Which is why I'm infinitely disappointed Wesley Morris has one. And look, I'm sure Wesley is a great dude. Watch this YouTube video with him: here. He speaks well, he's compassionate, he's passionate. I'm a fan of Wesley, as a person. And the guy can write. I think his writing voice is great. He uses imagery. I love imagery. The Pulitzer page cites his "pinpoint prose" as one of the reasons he won the award.
My problem is with his film criticism. He's not good. I'll show you why. And we'll eventually discuss The Way, Way Back.
Director: Nat Faxon; Jim Rash/Dean Pelton
Writers: Nat Faxon; Dean Pelton
In a live-action Beavis and Butt-Head movie, he would win as Butt-Head, I mean that in the nicest way: Liam James
Wow, he can be an asshole: Steve Carell
She seems so confused and unsure the entire time, which impressed me: Toni Collette
Dude can fucking dance!: Sam Rockwell
Like wine: Amanda Peet
I liked him in this, a lot: Rob Corddry
She really is sexy when she's mad: Maya Rudolph
She's the Yansiel Puig of this movie: Allison Janney
She is PER-SIS-TENT: AnnaSophia Robb
DEAN PELTON: Dean Pelton
What It's Good For:
-coming out of the theater feeling pretty positive
-making you, for a 103 min window, hate Steve Carell
-Sam Rockwell's horrible jokes
-if you're like Steve Carell's character, you might have an epiphany and stop saying things like "Hey, bud, this cooler isn't going to move itself."
-I like the meaning of the title
-okay, get ready to hold
-and, we'll move on to the next section as soon as we're done holding
-move your eyes down a line (now move down two lines)
-now move them up a line and to the parenthesis
-hey, okay, now you can hold
-the "holding" joke is guy humor and could turn off people who dislike that sort of objectification
-how old was that girl they were making hold like that????
-I think it could have had a little more oomph to it
-maybe you find the friendship of a man-child and actual child sort of disturbing
-if you had a patronizing step parent, this movie could strike a chord with you
-if you're like Steve Carell's character, you might miss the point of the movie
For distinguished criticism, using any available journalistic tool, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).
Awarded to Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe for his smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose and an easy traverse between the art house and the big-screen box office.
If you click on the "Works" tab. You are provided a nine-row list of Wesley's work from his Pulitzer winning year. Dates and titles. The most logical conclusion being: these are the exemplar works. These criticism right here are what wooed the judges.
Let's click on June 3, 2011. Meaning of "Life".
Oh look, it's Wesley's review of Terrence Malick's The Tree of LIfe.
I think this piece encapsulates what I said in the intro: Wesley is, as a film critic, no good.
What I think is positive: the verb choice, the imagery, the writing style.
What I think is negative: the content.
"You're some guy with a rinky-dink site you started yourself. Wesley Morris wrote for the Boston Globe and won a Pulitzer. You should stop talking."
I'm aware of that, thank you. Due to my lack of credentials, I use logic.
Let's look at some of Morris's major points in this review.
A quick preface to Morris's points.
I want you to keep in mind something I call the "faux-objective" statement. Classically, there are two types of "statements" in writing, especially journalism. Objective and Subjective. An objective statement is a factual statement, like "The Earth has gravity." A subjective statement is one of feeling: "I think the Earth is beautiful." If I then reported: "Bobby said the Earth is beautiful." I am writing an objective sentence about a subjective sentence.
A "faux-objective" statement is a subjective sentence presented as objective. It's opinion spoken as fact. "The Earth is beautiful." Beauty is inherently subjective. Some people think Lady Gaga is beautiful. Others don't. Some people think David Beckham is beautiful. Others don't. I can think a poodle is beautiful. Others won't. "The Earth is beautiful" is not a true statement. It's a statement you can agree with or disagree with. On the other hand: you can't logically disagree with "The Earth has gravity." Gravity is a defined force. It's present.
In regular, casual conversation, faux-objective statements are fine by me. I know when you say "Soft tacos are better than hard tacos" what you're really saying is "I like soft tacos better than hard tacos". But in journalism? In criticism? I say: faux-objectivity is a weed.
So. Try counting the number of Objective statements, Subjective statements, and Weeds as you read Morris's points. (you might want to use a pencil and paper)
2. "'The Tree of Life' begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Job and his friends have been debating the power of God. The Lord speaks, in order to assert His divinity. Rather than prepare us for a work of tremendous struggle and random suffering at the hands of God, Malick carries on in a mood of artistic self-defense. He seizes on man's lack of appreciation for the creative act [cut parentheticals about Cannes award]. Still, rather than align himself with poor Job, Malick identifies with God. The movie is an act of hubris: Can you feel it? Can you understand it? Can you top it?
3. "I imagine that one of the reasons Malick has made just five films in 38 years is that he feels he can work only when the spirit moves him."
4. "The reason the Book of Job feels like such a self-mischaracterization is that Malick has always seemed to be more of a Genesis man. Each of his movies imagines a despoiled Eden. This is the first to embrace paradise found. But it may just be that Malick's strongest mode isn't existential contentment. It's eco-social dismay."
5. "These scenes gently occur in and around their home and along the family's quiet but eventful street, and they fall like confetti. It's quite a show. But when it's over, all you have is a pile of scraps. The domestic life lacks the wonder of the celestial stuff. To represent birth, Malick presents a pedestrian metaphor of a child swimming free from a sunken house. Making the mother a mystic and the father an industrialist creates a fine dichotomy. But Jack grows into an architect...He looks miserable, like a man whose punishment for choosing the wrong path is this Ayn Rand afterlife.
"No tension comes from these images. They accumulate but don't build. It looks as if the many scenes of Young Jack at play with his brothers and friends will amount to something, that witnessing one of his brothers making a musical connection with their father might solidify into a kind of Abel-and-Cain resentment. It's for naught, since Malick has so steadily liberated himself from the narrative that not even allegory interests him."
6. "The scenes on the beach purport to be about the search for meaning. But with people staring at and caressing each other as the tide comes in, with a commedia dell'arte mask sinking in the sea, it feels like Rapture kitsch."
