Arts & Culture

Wall Street Journal critic talks writing, film

Joe Morgenstern details personal evolution as writer, imparts career advice at annual lecture

staff writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Joe Morgenstern, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and award-winning film critic, delivered the 16th Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture at the Faculty Club Monday. The annual lecture serves to honor the memory of Casey Shearer ’00, a promising young writer who died a few days before his graduation. A film critic veteran writer for the Wall Street Journal and a friend of the Goldway/Shearer family, Morgenstern agreed to appear as the guest of honor in a luncheon that both celebrated Casey’s life and recognized promising young writers through the annual Casey Shearer Awards for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction.

Ruth Goldway, mother of Casey, described the awards as a way to “encourage Brown students to focus on (Casey’s) tradition of writing so honestly and beautifully.” Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English and co-director of the nonfiction writing program, announced the names of the first- and second-place winners: Paige Morris ’16 and Anisha Dias Bandaranaike ’17.

The audience was comprised mostly of students studying film or writing and faculty members from a broad range of departments. “I always try to go to events at Brown that bring in people from outside professions,” said Allison Schaefer ’17. “A really great thing about Brown is just the opportunity to hear other perspectives and discover career paths you’re interested in.”

Morgenstern’s lecture focused on his experience and evolution as a writer. He “became a writer because (his) parents gave (him) a typewriter at eight years old,” he said. They initially bought the typewriter for him to write thank you notes to extended relatives but were quickly blown away by his precocious vocabulary.

Morgenstern said that when he was young, he believed that vocabulary was key to writing, much like some believe dialogue is key to screenwriting.

In his sophomore year of college, Morgenstern wanted to impress a beloved philosophy professor, he said. This professor, while appreciative of Morgenstern’s vast vocabulary and style, set him on a different path — one that valued content over flowery prose.

Morgenstern said that while his writing is inspired by his enthusiasm for movies, “what really keeps me alive is just the fun of playing with language … making the words dance.”

As a film critic, he believes his writing should offer a perspective removed from the movie industry. When he first started out in his field, Morgenstern was plagued with doubt in writing a critique that overly praised or dammed the work of a friend in the industry.

Today, Morgenstern is dismayed by how few film critics are “left alone by corporate pressures,” he said. “I have to maintain my independence.”

Morgenstern concluded his talk with a few words of advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Believe in the medium. Believe in the beauty of the medium.”