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The Way to a Better Life, say Scott and Thomson, is to be a critic


Better Living Through Criticism

By A.O. Scott

Penguin Press

277 pages, $28

How to Watch a Movie

By David Thomson


242 pages, $28

By Jeff Simon

No, says A.O. Scott, he didn’t write “Better Living Through Criticism” because he felt “defensive” and “wanted to settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson.”

Heaven forfend.

Then again, since the New York Times’ chief movie critic is mentioning the matter on Page 3 in the “preliminary dialogue” that serves as his delightfully titled book’s introduction, it seems likely that at the very least he didn’t want any professional colleague accusing him of burying his lead.

So the Jackson tale goes like this: Scott’s 2012 review of “The Avengers” called the blockbuster “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlord, the Walt Disney company.” He now tells us “that assessment stands up pretty well if I say so myself.” (I’d argue a little but not very much.)

Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury in the film, tweeted #Avengers fans that “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” whereupon Jackson’s Twitter followers offered myriad suggestions of possible alternative employment, along with analyses of Scott’s abilities and speculations about his lonely nerdy childhood.

Whether or not it was intended to be thrown in the face of a scorned actor rallying the Internet mob against incompetent elitists and pencilneck critical geeks everywhere, Scott signed on the dotted line to give the world this book about just what it is that critics do anyway and how it help readers “think about art, pleasure, beauty and truth.”

And then, unfortunately, Scott (go ahead; call him “Tony,” everybody does, even those of us who’ve never met or corresponded with him) proceeds to counter Jackson’s scorn for Scott’s vocation by mounting his defense wearing the costume of his OTHER job which is, as the dustflap tells us, to be “the Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University” (are there any professors of film criticism at Wesleyan who are “undistinguished?” Just asking.)

An academic, in other words.

To put it as bluntly as possible, this is the damndest book – wonderful at times, wise and possibly even instructive half the time and, for the other half, just as “defensive” as the author feared it might be, and self-defeating as well. If you didn’t register for distinguished professor Scott’s course on film criticism at Wesleyan University by Add and Drop Day, you may not want to rush to embrace a book that throws Kant’s Third Critique at you on Page 47, counterpoises Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” 10 pages before that and then, 10 pages later, tells what happened to some of the 750,000 people who beheld Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic when she performed a piece called “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art. Was Abramovic the artist or the artwork he asks?

I didn’t ask to audit Professor Scott’s criticism course frankly but I must say I kept much further from boredom than I suspect Jackson’s hashtag Twitter mob will with their digital torches and pitchforks.

Scott’s true love, obviously, is poetry. Poetry and its critical tradition provide ground zero for almost everything he writes, with the result that those of us who have been fellow travelers of his somewhere or other will be cozier auditing the prof’s animadversions than, say, dedicated students of comic books or feminist theory.

What’s quite delightful about Scott’s book is the other half of the book which adapts one of his continuing tropes in the Times – dialogues with himself in a sort of racy journalistic debasement of the classic dialogues with himself written by Oscar Wilde (immortally collected in a volume called “The Artist as Critic.” There should be one in every literate home.)

The witty self-inquisitor is the Tony Scott that some of us frankly prefer between this book’s covers – the one who is “distinguished” precisely when he isn’t trying to prove so hard that he is.

In his final 50 pages, I must say, Scott does yeoman work in taking his readers through both the occupational and cognitive challenges of critics in the digital age. “The Internet ... is not the end of print – or film, or recorded music, or television – but the latest and most powerful extension of an expansionary viral logic that began when mechanically produced texts replaced handwritten manuscripts.”

Amid such abundance and surplus of artistic imagination, centralized sources of common sense are that much more important, however much authority and wisdom readers may or may not grant them.

Sam Jackson? Meet Tony Scott, critical journalist. He’s a distinguished professor too but, for now, calm down a little while he makes a good deal of sense in public in other ways.

Scott isn’t the only fine movie critic to disappoint between covers lately. One our greatest living film critics by far is David Thomson, whose “A New Biographical Dictionary of Film” and “Have You Seen?” belong in the library of everyone who truly cares about film as a subject.

Sight unseen – or should we say “book unread” – a David Thomson book called “How to Watch a Movie” should be classic Thomson, every bit as essential to movie audiences as “Have You Seen?” and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

It’s not. The book by that title that we have reads, quite frankly, like the first draft of the book it should have been – one that required a great and gifted editor to accompany Thomson through the amble he began.

“‘How To Watch a Movie’ is a guide to studying film and having more fun and being more moved” Thomson writes. And sometimes it is indeed just that. But all too often, it’s off-puttingly willful, as when a commercial starring Derek Jeter settles in on Page 10 and tries to teach you that “to watch [a] movie properly you have to watch yourself watching.” It merely confuses the issue at the same time.

At the risk of being appallingly flippant, it’s probably true that to write a book, you should watch yourself writing it – and hope that the editors assigned to the task are up to it.

There are many great flashes of observation and judgment in “How to Watch a Movie” as well as marvelous fresh pieces of information. One needs patience with this book (as with Scott) but the rewards are immense when, to take almost a random example, you encounter a sentence like this “the more a film cuts, and the more adventurously, then the readier we are for astonishment. Some sense of dread or magic is never far away, not even in naturalistic drama. Those cuts can hurt but they can transport and transform and they can heal old wounds.”

That is not a critic whose basic subject is poetry. That is a critic is also, when he writes criticism, a poet.

Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books editor of The Buffalo News.