Despite an early disclaimer that his discussion on ‘The State of Cinema’ wouldn’t be as intelligent as J. Hoberman’s 2012 edition, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris (currently writing for Grantland) proved a most-engaging presence at the Milwaukee Film Festival, with a wide-ranging discussion touching on the growing insistence that television has usurped movies for quality storytelling, the far-reaching consequences of the cinema’s continuing globalization and the lack of change in the realm of representation for people of color in the cinema. As presented by Morris, all of these topics inform and intersect in numerous interesting ways – television is outpacing movies (special note was taken of this summer’s precipitous drop in box office receipts) due to its ability to engage in longform storytelling where characters can develop over time and without the pressures that cinema have in having to play internationally. This requirement that films appeal globally limits their scope and leads to “nonspecific themes” and properties “colonized by nerds” seeking the nostalgic comfort of “retreating back into what they grew up with,” leading to blockbuster cinema far more concerned with things that happen in outer space versus things that happen in our space. Morris noted that if Jaws, the proto-blockbuster that ushered in a new era of filmmaking, were made today all of the character development would be lost in place of focusing on the shark.
Perhaps nowhere is this reticence to deal with day-to-day reality more stark than when discussing issues of race in the movies. Many of Morris’ most treasured works of criticism operate in this realm. He likens his work in covering issues of race in cinema to the crime reporter beat, not excited to see a new bit of racially problematic cinema come across his desk, but aware he’s one of the few willing to tackle the subject. Morris provided us a clip of Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind that proved instructive. Lots of think pieces and op-eds have been spent either celebrating or examining this idea of a post-racial America, an idea that I think the majority of us would agree is farcical. In an expert bit of inference-drawing, Morris spoke of a “clear line that hasn’t wavered” in the 75 years since Gone With the Wind’s release in terms of the roles provided to black actors in the cinema. Granted, you see a lot of black police sergeants and judges – ostensibly positions of power – but these characters simply occupy the narratives being told, these stories don’t belong to them (he provided Anthony Mackie’s role as Captain America’s partner The Falcon as yet another example of a character simply there to protect or care for the white protagonist). This most egregiously occurs in stories about race, where movies often feel the need to have a white person be the conduit through which these stories are told.
This leads to stories like The Blind Side or the upcoming The Good Lie, movies where “non-white characters become bystanders in their own story.” As an example (to Morris’ mind, the only one he could think of) that trucks specifically in the challenging notions of race, Morris played an extended preview of the Wachowski’s critically-fascinating-yet-ignored-by-audiences Cloud Atlas. It’s a movie where Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Bae Doona interchange roles and ethnicities throughout the sprawling narrative, a movie about how “we’re all going to be everybody anyway” eventually, a notion perhaps born of the gender reassignment undergone by Lana Wachowski previous to that film’s release. And while Morris looks at Cloud Atlas as a mess, it’s the kind of risk-taking he much prefers to something slickly crafted that takes no chances. After this wide-ranging discussion, Morris fielded questions from the audience about Spike Lee (“it can’t just be Spike Lee” when it comes to black directors willing to confront topical experiences), MFF2014 guest John Ridley (Morris is excited to see what Ridley does now with the cultural cache afforded him by his Oscar win), George Clooney (he’s always surprised by the “dull liberal sensibility” that permeates the majority of his work, having to be reminded of The Monuments Men by the audience and proclaiming “Monuments Men: the movie so boring I’ve already forgotten its name”) and what excites him currently in cinema (he pointed toward the summer’s biggest blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy as an example of a movie doing something new by removing all the piety from the comic book genre and providing an irreverent energy).
As an example of the kind of cinema that tries to grapple with existing problems without cutting corners or holding the audience’s hand, Morris programmed Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, a bracing film that doesn’t pull its punches or neatly resolve its conflicts by story’s end. Between its sudden and episodic editing (cutting away from or into the middle of conversations with edits Morris accurately described as “violent”), an austere visual aesthetic (lots of static shots or simple camera movement places the focus on what’s inside the frame) and its reliance on audience intelligence (the film both opens and closes with sequences of sign language, an apt metaphor for the ways in which our difference can often close off our ability to communicate with one another) Haneke is making exactly the type of uncompromising cinema that Morris would like to see more of in the American filmmaking market. And while this year’s State of the Cinema might not have been as persuasively positive as that of the previously mentioned J. Hoberman or last year’s guests from The Dissolve, the simple fact that a robust audience attended this panel and screening suggests the thirst for interesting storytelling and analysis will continue unabated despite Hollywood’s insistence on not providing it for us.