Shelf Life

How NYT critic Morris looks at movie watching

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Mar 4, 2024
Heard on:
Which film will win best picture honors at this year's Academy Awards? "It's 'Oppenheimer' city, baby," says Wesley Morris. Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for The New York Times
Shelf Life

How NYT critic Morris looks at movie watching

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Mar 4, 2024
Heard on:
Which film will win best picture honors at this year's Academy Awards? "It's 'Oppenheimer' city, baby," says Wesley Morris. Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for The New York Times

When Wesley Morris goes to the movies, it’s similar to how we all go, except that he’s bringing a pen and a notebook.

“Mostly, I just want to feel something. I want to have a thought about something,” Morris said. “It’s just, I am tasked with having to publish a response to my experience.”

Morris, who is a critic at large for The New York Times and co-host of the podcast “Still Processing,” has been writing about film and culture for over two decades. He’s covered a lot of pop culture ground, including penning a lament for the romantic comedy, exploring how superhero movies are (maybe) ruining movie stardom. More somberly, he contemplated the role of camera phones in the protests following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Morris about his writing process as well as his thoughts about the upcoming Academy Awards. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Just because you’re a movie guy, we’re gonna start with movies. What do you like this year? I want the top three: (best) picture, actor and actress.

Wesley Morris: My preference? You’re asking me my preference or are you asking me what I think is gonna happen?

Ryssdal: What do you think ought to win? I want to know what you think ought to win.

Morris: Actor, I don’t know. I feel like of those five people, it really would come down, for me, to Paul Giamatti or Bradley Cooper.

Ryssdal: Really?

Morris: Yeah, there’s something going on that is way beneath the surface of both what Bradley Cooper is doing in “Maestro” and what Paul Giamatti is doing in “The Holdovers,” and I kind of like that sort of acting. You know, the thing about Giamatti is the writing facilitates that depth, so that, you know, there is material there to bespeak all of this sort of pain and embarrassment and humiliation and disappointment that that character is dealing with, but the film itself is a comedy that needs him to operate at a particular frequency for its entire length.

Ryssdal: It’s so interesting to hear you explain that because I watched that movie, “The Holdovers,” and I came out of it and I was like, yeah, I like that movie. And you’ve got this whole subtext that doesn’t even occur to me. OK, I really enjoyed Paul Giamatti. Here’s my thing about it. It seems like that was just a classic Paul Giamatti role. It just, you knew it was Paul Giamatti, right? That was all of it. So I liked it. Here’s the thing with, with Bradley Cooper and “Maestro.” While I think he did a spectacular job, I found the physical resemblance — props to the makeup people — I found the physical resemblance almost distracting.

Morris: Hmm. OK.

Ryssdal: I don’t know. You give me the layered analysis because that’s my superficial take.

Morris: I mean, I seem to be one of the few people who feels this way about this movie, but I don’t think the movie is really that much about Leonard Bernstein. I think that the, what Bradley Cooper is doing in “Maestro,” it is a performance of great weightlessness, right? This guy is almost literally running everywhere. He’s always in motion. He’s always — and that’s a conductor’s job. All the deep stuff in this movie happens when he’s just sitting there and taking something. There is a scene where Carey Mulligan and —

Ryssdal: Carey Mulligan, who plays Bernstein’s wife, we should say.

Morris: Right. So the Bernsteins are essentially having an argument in one of the rooms in their house. And the house is on Central Park. And up Central Park West comes the parade.

Ryssdal: The Thanksgiving Day Parade, yeah.

Morris: And he’s sitting there and just, like, being told the truth, and he has to literally sit in it long enough for it to register what it is she is saying to him. And it’s kind of shocking, the speech that she gives, because in these movies, the wife of a closeted gay person or a semi-closeted gay person, however you want to think about what Leonard Bernstein is at that moment, if you think about the person he’s playing and the fact that nobody speaks to him this way. She’s standing over him, she’s conducting him at that point. It’s just such a great — I’m also describing good directing here, but I’m also thinking about what it is that he has to give you as an actor to believe that he may or may not have received the message. And you know, at the end of the scene, here comes Snoopy and it’s just, I don’t know. I think Cillian Murphy is gonna win [for “Oppenheimer”] because —

Ryssdal: Do you?

Morris: I do. Well, I mean, I’m bad at these things, Kai. You’ve asked me on here before and I’ve gotten everything wrong.

Ryssdal: It’s literally your job. How could you be bad at it?

Morris: No, no. My job is not to predict the doings of 10,000 people [who vote for the Academy Awards].

Ryssdal: That’s fair. All right, actress, with a little bit of brevity here, please.

Morris: OK, I’ll go quick. There’s one winner here. Her name is Emma Stone [for “Poor Things”].

Ryssdal: You think?

Morris: Oh, my god, there’s so much going on in that performance from the standpoint of the body language and, you know, it’s a funny performance. It also, at every point, is so technically sound, but I also stopped noticing how technically sound it was and was just focused on the adventure and good time this woman is having, coming into her humanness.

Ryssdal: Last thing and then I have actual substantive stuff I want to talk about. What do you like for best picture?

