A.O. Scott: Chief film critic at The New York Times and Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University, A.O. Scott will be kicking off The Mount's annual Touchstone series at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 11, at Edith Wharton's summer home in Lenox, Mass. His book, "Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth" was published in February. He took a few minutes in between his own deadlines to answer a few questions for BWSV:
1. You write in "Better Living Through Criticism" that "Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion," which is playing out in the presidential election. Is there any hope of change or is that religion too deeply embedded?
A.: I veer between hope and despair, and I've always thought the real culture war isn't between rival ideologies as much as between thinking and its opposite. Neither side can ever be entirely victorious, and the strength of stupidity can be very frightening. But I'm enough of a small-d democrat to believe that the human capacity for skeptical, rational thought can prevail over the equally human capacity for idiocy.
2. With social media and the internet, everyone is a critic. How has that affected the role of professional critics, especially movie critics?
A.: It makes the job less lonely. As a writer, there's nothing more encouraging than hearing from readers, even when they're pointing out your shortcomings. I think the internet has democratized criticism, which means that professional critics can't rest on assumptions of our own authority. That's almost entirely a good thing. Anyone who thinks that criticism is about wielding some kind of power doesn't understand what it's about.
3. Mike Birbiglia has criticized the MPAA for giving his new comedy "Don't Think Twice" an R rating for some vulgarity while giving the violent "Suicide Squad" a PG-13. He claims the rating board is soft on violence because it sells tickets. Do you agree, and is there a better way to rate movies?
A: The MPAA has the impossible task of addressing a society that is often united in its desire to take offense but deeply divided over what to be offended by. There are people who hate guns and don't mind 'f-bombs,' but there are also people who feel exactly the opposite. I think the ratings system is clumsy and sometimes absurd, but it is a voluntary system and the alternatives (government censorship; a new production code) would most likely be worse.
4. Do you believe that on-screen violence can encourage or at least sow the seed for real-life violence, as has been claimed about summer movies like "Jason Bourne" and "Suicide Squad"?
A.: No. But I do think that many movies reflect our deep confusion about violence, and our dishonesty about its causes and effects.
5. On demand services make it increasingly easy for audiences to see theatrical releases at home shortly after they have been in movie theaters or even at the same time, in many cases. Will this result in the demise of movie theaters?
A.: I hope not! And I'm encouraged by the expansion of independent-minded exhibitors like Landmark, Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema Family. My strong belief is that, however lavish their home-entertainment systems are, people will continue to want to leave the house, and that one of the things they will do is go to the movies. Movie-going might not be the principal way people consume moving images, but I don't think it will vanish entirely.
For more info or tickets for Touchstones at The Mount, visit EdithWharton.org or call 413-551-5100.