7. "'The Tree of Life' is about both the dawn of time and the appearance of its suspension. Shots of skyscrapers imply modernity without really engaging it -- it could be now, it could be 3035."
8. "When Malick presents a great conclusive boreal splotch, some will perceive in it Stanley Kubrick's climactic star child from '2001'. Some will detect God. Some will have the distinct impression that they've just been spritzed at the big cologne counter in the sky. That feels right. Terrence Malick's Obsession."
Objective Sentences: 7
Subjective Sentences: 2
Faux-objective Sentences: 29
(I counted the "Can you feel it? Can you understand it? Can you top it?" as FO since they're questions Morris states Malick is asking without providing evidence to prove these are questions Malick is asking)
Say this review were an essay for school. "Assess Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'". I'm pretty sure this review wouldn't receive an "A". And that's in high school. I'm absolutely sure some college professors would fail Wesley Morris.
As we learn in high school, every good essay has a "thesis statement" and uses "examples".
Wesley's thesis statement comes at the end of the third paragraph (again, here's the full review). There are 23 sentences preceding it. Which, okay. Someone critical of Wesley might argue there's a lot of unnecessary fluff/throat clearing if it takes you 23 sentences to get to your thesis. Someone in favor of Morris's work might say, "By bloating the beginning, Morris is demonstrating the fluff of Tree of Life, setting up all this grandeur and then deflating it with the lines 'This movie weighs so much, yet contains so little. It's all vault and little coin.' Don't you see, he's being witty."
Oh, I see it.
And I don't appreciate it.
Especially because I can prove he's wrong. Which brings us to: examples.
The thesis is: "It's all vault and little coin."
Do any of the above points satisfy the thesis? Read the entire piece: do you feel you have one concrete example you can point to and say "Yes, that is why there is vault and little coin!"? How many times does Morris use evidence from the movie to back up one of his statements? Example #5 begins with "These scenes gently occur..." and the scenes referred to are a basic synopsis of the film's plot and central tensions--Texas family, three boys, Mother is loving, Dad is intense, examples of what they do with Mom and what they do with Dad. Outside of that one paragraph, he rarely references a specific moment in the movie. Much less combines an example with commentary to create a valid point.
Keep "examples" in mind as you read this paragraph Morris wrote. We'll then break down the paragraph.
"These scenes gently occur in and around their home and along the family's quiet but eventful street, and they fall like confetti. It's quite a show. But when it's over, all you have is a pile of scraps. The domestic life lacks the wonder of the celestial stuff. To represent birth, Malick presents a pedestrian metaphor of a child swimming free from a sunken house. Making the mother a mystic and the father an industrialist creates a fine dichotomy. But Jack grows into an architect, played in a few cutaways by Sean Penn, who rides elevators and wanders a skyscraper. He looks miserable, like a man whose punishment for choosing the wrong path is this Ayn Rand afterlife."
The first sentence is a pretty generic description.
The second sentence is an opinionated statement presented as fact. "It's quite a show" is declarative, right? It's sounds just like our example of an objective statement:l "The Earth has gravity." Except "The Earth has gravity" is a scientific fact. "It's quite a show" is Wesley Morris's opinion. It's his feeling of the show. A more accurate statement would be "I thought it was quite a show." How someone feels about any scene or all scenes in Tree of Life is how they feel: and how they feel is subjective, not objective. While Morris thinks "It's quite a show", 2 million other people could think it's a terrible show and hate it. That's why the statement "It's quite a show" is a faux-objective statement. It's written as fact, when it's only opinion. Nearly ever major film critic uses faux-declarative statements. I once read an Editor for TIME say there's no such thing as an objective review, it's IMPLIED that what the reviewer is saying is opinionated. Except that's bullshit. You write an objective review by doing one thing: supporting your statements with evidence. Like every single fucking scientist and doctor and scholar does when writing a paper/essay. Einstein couldn't just say "E = mc^2". He had to explain why. Did you ever try to turn in Algebra homework in college that just had the solution without showing any of the work? I did. I got 1/2 credit on every answer. If doing that is why I failed math, why then do respected newspapers and magazines pay film critics nice salaries to write conclusions without doing the work to prove those conclusions true? And why does the Pulitzer committee honor it?
The third sentence is also faux-objective. "But when it's over, all you have is a pile of scraps." Do we have any evidence in ANY of the preceding sentences that makes this sentence true? No. We should then expect Morris to prove this statement true by presenting key evidence in the next sentence.
Fourth sentence: "The domestic life lacks the wonder of the celestial stuff." 100% faux-objective. WHY DOES THE DOMESTIC LIFE LACK THE WONDER OF THE CELESTIAL STUFF? That's the question I believe that statement has to answer (a faux-objective way of writing that sentence is "That's the question that statement prompts." Which is shorter and cleaner, but isn't a true statement. Morris's statement might prompt other questions in other people.) And does Morris answer "why"? Of course not. When you answer "why" you turn a faux-objective statement into an objective statement, the same way a scientists makes a hypothesis a fact . This is generally how and why someone receives an "A" on a paper, or publication in a scientific journal, or wins a Nobel. If you can't prove your hypothesis true, your hypothesis was invalid from the beginning (like someone saying the Earth is the center of the universe), or you just lack the evidence to prove your hypothesis true (like the 49 years search for the Higgs Boson).
We could view sentences five, six, seven, and eight as the evidence for sentences three and four. But what are those sentences saying?
In five, Morris cites a scene from the movie, but it's a declarative sentence. Morris is describing a scene. "To represent birth, Malick presents the pedestrian metaphor of a child swimming free from a sunken house." Though, don't miss his faux-objective adjective: "pedestrian". Morris could be using the term in a neutral way, as a signifier of humanity: that this is a "human" metaphor. Except if you look up the definition of "pedestrian":
"lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.; commonplace;prosaic or dull: a pedestrian commencement speech."
