Rick McGinnis:

Interim writer, Rick McGinnis, Amusements

You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was a very big deal when A.O. Scott, one of the New York Times’ two full-time movie critics, recently announced he was retiring from reviewing films. The news might not have reached you yet, so I’ll give you a minute to digest it fully. If you’ve already heard, I’m sure you have some idea how much of a bombshell this was to regular Times readers, and to movie criticism in general.

Seriously, though, Scott’s voluntary retirement from film criticism – he will be moving on to a position as “editor-at-large” for the Times’ book section – was big news, and the paper gave it sufficient play, with both an “exit interview” written by Scott and a podcast interview to allow the writer to explain his decision.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Times alone is a big enough media ecosystem on its own to produce podcasts reporting on its own internal news. It’s one of the reasons why, when the rest of traditional print media disappears, the Times brand will still have enough value on its own to sustain it when whatever we once consumed via newspapers or magazines transitions into something else. It’s actually astonishing that the Times retains two full-time film critics; most daily newspapers here in Canada put theirs out to pasture years ago, in numbers sufficiently large that many of them banded together to self-publish on a cooperative website that has effectively taken the place of newsprint film criticism here.)

Scott has held the job of Times movie critic for an impressive 23 years, and during that time estimated that he had seen around five or six thousand films – between 700 and 800 alone in Sony’s private screening room on Madison Avenue – publishing 2,293 reviews on top of whatever else he might have written for the paper.

It was a good run, and one that he could have stretched to the horizon of his viability as a Times employee. Giving it up, while so many of his peers have been laid off or jettisoned by dying papers, prompted a joke that, in the eyes of the professional film reviewing community, he looked like the Benedict XVI of movie critics.

“It’s impossible to see everything,” he wrote in his “exit interview”, “and irresponsible not to try.” The result is that Scott has doubtless seen an awful lot of flawed, mediocre, or outright terrible films, and the weight of all that time and effort in pursuit of what most people would consider experiences to be avoided must have contributed to his decision.

Take, for instance, Scott’s last two published reviews in the Times. Technically his review of 65, a sci-fi film starring Adam Driver and a lot of CGI dinosaurs, was his last job, and the Times podcast begins with him being interviewed outside the Sony screening room. “Not interesting enough to be truly terrible or terrible enough to be halfway interesting,” is the best he could say about the picture.

But his swansong was a review of Moving On, what he describes as a “rape-revenge comedy” (yes, I know) starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin – two actresses he says up front he would “happily watch…in anything.” By the end of his review, though, Scott writes that writer/director Paul Weitz’s script “wavers between silliness and social consciousness without making room for its story. There are reminiscences about the past, but no sense of the weight of lived experience.”

A few dozen of these, every year, never mind a hundred or more, would make my own life as an erstwhile movie critic feel like slow, sustained torture. (Which is why, in a nutshell, I almost never write about new movies.)

What he’s willing to complain about, though, is the glut of big budget superhero films that have dominated Hollywood for a decade or more – a genre of B-movies with hyper-sized A-movie budgets that, in Scott’s view, “are designed to be critic-proof. You create something so enormous and so powerful that it seems like such a fact of nature, almost, that it just crushes any dissenting voice or point of view and doesn’t give you a lot to talk about.”

If any single incident forced him to this opinion, it came several years ago, when negative comments about a Marvel Cinematic Universe film starring Samuel L. Jackson prompted the actor to take to social media and demand that “Avengers fans, we need to find A.O. Scott a new job, one he can actually, all caps, DO,” which resulted in the expected Twitter swarm of the critic and his newspaper.

“The behavior of these social media hordes,” he wrote in his exit interview, “represents an anti-democratic, anti-intellectual mind-set that is harmful to the cause of art and antithetical to the spirit of movies. Fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behavior, and its rise mirrors and models the spread of intolerant, authoritarian, aggressive tendencies in our politics and our communal life.”

On the surface it’s not the films he says he hates, it’s their fans, but that still doesn’t seem like the problem.

Scott has seen the critic’s role as gatekeeper diminish while he’s been doing the job, first with “critic-proof” blockbuster movies, but also with the rise of streaming services, that have taken feature films out of cinemas and on to home screens, where they become part of algorithm-driven menus and home pages that rely on “a kind of passivity” to promote films to a captive audience based on measured viewer biases and streamer prerogatives.

“I have found that the way that I’ve practiced it has gotten harder to do,” he says during his podcast interview. “And also, the feeling of disconnection between the critic and the audience feels much stronger. And, the gulf feels much wider. I mean, the whole point of writing for The New York Times about movies is to spread the news.”

In his self-penned farewell to his job, he sounds more downbeat:

“The current apocalypse is that streaming and Covid anxiety are conspiring to kill off moviegoing as we have known it, leaving a handful of I.P.-driven blockbusters and horror movies to keep theaters in business while we mostly sit at home bingeing docuseries, dystopias and the occasional art-film guilt trip. Am I worried? Of course, I’m worried. The cultural space in which the movies I care most about have flourished seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original and ambitious work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling. The state of the movies is very bad.”

But I can’t help but view Scott’s concerns as the film critic version of what are called “first world problems,” which is to say issues that are more real to a small handful of people whose tastes and preferences are losing status and power.

In the podcast, the interviewer asks Scott if “all of this maybe not actually a bad thing? I mean, are there collectively democratizing forces in the film world that are giving people what they want? And is it possibly true that the old Hollywood that you are fond of was a little snobby and a little insular?”

Scott takes this as a cue to say that Hollywood was, even more than that, “actively racist and always exclusionary of people of color, of religious minorities, of queer and transgender people,” and that “I think it’s only started to emerge from that very recently.”

“So, I certainly don’t want to turn back the clock on any of that. But I also think that we should be wary of trusting the corporations that control Hollywood, that control what we see to be democratic, and that the interesting work, the ambitious work that has emerged has always happened in spite of that corporate dominance. So, I hope that that continues.”

Scott doesn’t wonder if at least some of the displays of inclusiveness might be as corporate and top-down as the old Production Code (gone now for generations) that he ritually denigrates. The audience retreat from politicized storytelling – like the ricochet between “silliness and social consciousness” he found so unpersuasive and diminishing in Moving On – might be a plausible reaction from viewers, who choose to escape into bingeing or “doomscrolling” as a preference to messaging either so overt or unskilled that it’s insulting.

Audiences might lack a platform, but they’re still able to exercise a critic’s discrimination, finally freed from some of the gatekeeping done by people doing Scott’s old job – one that had diminished in impact so much that Scott wasn’t able to find either satisfaction or fun in it anymore.