Review: A.O. Scott’s ‘Better Living Through Criticism’ and Owen Gleiberman’s ‘Movie Freak’

“Movie Freak” by Owen Gleiberman (Hachette Books) and “Better Living Through Criticism” by A. O. Scott (Penguin Press).
“Movie Freak” by Owen Gleiberman (Hachette Books) and “Better Living Through Criticism” by A. O. Scott (Penguin Press).

At the start of his new book Better Living Through Criticism, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott recounts the Twitter kerfuffle that ensued after he published his mixed review of Joss Whedon’s blockbuster The Avengers in May 2012. Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury in the movie, tweeted a response addressed to Avengers fans that said “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One that he can ACTUALLY do!”

Scott, who has been reviewing movies for the Times since 2000, took the call-out in stride. Anyone who writes about film or TV or music or any other element of popular culture from a critical perspective knows the job requires a thick skin.

“Neither my person nor my livelihood was in any danger, and The Avengers went on to become the second-fastest film to date to reach $1 billion at the global box office,” he writes. “I gained a few hundred followers on Twitter and became, for a few minutes, both a hissable villain and a make-believe martyr for a noble and much-maligned cause. It was win-win all around, and then everyone moved on.”

Scott goes on: “But even a tempest in a teapot can have meteorological significance, and I think Jackson raised a valid and vital question. Putting aside the merits or limitations of what I wrote about The Avengers or any other movie, it’s always worth asking just what the job of the critic is, and how it might ACTUALLY be done.”

The rest of this heady, engaging book argues that the critic’s primary responsibility is to think about the work and to not “regard art as an ornament” or “perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company.” The book acknowledges the present-day crisis afflicting newspapers and magazines — for decades the primary sources of American criticism — and acknowledges the tidal wave of critical writing, from blogs to Yelp, that the Internet has made possible. Better Living Through Criticism doesn’t champion one over the other. Scott only calls out “hurried, time-serving, muddled attempts at criticism, most of them perfectly sincere, some of them written by the author of this book. … You cannot always safely shrug and demur, even if that is your true response, and so you wander into thickets of noncommittal or insincere expression.”

Scott reviewed books for Newsday before joining the Times, and he draws on a number of literary sources (Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Henry James) to illustrate his explorations of the nature of beauty, the ecstasy of artistic pleasure and the essence of criticism itself. He uses short detours to provide historical context, arguing that Keats’ poem Ode on a Grecian Urn is in essence a piece of criticism and using Frank S. Nugent’s terse pan of Bringing Up Baby in the New York Times in 1938 as an example of how critics can be wrong, yet still right. He also applies George Orwell’s essay Confessions of a Book Reviewer to the Internet era, when more criticism exists than can possibly be consumed.

Better Living Through Criticism ends with a defense of Anton Ego, the ostentatious restaurant critic who is so stunned by a plate of food at the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille that he writes, “The work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” Scott argues that Ego’s recognition of the masterpiece he has eaten unites the critic with the creator: They are kindred spirits who are both, in their own ways, vital artists. With this breezy, entertaining, erudite book, Scott jolts the reader to think harder, write better and look closer. It’s a blast of inspiration.

Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies is also a blast, but of an altogether different kind. Part autobiography, part magazine-industry tell-all and part love letter to movies, the book feels like a long, wide-ranging conversation with Owen Gleiberman, a critic with whom many readers formed a personal kinship during his 24-year stint reviewing movies at Entertainment Weekly. Gleiberman’s prose — elegant, insightful, funny and provocative — was the main reason I subscribed to the magazine in its early days, an era Gleiberman recounts here with uncommon candor. He also writes openly about the day he was laid off in 2014, which was the final stage in the magazine’s transformation from a trend-setting publication to pop-culture ambulance chaser.

Gleiberman brings that kind of honesty to bear through the rest of the book, starting with his own life. Like most people who discover an unsatiable passion for movies, he can remember the first inkling of that fiery love affair (for him, it was sparked while watching Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler and obscure exploitation movies such as The Penthouse at the drive-in with his parents and his two little brothers). Gleiberman discusses his complicated relationship with his parents with the same openness he talks about his inability to form meaningful, long-term relationships with women or his six-month stint as a weekend-cocaine addict.

“The glory of cocaine is that it knocked away the cobwebs of depression that were floating around in any civilized person’s emotional ecosystem. It allowed the euphoria you carried around inside you to flourish, and then returned you to earth. (The crash, of course, could kill you. It was like the beginning of a death cycle.)”

He also names names, recounting tiffs with other critics that would harden over time into grudges; recalling his initial impression of Pauline Kael, one of his formative influences, after their first meeting; getting fired from his first professional gig at the Boston Phoenix, where he worked alongside the likes of Michael Sragow and David Edelstein; going on a junket for Short Circuit and hating the film so much that he blew off his scheduled interviews; his failed attempts to hit on then-EW staff writer Gillian Flynn (“… it was only many years later, after I’d read Gone Girl, that I realized: My God, the whole time that I was talking to Gillian, she was probably fantasizing about garroting me”); and his initial resentment at having to share the movie-review beat with Lisa Schwarzbaum, which he saw at the time as a demotion (they later became inseparable).

Movie Freak is written with the freedom of someone who isn’t worried about burning bridges after having written for a high-profile national publication. (“It seemed as if Big Media was finally done with me, and maybe, for the first time, I was done with Big Media,” he says about getting cut from EW). But for all of the book’s insider details, the main attraction in Movie Freak are Gleiberman’s riffs on how movies helped to shape the course of his life – how they are a part of the person he became.

Gleiberman remains one of the most astute and pleasurable film writers of the last 30 years — is there another critic working today who writes at his level? This funny, frank book is filled with irresistible digressions on movies such as The Fellowship of the Ring (“It had way too many scenes like the one in which Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, eyebrows knifing into his forehead, says, ‘This evil cannot be concealed by the power of the elves!’ ”) or Natural Born Killers (“It’s a film I would end up seeing probably around 40 times, but that first time, around 10 minutes into it, I thought, ‘This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that looks like the inside of my brain.’ ”) or Full Metal Jacket (“Kubrick’s message was elemental: War is its own separate reality, with its own slang and brotherhood, its own cult of life and death.”) Movie Freak proves the point A. O. Scott argues in Better Living Through Criticism: At their best, critics can express their interpretation of a work of art in a way that is just as rich and nourishing as the real thing.

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald