A.O. Scott of the New York Times — and now, At the Movies — is one of America’s best-known and most trusted film critics. Scott’s tenure with the Times began in 2000; prior to that, he was a book critic for Newsday, and contributed to a number of other publications. Beginning in 2006, he filled in for Roger Ebert on At the Movies; on Sept. 5, he and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips took over as the hosts of the show, replacing Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Scott shared some of his favorites (he particularly likes long movies and Italian films), and discussed the differences between appraising movies in print and on television, as well as what the new At the Movies has in store for audiences. (Be sure to check back next week, when we present Michael Phillips’ Five Favorite Films.)
I would say number one is probably Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which I never get tired of. Even though parts of it are very grim and depressing, I think if there was a movie I would want to live in, it would be that. You know, if the world could be the Trevi Fountain in black and white, with Anita Ekberg holding a kitten on her head.
RT: As a newspaperman, don’t you kind of live in that world?
[Laughs] It kind of is; that sort of mixture of romanticism and cynicism that Marcello has is very much a journalist’s world view. And also the way he’s thinking, “What I really am, deep down, is a poet or a philosopher, but I have to be in this vulgar world of paparazzi.” The origin of the paparazzi is in that movie.
It’s great to go back to, because whenever I remember it, I remember it a little bit out of order, and it seems like it’s been slightly reshuffled or certain things come to the surface that I didn’t notice before. Everything about it, too – the visuals, the setting. I am generally a sucker for Italian movies. If it’s in Italian, I have trouble disliking it too much.
I would cheat and say the two Godfather movies, The Godfather part I and II, edited in whatever order; I like the way they were sort of edited together in a single movie, but I also like them as they were released separately. And I think that that, for me, is the pinnacle of movies as a popular art form in America. It’s like a great novel, but it’s a super entertaining movie. It’s always funny to think that that was — you know, if you talk to Francis Ford Coppola, that was sort of his commercial movie that he got hired to make, and that was the one he did to make a lot of money. I have nothing original to say about it, but again, a movie that I cannot imagine ever getting tired of watching. When you come across it on TV, you stop and suddenly two hours have gone by, and you’re still with it. If you think about it, the performances in that… Everyone in that movie, just about, is as good as they ever were.
RT: So in general, do you like long movies?
Generally yes. I’ve been accused sometimes of having a kind of “the longer, the better” [attitude]. [A while back] I wrote a piece on the restored Berlin Alexanderplatz, and that was just a few months after Jacques Rivette’s legendary Out 1, which is 13 hours long. [laughs] There was a cut-down version of Out 1 that was five and a half hours, but I think 13 hours is the full length, and they screened it at the Museum of the Moving Pictures here in New York, and they did press screenings over three days. And by the end it was kind of like we had been POWs together, who maybe didn’t know each other or didn’t like each other before, but were huddled, sharing food, and making these kinds of inside jokes. Yes, I do like long movies. I mean, I kind of like that feeling of getting absorbed and completely entering into the movie’s reality. But I don’t think I only like long movies.
I guess I would say, again, to choose among a lot of different ones, I love Sullivan’s Travels. I love a lot of Preston Sturges movies. It’s a movie about movies, and I just think it’s just so funny. I love it. The first five minutes of the movie are among the funniest five minutes ever. Like when he’s in the studio boss’s office; it’s the fastest dialogue. [laughs] How they managed to do that scene, it’s just flying.
There’s always an Altman movie on the list. Currently I think it’s probably McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I love westerns; there are actually a lot of westerns I could add. A sort of deconstructed western. Altman’s one of my favorite directors and someone even whose lesser work I find really fascinating and had an intelligence about filmmaking and also about human behavior that’s kind of unmatched.
In the number five position, I would — again, choosing among many possible candidates — I think I would put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There are John Ford westerns that are more picturesque, that are more sweeping, but that’s a movie that distills an idea of history and depicts — granted, in a kind of mythologizing way, but in a very astute and complicated way — the process of historical change in the American West. That movie is just fascinating to me, and it has sort of a dissertation’s worth of ideas in it, but they’re so well embedded and dramatized, and the performances are so interesting. Jimmy Stewart, to me, is such an interesting and in some ways misunderstood actor, because when you see him, he’s so angry so much of the time. In Winchester ’73 and even in It’s A Wonderful Life. When he comes back to the house in that movie, he says, “Why do we have all these kids anyway?” and he’s just furious.
Next, Scott talks about the differences between being a critic in print and on TV, as well as what the new At the Movies will be like.
RT: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the new show. What can we expect from you guys? Is it just two guys talking about movies, or is there a new format?