Do you see why this is a problem? Morris calls the metaphor commonplace, lacking, dull. BUT HE DOESN'T EXPLAIN WHY. "To represent birth, Malick presents the pedestrian metaphor of a child swimming free from a sunken house." Does that image feel commonplace to you? Is that image lacking vitality or imagination or distinction? Is that dull? Some of you might say "yes". But if people are saying "no" then the adjective is false. If Morris had said "a metaphor I feel is pedestrian" that is, as far as we know, a true statement. If that's how Morris feels, that's how he feels. That's as true as "The Earth has gravity". But calling the metaphor pedestrian without saying why it's pedestrian? That's faux-objective. Morris could have cited other movies or instances that used such imagery. And then we'd be like, "Oh, you know what? That is commonplace, isn't it?" For example. If someone said, "I like The Wolverine, but I'm sick of these superhero movies revolving around love stories. It's so pedestrian." And their friend said, "Dude, no way. Explain how that's pedestrian." Then the first speaker says, "All three Spider-Man movies revolved around a love story. Captain America made sure to milk a romance. The Incredible Hulk had Bruce and Betty reconnecting and fighting to be together. Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises had Rachel Dawes as a tremendous influence on Bruce Wayne/Batman. Dark Knight Rises ends with Bruce with a girl. Daredevil was about the revenge and romance. Even the X-Men trilogy started foregrounding Wolverine and Jean Grey. It's like the hero just can't have a plot where the love interest isn't threatened or central to the final moments." Show me where Morris ever goes into this level of explanation or detail to support his thesis?
Sentence six: "Making the mother a mystic and the father an industrialist creates a fine dichotomy." Okay. But what's that saying? How does that relate in any way to the previous points in this paragraph? Is this proof that when the film ends all we have "is piles of scrap"? Is this proof that "domestic life lacks the wonder of celestial life"? Morris doesn't explain. The statement is there without ever being tied into anything else. It's purpose is, thus, implicit. Morris has left it up to us to find out why he included that line. Which means we have two basic conclusions about this sentence: it is evidence for one of Morris's points, or it's pointless.
You would expect sentence seven to clarify. But what's sentence seven do? "But Jack grows into an architect, played in a few cutaways by Sean Penn, who rides elevators and wanders a skyscraper." How does that tie in to the "mother mystic/father industrialist" statement from sentence six? Why the "But"? The "but" is, to me, negating the "creates a fine dichotomy." Does this mean Wesley Morris thinks Jack's becoming an architect serves no purpose? Or that it spoils the dichotomy because Jack has become a sort of industrialist? If that's what Morris thinks, why? How does Jack being an architect not play into the dichotomy? Doesn't it say Jack has, despite Jack's obvious love for his mom, followed after his father? Wouldn't that say something about the character and the purpose of the movie? Or someone could argue architecture is an artistic endeavor necessary to the business world, that Jack has bridged the dichotomy of his parents by combining art and industry. What does that say about the character? About the plot of the movie? These questions are, I feel, more interesting than anything Morris brings up in his entire review. They're questions that don't come up in Morris's review because when Morris sees Jack as an architect: Morris reduces ALL THE THINGS THIS IMPLIES to the clause "who rides elevators and wanders a skyscraper." Never mind everything else Sean Penn's character does or why he does it.
And sentence eight? "He looks miserable, like a man whose punishment for choosing the wrong path is this Ayn Rand afterlife." Oh. So it seems Morris does feel Jack chose the wrong path. BUT WHY!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! As we've seen, Morris never delves that far. This is solving a math problem without showing the work. Morris is giving us a conclusion with zero explanation. I believe if he had tried to validate his conclusion: he'd realize it's incorrect. What evidence is there in the movie that being an architect means Jack chose the wrong path? Do we have evidence where he had wanted to be something else? Like...he loved painting and we expected him to grow up and paint, except here we see he's an architect and miserable and can conclude he sold out for money rather than live poor and pursue what he loved. We don't have evidence for that. That's why I think saying Jack chose the wrong path is stupid.
Now. Apply what we did hear to Wesley Morris's entire review. You will find faux-objective statement after faux-objective statement. "No tension comes from these images." "Jean Cocteau made opium dreams." "When Chastain hovers above the lawn or a chair appears to move itself, it's a declarative moment, not a supernatural or metaphysical one. This doesn't feel true of the planetarium stuff. That's all full of wonder." "Each of his movies imagines a despoiled Eden. This is the first to embrace paradise found". Most people probably think these sentences SOUND good. I think they sound good. But, to borrow Morris's phrase: they're "all vault and little coin".
The only portion where Morris makes a statement and then supports it: "[Malick] has never appeared to harbor a direct interest in our times." Morris then lists the release years of Malick's films with the year the story took place in (example: released in 1973 yet focused on 1950s). Does that have anything to do with the thesis statement? Not that I can tell. The paragraph concludes with "'The Tree of Life' is about the dawn of time and the appearance of its suspension. Shots of skyscrapers imply modernity without really engaging it -- it could be now, it could be 3035." Is that what Tree of Life is about? CAN YOU GIVE MORE EXAMPLES PLEASE!?!?!
If you look at WikiHow's "How to Write Any High School Essay" point 6:
Proceed to Write your Body: Separate each paragraph as one parameter. Each parameter should be proved by 2-3 examples/facts. (Ex. Explaining how Paul was shy and introverted in chapter 1, then became more outgoing when talking with Rob, and finally being very outgoing when he is in charge of the group and leads an excursion.)
Why are we more rigorous on high school students than we are with professional film critics? Why do college professors hold their students to higher standards than the judges for the Pulitzer Prize?
"Well if you can explain Tree of Life, you should do it then, Mr. Hot Shot."
I can. Look.
