Interrogation

Can a Critic Be an Activist?

The New York Times’ Wesley Morris on how he works at the nexus of entertainment and politics.

Photo illustration: Wesley Morris speaks onstage on Dec. 7 in Los Angeles.
Wesley Morris speaks onstage on Dec. 7 in Los Angeles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for the New York Times.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Wesley Morris, a critic-at-large for the New York Times. Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism when he was at the Boston Globe; he later went on to join Grantland. He now co-hosts—with Jenna Wortham—the podcast Still Processing. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss what social media has done to criticism, rethinking Woody Allen, and the most overrated movie of 2017.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you think of the role of a critic-at-large? What exactly does that mean in 2018?

Wesley Morris: I don’t know. I think about that a lot. I also think about why it’s so fascinating to so many different people. I mean, really different people. Like, my grandmother wants to know what a critic-at-large does, and I never really have a very good answer. You’ve asked maybe the most compelling version of that question, which is how it applies to now.

I think it comes with this moral responsibility, but I mean, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve always approached criticism with a degree of morality, right? Like, not as a moralizer, but just as somebody who wants to make sure that the culture we’re getting is at least morally aware of how it’s functioning.

So this would mean that you have your daily critics who do movies, or do music, or do television, and your role is to step a little bit back and say, “What are the larger issues going on here?”

I actually think that great criticism is capable of doing that anyway. But the difference between me and, say, the opera critic is that I’m charged with thinking about the world beyond opera. I could go see Die Fledermaus, for instance. I’ve never done any of this, by the way. I’ve never written about one opera since I’ve had this job.

But it allows me or charges me with thinking beyond the beat that I don’t have, right? I spent most of my career as a film critic, and a lot of the time you’re writing four or five reviews a week. Three or four of those five movies might get you thinking in a way that’s somewhat bigger than the art of figuring out what works or what doesn’t work about a movie. Because in some cases what doesn’t work is that it’s tasteless in a way that offends you. It doesn’t quite know what its subject matter is in a way that convinces you that the movie works. Then, there are times when you can’t get all those thoughts into a review, so you then are required to pull back, and you write this sort of story for the Sunday paper.

How many movies do you say you go see a week now?

Fewer than I used to. So now I’m probably down to maybe four or five.

Do you find that you watch individual movies differently than when you were a critic reviewing, knowing that, “I have to bang out 1,000 words on movie X?”

No, I mean, well, the thing that tethers me to film criticism in the way that I previously practiced it was the note-taking practice. I still take notes as though I’m going to review the movie. I still take notes watching a television show the same way as I would were I to sit down and write a 900-word standalone review of, I don’t know, American whatever. Take American, and put it in front of something. That approach has not changed too much.

Can I ask what year you were born?

1975.

When would you say that you started voraciously consuming pop culture and just culture generally?

Probably when my parents got divorced and my father got cable. That would have been ’81 or ’82, so maybe 6, 7.

My father didn’t do a lot of direct education. My mother was the direct educator. She would put on these movies on American Movie Classics when we got cable, after my parents got divorced, which took like four or five years. We would watch movies together, and that was the point at which once I could be left alone to read books and watch TV, and I understood what I was reading; often as an adult, I go back and read things. I read Lolita when I was 11 years old. I did. Totally different book when you’re 32.

You might not know about all the subtleties.

How do you think the critic-at-large job would be different in 1985? It feels like being a critic-at-large now, there’s just so much to engage with.

I think in 1985, what would I have had? I would have had the Goonies, The Price Is Right, a bunch of Gilligan’s Island reruns, the Reagan administration. I wouldn’t have had very much, right?

Right.

I wouldn’t have had the overwhelm that we have now. So, a critic-at-large in ’85 is probably connecting Goonies and probably talking about the Amblin Entertainment juggernaut, and how Amblin-esque things are going to probably turn out to be.

I would like to think that I would have written about race, but it wasn’t something that was really written about with a lot of sophistication in America’s newspapers—with great frequency, I should say. There were way more newspapers back then, obviously.

I read an old interview with you where you talked about what Woody Allen meant to you.

Oh boy. [Laughs.] When was this?

This was about four years ago, I think. You were talking about the experience of watching Manhattan. You said that when you watch Manhattan, you’re awed at the filmmaking.

Oh, sure. What was the context for that?

I think just talking about what mattered to you when you were younger.

Oh, yeah. Sure, sure, sure.

I was wondering if you’d gone back and watched it, and just more broadly if Woody Allen is someone that you’ve had to wrestle with? Or maybe there are other people in your own personal world of artists who mean something to you or whose work means something to you?

I have to say I’ve been very lucky so far. I haven’t had to reinvestigate or re-interrogate my relationships with too many people. There are probably people that I am refusing to do that with, where the case isn’t closed yet. Michael Jackson is somebody I think a lot about. I know what my feelings are about Michael Jackson, but how much more should I complicate them? Because I feel like they’re pretty complicated as it is.