AS: The format is basically the same. It’s two guys, two critics, basically two writers, talking about movies. What we’re hoping is that it will be really idea-driven. There are a lot of places — including Rotten Tomatoes — but also a lot of shows on television where you can find out about movies. By the time people get to the show, they know the movies that are out there, and we’re figuring what they want it is to hear someone say something interesting about these movies and hear people arguing, not necessarily in the sense of quarreling, but in the sense of engaging each other’s ideas and opinions about these movies. What we’re hoping is that the show will be structured and driven by what we think is most interesting and what are the sharpest and most interesting arguments that we have. Sometimes that means that when there’s not a lot to say about a movie, we’ll deal with it pretty quickly, and when there’s more to say, we’ll try to open it up and talk about it more. Within the format — you know, it’s a half-hour show, it’s interrupted by commercials, we try to cover as much as we can, and it’s going to be about these five movies a week — but within that, we’re trying to vary the length of the segments, to mix it up so that it’s always the liveliest discussion and the most noteworthy movie that’s being talked about the most.
We’re also using the DVD segment not so much to focus on new releases on DVD as to use what we’ve been talking about on the show as a way in to talking about some of our favorite movies from the past. In the first show, we talked about movies that were important to us as kids who would someday grow up to be critics; in an upcoming show, we’re reviewing some lame current romantic comedies, so the DVD segment, we picked a couple of our favorite classic romantic comedies. Just to give it a kind of breadth and range.
Also, for every show, we’re doing a web video exclusive, where we kind of extend the discussion, where we take something we were talking about in the show and open it up in a more informal, uninterrupted conversation. You know, in an upcoming show when we’re doing The Informant!, the new Steven Soderbergh movie, Soderbergh is such an interesting director and he’s done so many different kinds of things that we spend some time talking about him and his career and our favorite and less favorite of his movies in a way you couldn’t on the show, because you just don’t have the time. That feels worth doing and we think viewers will be interested in seeing that online.
RT: How long have you been doing TV? And what was the biggest challenge in terms of getting your ideas across while not diluting what you say in your print reviews?
AS: I think there’s a kind of streamlining and simplifying that has to happen on TV, because TV is very linear. You know, when you’re writing something, you can refer back to something a few paragraphs earlier, or you can write a very complex, nuanced sentence with a lot of allusions buried in it, or if something doesn’t make sense, people can go back and read a sentence again. On TV, it is all coming and going very quickly, so you have to simplify. Also, what’s fun about doing it with a partner, with Michael Phillips, is that there’s a degree of spontaneity and surprise and playing off each other. You know, it’s different. When you’re writing, you’re just inside your own head and having maybe imaginary arguments with people [laughs], but it’s not quite the same. So there’s a kind of improvisational quality to it that is really fun, but you have to be on your toes in front of the camera. It’s not taped live, obviously, but we want that quality of spontaneity and real conversation. When you’re writing, you know, you can get up and pace around, and go get a snack, and read some blogs, or whatever it is that you’re going to do to clear your head, but with TV there’s that immediacy. I’m finding it fun. There’s definitely a new set of skills to learn and communication techniques, but it feels like a new way of trying out what I’m interested in doing anyway.
RT: Was your substitute gig on the Ebert & Roeper show your first extensive TV experience?
AS: I’d done guest spots on Charlie Rose, and interviewed on various TV shows, but I hadn’t ever sat in a regular host’s chair. I think I learned a lot doing it then, just even in terms of how you sit, and how you look at the camera, and what you do with your face, and how you convey energy on television. I feel like I still have a lot to learn from that. I’ve done a lot of video for the Times’ website, and that has been extremely helpful, too, just in terms of thinking about how to take ideas that you might express one way on the page and get them across on camera, talking to someone.
RT: Where do you see the state of contemporary film criticism?
AS: I think it’s in a very exciting state. I mean, I think that I don’t actually lament the supposed demise of a single, authoritative critical voice. I think that the idea of critics having authority has always sort of been a misguided one. Critics obviously have to know their stuff and express themselves well, and bring a certain seriousness and expertise, but I think that criticism is one of those things that, people who do it professionally are also doing something that everyone does. It’s an activity, and it’s a communal activity, and it’s often sort of a messy and chaotic and argumentative one, and I think we’re in a very good time for the activity of criticism. It’s a very hard time for people who are trying to make a living at it, and I think that’s really too bad. But I think the proliferation of voices — sometimes, you know, somewhat obnoxious voices — is a great thing, and what I really like about it is that it makes what was always kind of a virtual, imaginary conversation that you were having with your readers an actual one. So it’s not as if I send out my copy and wonder what people thought of it; I hear, and I hear very quickly.
Check back next week for Michael Phillips’ Five Favorite Films.
For more Five Favorite Films articles, check our archive.