The understanding of this movie depends upon understanding the technique of "Juxtaposition". If a painter divides a canvas in half, and on one half he paints a glorious city and on the other half he paints a wilted rose, what do you think? You don't just say "Oh, what a nice city. Oh, what a sad flower." Maybe you do. But if you're seeking meaning from the painting, you compare and contrast what's on the canvas. Oh, so we have industry versus nature. A city needs land in order to exist (at least until we have floating cities). Which means you can either have a lot of city or a lot of nature. They can't really occupy the same space. So I think the picture is saying: if you want a city, you can't have healthy nature in the same spot. If you want healthy nature, you can't have a city there. By placing the images next to each other, the artist allowed us to make this comparison. This is juxtaposition. The question becomes: do you agree with the artist's statement (if you agree this is the artist's statement)? Where is nature most prominent in New York City? In parks. And yes, the nature is lush in, say, Central Park. But is that really nature? Isn't Central Park a simulacrum of nature? Compare the wilderness of Central Park to that of the Yukon. You might argue the rose stands for beauty, and the artist is saying the industrial and tech progress within a city kills natural beauty. Etc. etc. The important thing here is: juxtaposition creates tension a viewer can explore.
So. Tree of Life.
We open with the flame where we are told about the paths of grace and nature. We then see the telegram informing Chastain her son, R.L., has died at 19. She calls and tells her husband, Pitt. They're both upset. Very upset. For most parents, the death of a child is a type of cataclysm. Same with siblings: losing a sibling you love is cataclysm. This is something most people can relate to: imagine someone you love dying. The thought is awful, right? What would that do to you and your world? We cut from the death in the 1960s to Jack/Sean Penn, R.L.'s brother, in the present day. He's upset. The phone call to the dad is about a reaction to R.L.'s death. We know then R.L.'s death is on Jack's mind and that emotions linger from the death to the present day. Jack has images of his past and of this other place where there's beach and water and a few other people.
We then cut to: the creation of the universe. We have stars forming. This leads to planets forming. This leads to Earth. This leads to the formation of the Earth's land masses. This leads to dinosaurs! Then we see the meteor that smashes into the planet and kills the dinosaurs. This young planet, which had developed and developed and solidified into a thing capable of supporting life, has suffered its first major calamity (as far as the film's concerned).
What do we get after seeing the meteor strike? A sad bell sounding. Barren terrain, which we can view as the aftermath of the meteor: gone are the vegetation and life. Then Sean Penn walking on that bleak terrain. And a snake swimming on water (one might argue the snake signifies the devil, but the devil is never mentioned in this movie).
We then cut to Mom (Chastain) and Dad (Pitt) when they're young and in love. From here, the movie progresses linearly. They're in love. Marriage. Pregnancy. First born. Second born. Third born. Jack's childhood, where most of the movie takes place. Then we come back to the present, with Sean Penn.
Now. What do you see that's similar?
We have two calamities. And two creations.
We see the universe created. We see a family created.
We see a single planet suffer a calamity. We see a single family suffer a calamity.
Scientists are nearing agreement that a meteor strike in Mexico created intense climate change that killed the dinosaurs and a lot of life on the planet. Mammals managed to suffer through this and eventually dominate the planet. Humans evolved. Here we are today.
In other words: the planet suffered and recovered.
And what we see in Tree of Life: the family is created, grows, suffers a calamity in the death of a child, and suffers.
Because the arc of the family mirrors the arc of the Earth, and because the Earth recovered, we can expect the family will recover too. But how will they?
Keep in mind: this is a very religious movie. The characters talk about God a lot. Post-meteor-strike, Penn says, "You spoke to me through her. You spoke with me from the sky. The trees. Before I knew I loved you. Believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?"
At 00:08:45 a woman talks to Chastain. And tells her: "You have to be strong now. The pain will heal in time. You know, it might seem hard, my saying that. But it's true. Life goes on. People pass along. Nothing stays the same. ...The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. That's the way He is. He sends flies to wounds, that he should heal."
Does it surprise you, then, that the recovery takes place in Jack's vision of this otherworld? In what we can probably assume is Heaven? It's hear Adult Jack finds peace. It's here we see the family come heal. Prior to entering this healing place where the dead are animated once more, Jack witnesses our sun become a red giant. Stars only become red giants when they die. Again: the arc of the universe matches the arc of the human.
Let's look at the last three shots of the movie.
1. After Jack's vision of Heaven. He leaves the building and is outside. He spins around. He looks a little confused. Then he looks sort of relieved, right? And I swear, right before we cut: he starts to smile!
2. We then see large buildings with windows for flesh. The entire front of the buildings is like a mirror. Above the buildings: blue sky and white clouds. Reflected by the buildings: blue sky and white clouds. We know people associate Heaven with the sky. By showing the sky and the sky reflected in a human-made object: we could assume Malick is suggesting a type of Heaven on Earth, or at least we can find God's presence reflected in what human's build. And at a glance, what's "reflection" and what's "real" is not clear; "what's Earthly" and "what's Heavenly" is not clear.
3. The last shot is of a bridge. The camera is on the near side of the bridge, beneath it. So we see the bridge stretching across to a distance land mass. I think we can assume the camera is on the near land mass. This is where we are and there's this bridge that takes us to this distant place. We could view one land mass as life and the other as Heaven, with the bridge being Death. We could view the near land as Birth, the bridge as Life, and the distant land as Heaven. We could even view it as the near land being innocence, the bridge being the stretch of suffering, and the distant land being where we heal and move on.
What I love about this movie is how the story of Earth is reflected by the story of Jack's family and that's reflected by Jack's story. And Jack's story is the story of all of us. Not the specifics (not everyone has a brother killed in a war). But we all have an age of innocence spoiled by a personal calamity we maybe recover from. We all have our meteorite.
Remember, Wesley Morris said, "'The Tree of Life' begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Job and his friends have been debating the power of God. The Lord speaks, in order to assert His divinity. Rather than prepare us for a work of tremendous struggle and random suffering at the hands of God, Malick carries on in a mood of artistic self-defense. He seizes on man's lack of appreciation for the creative act [cut parentheticals about Cannes award]. Still, rather than align himself with poor Job, Malick identifies with God. The movie is an act of hubris: Can you feel it? Can you understand it? Can you top it?"
This is the quote:
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?...When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
Do you see how the quote applies to the movie? We see the foundation of the Earth. We see the morning stars singing. We see the joy of love and a young family. But we see the duality of God. He gives and he takes. Even though the quote is from God's perspective, the movie follows characters in search of God's guidance and help. When we see Present Day Jack, in the form of Sean Penn, do you not see in his eyes, the question, "Where are You, God?" Remember what the Book of Job is about: God makes Job suffer to test Job's faith.
