A.O. Scott has been a film critic at The New York Times for nearly twenty years and is the author of Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. He is also a professor at the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University. Prior to taking part in a Zócalo/Getty panel titled “Did Truth Ever Matter?” at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about Bucharest, Romania; his favorite subway line; and the film scene that should be played at his funeral.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
Oh boy. It’s hard, you know? I think it was this movie, a Christmas movie with—see, I’ve blocked them out, I try not to remember the bad ones—with Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick—called Deck the Halls, about two neighbors having some rivalry about who can decorate their house best for Christmas. It was the most unpleasant, supposed comedy that I think I’ve ever seen. And the thing is, it wasn’t bad in any kind of fun or interesting way. There are some movies that are bad because they’re doing something very ambitious, and they fail, and that makes them kind of interesting because they could have been good. But this is just an example of just, like, thoroughly terrible.
What’s the best cinematic portrayal of a movie critic?
Of a movie critic … See that’s a hard one, because the best portrayal of a critic is obviously Anton Ego in Ratatouille, the film character on whom I’ve modeled my whole life. And then there’s Addison DeWitt who’s a theatre critic in All About Eve. Best portrayal of a movie critic … you know who it might be, actually? This is, you know, a problematic answer. But I would say the character Allan Felix played by Woody Allen in Play it Again, Sam, a San Francisco-based movie critic. And certainly the first important depiction of a movie critic on screen that I’m aware of and one, for better or worse, that probably influenced my approach to criticism and to life.
What’s your favorite movie theatre?
My favorite movie theater is in Paris. I’m blanking on the name. I think it’s called La Pyramide. It’s in the 7th Arrondissement. Wait, it’s not the Pyramide, it’s the Pagoda, and it’s kind of like a weird, old-fashioned Chinese restaurant. There’s a lot of red velvet, and very kind of weird, sort of fake Asian décor. I think it’s an old one. I think it goes back to ‘50s. And they show mostly restored classics and old movies. That’s sort of my ideal theater.
Who was last actress who made you swoon?
The answer is Isabelle Huppert, just for me, kind of the most exciting and also sort of terrifying actress. I saw her recently in this not-very-good movie called Greta where she plays this, kind of, psycho mom who is stalking poor, little Chloë Grace Moretz. It’s a kind of silly, trashy, not very effective psychological drama, but she is so amazing. She has such an incredible screen presence. And it’s not swoon, like, fall in love with her. Although, it’s partly that, but it’s also just this feeling of sort of like, terror, in the most pleasurable way.
What movie scene should be played at your funeral?
I think I’d have to go with the—I mean, it’s a bit of a cliché—but the scene in La Dolce Vita when Anita Ekberg has a kitten on her head.
Or, another Fellini, a moment from La Strada when Giulietta Masina is supposed to introduce the guy played by Anthony Quinn, Zampanò, and she, like, beats on the drum and says “È arrivato Zampanò,” and he teaches her how to say it (the proper way) … so I feel like, as they are carrying my coffin, or whatever, to the graveyard, they can say “È arrivato Zampanò.”
What do you consider beautiful?
I consider the depiction of reality beautiful. The artistic capture of reality is the most beautiful thing.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Brooklyn?
Al di la. An Italian restaurant that’s been there now for more than 20 years, and it was kind of one of the first really interesting restaurants in Brooklyn that people would cross the river to go to. It’s in Park Slope on 5th Avenue. I go there a lot. Usually for lunch.
What’s your favorite subway line?
I mean, I live on the Q, so the Q. So, you know there’s an exotic feeling sometimes when you’re on one that you’re not on very often. So, the 7. The 7 going out to Flushing. That’s a really interesting one. And it’s above ground a lot of the time in Queens, so you get a feeling of the city. It goes through interesting neighborhoods. I like the Q south of where I live when it comes up out of the subway and goes all the way down to Coney Island, and it makes this great turn at around Kings Highway and goes down along the water. And it sort of reminds you that New York is a city by the water, which a lot of the times you can kind of forget when you’re just inside.
What’s the strangest place you ever traveled to?
The strangest place I ever traveled to … I guess Bucharest, Romania, just because not many other people have been there. I went there to report and research a story on Romanian cinema. Bucharest, I think it’s probably even different now, this was more than ten years ago, but it’s just the strangest city I think I had ever been in. Because it sort of felt like a weird mixture of what it used to be under communism and maybe what it had been in the 19th century. And there were all these feral dogs walking around. You’d walk out at night and just see these little packs of dogs hovering around. There were all these legends about the dogs, that they’d been originally owned and trained by the secret police, and then when communism fell they all were let go and they had sort of turned into these packs of wild dogs. And, as often the case in that country, it was hard to tell what was true and what was a kind of urban legend.
What do you think is the most dangerous fact denied?
I would say it’s probably the history of American racism, which is a stubbornly denied fact—the extent of it, and the depth of it, and the durability of it.
Do you believe objective truth exists?
I think it’s actually a bit of a philosophical mistake to align them. A statement can be true without being objective. It can be objective without necessarily being true.