty quickly. I need to have coffee pretty much right away, first thing. That’s my morning ritual — making and drinking coffee.
I’ve always gotten in the habit of writing when the time is available. I don’t have a fixed daytime schedule, but I never write at night — that would prevent me from falling asleep. So I never write after dinner, with a few exceptions. But generally I write in the morning and afternoon.
I tend to find my dreams are very trashy and plot-driven. They’re like bad movies or TV shows, a lot of action. I’ve always had a very kind of shallow pop unconscious.
Any movie screening mid-morning at a festival is a struggle to stay awake — i.e., the 11 a.m. screening after the first 8:30 movie. The wakeup caffeine jolt has worn off and rooms have been warmed by crowds of bodies. I struggled with “Russian Ark” in those circumstances, “Black Mass,” “Colossal Youth” and many many others. On a side note, I sat next to Roger Ebert during the first Cannes screening of “Mulholland Drive” and he definitely dozed off.
My bedside table: Generally books and magazines. I think the current issue of The New Yorker and the Atlantic.
I’m not sure how much criticism has changed over my career. It’s certainly changed in the platforms it’s practiced upon — I’m just old enough to have started writing when there was pretty much only print. The Friday and the Sunday newspapers were where criticism happened. So I witnessed the rise of blogs and then social media. I think sometimes the criticism gets written a lot more quickly, and there’s more of it — more criticism that’s in response to or in dialogue with other criticism, which I don’t think you saw quite as much in the print world.
There’s more of it, it’s more dispersed, it’s more contentious and noisier, but I think the aims are pretty much the same. It’s not fashionable to say that — it’s fashionable to say everything’s changed — but I kinda think people are still doing the same basic work of trying to figure out what they’ve experienced. I think Alissa Wilkinson in Christianity Today is the best younger critic writing out there.
No one ever pays enough attention to Romanian movies, which is a great cause of mine. There were two that came out in January that were really very fine. One was Corneliu Porumboiu’s movie “The Treasure,” which was an amazing deadpan fairy tale about the crisis of capitalism in Europe. The other was completely different, it was a black-and-white widescreen Western called “Aferim,” directed by Rada Jude, which was just one of the most entertaining and interesting period movies that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s very much a classic Western story, about a sheriff trying to bring in a fugitive, but it’s really remarkable. In a better world everyone would’ve seen it.
These things come and go. “The Treasure” was in town for a little bit, but often they’re gone within a week. Then the place to find them is on digital platforms — which does at least make it possible for people, in principle, to see these things, and maybe makes it a little more frustrating when they don’t. There’s no excuse!