Only five film critics have won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in the history of the award. Wesley Morris, former critic for The Boston Globe and current film writer for Grantland, is one of those select few, and after reading his work, it’s not hard to see why.
Whether discussing the value of Oscar winners like "12 Years a Slave" or derided rom-coms like "Baggage Claim," Morris has a way of writing – similar to the late critic icon Roger Ebert – that’s both informative and inviting. A cinephile who sees 100 movies a year and a casual fan who sees five movies a year can both learn a lot from reading one of his essays – about the world, about writing and, of course, about cinema.
Thanks to the Milwaukee Film Festival, that knowledge is coming off the page and arriving in person. Morris will be discussing the state of cinema as the Milwaukee Film Festival’s keynote speaker at noon on Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Colectivo on Prospect, hitting on topics far and wide pertaining to the fascinating and fluctuating world of film.
Afterwards, he’ll be presenting Michael Haneke’s "Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys" at the Oriental. Fair warning: considering Haneke’s usual distaste for cozy Hollywood endings, formula and – in some cases – his audience, one should settle in for a potentially rough ride.
Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to pick Morris’ brain a little bit more about his movie memories and – what else – the state of cinema.
OnMilwaukee.com: As the keynote speaking on the state of cinema … what is the state of cinema right now?
Wesley Morris: It’s changing all the time; it’s not changing at all. Nobody really knows anything, but you feel some things are different when you go to the movies. But I don’t know, I feel like there are more content problems than there are necessarily other kinds, like structural problems.
I also think that the American studios are trying to figure out how to make smarter movies and also make money on those, instead of separating out what they would deem a smart movie from a summer movie – which is probably based on a comic book or something like that.
OMC: What kind of content issues in particular are you thinking of there?
WM: Well, just who the audiences are for these movies, you know: who they’re being made for, what they’re intended to do and who’s supposed to see them. I think there’s some attention paid to that but not always, I would say, the right attention. As a result of paying attention to some things, other people and other members of the audience wind up neglected or left out or underserved.
So there’s this idea that a lot of the movies being made are being made for teenage boys or boys between the ages of 18 and 34. I don’t know if I necessarily buy that; I don’t think it’s as true as it used to be, but I think that it’s still true enough for it to be a problem.
OMC: The big talk this summer was how awful the box office was, but I thought the actual quality of the big Hollywood blockbusters was better than average. What does that say about the audience of Hollywood?
WM: I think the problem is that there are so many movies that are so much like other movies that, for so many summers in a row, the idea of counterprogramming is appealing to people. With "Guardians of the Galaxy," while it’s based on a comic book, is not a popular comic book, and it also doesn’t feature any characters that people really saw before. So the novelty of that is a huge draw.
OMC: Then there’s the VOD presence in Hollywood, which seems to be the way for many smaller films. Is that helping them really, though?
WM: I don’t think it hurts. I definitely think it allows people who read the Internet and other newspapers and want to see these movies not playing in their town or theater. But I also think it dilutes the feeling of urgency when it comes to seeing it at the same time. I feel like people feel they can catch up with a movie like "Snowpiercer" whenever because it’s at home, and it’s on your DVR somewhere on demand. You don’t have to make an effort to see it because where is it going to go?
OMC: Why did you decide to bring a Michael Haneke, "Code Unknown," to the film festival?
WM: I’ve never really talked about Michael Haneke in person in front of an audience. It’s a movie that I think people who’ve only seen one or two of his movies haven’t seen this one, relative to people who’ve seen "Amour" or "The White Ribbon."
I like almost all of his movies. It’s one of my favorite movies about how to live in a city and what life is like in a major city, how to live among other people somewhat peaceably. At the same time, there are these issues of race and class, and it’s interesting to see a smart person handle those things without any of the sugar or sentimentality that you normally get in a movie like this. It’s not how great a multi-cultural society is; t’s about how difficult it is to maintain one and to live peaceably among people different from you.
OMC: What was the first film that really got you into movies?
WM: I don’t know if there was really one movie that did it. I mean, my mother showed me a lot of movies as a kid and as a teenager, but there isn’t really one movie that I can point to and say, "I love movies because I saw this movie." I think, for whatever reason, that the only reason you’re talking to me right now is because somebody told me I should continue to write about movies, which that made the difference for me.
I got an assignment to watch a movie and write about it, and the professor – this was about seventh or eighth grade – said that I did a good job and that I should continue to do it. So I did it.
OMC: What was the movie?
WM: It was a TV movie called "April Morning." It had Rip Torn and Chad Lowe and a third person who was neither of those people who was the star of the movie basically. It was a movie about the Revolutionary War.
OMC: Sounds like a school assignment.
WM: Yeah. It’s based on a book, and this was one of the few times he didn’t want us to write about the book.
OMC: A lot of people and critics argue that the state of television is better than the state of film. Where do you stand on that debate?
WM: I definitely think there’s an argument to be made about TV, in general, being better than movies in general. But I think it goes back and forth. There was an era for about eight or ten years in which the movies, they weren’t interested in what was happening in the world.
Generally speaking – I’m talking about American Hollywood movies and certain independent movies – they just weren’t interested in storytelling, and television became a producer and creator’s medium. You’ve got these better told, original stories about people that the movies were taking for granted or ignored altogether. I think the cable networks were in a position to take advantage of that storytelling. And it paid off.
Wesley Morris recommends "20,000 Days on Earth," "Art and Craft," "Club Sandwich," "Dr. Strangelove," "Finding Fela," "Freedom Summer," "Hollywood Shuffle," "Heli," "Mood Indigo," "Sol Lewitt," "The Case Against 8" and "The Green Prince."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.