Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Playing It Safe With Film Critic Wesley Morris: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part III

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but for various reasons, was not used.


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As one of only four film critics to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, former Boston Globe contributor, Wesley Morris, now a staff writer for Grantland, might have seemed to be equally an inspired and odd choice as a keynote speaker, given his minimal involvement with theater. Perhaps this would be for the best, a theater critic might have expressed a strong opinions on plays that at least some of the attendees had worked on and anybody of similar or greater stature in the theater world (say, an elder statesman like Robert Brustein who was conspicuous by his absence) would have likely been divisive in a room filled with theater professionals.

Morris walked a fine line between his own expertise as a critic of popular culture, and a guest who needed to flatter his hosts, “I feel like you are the conduit between those two experiences: the creative act, and the one where I am on my sofa weeping.” The result was that he alternately described his role of a critic as a “glorified civilian movie-goer” who “[likes] to think I want the same thing from my plays and movies as anyone wants,” while also saying that, “objectively speaking, I see [what I do as] crime reporting” elaborating that with regard to race and gender, “sometimes movies do crazy things that don't make sense.”

During the question and answer session after his address, Morris was asked about changing roles of criticism on both the web and in print -- a question that placed his address into context. He affirmed that the web might be the last refuge for long form criticism written for a general audience, noting that on Grantland, he can publish a 3,300 word article addressing a single topic, something that would be impossible with a daily, or even weekly, newspaper. Given the decreased page space given to criticism in print publications, and how much of our cultural discourse has been reduced to sound bites, slogans, and tweets (tweeting was in great evidence at the LMDA conference) – a phenomenon that websites like The Arts Fuse (for which this essay was originally intended) exist, in part, to counter.

Morris mostly stayed away from discussing theater in depth. The topics that garnered the greatest attention, were his praise for the Netflix-produced television series, Orange is the New Black, (which, judging by reactions from the audience, and the number of mentions it received in plenary sessions, appears to be very popular with LMDA members) and his 2011 review of The Help which was informed by his own encounter with a “mammy” doorstop in a west Texas restaurant as the only African-American among a predominantly white group of friends which underlined to him just how ambiguous the symbols of America's racial (and gendered) history can be, and the cognitive dissonance they continue to cause. Quite simply, Morris discovered that while he and his liberal white friends saw Mammy as a racist stereotype, the white proprietor viewed Mammy as an homage to the black woman who raised her.

When he did speak about theater, Morris was appreciative but far less profound, often contrasting the medium with television. In discussing gender, he stated that, “The thing I love about the theater[is that] there is such a dearth of interesting women on TV [and] the theater is much more women-oriented or open to women's experience.” While at the same time, noting the moral simplicity in most television, which he described as currently wallowing under “misinterpretation of what it is to be an antihero,” Morris praised theater's sophistication, stating that, “theater is much more open to the fluidity of morality.”

Most of the attention that Morris was able to directly address towards theater was with regard to theater on television and film. Referring to PBS's longsrunning series, Great Performances, he noted, “They have nine cameras. You just need one camera.” Arguing that there is an essential difference between being seated in the auditorium and having one's eyes guided by camera work, made timely now that major theaters present high-definition footage of their performances to cinema screens for paying audiences, he commented, “I don't know why you have to cut [...] Just put a camera in the best seat in the house.” Morris concluded that, “For twenty-five dollars I want to see the fucking stage. I don't need to see the close up; she's not acting for the close up.”

I would suggest that the problem is not necessarily the number of cameras, or number of edits, but as I have noted elsewhere, the often poor quality of the camera work and editing. Strong directors and actors are very skilled at drawing audience members' eyeballs to various points on the stage or upon the actor's own body – mimes like Marcel Marceau and Dario Fo were absolute masters of this. The issue isn't a matter of one camera in the best seat of the house versus nine cameras scattered around the theater, but of whether or not the camera (and the editing) is guided by the visual dramaturgy of a given performance -- and quite often, it is not. Filmed theater is simply a different medium from both film and theater. Cameras are not eyeballs – the human eye is attached to a sophisticated complex of cerebral wiring that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

Perhaps this is a problem with Morris being a film critic and only a casual (yet articulate) theater-goer. He stated his appreciation for many of the plays that have been circulating on the main stages of America's regional theaters in recent years, but his own comments missed the subtleties -- so when he decried the use of stage plays being adapted to feature films, using the example of Roman Polanski's 2011 adaption of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, he complained that Polanski's signature style changed the meaning of the play. What Morris missed is that while film-goers are accustomed to there being a “definitive” take on a story, the strength of some plays is that they can admit any number of strong, but contradictory productions -- and this is why many audience members and critics will flock to see multiple productions of a favorite play: to experience the differences.

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