The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Scott vs Carr vs Emerson – musings about critique of criticism

with 18 comments

Mark Kermode often says that only bad critiques spend time and effort badmouthing their colleagues. Good ones focus on doing their own work properly instead. And who could argue with that?

But this doesn’t mean that waving your visit card with the title “film critic” automatically should give you protection against any questioning or critical question.

Touchy cinephiles
This week I was baffled seeing how touchy some cinephiles can get when film criticism is up for discussion.

This outrage was sparked by a filmed discussion that was posted at New York Times’ website. It features two of their reporters, A.O. Scott and David Carr, talking about different views on film criticism.

Scott is the guy who wrote a negative review about The Avengers, which made one of the actors so pissed that he called for riots against him over Twitter. Carr is working with their media coverage and was one of the central characters in the recent documentary Page One. (On a completely irrelevant note he also reminds me of Dr House, which might be one reason why I like him so much. He’s a bit rough in the edges but appears to have a good heart hidden under the grumpy surface.)

In case you haven’t watched film, I suggest you do. It doesn’t go into depth, which you can’t expect a seven minute interview to do, and the argments are pretty familiar. It’s just a piece of entertainment and a chance to see those writers in person.

Doing his job
Carr puts some relevant, down-to-Earth questions about how film critics think and tosses out opinions that aren’t unusual if you go outside of the bubble that film fans like us live in. Scott answers the best he can, which in fact is very well.

People seem to think that Carr is “dumb” since he asks “dumb” question. But I would argue that he not necessarily holds those opinions for truth; I would rather suspect the opposite. But he puts them out because there are those out there who have them and because he wants to give Scott a chance to respond to things that are going on in people’s mind, even if they’re rarely spoken about, at least not in public media.

And Scott doesn’t apologize for writing negative reviews about popular movies. He sticks to his guns, in a nice and friendly way and the “nasty” questions from Carr don’t bother him any more than the childish tweet storm about Avengers. Scott comes out as intelligent, eloquent and easy to follow and is comfortable talking about criticism with anyone, since he has the self distance and thick skin that you get when you’re confident in yourself.

For all I can tell, the both of them enjoyed themselves pretty much. This is a little performance, a charade that they set up with a glimpse in the eye. Scott isn’t butt hurt or insulted and has no reason to be. They were doing this on purpose. Sometimes being a journalist means that you put out uncomfortable questions. It comes with the role. Carr’s job is NOT to be a member of a club of mutual admiration; his job is to question and spark a good disscussion and that’s what he’s doing and that’s what A.O Scott wants too. Would you really think that N.Y. Times would publish this if Scott thought that he had been treated unfairly and that Carr was a complete jerk?

Righteous fury
But if Scott doesn’t mind, there’s no shortage of other film buffs (in some cases critics) who now are raging on his behalf in the comment section and elsewhere. The angriest one appears to be Jim Emerson, who in a long post, filled with righteous fury, goes through the entire interview, line by line. The point to be proven is that Carr is ignorant and his questions are outrageous.

I don’t say that Emerson is wrong in everything he says. As a matter of fact he’s got a lot of good points about criticism. But oh, the way he delivers them and the way he goes on about them!

He’s definitely doing himself as well as other film critics a disservice. If you ever had prejudices about film critics as being full of themselves, with overblown egos and out of touch with people outside of their little bubble, they will be confirmed by this overreaction.

As I said initially, Kermode doesn’t approve of critics bashing on other critics. And yet, here I am, calling out Emerson for calling out Carr. But again: I’m not a critic and I’ve never aimed or aimed to be one. This is my hobby, not my job. I’m someone who puts up graffiti with punctuation, as they say in Contagion.

And that’s necessarily not just a bad thing. But that’s for another post.

The week is over and it’s time to calm down and make peace over a drink. If you agree with me or disagree with me, go ahead and tell me so. Just keep it civilized. Like A.O. Scott.


Written by Jessica

June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm

18 Responses

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  1. That was an interesting video. Carr was great to watch in Page One and I think his questions are good and the responses to them are valid. I always think it’s funny when people get angry because of negative reviews. It’s always possible someone will not like something, whether that’s in videogames, books, art or movies. It’s the opinion of someone else.

    Why would you as a video game player/bookreader/artlover or moviegoer let that one opinion ruin your enjoyment? Just because someone doesn’t agree with your own opinion? I think as a critic you should be able to voice your own thoughts freely, even if that is considered controversial.