Morris: Oh, it’s “Oppenheimer” city, baby.

Ryssdal: You think?

Morris: Oh my God. Yeah, sorry.

Ryssdal: Is that just, like, inertia, or is this, you know, the fact that it came as part of the Barbenheimer thing?

Morris: I mean, no, because if that were the case, “Barbie” should be winning the Oscar, not “Oppenheimer.” But I also think that they’re, I mean, it’s a serious movie about a serious subject. It is almost too serious in a lot of ways. They like its seriousness. I also think that they like that Christopher Nolan made a thing they can finally give an Academy Award to, including giving one to him.

Ryssdal: All right. Before we go further down the other-category rabbit hole, here’s what I want to touch on. And this goes back to what we were talking about with the Bernstein movie, I think. When you go in to watch a movie, and look, I know you’ve been doing this, like, for a career, for 15 or 20 years, and so I’m asking you to sum it up in a couple of minutes. But when you go in to watch a movie, see a movie, how do you do it? Does that make any sense? What are you thinking when you go to see a movie because when I go to see a movie, I’m like, “All right, I’m gonna go see a movie.” You’re a professional. How do you go in the door?

Morris: With a notebook and a pen. I mean, that’s for starters. I think, I mean, mostly I just want to feel something. I want to have a thought about something. I want to be surprised in some way or gratified, or, I don’t know, there’s a whole range of experiences I’d like to have as a moviegoer because at the end of the day, Kai, I’m going in the same way you’re going in. It’s just, I am tasked with having to publish a response to my experience. And that’s, you know, I have to sort of be prepared to do that in some way. And the notebook really helps. It also really helps to have an open mind, because you just never know.

Ryssdal: Related question, and here’s why we had you on after, after such a long period. So we’re going back and we’re talking to people that I’ve talked about or to in the past and just running extended versions of those interviews because you guys have interesting things to say. And, and I say this as a way to set up two things. One is if you have Barry Jenkins’ phone number, give him a call because we’re trying to get him on, but he apparently isn’t, his people tell us he’s in a writing phase now. So he’s gone silent.

Morris: Oh, good. That’s great for all of us.

Ryssdal: That is good news, right? Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” and “Underground Railroad” and all that jazz. So we’re gonna get him eventually, I have confidence, because we’ve had him in the past. But here’s what that made me think of with you. And I went back and I read some of the recent stuff you’ve written about J. Lo and all kinds of other things. And this is related to how do you go watch a movie? Your writing, it has been described as electric, in fact, in your own newspaper of record, and I don’t argue with that at all. It is absorbing and it is, it is propulsive. Here’s what I want to know. You’re a critic at large for The New York Times. You have a voice, you have a platform. You have, I forget how many Pulitzer Prizes. OK, two. Here’s what I want to know: When you sit down to write, whether it’s about a movie, about this one or J. Lo or whatever, or about culture, which is part of your remit, right? And we talked about that, justice, racial equity, all those things. How do you approach the blank page?

Morris: Oh, my God. I usually know. I mean, I’m lucky I don’t sit there. And well … that’s not true. Sometimes I do. I sit there and I hope for the best. I just start typing, and it’s just like, “Whoop, we’re not using that.” I mean, when I die, not that anybody’s really going to think through this, but, like, if anybody really wants to get an insight into a writer’s soul, you know, in this part of the 21st century, just try to get access to their time machine if they’re a Mac user. There’s going to be some drafts in there that are going to blow your mind. You know, when Toni Morrison died, I’m sure she was like, “I wrote it all down. This all in a notebook and lives at Princeton, and you will never see all my drafts.” But I mean, not that I’m Toni Morrison, just to be clear. But I mean, I think that for any writer who has to write on a deadline and sort of record an experience that other people are probably going to have, there’s a relativity at work here. There’s a subjectivity at work here. There is a factual-accuracy component. But mostly, I just really want to try to tell a story about the thing that I’m writing about. And often it’s just about the most prominent feeling about it, and sometimes you can do that by setting the scene of the movie itself. Take some examples from the thing. I mean, I like a nice, concrete example as a place to start. Or a story, you know, that I’m going to tell you about me relative to this thing. And then we can get into all of the synthesis and history and, you know, what about the work of culture or the problem in the culture, the joy that this cultural object is giving lots of us.

Ryssdal: Last thing, and then we both have to go. And hopefully this one is an easy one for you. What is the job of a critic in this culture today, do you think?

Morris: Um, I think it’s mostly to facilitate people’s understanding that it’s OK to have strong feelings about things that aren’t also categorical. To be ambivalent is OK. One of the ways in which I think about this job is basically to furnish people a way to look at an experience they either already have had or are probably going to have. I’m here providing a particular kind of service, and I’ve always resisted the idea of criticism as a service, mostly because I was rejecting that feeling in the way that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had used it, which is by using their thumbs, essentially. That’s not all they did, by the way. They’re also great writers about the movies. But the reduction was the thing I was thinking about in terms of the service criticism provides. But really, the service is a means to think and to look anew.

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