Episodes: Goodbye, Scott
|Emily VanDerWerff||Nov 23, 2016|
(Scott loved drawing sight lines on screencaps, which he called "eye lasers." Hence the image.)
I first got to know Scott Eric Kaufman in the comments sections of various culture blogs around 10 years ago. The political blogosphere had been going great guns for several years, but the cultural blogosphere was just starting to really heat up. My usual haunts were Alan Sepinwall's place and The House Next Door. I read both when I was supposed to be working, and I eventually started my own blog as a pale ripoff of Alan's.
Even then, Scott was slightly intimidating. He was only a little bit older than me, but he knew so much about so many things. He was well-read on politics and legal stuff and you name it. But he was especially brilliant when it came to what he called -- in a term new to me -- "visual rhetoric," the way that images convince your brain of certain things, even if you're not aware those images are doing so.
I was only dimly aware of him, then, more preoccupied with my own stuff. But he was always convivial and jocular. Even if he disagreed strongly with you, he would undercut the severity of his argument with a couple of points that would improve your argument, and a couple of jokes to let you know everybody was friends here. We might be arguing, but it was just movies and TV we were arguing about. The stakes, ultimately, were pretty low.
I only became friends with Scott later on, when I started reading the posts he did on both his regular blog and on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, where he was one of several bloggers and pretty much the only one who wrote regularly about film and television. My favorite pieces of his were his Mad Men reviews, in which he subtly pointed to just how well-directed the show was, in a way that opened my eyes to the series' visual qualities. (You can read a complete compendium of his visual rhetoric posts here.)
There are a great many critics I respect and love to read, even though I disagree with them regularly. There are a handful more whom I respect and love to read, even though I disagree with them strongly. But there are precious few whom I regularly disagree with, who eventually convince me they're right. Scott was one of those writers. Every so often, I would wonder what the hell he was talking about, then discover, by the end of the post, that he had been right all along.
Scott routinely, easily, made me think about film and television in a completely different manner. I was cognizant of the visual elements of film and TV before, but a little intimidated by discussing it. He made it seem easy, and he made it seem like if you weren't talking about these visual elements, you were shirking a major part of your duty. I still don't talk about visuals nearly as well as he did, but he's a big reason I even try to in the first place.
As time passed, Scott and I got to know each other better. He lived and worked in Southern California for a time, so we got together for Greek food and to talk about whatever it was his students were up to then. (He was, at the time, a professor.) He seemed mind-boggled at how the only common cinematic language they seemed to have was The Big Bang Theory and/or How I Met Your Mother, and he would always leave me brimming with new ideas and notions.
I was fortunate enough, also, to work with Scott for a while. I asked him to work up a pitch for something called "Internet Film School" for The A.V. Club -- it would basically be his visual rhetoric posts, but organized in such a fashion that readers would start from square one (i.e., what is a frame and how does it work?) and eventually get to an endpoint where the reader could feel like they had a decent knowledge of how cinematic grammar worked. The first entry in this series went through what must have been 15 to 20 drafts, as my bosses kept rejecting it for being too academic, too hard to follow, and Scott just kept submitting better and better versions, until the series ran for some time at AVC, outlasting my tenure there. (I was also fortunate enough to commission an essay from him for Vox, and his thoughts proved instrumental to this feature, still one of my favorite Vox pieces I've worked on.)
Scott was the first to admit he might have something wrong. Once, when he wrote a long thing about something he found brilliant in direction of a particular TV show, the director contacted him to say that everything he pointed to was a complete accident. He laughed it off. It might have been an accident -- but it still worked.
Scott indulged his political side in the last couple of years, working at Raw Story and Salon. He was on the Fox News beat and would watch hours of it on end. I don't entirely know how he did this, but he seemed to relish the fight, the idea that he might write something, and Bill O'Reilly might spar with him on air. He was always excited to argue his point of view, but exceedingly polite in doing so. I learned a lot from him.
Scott died earlier this week, of the sorts of health complications a person as young as him should never have to deal with. I am goddamn gutted by the loss. He was brilliant, funny, and companionable, and you don't meet a lot of people like that in your life. He leaves a massive hole in the world of online film writing, and the only solace I take is that there are still some of his posts I've never read. In this week, I will give thanks for knowing him, even a little bit, and for that which I still have to read that he wrote. It is not enough -- it's never nearly enough -- but it's what I have, and I hope you will take this chance to get to know his work. Goodbye, Scott. I already miss you.
Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.