Friday, January 10, 2014

Film Critic Hall of Fame: Jay Scott

Growing up, I was an avid reader of movie reviews from two of Toronto’s most prominent newspapers, The Toronto Star and The Globe & Mail. The former had decent enough critics, but the latter had Jay Scott, a witty and passionate writer equally adept at championing films he loved as savaging ones he loathed. I always looked forward to reading his reviews every week regardless of whether I agreed with his opinion on a given film or not. His style of writing was so engaging and entertaining and I always knew how he felt about a film. Wishy-washy was not something you could ever accuse him of being.

Scott was born and raised in the United States where he studied acting and contributed to the arts section of the campus newspaper at the University of New Mexico. He got married and moved to Toronto, but was unable to become a Canadian citizen and returned to America where he wrote movie reviews for the Albuquerque Journal in 1972. He soon got a job as an arts journalist for a newspaper in Calgary, Alberta, undeterred that he had never been there before. A few months later, he won a prestigious National Newspaper Award (his first of three).

In 1977, he was hired by The Globe & Mail. As luck would have it, he arrived in the city in the early years of the Festival of Festivals, which would eventually go on to become not only one of the biggest film festivals in Canada, but also the world. Covering this annual event gave Scott an opportunity to review art house fare as well as international cinema. He also championed local talent, giving exposure to then up-and-coming Canadian filmmakers Denys Arcand and Atom Egoyan.

As Robert Fulford’s introduction to a collection of Scott’s reviews points out, his style of writing involved, “outlining a context, drawing a kind of cultural grid on which a film could be placed,” and utilized, “a brilliant mélange of far-reaching analogies, learned references and hip vernacular.” I’m sure I read reviews of his before the one he wrote for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), but that was the first one that really resonated with me (probably due to my affinity for Lynch): “Yet Blue Velvet represents for Lynch an evolution: rather than exulting in ugliness, he self-critically analyzes the desire to exult in it. Hidden things, he implies, become attractive things; that which is repressed becomes monstrous … The mystery Blue Velvet actually solves is the mystery of its hero’s identity: with an ear to the ground, so to speak, Jeffrey finds self-knowledge without which wisdom is powerless to begin.”

When Scott really was taken with a film, he let you know as he did with his review for Superman (1978): “The genius of Superman – and on a pop level, this is a work of genius – has been to eschew condescension while setting out to achieve both visual elegance – Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography effortlessly slides from the blanched, gauzy antiseptic brightness of Krypton to the heavy, boiling, pestilence-laden skies of America – and nostalgia at its most honorable, nostalgia for a common past, for a childish past when heroics weren’t corny and when death didn’t sting.”

Scott also had a knack for occasionally personalizing his reviews as he did with the one he wrote for The Deer Hunter (1979):

“As I watched the ‘God Bless America’ conclusion, feeling slightly sickened by Cimino’s avoidance of a moral statement, I remembered a high school friend who left home the same time I did. I went to college. He went to Vietnam. We were friends, but we had argued – I enthusiastically, he reluctantly – about the war. I came home at Christmas in a jet. He came home in a shoe box. Hank was serious in his support of what we called the U.S. involvement. He has been dead for ten years. Now, a movie is weeping for him and for the thousands like him. It weeps in a way he, and they, would understand. One does not have to agree with The Deer Hunter to sympathize. One does not have to like it to recognize its value.”

Scott did not like Cimino’s film, but the reasons why were complex and he did a fantastic job of explaining where he was coming from while also appreciating The Deer Hunter’s artistry.

Scott had a playful side that came out in films he wasn’t particularly crazy about, like the review he wrote for Bright Lights, Big City (1988), which was done in the second person style of the source material it was based on by Jay McInerney: “So you figure, what the hell, go with it and enjoy it for what it is, which is C-plus, but A-minus for effort and B-plus for honesty, and since you gave the book a D-minus, you decide you’re going to tell your friends to skip the book and see the movie. Then you’re left with only one nagging question as you walk out of the theatre into the bright lights of whatever big city you happen to be in: how is Pepsi going to feel about Michael J. Fox doing so much coke?”

Not surprisingly, I didn’t agree with him on every film, including his dismissal of Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) as “something closer to Ladyhawke Meets The Goonies,” or his harsh takedown of Phantasm II (1988): “Coscarelli has said he resisted doing a Phantasm sequel because, ‘I didn’t want to be stereotyped as a horror film director.’ He need not have worried: he’s not apt to be stereotyped as a director of any type.” But when our tastes intersected, it thrilled me to no end, like his spot-on assessment of Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill (1989) as “a woman’s Easy Rider, also a doper’s remake of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, also a nod to Goin’ Down the Road.” You have to appreciate the pile-up of disparate pop cultural references in that one sentence alone!

Sadly, Scott died of AIDS in 1993 – he was only 43. He deserves a spot in the pantheon of film critic legends alongside the likes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. Like them, Scott had his own unique voice, able to convey a genuine love of cinema with knowledge of what makes a film work or fail. For me, at an early age, his ability to write like that was something for me to aspire to as was his abundant passion for the medium.


Scott, Jay. Great Scott! The Best of Jay Scott's Movie Reviews. McClelland and Stewart. 1994.

Check out Greg Woods' excellent article on Scott.


  1. Great idea for a series - many of the writers who most influenced me as well are completely (and unfairly) unknown.

  2. J.D.,

    Very interesting read– (Had no idea he had such a hatred for Phantasm, though!) I'm really diggin' this series, and look forward to more installments!

  3. I myself as well is an avid fan of different type of writers.
    I never knew forum reviews could be this entertaining,
    since I have just recently got interested reading some for the past few months about home theater installation Austin


  4. Joel Bocko:

    I agree. Thanks for the kind words.

    Sean Gill:

    Thanks! Yeah, it is fun revisiting these critics and re-discover why I gravitated towards them and why they inspired me.