A film review by Wesley Morris can take a number of different angles: a star’s power over the production, the quality and chemistry of the performances, a film’s place in a genre or the arc of a career. He writes in lively, smart prose sprinkled with memorable turns of phrase. Of Michael Moore’s abilities as a director, he wrote that he “can turn a kernel of truth into a bucket of popcorn.” About The Help: “On one hand, it’s juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other hand, it’s an owner’s manual.”
Wesley Morris recently (this past January) moved to Grantland, where he works today. He began his career in the late 1990s writing for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner, then moved to the Boston Globe. From his offices there, late last year, the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism discussed bringing notebooks into the theater, Hollywood’s relationship to homosexuality, and doing the right thing. - Naoki O'Bryan
THE BELIEVER: When writing a review, do you feel obligated to come down to a yes or no decision?
WESLEY MORRIS: No, no. I would hope that by the time you are done reading what I’ve written you can determine whether or not it’s an experience you would like to have, if you haven’t already had it. If I like a movie, I’m definitely advocating for it, but it’s not “you should see this” or “you shouldn’t see this.” I try to take a longer view about what the movie is doing and where it fits in the context of other things, in the way that certain good literary criticism tries to do the same thing. I’m slightly limited by the fact that I write for a daily newspaper and that I have to apply that idea to five separate movies in the space of anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words each, as opposed to taking one film and dealing with that for about two or three thousand words. But hopefully the effect is the same. Hopefully I can give you a sense of whether or not I had a good time, and whether it worked or why it doesn’t work.
BLVR: How much, if at all, do you take a filmmaker’s intent into account when writing about a movie?
WM: It’s important to keep that in mind, but I don’t think it’s the guiding principal for me in terms of what I think the movie is doing. Anything produced and then exhibited for public view is open to interpretation. A movie is just like a work of art or a book or a piece of music. The intent of its maker is one thing, but its interpretation by an audience is something else. I don’t stop at what the filmmaker wanted to do.
BLVR: As a critic, it’s your job not to love a movie just for its director, but a lot of fanboys do exactly that. Do you ever clash with them?
WM: No. You can’t really reach those people. The movies have entered this new, strange, partisan situation. There’s nothing inherently a critic can do to enlighten these partisan moviegoers. They’re as fanatically devoted to movie franchises as certain sports people are to their teams. I don’t write for those people because they read reviews to have what they believe verified, and they hate people who have opinions that run contrary to their fanaticism. Without even having seen a movie they will attack a critic for not liking it.
BLVR: Do you go to regular theaters, critics-only screenings, or both?
WM: Both. I love to go to the movies with people, but a lot of the time it’s me in a room with a bunch of other movie critics, which is fine. I don’t need the audience, but sometimes it’s nice to have a gauge—not so I know how I feel, but so I get what is or isn’t working for moviegoers.
BLVR: You’ve written about bringing in a notebook. Woody Allen once said he “disagrees completely” with critics who bring notebooks into the theater because it keeps you from fully absorbing the movie.
WM: It’s easy for Woody Allen to say that because he’s not a critic. It’s not essential to have a notebook—and a lot of the times I don’t even use what I write down—but at this point I would be more distracted not to have a notebook than to have it. Once in a while I’ll look down and for the two seconds my eyes are away from the screen I’ll miss something and I’m annoyed with myself. It doesn’t happen that often, but it has happened. Still, I’d rather have the notebook than not have it.
BLVR: What do you appreciate when you look at a film review as prose?
WM: Anything that makes me think and entertains me a bit. I just have to be able to follow and enjoy the writer’s voice and the writer’s point of view. Liking what the person has to say is not really important to me.
BLVR: Are there any critics or writers whom you’d cite as an influence?
WM: I like Nora Ephron. She wasn’t a critic in the strictest sense of the word, but she did a lot of social criticism. She was so funny and so in the right place at the right time when she was writing for Esquire and New York magazine in the seventies. She has a really strong voice, she had really strong opinions, and she managed to incorporate her own sense of herself into things that she wrote without hijacking the subject with narcissism.
BLVR: What comprises a work of bad criticism?
WM: There’s a kind of jargon that some critics have—they get it from reading Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, so they write in what some people call “Varietese.” They’re concerned with what the box office is gonna be like, with Oscar prospects. Those are side concerns.
BLVR: Looking back on your earlier work, is there anything you wish you hadn’t done?
WM: No. [laughs] Well, I had a correction once where I said that Michelangelo Antonioni was dead when he wasn’t actually dead—he was just barely alive but he was not actually dead, so I regret that. I’m a better writer than I was then, I’m probably a better thinker. But my taste hasn’t changed too much. I’m probably more honest about the things I don’t like that I should like—should, whatever that means. I don’t have to like every movie that Abbas Kiarostami makes just because he’s Abbas Kiarostami, but that took a bit of time for me to understand.
BLVR: Can you take me back to the first film review you ever wrote?