    June 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    • I think we sometimes react on a very emotional and childish level. Admit that it’s very nice to read a positive review from an established and respected critic who agrees with you about a movie that you really enjoyed. I was for instance happy to see that Ebert liked Pormetheus. You can sit there nodding and feeling like a buddie to the critic when you read the article. It’s as if a bit of their smart argumentation spills over on you. On the other hand if they hate the movie you really loved you might feel a little bit robbed of that experience. If you know that you will feel that way sometimes it’s better to just not read a 1/5 star review of something you gave 5/5. You’re pretty much bound to get upset and annoyed by it.

      It depends on how much you enjoy having your own views challenged.


      June 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      • That’s true, people sometimes do search for confirmation of their feelings and can be disappointed.

        Nice to hear Ebert’s review is out, will read that one as I checked it earlier and he hadn’t published it yet.


        June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm

  2. Seeing that interesting video, I can’t help but think overall that it’s silly to make such a storm over something as simple as basic opinions. If a film is bad, I will say it’s bad and I’m happy to write a negative review; such things should be a person’s right, so long as they don’t go over-the-top in thrashing the film. All movies are hard work, and yes, many of them despite the hard work are terrible and we have a right to discuss their awfulness. Criticism can be a tough and brutal thing, but it’s something we should all be allowed to do – in fact, we should all be encouraged to criticise. It’s what makes us human. And as gutwrenching as a negative review of your own movie must feel, filmmakers need to take no notice of critics, move on and keep making movies their own way, as long as it satisfies them. Critics have their business, and filmmakers have theirs. That’s all I have to say without repeating myself too much. Great article Jessica.


    June 9, 2012 at 2:17 am

    • Thanks Tyler. I’m all with you and actually I think Carr is too. It’s just ridiculous how upset some people get about even discussing those things with people who approach it from a non-critic point of view.


      June 9, 2012 at 10:11 am

  3. Loved your post. I don’t know how people could be pissed off at Carr from the video. I found him pretty charming.

    Dave Enkosky

    June 9, 2012 at 2:56 am

    • He is! In a gruffy House-way. Some people are just very high strung I guess.


      June 9, 2012 at 10:11 am

  4. Interesting video (same goes for the post). How people are not able to see this as tongue-in-cheek is beyond me! Oh, and loved the Contagion quote.


    June 9, 2012 at 7:11 am

  5. Admittedly I haven’t had a chance to watch the clip, but I find it interesting that at least some of the hostility to Carr you describe seems to come out of a sense of superiority. By that I mean, I got the impression that Carr was asking some questions that folks who are not caught up in filmworld might ask. It reads almost as if they feel under threat from this yahoo in the living room, so to speak, who might suddenly declare the Emperor had no clothes.

    Not that film aficionados would be the first or the last community to have members who suffer from that particular delusion, but it is slightly weird how so many appear in that thread. Makes the wider community seem actually rather unwelcoming (which I know it is not).


    June 9, 2012 at 9:13 am

    • If you can’t see the video, there’s a transcript of it in the post by Emerson, where he goes through it line by line, tearing up the world about every little piece he doesn’t agree about.

      I agree that there is this feeling that those who react so strongly feel threatened. If they had a stronger belief in themselves and what they’re doing the wouldn’t go nuts over someone asking a few questions.

      The fury and lack of perspective reminds me quite a bit of what we sometimes see among gamers, doesn’t it? Nerdrage as nerdreage.


      June 9, 2012 at 10:14 am

  6. I just watched this and don’t why anyone would get upset over this, except maybe falsely to generate publicity for the video itself. To me it appears as if Carr is not serious and is only there to manufacture an argument he doesn’t believe in.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    June 12, 2012 at 2:01 am

    • No, I actually think that the negative reactions are genuine. But I can’t understand why people react this strongly. As you say it’s obvious that he doesn’t embrace all of those views. There is an undertone of mocking for the sake of an argument. Film critics if any should be able to recognize this.


