A Visit from National Society of Film Critics Cofounder Joe Morgenstern
Since its inception more than a half-century ago, the National Society of Film Critics has maintained its reputation for championing idiosyncratic and independent voices during the commercially driven awards season, with past best picture awards going to films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. This weekend, the group continued that tradition by giving its top honors to one of the year’s major art-house breakthroughs, Barry Jenkins’s sophomore feature, Moonlight. Just before joining critics from around the country for the vote this Saturday, founding member and Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Joe Morgenstern stopped by Criterion for a visit. In anticipation of his upcoming conversation with cult-cinema pioneer Roger Corman, premiering in our exclusive series Adventures in Moviegoing on the Criterion Channel next Monday, I sat down with Joe to discuss the history of the National Society and the changing landscape of American film criticism. Here are some of the highlights from the conversation:
On the origins of the National Society of Film Critics
We’re now one year past the half-century mark, and thinking back to 1966, movie criticism meant first and foremost the New York Times and Bosley Crowther. It was then an almost purely New York function—this was a long time before Roger Ebert got a Pulitzer Prize out of Chicago—and challenging that was really the impetus for founding the National Society. Richard Schickel worked for Time, I had recently started as Newsweek’s movie critic after having been both a movie and off-Broadway critic at the dearly departed New York Herald Tribune, and Hollis Alpert was the critic for the Saturday Review. We would talk about how we could break this grip of Bosley, who dominated the New York film critics, who in turn dominated everything in film criticism. The obvious answer was to go national and try to bring in people from other parts of the country.
On meeting Pauline Kael
I had just arrived at Newsweek, and Pauline had just arrived from San Francisco and was writing at McCall’s. Pat Collins, a weather person on television who had a fifteen-minute talk show, called me at Newsweek asking if I would be on the show. I said sure, showed up, and there was Pauline, whom I’d never met. She was this diminutive, vibratingly intelligent woman, and I had no clue who she was. We got on the air, and she wanted to talk about George Roy Hill’s Hawaii, with Max von Sydow, which I had just reviewed and thought was so clunky and kind of primitive. Then Pauline went on and on in raptures about how it addressed real issues like smallpox. I finally blurted out, “I cannot believe we’re sitting here talking about smallpox as if that’s a good thing in a movie! It’s a terrible movie!” Fifteen minutes came and went like that, and when we were off, Pauline jumped up, hugged me, and said, “Oh darling, that was terrific, let’s go have a cup of coffee,” and we became best friends for life. With Pauline, it was always a very difficult relationship. We were good friends—we walked dogs together, we lived within a block of each other on Central Park West. But I knew that one of my tasks in life was to stay independent and not fall under Pauline’s spell.
On the role the National Society of Film Critics played in transforming American film criticism
The parochialism of the New York film critics, and their vice-like grip on what was whimsically called “film culture” at that time, was due to the fact that they were all newspaper critics. The standard of newspaper criticism varied widely, but it was newspaper criticism within the newspaper format. It excluded literary magazines and people as diverse as John Simon and Arthur Schlesinger, the eminent historian and one of President Johnson’s White House advisors, who was also Vogue magazine’s movie critic. So at first we opened membership up to the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Times, and it was all in an attempt to counter the self-styled, dumb-headed New York film critics.
We had different sensibilities, and in our different ways, we felt a need for some kind of collegiality. It was fun to get together! The first wave of foreign incursions on our shores had already happened with Bergman and Kurosawa, and this was still very much the time when you couldn’t wait to talk about the latest Godard or Antonioni film.
On how the relationship between film criticism and film culture has changed over the last half-century
It’s been transformed just as the movie business has been transformed. I think it’s a struggle for film-critics groups now to stay out of the mainstream and find worthy films to take note of. Some of the really good work being done against the tide now is singling out first-time filmmakers, because where else can they be recognized? But what’s also transformed is the public we write for. This is not a reading society.
I remain one of the lucky ones and give thanks all the time, because how many secure critics are there today? I was lucky at Newsweek. Nobody ever questioned anything I wrote, and I was free of editorial pressures, just as I am today at the Wall Street Journal. But I have understanding for the experiences that I, fortunately, have never had. A group like the National Society provided institutional cover and prestige for a lot of young critics who were being treated very badly by their employers. It gave them a certain amount of standing, and it gave them shelter that they needed, and it’s needed all the more intensely now with the fragmentation of the critical community and bloggers. It’s still amazing to me, and just terribly touching, that this group is still a locus and a magnet for young critics who care about film culture.
On finding professional direction as a critic
I got into this odd pursuit starting as a reporter, then I gravitated toward entertainment stories. I was a foreign correspondent, then I saw an opening at the Herald Tribune to be a ninth-string movie critic and off-Broadway critic, so I didn’t at the very outset take myself seriously enough to think of someone like James Agee as a model for who I might be. I was working out my chops as a writer. When I started at the Journal twenty-one years ago, I discovered that I had very limited space to work in and that on a given week, all I had were 750 words, with maybe four important movies to write about. That’s when I went back and started seriously looking at Graham Greene and Agee’s short stuff. It was a revelation to me that you could do justice to a film in a paragraph, if it’s the right film and the right paragraph.
On his first memorable experience as a film critic
I saw Ride the High Country the other night again on Turner Classic Movies. I first saw that movie when I went to review it at the Nemo Theatre on 110th Street. It was fragrant and full of movie history, and it was the first time I gave myself permission to be an authority figure and say, “This is a terrific movie. You’ve got to see it, and here’s why.” I think that’s a turning point all of us have to negotiate.