Monday, April 11, 2005

Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism

This year's Pulitzer Prize winners were announced last week, and the winner of the prize for criticism was Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal. This is only the third time since the criticism prize was established in 1970 that a film critic has won (the other winners were Roger Ebert in 1975 and The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter in 2003). You can read the reviews Morgenstern submitted for the prize here. Now, I hadn't read Morgenstern before, probably because he's not listed on Rotten Tomatoes, but I was curious to see exactly what kind of criticism was winning such a prestigious award. And, really, I'm not all that impressed.

Not to say that I could do better, or to come off as jealous, but Morgenstern's work strikes me as dry, predictable and perfectly competent. He writes clearly and obviously has a deep knowledge of film history, but very little of what he says is revelatory or especially illuminating. Of the reviews submitted for consideration, almost every one toes the critical line - Morgenstern loved critical favorites Sideways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles and Hotel Rwanda, although he's somewhat less effusive about The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby. His writing, while crisp and clean, is staid and subdued, exactly what you'd expect from film criticism in the Wall Street Journal, but never exciting or surprising.

I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed, since the Pulitzer, after all, is itself a venerable and not particularly risk-taking institution. Maybe it was naive of me to expect an eye-opening and exhilarating experience reading Morgenstern's work. But looking at it only to find it so prosaic and, honestly, uninspired, was a little saddening. I mean, is this what we are striving for in film criticism in this country? Of course I shouldn't put so much stock in awards, but I think of it this way: Just as critics are judged by the average person based on the standard of Roger Ebert, because he's famous, so are they going to be judged by fellow journalists (who respect the Pulitzer) by the standard of Joe Morgenstern, because he won. And that, to me, is a weak and unadventurous standard.

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