      June 12, 2012 at 7:42 am

  7. To expose my biases from the get-go, I’ve been a fan of Emerson and his blog for a long time. I don’t think he’s as outright angry as you suggest, and he’s in one way using the video as an excuse to return to one of his favorite topics. As you can surmise from the links he and others drop in the comments to other posts he’s written, the necessity of criticism being backed up by examples from the text and logical arguments rather than simply feelings and emotions is something he cares very deeply about. Taking that as a basis, it’s easy to see why Carr’s approach in the video would rub him the wrong way, and frankly, it rubs me the wrong way, as well.

    I think you’re probably right that Carr is playing a part here, but I basically just watched seven minutes of video with absolutely no valuable content at all, except one or two things that Scott said that Carr then proceeded to essentially brush off, if he even let Scott finish saying them. Carr may be bringing up things that common moviegoers think and would ask, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But he’s doing it in such a way that Scott barely gets to respond, and when he does, Carr’s almost patronizing manner suggests that Scott’s response isn’t actually valuable to the public at large. And Carr isn’t manufacturing an argument he doesn’t believe in, because he isn’t manufacturing an argument at all. I won’t say I was quite AS frustrated as Emerson, but I was definitely on the same wavelength, because every time Scott started to say something that was actually interesting, Carr pulled the conversation back down to the lowest level of discourse, laughing it off, and then following up with something completely unrelated and often contradicting what he had said before. I’m surprised I made it through the whole video. And again, it’s not because I think Carr actually believes in what he’s saying, but because the video itself is ludicrous and pointless. I don’t necessarily have any beef with Carr – I have a beef with whatever editors thought this piece was useful.

    My favorite part is when Carr talks about “the democritization of the critical narrative” and then appears to suggest that means that Scott’s negative opinions that are “ruining” films for people have no place in that critical narrative. So…because John Doe moviegoer’s opinion is suddenly part of the critical narrative, A.O. Scott’s no longer is? Contrary to Carr’s extremely strange question of “who appointed Scott as the Emperor of All Things Good and Horrible” (uh, obviously whoever hired him at the New York Times, duh), Scott likely agrees with Roberta Smith, who sees her art reviews as “one vote among many.” He’s not threatened that other people like The Avengers; why are others threatened that he didn’t? (For the record, I loved The Avengers.) I get that I’m trying to apply logic to something that’s meant to be just entertaining, but there’s so much rich fodder to be had in a discussion about criticism in the 21st century, and this video is utterly frustrating at what it explicitly says it wants to do (“broaden out to the value of criticism in general”). In fact, there is no discussion here at all.

    Sorry, that got long. I had to vent my frustration at having watched the whole video. Probably should’ve just made my own blog post. 🙂


    June 15, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    • I don’t mind long comments; I love them. Why would I mind someone writing long, thoughtful blog posts in my comment section? It’s just lovely! (Though you might want to post it in the form of a post at your own place as well or your readers will miss out on it.)

      I agree with you that Emerson is using the video as an excuse to bring up a lot of general views he has on criticism. Again: I think a lot of what he says makes sense but he really comes out as someone overracting to a little film that I think was done in jest, without any malicious intent to bully film critics. If anything I think Carr aanted to give Scott a chance to counter some of the attacs that film critics get.

      I think you and Emerson are just expecting too much of this little sample of a discussion. For sure there is a lot more to discuss, but this is not the one and only opportunity to do so. Acting out like butt hurt children certainly doesn’t help if you want to improve the communication with “average Joe”.


      June 17, 2012 at 10:34 am

      • I guess I just feel like if they weren’t going to actually get into the subject they brought up, why make the video in the first place? It’s a waste of seven minutes. As I said when I linked to it from my blog, if this is what passes for critical discourse (on any level) in the New York Times, then we might as well give up now. And if it’s not MEANT to pass for critical discourse, then again, why make it? It’s not fun to watch and it’s not informative.

        Side-note: I love that fact that you said “butt hurt.” Twice! 🙂


        June 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm

        • Well maybe it was a teaser? And considering how NY Times is struggling they maybe try to show that they’re not completely out of touch with how “ordinary” people think about film criticism?

          I hope I used “butt hurt” in the right way? You know I’m not writing in my own language and using slang and swearing is about the most difficult you can try doing. It’s more or less bound to fail, so hard to find the right nuance.


          June 18, 2012 at 10:40 pm

          • No, you used it exactly right. 🙂 I’m amazed at how well you and other Swedes I know use colloquial English. Most of the time it’s impossible to tell that you’re writing a second language.


            June 18, 2012 at 10:45 pm

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