SO HOW DOES MORRIS NOT THINK THE MOVIE IS ABOUT TREMENDOUS STRUGGLE AND RANDOM SUFFERING AT THE HANDS OF GOD?!!?!??!?!?!?!?!!? We have a person say out loud in the first 10 minutes of the movie: "You have to be strong now. The pain will heal in time. You know, it might seem hard, my saying that. But it's true. Life goes on. People pass along. Nothing stays the same. ...The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. That's the way He is. He sends flies to wounds, that he should heal." The over-arcing plot is about exactly the thing Morris claims it isn't.
So, I disagree with Morris. I think the movie has substance. I think it has coin. I think there's a tremendous depth here. A beautiful message. I'm not even religious, but I find Jack's reconnecting with his faith and with God moving and significant. As Jack remembers his past, as he beseeches God, his vision of Heaven clarifies. And it's the vision of Heaven that heals him. Thus, by remembering his past and envisioning his future: Jack finds God and peace in the present. I think the movie is saying we can all do this (probably even if you're not religious, but I don't feel like getting into the how of that, right now).
I think my conclusions beg the question: how much time and thought did Morris put into comprehending The Tree of Life? I don't think much time. I know for certain no thought. Or else Morris might have said something like, "The film wants to show us the path to catharsis through a belief of and faith in God. Yet the non-linear approach and lack of explanation (relying, rather, on the viewer to piece together what's going on) has left many in the dark. The film has robbed its own vault. However. Those who take the time to sit down and think through the interrelations of the film's sections, they will find their investment yields riches."
I repeat my question: why did this man get a Pulitzer?
I repeat: how is he even a professional film critic?
I believe the profession and the award should demand better than flowery sentences and a smooth voice.
And that conclusion...
"Terrence Malick Obsession".
The Tree of Life is doing some serious work (that would be a faux-objective statement, except I just spent paragraphs proving that point; I've earned that line). And Wesley Morris DOES NOT GET IT. He thinks the movie is hollow. He thinks the people who love it love it simply because it's Terrence Malick. Which, yeah, fine, some of them probably do. But to say this film is "all vault and little coin" and to conclude by insinuating people like it because it's Malick and not because it has merits of its own, that it's too esoteric to Malick to be understood ("That reverence also dramatizes the downside of standing at some visionaries' feet: You don't always see what they see."), that is, to me, so fucking arrogant. He sounds sure of himself. "That feels right. Terrence Malick Obsession". Except he didn't get the movie. One of the stupidest things I've ever read.
The people who judged the 2011 Pulitzer for Criticism were a cultural critic, an arts writer, a music critic who is also an associate professor of arts and culture, an editor for an art website, and senior editor and columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
I don't know how the judging process goes. But. I don't see how five people who aren't film critics decide Wesley Morris is doing great work as a film critic? It'd be like like having NFL writers vote for Major League Baseball's MVP award. Or country musicians picking the top comedian.
Did they have other film critics peer-review Wesley's work? Because, again, Wesley's writing sounds nice. I read film reviews all the time, so I know who is out there and what they're saying. Wesley's writing is in my top 5. But again: his content is near the bottom.
But the even larger problem I have is this: how do we not hold journalistic writing up to the level we hold high school writing?
Read any of the examples of Morris's reviews provided by the Pulitzer site. All of them live on the surface. Every one gives an overview of plot with an overview of what's good or bad, utilizing faux-objective statements. We delve into specifics viewer few times. "You read so many movie reviews, you should know that's what film critics do!" you might be shouting at me. That is what a majority of film critics do. But that's not what they have to do. My problem with Morris is my problem with modern Film Criticism. All vault, little coin. And if your argument is "That's what everyone does" then how is Morris's criticism "inventive"?
So we've shown Morris's criticism isn't smart. We've shown it isn't inventive. We've shown while the prose is "pinpoint", those points are often dull and hollow. The Pulitzer citation finally states Morris provides "an easy traverse between art house and the big-screen box office." I won't argue that. He's just as bad at both.
Which brings us to! His review of The Way, Way Back.
Morris has left the Boston Globe for a job at Grantland. I love Grantland. I love Bill Simmons. He's my role-model for non-fiction writing. But like the Bluths, he has made a huge mistake.
Since his arrival at Grantland, Morris has broadened his schtick. He has a Podcast now. And he's started an article called "Small(er) Movie Roundup" where he writes 2-3 paragraphs on a slew of movies. I haven't listened to the Podcast. But the "Small(er) Movie Roundup" is the usual, horrible Wesley Morris criticism in a fun, pint-sized package.
This is his entirety of what he wrote on The Way, Way Back:
The two guys who wrote The Descendants now bring you one of those "summer that my life changed" comedies. This one revolves around Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old loner whose acutely agreeable mother (Toni Collette) drags him to the beach-town home of her churlish new boyfriend (Steve Carell). It takes a while, but eventually Duncan gets a job at a water park, where he's shown the ropes by the resident man-child, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who harbors a long-standing crush on a fellow employee (Maya Rudolph), while Duncan is in awkward pursuit of a girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb, who's wonderful).
Faxon and Rash are good comedic actors and they've said there's some autobiographical material in their script, but this movie couldn't feel less examined. No one seems to realize that Duncan and Owen have fallen into a kind of love that makes the scenes with Rudolph and Robb feel defensive and the ones between James and Rockwell feel illegal. And yet the deepening of that friendship provides the movie its only genuine emotional tension.
Otherwise, it's tired jokes about lazy eyes, shenanigans on the water slide, and a double-extroverted Allison Janney taking over the movie because there's no one to stop her. All the perception is hidden behind a 14-year-old. There's human ugliness (the relationship between Liam's mother and her boyfriend and two of their friends, a couple played by Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry, threatens to turn into marital war), but the film has been complacently concocted for likability even as it gives you very little that's real, structured, or spontaneous enough to enjoy. If this movie's a hit (and so far it is), it's because it's prechewed. "By the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno," brags Fox Searchlight in a statement of fact that sounds more and more like a punishment every time it's used.