Woody Allen is somebody who I think I always appreciated with a degree of bewilderment at the very least, right? I would have been 16 or 17 when the Soon-Yi [Previn]/Mia [Farrow] fiasco broke. Husbands and Wives came out at around that time, so I was raised during an era in which the art and the artist were morally conjoined. It was impossible to watch Husbands and Wives when it came out, because it came out not too long after we knew something was going on in that family.

You were tasked with watching it under those circumstances, so I got trained to start to look at Woody Allen through a particular lens. The question when I was growing up was not whether he should continue to work, but what do you do with the work that he continues to make?

Now the moral line is that none of these people who transgress our values should be allowed to cross is the question of work. Should they continue to do their job? Woody Allen is somebody who is just beginning to enter that phase of his reckoning.

In a way, it sort of makes sense to say, “No matter what, we’ll recognize Chinatown as a great movie, but we’re also not going to finance Roman Polanski movies or give him money by going to the theater and buying a ticket for something he made.” That makes more sense to me than to say, “Well, he should keep working, and we’re just going to judge all of his movies through the lens of what his personal behavior is.”

That’s exactly the right way to think about it. I think that the lines, though, have moved. The lines might be generational. How old are you?

35.

So, generationally, I’m not that much older than you, but when it comes to the formation of a critical thinking, I think the criticism that I inherited was much more hands-off and in no way activist-oriented in the way that it currently is.

I’m much more comfortable being on this end of things than Let the artist continue to work, and we take the work and figure out what to do with it. But those were the times we had, but I was a teenager when I was figuring that stuff out. When I got to college, that was the point at which you’d encounter professors who had a very uncomplicated reverence for people like Woody Allen.

You didn’t quite know how to challenge that sort of thing, but you were beginning to develop instruments by which you could challenge these ideas. I didn’t learn anything about film criticism when I was in college. It’s one of my complaints about the program I was in. I went to Yale—they have a fine film program—but it was more geared toward production and theory and not at all toward criticism.

So I learned a lot about how to think, about culture, particularly movies and literature, from the standpoint of political identity and moral- and racial- and gender- and sexual orientation–orientated representation. A lot of that thinking applies in a lot of ways to what is going on today with our willingness finally to reckon with all of the shitty behavior that mostly has been perpetuated by men.

You used the phrase “activist-oriented” criticism. Is that a way you would describe yourself?

No, I wouldn’t. I want to see fairness and a kind of justice take place in popular culture. I know that there’s a long history of the opposite happening. There’s a long history of injustice, and a long history of the questionable racist, sexist depictions of various people, uses of people that I would deem exploitative. I do not practice criticism with the intention of changing things.

My goal as a critic is to … I mean, and this is an old model of using it, but I think it can lead to some interesting places beyond the work in question. That’s mostly to connect the work to what’s happening in the world, and in making that connection, there’s a charge that happens.

You can call whatever that charge is—connecting art and works of mass culture to social movements in politics and whatever is happening in various parts of the world and the country—a kind of activism. I wouldn’t object to that, but I wouldn’t say that activism is my primary goal or my primary objective as a critic.

I think there would be at least two ways of thinking about being a critic regarding this issue. One is there’s all this crazy stuff going on in the world, and what is the responsibility of the critic to address it? More specifically, the Oprah for president boomlet—these worlds of entertainment and politics are so enmeshed now. The idea of separating them seems like that’s just not the world we live in. The president had an NBC show. Does that at all change the way you think about what culture is in 2018?

It doesn’t change what I think culture is. I do think culture has changed around where we are, in ways that I think we keep looking for what we think Trump entertainment is supposed to be. But Trump entertainment, for instance, was already in a weird way there, right? I think that there had always been a kind of politics in the TV and movies and music, in a lot of the music we’ve been getting in the last 10 years, and it all had been headed toward this particular waterfall, a cliff, or whatever.

I think that there is a longing for a time when things just seemed simpler, even though things weren’t simple. They just had fewer eyes on them, and there was no black Twitter, right?

It’s all merged. I do think a lot about what I write about. It’s increasingly hard to practice criticism in a vacuum that does not in any acknowledge the wider world and the wider state of the country.

Do you think social media has changed you as a critic at all?

I’ve cut my Twitter diet in half. How much time do you think you spend?

I have no comment.

I mean, not maybe hours, but—

Twitter is great for reading articles because you follow smart people and they tweet out great articles.

Yes, I definitely, definitely, definitely, definitely, definitely—yes.

That aspect of it is great, and I read more great stuff than I did 10 years ago from more of a variety of sources. But there’s also the thing where some crazy news day’s happening, and you’re anxious, and you’re just scrolling to see what’s next. It makes you think everything is permanent crisis. Which yes, in a way, everything is permanent crisis, but it also I think gives you a warped sense of the speed at which things are moving, and it just doesn’t do good things for your psyche. That’s what I would say personally, but I’m interested in what your experience is.

