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Profiles in Criticism: Wesley Morris

Profiles in Criticism: Wesley Morris

Each participant in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism was paired with an experienced mentor who shared her or his insight during the course of the Sundance Film Festival. Their profiles will run this week on Criticwire. The Fellows’ complete contributions can be found here.

A graduate of Yale and one of five film critics in the history of the award to win the Pulitzer Prize, Wesley Morris seems both a destined and accidental sensation. The man is all ideas and observation, casual and unhesitant. He talks in elevated sports bar-speak. He’s a Philadelphia boy, who as a child read literature and philosophy because they were to him what People or Rolling Stone may be to some of us. “I just read what we had in the house,” he says.

That library included the Philadelphia Inquirer. Before the Internet ejected pop culture into the Cloud, denizens relied on their regional community for media engagement. Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris were already monolithic in film criticism when Morris was a teenager. But their publications — the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice — were hard to come by in Philly. Instead, he remembers: “Steven Rea and Carrie Rickey and Desmond Ryan — I read all the critics in the Inquirer, and Gary Thompson in the Daily News. Those were my film critics.”

He not only read them; he worked with most of them. As a high schooler, he wrote for the Inquirer’s teen supplement called, “Yo! Fresh Ink” — exclamation point and all, “because people were doing that in the nineties.” He parlayed that experience into a four-year tenure as a film critic for the Yale Daily News. As he tells it, it’s as if these things, including landing his first critic job, in San Francisco, simply unfolded before him. Granted, the talent was rarely far from the typing. Once he learned writing about movies was a practicable vocation, that’s what he aimed for.

It’s this air of belonging that characterizes both his prose and professional code. His sentences are economical, yet their images and details and sequences come one onto another until a passage’s implication is obvious.  He calls it making a case. “I’m a big fan of energy in criticism,” he says, “of voice. I’m a big fan of language and punctuation and playing with those things. In doing that, you have to build a case for or against something.” We need scavenge no deeper than his already-famous “12 Years a Slave review, whose opening translates into print and with a bystander’s eye the epochal horror of Solomon Northrup’s near-lynching. The paragraph could not more closely emulate the scene:

“It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth. Each skates a bit. But all that planting the entire foot guarantees is more drudgery. He continues to tap and struggle just the same — for hours and possibly days. The cicadas keep changing their tune.”

Persuasion may seem like a given strategy, but Morris speaks to something more: It’s voice. In considering examples, he instead offers some unease: “I’m concerned about the cliqueishness of film criticism. There are a lot of good places to read film reviews, but for me, there aren’t a lot of good places for the voice of a film critic to stand on its own. There has to be a way to individuate these people.”

Voice is more than a linguistic face for a writer, though. Conviction and personality come from somewhere and they warp things through a unique prism. For Morris, it’s the movies’ social responsibility. He recalls last year’s blockbuster preseason bombarding him with displaced 9/11 iconography. Think, for example, of all the people falling out of the plane in “Iron Man Three,” or of the apocalyptic destruction of New York City in “Man of Steel.” Filmmaking is a meticulous art form, filmmakers a hyper-deliberate people. “The movies give you all this stuff and it’s up to a critic to figure out what to do with it,” Morris says. “There’s a faction of moviegoer that resists movie intelligence — or critic intelligence…. The idea that that particular kind of movie isn’t capable of doing that completely undermines what comic books have been doing forever.”

Morris looks to those writers who annex other bits of the world into their work. Politics are often inseparable from that world, but so is social sphere, fashion, sports, etc. “There is some connection between what’s happening in a movie theater and what’s happening outside,” he says. Morris points out one man who did this particularly well: Roger Ebert. Morris credits Ebert as being one of the first critics who “took on the challenge” of embracing in his film writing the world outside the cinema. “He was the rare, rare person who had this obsession but also had a talent.” He continues, “A lot of people don’t have a talent, they just have a stamina.”

An offhand remark leads to a fortunate fifteen minutes of football. To call it a “detour” would be to underestimate the panorama in which Morris thrives. When he talks football, Morris doesn’t hang up his coat and throw on the one with “Analyst” stitched into its chest. He calls New England a “duct-taped Patriots team” and Rob Gronkowski the linchpin of Boston football. His parsing out of the role of criticism overlaps with recognizing Jim Harbaugh for the fashionista he isn’t. All of a sudden, it reveals itself: The modern critic — the one Wesley Morris both embodies and hopes will step forward in this primed age — doesn’t branch out, per se. Rather, he is so innately honed in on the building blocks of popular experience that he begins to see them everywhere.

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