The first sentence in the second paragraph. What does Faxon and Rash being good comedic actors have to do with the movie? Is Morris implying their skill at comedic acting translates to the script so there's humor in the movie? And why if there's autobiographical material in the script does the movie have to be examined? "...but this movie couldn't feel less examined." The irony of that line cracks me up.
Morris then says "No one seems to realize that Duncan and Owen have fallen into a kind of love that makes the scenes with Rudolph and Robb feel defensive and the ones between James and Rockwell feel illegal. And yet the deepening of that friendship provides the movie its only genuine emotional tension." Again, FAUX-OBJECTIVE. I felt genuine emotional tension between Robb's character and Duncan. That invalidates Morris's statement. I felt emotional tension from the mom feeling self-conscious and trying to make this relationship work because she isn't sure she can get better or deserves better because we see she's awkward herself (the story she tells at the dinner table, prefacing with how the story is stupid--that made me sad).
Just because Wesley Morris read more into the relationship between Duncan and Owen doesn't mean everyone else did. He's essentially accusing the movie of homoeroticism. This reminds me of Season 4 of Arrested Development. Tony Wonder and G.O.B. Bluth are both pretending to be gay in order to use one another. And the narrator says the two men who had never had actual friends felt friendship for the first time and it was so foreign to them they mistook friendship for romantic love. I'm not saying Wesley Morris doesn't know what friendship is. Wesley Morris probably has plenty of friends. I would love to be Wesley Morris's friend, though I'm pretty sure after this he will never want to talk to me unless it's to scream at me (Wesley, if you've read this far, I'm sure it doesn't help when I say: I do think you're an awesome dude. I'm just on a mission to improve film criticism.) What I'm saying is: I don't think Wesley Morris is reading the situation right.
The morning after the party at Owen's house, Owen and Duncan have a heart to heart. Owen nudges Duncan into explaining what's bothering him, what he's running from at home. Duncan opens up. Owen puts his hand on Duncan's shoulder. The two are standing close to one another. I get what Morris is saying. I felt tension in this moment too. The two are close. But I stopped and asked myself why I felt tension. And this is what I understood: I've watched a lot of fucking movies, and I've seen unexpected shit happen. We had arrived at a point in the movie where if things were going to get fucked up: this was it.
The tension I felt wasn't because the movie had built a homoerotic thread throughout, it's not like we ever saw Owen gazing inappropriately at Duncan, or Duncan doing the same with Owen. They do observe each other, but I would never describe it as anything more than harmless curiosity. Duncan thinks Owen is cool. Owen hints at understanding what Duncan is going through and we see how he's friendly to EVERYONE: adults, kids, teens. This isn't like American Beauty where Kevin Spacey eye fucks Mena Suvari. Or where the dad is SO FEARFUL about his son being homosexual that we sort of know he's overcompensating for his own confused emotions.
But I've seen Juno. In that movie, Jason Bateman goes from cool guy to, in a heart beat, hitting on adorable, pregnant, still in high school Ellen Paige. I've seen End of Watch, where the good stuff is setup only to break your poor, trusting heart (seriously, fuck you End of Watch)(but I really liked End of Watch). I've seen Boy in the Striped Pajamas. That movie is mean. By making the main character the young son of a high-ranking Nazi, we're in an ugly position but a safe one. Imagine if the viewer surrogate were the Jewish child in the concentration camp. The viewer would then be in the thick of the concentration camp. The Nazi's son is safe. Or so we think. When that twist came: it shattered my sense of safety. I've never cried harder because of a movie. I already felt disgusted by the whole Holocaust portion of the movie, but to then kill the kid like that. Ugh. I think it's so well done, but awful, absolutely awful. Powerful message too: the kid is stripped naked and standing with the Jews, and he blends right in. There is no difference. No one was going to stop and say "Oh, that boy is obviously not Jewish!" It's commentary on the senselessness of what the Nazi's did: the arbitrariness. So. I'm not stupid. I know movies can get mean real fast. THAT'S the tension I felt.
And I think that's the tension Morris felt as well. Because when I look a the evidence within The Way, Way Back there is nothing to suggest anything more than a deep, friendly connection between Duncan and Owen. Have you ever thought an older person was cool and wanted to be their friend? I did. There was nothing sexual about it. I'm 26 now. I've met teenagers who I thought were awesome and who I treated with respect and dignity and felt close to. I feel like none of this is new. It's common in movies to see adults and kids who connect and love each other for that friendship: Last Action Hero, The Goonies (Sloth!), Gran Torino, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, Superbad.
Or maybe Morris did think there was a sexual chemistry between Duncan and Owen. That's fine. But say that. Don't present it in the faux-objective as though it's true. I don't think the scenes with Duncan and Rudolph felt defensive. I thought they were real. I thought Duncan and Robb's scenes felt real. I understood there's romantic interest with those women, but I believe there's a special, non-sexual bond between the two men. I feel there's very little difference between Duncan and Owen compared to McLoving and the two cops in Superbad.
The last paragraph of Morris's piece is, as far as I'm concerned, garbage.
"All the perception is hidden behind a 14-year-old." 1. That line isn't even factual, there are multiple times we're outside of Duncan's perspective, following other characters. The movie is MOSTLY from Duncan's perspective, but "all the perception" isn't an accurate statement. 2. Even if all the perception were from a 14-year-old, why is that bad? Look, I can play this game too! All of There Will Be Blood is from the perspective of a man in his 40s. Dazed & Confused is from the perception of 14 year old boys. The Sandlot is from the perception of a what? A 13-year-old? I'm done playing. What is Morris saying with that line? Is he saying a movie told from the perspective of a 14-year-old is bad? Why? Is he just making statements?
Oh hey, look, Morris makes a statement and provides an example: he says' there's "human ugliness" then mentions the complicated relationship between Duncan's mom and her boyfriend (and his friends).