I have a similar feeling about it that you do. There is an art to speaking that language, though. Obviously the man elected to the highest office in the nation is decent at it. I think there are just some really good Twitter people out there, and I love them. I don’t like the expanded format, the character format. I accept it, because you have no choice, but I try to stay off it mostly because I don’t want that kind of toxicity with me all the time. But I do notice that since I have stopped using it with the frequency that I have as an actual tweeter, as opposed to someone who just gets a lot of great information from Twitter, I don’t know.

I feel like there’s a muscle that I got good at using that I’m now no longer using, and every time I go back and start using it, I spend a lot of time sitting there thinking about, “Should I tweet this? Is this tweetable? Is this all right?” There’s a part of me that would like to get back to daily Twitter use as an actual tweeter. But mostly I think that I just made a choice.

I have to talk to you about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Do you have to?

I think actually there’s a moral responsibility to discuss it, since it’s such an abomination. You wrote a piece for the New York Times about Three Billboards about some of the flaws with it. I saw the film a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been outraged basically constantly since that time that people have liked it, but I know it’s a very controversial opinion, since many people do like it. I believe it’s, according to Las Vegas, the front-runner for Best Picture?

Still?

You were hoping your piece tilted?

No. This is for your Oscar listeners out there, right? I think Martin McDonagh not getting a Best Director nomination is a chink in the armor.

Have you talked to Three Billboards fans?

Oh yeah. They’re in my family.

What do they say? Because the only thing anybody ever has to say me in general—nah, pretty much absolutely—about what they like about this movie is, “She’s great, and so is Sam Rockwell.” That’s all anybody has. I dispute both those things, too, but those things don’t bother me.

For people who haven’t read your article, why did you dislike the movie, and why don’t you think those things are bothering people? Let’s say there was a political figure in America that I really, really disliked, and I just thought it’s so obvious that this guy is bad news, and why can’t the entire country see it? It’s just so clear that he’s conning us, yet people don’t see it. I feel that a little bit about this movie, so I’m interested in why everyone doesn’t think the way I do.

You have brought this conversation to a close.

I thought we’d end on a high note.

The question that you were asking me about the ways in which politics and entertainment have been conjoined to each other—perhaps inextricably, perhaps forever—is brought to bear in not the movie itself but in the response to the movie, right?

The reason I wrote this piece was because I did not like the movie. I was getting the sense that other people were liking it. I saw this movie in August. It opened in November of last year.
I just left the theater and thought, “Well, sorry about that. Good luck, you guys.”

But then nonfestival people were liking this movie, and then average American, nonprofessional, civilian moviegoers were enjoying it, too. So I went back and I watched it again, and I watched people really get off on the monologues the Frances McDormand character has. I just thought that it is tapping into something, but it’s so bogus.

My principal problem with the movie is that I don’t believe it. I don’t mean I can’t accept that there’s a lyricism at play. Be that as it may, I do not believe the world as presented to me by Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of this movie. I don’t believe what he sees not only about America, but even about his version of America, because he’s an Irishman who—unlike other people who’ve tried to depict America, like Lars von Trier—has actually been to the United States. But has he been to Missouri?

Certainly did not seem like it. I’m feeling a little jingoistic and xenophobic. Obviously people should be able to do representations of whatever they want.

That’s not my issue.

Mine either, but it did have that feeling. The movie has this rant about the Catholic Church that comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with anything, and you go, “Oh, an Irish playwright wrote this.” The one defense of it that I’ve heard from people is that it’s supposed to be ridiculous or extreme. It’s not supposed to be stark realism.

I’ve heard people compare it to Quentin Tarantino films, the way people talk. What I would say about that is that Quentin Tarantino’s world—in Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs—may not be realistic, but the characters make sense within that world.
It’s true to itself, whereas this movie, none of the characters seem even true to themselves.

Right. Tarantino doesn’t make movies about America. Tarantino makes movies about American movies, and in those American movies is a version of America, and Tarantino is at times paying tribute to that world and at other times interrogating it. That’s not what’s happening in Three Billboards. The text that he is dealing with is, on its face, the United States, right?

Its extremism, frankly, is not extreme enough. There’s a cuteness at the center of this movie. There’s a need to be liked and understood at the center of this movie, and the fearless version of this movie, nobody would see. The truest version of this movie is: She really does go on a killing spree to avenge the unsolved murder of her daughter. She kills the sheriff. She kills everybody to get answers. I think the actual Charles Bronson version of this movie would never get financed. I feel like the thing that I don’t believe about it is that I don’t even think it has the courage of its own convictions. I don’t care that it’s not the America that I live in. I don’t live in Missouri.

If you want to tell me a story about something happening in Missouri, fine, I don’t contest that, but I don’t think this movie is about any of that stuff, right? It’s all set in the smack dab center middle of the country. The town is called Ebbing, Missouri.

The name of the town is in the title of the movie. So for people who say, “Well, it’s not supposed to be real.” It’s like, come on.

They didn’t call it Flowing, Missouri. I just feel like there’s a heavy hand writing this cursive. I could not fall for it.

Well, if it were up to me, we would talk about this for another half-hour.

I could talk about it forever.

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