A.O. and Me

January 2, 2009

Anyone who knows me personally is aware of my fawning appreciation of A.O. Scott’s film criticism. His reviews, to my mind, have it all. They are informative, informed, and his recommendations are dead on. As a Manhattanite shelling out $10.50 I need something akin to a guarantee when I go out for an evening at the movies and Scott’s aesthetic and sense of humor and mine have, almost without exception, matched up beautifully. Anyone who knows me has heard the story of when I met him personally and how interesting, bizarre, and ultimately awkward/disappointing the encounter was.

I can separate the man from the work (an interesting issue in criticism and intellectual biography more generally) so I need not swear myself off of his reviews because our real life meeting. Nevertheless, once you learn something about a person it is downright impossible to forget or disregard it. I met Scott because his wife was in a class of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary – a woman who was flirting with the idea of attending the Rabbinical School there – and our entire class ate dinner at the professor’s home. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Scott is or at least is married to a Jew (I’m still unclear on this).

Taken on its own this is not the least bit surprising or interesting. Another Jew(ish mind) in the business of interpreting and transmitting culture? Duh, welcome to modernity. But of late Scott has weighed in, albeit subtly, on one of the most crucial and contentious issues of the 20th (and now it seems 21st) century – Holocaust memory as it relates to issues of Jewish power, particularly the state of Israel. I am well aware that in insisting on its importance I am open to any number of criticisms. As a student of the modern Jewish experience, one could say, I am simply falling victim to the necessary blinders of potential and realized human experience – we all see what we want to see and understand the world to actually be what it is we understand it to be (huh?). Nevertheless, and with all due humility, I think it’s hard to argue that this issue, however defined, has not been at the heart of so much of our politics, culture, and identity formation in this country for the last 40 or so years.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, including the shift of power from Europe to the United States and the role Jews played/play in those civilizations, but the concomitant glut of Holocaust related film premiering in the United States during the “Holiday season” and the ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Palestine-Gaza is a convergence too ripe to be ignored.

So where does Scott stand on all of this? I would direct you to his recent review of Defiance and a longer, more sustained meditation on the topic found here. But at the end of the day, it’s just another chapter in a somewhat subterranean story. It is the story of the ambivalences and dueling tensions and allegiances at play in the heart and mind of the American Jewish intellectual who is to her mind, these tensions notwithstanding, living a non-exilic existence in the diaspora. It is the story of the pull of the particular as against the desire for universality that animates all of our lives, regardless of background, but is a tension that Jews have felt quite acutely, and I think A.O. Scott’s cultural work is explained by it. Read the rest of this entry »