Last Friday an overly relaxed and unprepared David Carr sat down with a grumpy and distracted A.O. Scott in a cafeteria (I think) in the New York Times building to talk about Scott’s review of The Avengers, an early-summer theater packer.
Carr and Scott have uncharacteristically unfocused and testy exchange over the role of the film critic in popular culture. At one point Carr turns to Scott and accuses him of taking “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.'” Scott snaps, “This is not a progressive kindergarten, all right? It’s not: ‘You did a nice job, you tried really hard.'”
Carr keeps pressing the proposition that film critics spoil the fun of movies like The Avengers until Scott finally throws up his hands and, to bring the whole dreary exchange to a close, admits he’s “self-loathing” and writes for “masochistic” and “insecure” people. “Those are my people. That’s my constituency — the people who need their lives ruined. I’m here for you.”
The issue of criticism and pleasure is an exasperating one for film critics. All critics deal with some variation on this theme, but none with the intensity of feeling in movie fans. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Jim Emerson tries to rescue a beleaguered critic by conducting a close reading of the Carr/Scott video, picking apart Carr’s logic–which, of course, only makes matters worse.
Why do movie fans get so upset when critics dislike popular films? Scott wonders, “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?” And not just movie goers, either. When Scott’s review of The Avengers was published, Samuel L. Jackson, channeling the bombast of super hero genre, Tweeted that Scott should find a new job. Putting aside the fact that Scott’s job is more demanding than Jackson’s, which is to stand before a camera and shout his lines, I wondered why Jackson even bothered to expend 140 characters to attack Scott. Why was Jackson so threatened?
Maybe he was angry about Scott’s remark that the film is little more than “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.”
Or maybe Jackson’s reaction springs from the nature of the film watching experience itself. A whole world is constructed just for you. You identify with the characters. You identify with the camera itself. You are inscribed in a story offering a meaningful experience of time rather than an empty one. A special effects movie like The Avengers works incredibly hard to draw you in. Then the critic steps in and says, You desire a more complete self, but you have fallen for the lure of the fictive, yet again.