WM: It was probably something when I was in the eighth grade about a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called April Morning. It was the one movie we got to watch in school all year, and I talked how mediocre the movie was, and how because it was our only movie, it was such a shitty movie for them to pick. I didn’t synopsize the plot, I wrote about how awful a time I had watching it. That was the first piece of criticism I was consciously aware of writing. The teacher pulled me aside after class and said, “This is really good, you should think about continuing to do this.” And he continued to encourage me. So I did it for the school paper and that was the beginning.
BLVR: After Brokeback Mountain was passed over for Best Picture in 2006, you wrote that while Hollywood preaches tolerance of homosexuals, it doesn’t provide “an actual homosexual to tolerate.” Have the movies’ portrayal of homosexuality improved at all over the past several years?
WM: Not really. TV does it better. I just don’t know what the movies are doing. They just don’t care, and if nobody is pushing them or holding their feet to the fire, they have no incentive to do anything. The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that it just kind of took that off the table for studios. They don’t feel like they have to do it, so now every time they make a movie that stars two actors playing gay guys, their gayness is the attraction as opposed to the story.
Brokeback Mountain is a sad love story about two people who can’t be together, and the reason that they can’t be together is because being gay is a stigmatized thing. It would be interesting to have the same movie in which the two guys weren’t in the closet and there was no shame about them being gay and they couldn’t be together for other reasons. I still feel like we’re a long way from that happening.
BLVR: What would it take to make that happen?
WM: For the studio to just be like, “I don’t care, yeah, they’re gay.” What you get is this in-between thing, what they call Bromance, two guys just kind of spending all this time together, but then they put in a woman just so you know they’re not gay. Pretty much everything else points to the two guys being in love and loving each other, but there’s Anna Kendrick or some woman whose only purpose is to not let your mind go there and stay there for too long: “They are straight, don’t worry, don’t be freaked out.”
BLVR: Do you see social change influencing movies, however slowly, or change coming the other way around?
WM: Ultimately the social change has to come from the people who make the movies, so the people who make the movies have to look at the landscape and say to themselves, “Well, you know, these things are changing, and I’m okay with their having changed, and I think it’s okay to start reflecting those changes through the movies we make.” I don’t see a lot of studio executives caring at all about what the culture is telling us. They think they make the culture. They’re not out taking the temperature of things and using the results of whatever sort of cultural surveying they’re doing to make movies. They’re interested in doing things that people are already comfortable with, and taking those properties and filling them.
Also, it would be nice to see them try to take more risks and think beyond Will Smith and Denzel Washington. There are lots of other non-black, non-white people you could put in movies to try to make them a star, but nobody seems to be doing that either.
BLVR: You’ve often criticized movies based on their portrayals of race, for example, you’ve written that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is sappy and righteous and all about Spencer Tracy’s speech at the end. But you’ve mentioned that you really love Do the Right Thing. What makes that film so great?
WM: It’s honest. It’s the best American movie made on the subject of race. It looks at it from a number of different angles. The problem with a lot of movies when it comes to race is that they want to be moral, and they want to make the audience feel good about something that a lot of people don’t feel good about. The great thing about that movie is that it isn’t interested in being moral. It’s interested in what this collection of people in that particular neighborhood felt, with each side having their own frustrations with another group.
BLVR: Why do you think Spike Lee put those two quotes—one by Martin Luther King Junior and the other by Malcolm X—at the end of the film?
WM: To point out that there’s two ways to do it. The so-called Malcolm X way, which is violent reaction to oppression and racism. And there’s the passive, so-called Martin Luther King kind of response, which is change through resistance and peaceful disobedience and protest. In some ways people give Spike Lee a hard time for what they see as a short-sighted or reductive interpretation of both men, but I think it’s really good shorthand for the two options that the movie gives you, that really aren’t two options. It’s not a binary situation at all, it’s actually much more complicated than that. Both of those reactions are understandable and maybe even viable. It might even be better with a bit of both used at the same time.
BLVR: Do you feel any responsibility to be a black voice in a predominantly white profession?
WM: Sure! I don’t go out of my way to do it, but it’s a natural outgrowth of my being black. I do feel a responsibility to address things that are problematic, but again, I don’t have to go out of my way to do that. I have a pretty good sense of when to express misgivings. And white critics are just as capable of pointing those things out and noticing them as people of color. All critics have the responsibility to tease out the social ideas and social problems in a movie. I don’t feel an obligation to do that because I’m black. I feel like I do it because I’m a human, and I’m a human who is aware of the history of humanity and the ways in which the movies touch on those things.
Straight white males: that’s the predominant moviegoing category, and the persistence of that is a dismaying maintenance of the status quo. It’s legitimate to point out the ways in which the movies and popular culture in general are failing to recognize how different the world looks now than it looked even ten years ago, or even how different the United States looks than it looked ten years ago.
I’m uniquely positioned to deal with some of those things, but I don’t think that people who don’t deal with those things are at fault. Everybody brings their thing to their criticism. I bring this wealth of opinions and feeling and knowledge about race and gender and sexuality. I feel like I have it, I may as well express it, and if it’s applicable to what I’m writing about and I’m not forcing it, I should try to use it, because it’s interesting. It speaks to more than some people.
photo credit: Matthew J. Lee, The Boston Globe/AP