Then Morris goes right back to being awful at film criticism.
"...but the film has been complacently concocted for likability even as it gives you very little that's real, structured, or spontaneous enough to enjoy. If this movie's a hit (and so far it is), it's because it's prechewed. 'By the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno,' brags Fox Searchlight in a statement of fact that sounds more and more like a punishment every time it's used."
How can anyone say this movie gives very little that's real enough to enjoy? Or very little that's structured enough to enjoy? Or very little that's spontaneous enough to enjoy?
Real: I think Duncan's situation is very real. I think Carell's daughter was very real portrayal of a certain type of teenage girl. I think the movie demonstrates an important life lesson about the impact a strong and decent role model can have on a developing kid who lacks a role model. I think the mom being willing to put up with cheating because of her own self-esteem issues is very fucking real.
Structured: Most good plots demonstrate a "change in charge" from the beginning of the movie to the end. In the opening scene, we have Carell and Duncan awake in the car. The mom is asleep in the front seat. The movie ends with the characters in the car, again, in the same positions. Except the mom is awake, she's aware, and she makes a choice to climb to the back and be with her son. In the opening, we can view the Mom being asleep as foreshadowing for how she is in the relationship: a passenger, out of it, while Carell drives. Her being awake at the end of the movie is because she's now awake in the relationship, she's too uncomfortable and unsettled to fall asleep there now. She no longer trusts Carell. She's aware her son needs her, in a way she had been ignoring because she wanted things to work with Carell. Back to the back she goes. While Duncan is in the same spot at the end as he is in the beginning, we know he isn't the same. We know he's grown. His problem wasn't one of external positioning, it was internal. He's right where he was, but he's different.
Also structured: the meet-up of Carell and Owen. Carell and Rockwell have what? 10 seconds of screen time together. After I saw American Gangster, I bitched and raised hell about Denzel and Crowe barely sharing screen time, and how when they do it sucks (I think it sucks). I'm fine with these 10 seconds. Carell embodies a negative type of personality, and is the embodiment of what's wrong in Duncan's life. Owen embodies a positive personality, and is the transcendent force for Duncan. Here the Negative is attempting to grab Duncan and the Positive takes a single step between Duncan and this asshole, and Carell walks away. I love that moment. What a difference it makes in life to have someone who will stand up for you. Because we damn well know that try as we might we can't always protect ourselves. No one is invulnerable. This is wear I point out Atlas trying to Bear the World. Atlas is a mythic Titan. No human is a mythic titan. No human can hold the world on his or her shoulders. Even Presidents and Kings and Queens have advisors and secretaries and cabinets. Try having no one and see how far that gets you in life. Duncan finally has someone to help him stand up to Carell. That's fucking structured. And I find it beautiful.
Also structured: the build-up to Carell and Duncan shoving each other and shouting at one another. I enjoyed that. That felt cathartic to me. The first scene of the movie establishes tension between the two. Carell asking Duncan on a scale of 1-10 what does Duncan view himself as. Prodded by Carell, Duncan answers: 6. Carell says he thinks Duncan's a 3. That's mean. Carell probably thinks he's being helpful but...We escalate from there. Carell makes Duncan wear the enormous life jacket while on the boat. Duncan hates the life jacket, doesn't want to wear it. Then Duncan sees Carell cheating on Dunc's mom with Amanda Peet? OH SNAP! While the reasons for Duncan to hate Carell are piling up, Duncan's gaining confidence by hanging out with Owen, by talking with AnnaSophia, and from the water park being full of people who support him. So. We have part of the plot escalating tension between Duncan/Carell. Then we have another part of the plot escalating Duncan's confidence. I was rooting for Duncan to stand up to Carell. I could see it coming. And it happened. Go Duncan!
Spontaneous: Is Duncan riding a girls bike around not spontaneous? Did Morris see that coming? What about Duncan dancing? Did Morris see that coming? Was that not spontaneous? What about Allison Janney being a fucking monster?! (I mean that in the best way). She blew me away. Was she not spontaneous? Were people expecting that? Was Duncan wearing the inflatable vest not spontaneous? WHAT DOES MORRIS EVEN MEAN BY NOT HAVING ANYTHING SPONTANEOUS? Why does he never give us examples when he makes serious criticism about a movie?
What's he mean by prechewed? I think I know what he means. But he doesn't define it. Which means he's left the reader to guess at what he means. I don't think that's responsible journalism. Or great film criticism.
With the final line, Morris is attacking the quality of movies put out by Fox Searchlight. What are some movies Fox Searchlight has released in the last few years?:
-The Sessions (Oscar nominated)
-Beasts of the Southern Wild (Oscar nominated)
-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (BAFTA nominated)
-Shame (won many awards)
-The Descendants (Oscar nominated)
-Martha Marcy May Marlene
-Another Earth (a personal favorite)
-The Tree of Life (Oscar nominated)
-Black Swan (Oscar nominated)
-127 Hours (Oscar nominated)
-Crazy Heart (Oscar nominated)
-Whip It (I think this is a great movie)
-(500) Days of Summer (Lots of people love this movie)
-The Wrestler (Oscar nominated)
-Slumdog Millionaire (Won Best Fucking Picture)
"But Morris isn't saying Fox Searchlight puts out bad movies. Your list proves they put out movies people really like. Morris is saying Fox Searchlight keeps releasing these 'prechewed' movies that are hollow coming-of-age stories."
Shut up. If that's the point Morris wants to make: he should state it and prove it true. He doesn't. He sounds like a pompous asshole.
Here's my problem.
People worked hard to make this movie. Just like people worked hard to make The Tree of Life. Instead of respecting their effort enough to write criticisms with evidence (in other words: constructive criticism), Wesley Morris shits on them and their work. And it's not just Wesley Morris. Ebert did the same thing (Yeah, I'm going there). Mick LaSalle does the same thing. Rex Reed does the same thing. That little Tobey Maguire from the New York Post does the same thing. Dave Denby does the same thing. A.O. Scott does the same thing. Lisa Kennedy. Linda Barnard. James Berardinelli. Dana Stevens. Bob Mondello. Etc. etc. Name a critic and they probably do it. Pick any critic and check a review: they offer faux-objective statements without evidence.
