Peter Bart: Quentin Tarantino’s Movie About A Film Critic May Be A Parting Shot To A Fading Species

A.O. Scott this week ends his 23-year run as film critic for the New York Times and most movie people are glad to see him go. So is he.

“If the film world is to become relevant again, it needs critics whose work reflects passion and advocacy, and that’s the opposite of Scott,” observes one important filmmaker who fears being quoted.

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Besides, he notes, Scott didn’t leave the movies; the movies left Scott.

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When cinema was “hot,” a critic like Pauline Kael could stir anger or applause in Hollywood simply by walking into a restaurant. Contentious reviews of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Bonnie & Clyde stirred as much noise as did the movies themselves.

Quentin Tarantino tells friends he’s even making a film titled The Movie Critic about a Kael-like presence. That would likely be the final movie from the filmmaker, who believes that directors should “hang ‘em up” at the age of 60 (his 60th birthday is this month).

So should critics follow suit? Kael’s career almost ended in the late ‘70s when Warren Beatty persuaded her to take a job as a Paramount executive. She shortly quit, finding that she had more influence critiquing movies than creating them.

Pauline Kael, from the 2018 documentary ‘What She Said’
Pauline Kael, from the 2018 documentary ‘What She Said’

Kael had a stormy relationship even with her favored filmmakers. Invited by Robert Altman to see a cut of one of his films (Buffalo Bill and the Indians), she became critical at his post-screening dinner. Altman tossed a few choice epithets at the critic, stormed from the restaurant and stuck her with the bill.

Kael would not have thrived in today’s media marketplace where, except for the “tomatoes” they generate, reviews are rarely quoted or even noticed. At the time when Scott joined the Times, that newspaper and others ran ads with lengthy quotes from critics; there was intense pride in critical elegance.

In those days, however, movies were news, which is hardly the case today. The present film slate, Scott writes, leaves him “frustrated and confused.” He sees about 300 films a year, his byline appearing on perhaps two every week.

Given the Times’ appetite to remain “the newspaper of record,” a panel of freelance critics passes judgment on as many as 20 additional weekly releases, dismissing most with faint praise – a trait often pursued by Scott himself and by Manohla Dargis, his co-critic who remains at the paper.

Scott admits he gave Top Gun: Maverick a “tepid endorsement,” was also “hot and cold” on Wes Anderson and was dismissive of the “intellectual posturing” of last year’s Cannes winner (and Oscar nominee) Triangle of Sadness.

He applauds those fellow critics who decreed that Richard Curtis’ cult movie Love Actually ”is actually bad.” On the other hand, he has professed loyalty to Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, even invoking Woody Allen’s name.

Having suffered through long years of delight and disappointment on the big screen, Scott remains “awed by the ability of movies to obliterate reason and abolish taste.”

The future, however, leaves him worried. As he puts it, “The cultural space for movies I care about seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling.”

Which seems like a good reason to pass the torch.

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