Since its inception in 1970, the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism has been awarded to only five film critics: Roger Ebert, Stephen Hunter, Joe Morgenstein, Mark Feeney, and as of 2012, Wesley Morris. The latest recipient of the prestigious prize was gracious enough to take part in this weekly feature, where he opined about the future of film criticism, his love for The Counselor, and which critics inspired him to begin writing. But before we get to that, a brief intro.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Morris grew up with the illuminating prose of local critics Carrie Rickey and Stephen Rea. Time passes, inspiration comes in the form of a teacher, and eventually he attends Yale University (where he would graduate in 1997). About a year out of college he would go on to procure a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. Come 2001 Morris joins The Boston Globe, where he would review movies for over a decade alongside Ty Burr. Then suddenly things changed earlier this year when Morris left the Globe to work full time as a critic and sports editorialist for Grantland.
There’s a reason just about every outlet in North America would love to publish the work of Wesley Morris: the man is one of the most absorbing, charismatic, pensive, and culturally observant writers working today. Continuing to describe Morris’ writing would be to fall into a pit replete with superlatives and hyperbole. Instead, to get a better sense of what Morris is about, I direct you to two of my favorite pieces of his from 2013: The Song of Solomon and Strange ‘Fruitvale’.
Now, to better understand the individual I (and I’m sure many other fellow writers and readers) have admired for years, I present to you our discussion:
Why do you believe film criticism is still important in the modern age?
All criticism is important in every age. But if the question is about whether and how film criticism matters with the emergence of the internet, each medium deserves some kind of critical scrutiny and enlightening praise, be it clothes or film or video games or the gadgets we use to buy and watch them. The movies, in particular, still matter, and therefore writing about what they’re saying and doing – and whether work – still matters.
What keeps you motivated as a writer?
Deadlines. An audience. Greats subjects. The delusion that the next thing I write will be the best thing I’ve ever written.
When you were just getting into film criticism, what critics did you admire? Did any of them lend a helping hand?
I’ve always loved critical writing about all kinds of subjects. A lot of the movie people I read were either retired or dead or had slowed down by the time I fell in love with them: Robert Hughes, Kenneth Tynan, Otis Ferguson, Molly Haskell, Susan Sontag, James Agee, Pauline Kael, H.L. Mencken. I loved Herbert Muschamp, the late New York Times architecture critic. He was probably a terrible writer for a young person to discover because you read him and think that’s how criticism worked. That’s just how criticism worked for him. And sometimes not even then. But he was always pushing forward, trying for something. It could be beautiful and profound.
Almost every critic I’ve met has been really helpful, either with procedural thoughts or advice: Amy Taubin, Frank Rich, Elvis Mitchell, Roger Ebert, Charles Taylor, Manohla Dargis, Tim Goodman, Gavin Smith, David Edelstein, Jay Carr, Jim Hoberman. The helping hand wasn’t so much about getting work but how to think about the work I was doing. They actually wanted to talk seriously about movies and culture with a rookie. I think the emergence of the internet has created suspicion among the generations. It’s factionalized them. The print writers are suspicious of the digital guys. Neither side, as a group, understands the other. It’s perverted the nature of film-criticism culture. We’re talking as much about each other as we’re talking the movies.
Are there still colleagues you still read and admire?
I try to read everyone at least twice, and have about a dozen or so writers I read religiously for different reasons – because they’re great, important, surprising, reliably wrong, in, at least in one case, all of the above. I admire anyone who elects to write thoughtfully about culture for a living.
What inspired you to become a film critic?
In the eighth grade, I got an assignment from my social studies teacher, John Kozempel, to write about the 1988 Hallmark Hall of Fame film “April Morning,” about a boy coming of age during the Revolutionary War. This was in addition to reading Howard Fast’s novel. I hated the movie and wrote about why. Mr. Kozempel said I should keep going and so I did. I wonder if this country really understands how important teachers are. For some kids, they are the difference between life and death. Also: My mother trusted me with movies. We watched a lot together, and she let me see a lot on my own. I got to compare and consider a lot of different types of films at a very young age. She was my first film professor.
How different do you think the film criticism landscape will look ten years from now?
Anyone who’s watched me predict the outcome of the Academy Awards knows I should not be trusted with prognostication. I just hope things are thriving at the country’s newspapers, whether or not the reviews appear on the page. It’s possible that that no longer matters, the localism. But I grew up in Philadelphia and loved reading about what Carrie Rickey, Stephen Rea, and the late Desmond Ryan were seeing in my city. Now the local movie critic seem a bit like a heritage post. I can imagine a future without us (the future is here!), but I don’t like to.
The notion of film has become more elastic, too. The movies are TV and music and the internet. We are the movies, and the movies are us. And the topical diversity in criticism reflects the expansion of that bandwidth.
Who are a few of your favorite working filmmakers?
Lucrecia Martel, Lee Daniels, Michael Haneke, Lee Chang-dong, Cristi Puiu, Lav Diaz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Quentin Tarantino, Nicole Holofcener, Werner Herzog,Todd Haynes, Carlos Reygadas, Brad Bird, Kathryn Bigelow, Bong Joon-ho, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Alfonso Cuarón, Jane Campion (have you seen “Top of the Lake”?), Corneliu Porumboiu, James Cameron, Andrew Bujalski, Xavier Dolan.
What’s your favorite film of 2013 thus far?
The Counselor is up there. Exactly the sort of nutso movie we need more or and now, since it’s deemed a bomb, we’ll probably never get (unless Lee Daniels does it). I haven’t read anything yet that’s persuaded me that I’m out of my mind.
Lastly, Dana Stevens of Slate came up with this idea of a “post-mortem” film festival. What films would you have played at your post-mortem film festival?
Live on the Sunset Strip
Cruel Story of Youth
Do the Right Thing
All Hail the Conquering Hero
Imitation of Life
Stop Making Sense