Imagine you showed me a short film you made. And I said: "It's awful. Your characters are stupid. No one will connect to this movie." What would be going through your mind? Would you think I was being mean? Would you want to know why I thought your characters are stupid? Would you want to know why I said no one will connect to the movie? What if you had the confidence to ask me.
You said "Why? Why will no one connect to this? How are the characters stupid? Why's it awful?"
And then I said: "Um. Because. Because. Because. I don't have to deal with this. I'm really important. Bye."
Wouldn't you sort of hate me? Isn't there a chance you'd feel a little violated? Wouldn't you feel sort of bullied?
If film critics don't have to write at the same standards as high school students, why do they willingly act like they're in high school?
I don't believe for one second Wesley Morris writes his reviews for the benefit of the filmmakers. I don't believe, at all, that Wesley Morris writes for the benefit of the reader. What I believe is this: Morris writes for himself. Otherwise he wouldn't end with attempts at wit such as "Some will have the distinct impression that they've just been spritzed at the big cologne counter in the sky. That feels right. Terrence Malick Obsession." If he was writing for someone else, I believe he'd take the time to write something meaningful.
And look. I don't think all film critics are jerks. Even though I just said they're all jerks. I think, as people, they're decent and good people who think they're doing their job well. But I think they're byproducts of a system that's reached a hideous state. The standards for film criticism are far too low.
As far as I can tell, this is what's expected of a film critic: give an overview of the movie, say whether it's good or bad, sound smart, and if you can end with a cheesy line: do it.
That's what I see film critics do. Some do a really good job of it. Wesley Morris can give an overview. He can say whether a film is good or bad. He can, I think most people would agree, sound smart. And he can cheese it up with the best of them ("Terrence Malick's Obsession" har har har har har har). By those standards: Wesley Morris is a fucking legend.
I think film criticism deserves better. I think it can be better. Do critics have to write as much as I did here? No. But I wrote as much as I did to justify my statements, to prove my hypothesis as fact. And what I can't prove or don't feel like proving: I stated as opinion. I didn't say "This is what all film critics do." I said, "That's what I see film critics do." Maybe you think I'm splitting hairs here. Maybe you think film criticism is fine how it is. Go ahead and make a movie and read what mainstream critics say about it. Let me know what you think then.
So if a critic wants to prove a complicated point and the complicated point warrants this much writing: yes, write this much. If they would rather stick to opinionated statements: they can write very little. "This is what the movies about. I disliked it because I thought this and this and this." I would respect their opinion more than their faux-objective statements.
I think film criticism could do more for filmmakers and film goers. How educational is the typical film criticism?
Compare film criticism to journalism. Why can't criticism transition from the critic self-aggrandizing to the critic providing objective facts and insight? Or if not traditional journalistic style, why not write like Bill Simmons? Simmons eschewed traditional journalism for a hybrid journo-blogger style. He went from writing an AOL column and e-mailing it to his friends to his own website accumulating 45,000 hits per day. In 5 years. As of 2009, he had 1.4 million page views per month. Simmons became so popular, he started the Sports and Pop Culture hub Grantland. The site Wesley Morris currently writes for. There's no denying Simmons style. It's taken him from nothing to the most popular writer ESPN has ever had. Why? Because he educates and entertains.
Reddit: educates and entertains.
Buzzfeed: educates and entertains.
Malcolm Gladwell: educates and entertains.
Discovery News (I'm plugging them because I think they do phenomenal work): educates and entertains.
Facebook: educates and entertains.
Wikipedia: educates and entertains.
The Onion: educates and entertains.
Jon Stewart: educates and entertains.
South Park: educates and entertains.
Name me a film critic who tries to educate or entertain as much as any of the people or shows or websites I just listed? Name me a critic who educates and entertains?
Film critics can be better than complacent. Film critics can be better than selfish. Film critics can be better than arrogant.
Mainstream film criticism can be and should be more than an overview, a thumbs up or down, and a cheesy conclusion.
It's time for evolution. Or revolution. I don't fucking care which. Just give me a new wave.
Did I Like It:
Yeah. I'm a fan of this genre. I like Superbad a lot. I like Dazed & Confused a lot. I like Almost Famous a lot. I even like The Art of Getting By. Oh, and Adventure Land. Sky High. These "Kids discovering themselves" stories get me. Icebox in Little Giants. Good stuff!
I was at Sundance when this premiered. I kept hearing people raving about it. I wanted to see it, but didn't have a ticket pass, couldn't find tickets, and wasn't going to wait in the "wait line" in 20 degree weather. So I've been waiting a while to see this.
My one disappointment: I wanted something more significant to happen? Something with good or bad for Owen. Something more definitive for Duncan. Or for AnnaSophia. Or for Duncan's mom. Or for Steve Carell. Like. What if Rob Corddry had fought Steve Carell and given Carell a solid punch? Or what if Duncan had slept with Alison Janney. Or what if Alison Janney had tried to sleep with Duncan. Or what if Duncan had had two girls interested in him by the end? Or what if Duncan had learned to swim? I don't know. All I know is I wanted something...more momentous. It doesn't have to be something dark and awful. Like, if Owen had ended up being a pedophile, that would have been so sad to me. I would have hated the movie. I can't think of happy things that would have pleased me that aren't cheesy...Yet...passing Owen in the Water Slide wasn't enough for me. I don't get why anyone there really cared all that much? It's not built up like say...the Babe Ruth signed ball in The Sandlot. Those kids CHERISH baseball. So of course they want the ball. Why do so many people at that park care about Duncan passing Owen? We only see those other three kids try to pass on the slide.
Eh. I guess I tend to grandiose. If the writers wanted this to be understated and a movie of small changes: I respect that. I appreciate it, too. And while I still like the movie, I don't love it. And I sort of thought I might?
Between this and The Spectacular Now, I'm definitely going with Spectacular Now.
And I seriously had no idea Sam Rockwell could dance like that.