The movies are finished

In a new book, New Yorker critic David Denby argues that Hollywood needs to stop ignoring adults. He tells us why

By Scott Timberg

Published October 9, 2012 6:06PM (EDT)

     (David Denby)
(David Denby)

David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker whose tone differs, most weeks, from the witty diffidence of his colleague Anthony Lane. While Denby expresses great love for some movies, he also wonders aloud about a decline in both the making and the viewing of serious films. In the days of blockbusters, tent-poles, overwhelming digital effects and aggressive global marketing, he wonders, what happened to movies for grown-ups?

He focuses these concerns in the aptly named new book "Do the Movies Have a Future?," which kicks off with an introduction (“The Way We Live Now”) and first chapter (“Conglomerate Aesthetics: Notes on the Disintegration of Film Language”) that do not seem to answer his title in the affirmative. The book also offers sections on independent films, stars, genres (including a perceptive piece on what he calls “the slacker-striver comedy”), directors from Otto Preminger to David Fincher, critical models (James Agee and Pauline Kael) and hopes for the future. Some of the work originally appeared in the New Yorker; some is new or newly revised.

For some younger, more pop-besotted critics, Denby is a scold, a nostalgic moralist, a stodgy guy who can’t get hip to Tarantino’s hyper-kineticism. But he’s not Bosley Crowther, and the book is not the work of a despairing highbrow but rather of a humanist who believes that movies can be better -- and is tired of being told they can’t be.

Let's start with the heart of your argument. You argue that it’s harder to make, and to find, movies for grown-ups these days. You say movies now are about "surface excitement and speed," where the "characters get shoved off the set by special effects." What happened? What brought us to this point?

Well, it’s been happening for 25 years. And, of course, I’m generalizing very broadly here. There are independent movies -- and studio movies, too -- that are certainly about people. But I would be appalled if fantasy became the default mode rather than realism as a style. Because, I think, when you take away the limits of time and space and gravitation and Newtonian physics, anything is possible. If you remove all of those narrative conventions -- like death and loss and walls -- yes, you can liberate the imagination, and we’ve had some astonishing things like "Avatar," but you also have a lot of nonsensical stuff. Digits contending furiously in a kind of dead digital space. Pixels fighting each other furiously. A lot of it has been very similar. And the second problem with it -- though there are many problems with it -- the second problem with it is: You’re excited at the time, and you don’t remember anything the next day except the experience, possibly, of being excited. Nothing imprints on your memory, whereas in the old days, the guy and a girl could talk to each other and you would go, “wow.” And you would remember that.

For years, this instant excitement, and it has to do with marketing, of course ... And with a conglomerate control of the studios ... This is nothing new, it’s just that it gets more severely constrained ... what they’re actually willing to produce every year. It’s the winner-take-all mentality of spending $250 million on a movie in the hope of grossing, or having grossed, revenues of $600 million or $700 million. That strategy is incredibly destructive. I don’t think it’s the same business model, if the movie flops, that the head of the studio is fired. And it lays waste -- not only to the aesthetics of movies, as I just tried to say briefly -- but it doesn’t build an audience for the future.

When I was growing up, you got taken to the movies by your parents. Movies were essentially made for grown ups until about 1980. Yes, of course, there were family movies. There was animation; there was Disney. Of course, of course. But movies were essentially made for grown ups. So, you got taken to "Airport," to "Dr. Strangelove." And you half understood it and half didn’t understand it. And that half understanding, half not understanding laid the groundwork for grown-up tastes in movies, and maybe even for grown-up life. You weren’t expected to stay in that kind of goofy state of euphoria until your 30s. That’s what they’re doing now. They’re catching kids with these franchises at 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and just trying to hold them forever. And I don’t know if you’re 15 and you just see a guy and a girl talking in a bar ... That may be the most interesting thing that happened in movies that year. You’re going to see nothing. Nothing is going on here. You’re not going to respond to it or relate to it. You’re going to drift off to TV when you mature and have kids. So, that’s what I mean when I say they’re not building a future audience for the cinema.

The early film moguls, the Harry Cohns, were not particularly high-minded. They were motivated primarily by profit. How have things gotten worse since those days?

It’s always been a big money game. We know that. We all know that. It would be naive to think it was anything else. But those guys were either immigrants or children of immigrants, and they very much felt it was their cultural obligation -- in order to attain respectability for themselves and this new art form -- to produce some reflection of the nation’s soul. Of its social life. To entertain it with adaptations of classics. To build big stars. I mean, yes, of course they wanted money.

Upward mobility was associated with culture, back then, in a different way than it is now.

It still is now to some degree, except now it’s more minority think, perhaps. What you’re talking about is middlebrow culture, which has sort of died except, maybe, in the Broadway musical. The big, popular novels -- like the James Michener novel -- that kind of big, historical epic. Those kinds of things, you’re right, have disappeared. All I meant was that they were a mixture of greed and whatever their mode of social responsibility. They thought they had the obligation to bring the best to the American public. The best new entertainment, the best dancing, the best singing, the best acting. That is just simply not part of the business calculus now, and it hasn’t been for a long time. And it has had terrible effects. For instance, you could develop actors slowly those days by putting them in minor roles until they clicked. But now, you get a good-looking young actor, and you throw him into a big movie, and if he doesn’t make it, the press turns very derisive and he disappears. They don’t know how to develop people in the way they used to. And the good ones drift off to television after a while because they’re looking for serious work. Or to the theater.

Has the globalization of the film audience and film distribution aggravated the trends?

Absolutely. Because, just as you’re saying, two-thirds of the box office on these big movies comes from overseas. Increasingly these movies are not made for us. They’re not made for anyone in particular. And that means they’ve been defoliated of American qualities, of the local color of a specific time and place. Of a way of speaking. They’re set everywhere and nowhere. They’re set in a digital dead zone. A universal dead zone that has no roots at all because they have to play in Bangalore as well as in Bangor. It makes them completely impersonal, these big films. There’s fun in them. Look, I’m not saying there is zero. And the craft level can be extraordinarily high. I’m just saying there is no deep satisfaction. No memory. No aftertaste. It’s just gone the next day.

You use a phrase in here, I think you talk about being both “overstimulated and unsatisfied” with the vacuum where emotion should be.

Exactly. It’s as if they were intentionally distancing you from feeling anything about what you’re seeing. Involving you in the fate of the characters. That was the whole logic of Hollywood screenwriting in the '30s and '40s. You had to make the audience feel something or engage them, and it was a matter of characterization and writing and camera technique and so on. Just the way action is cut now, for instance, you don’t really feel that anyone is in danger. It’s just a whirl of movement shot very close, or digitally composed, and so you get the sensation of excitement without the actual depiction of danger. That distances you from the emotion of it, and just creates the kind of sensational excitement of it. It’s almost as if they want that. As if they don’t want you to feel anything. That somehow that’s not cool ... to actually feel empathy, deep empathy with the characters.

Now, in smaller independent movies, and some genre movies, you do feel that. There’s one cop movie out now, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, "End of Watch." You’re in the car with those guys, and they’re very much characterized as specific individuals. That movie was made for $7 million, and ... Can I just segue here? The way out of this box that the studios have put themselves in -- this winner-take-all mentality, the boss gets fired if the $250 million movie bombs -- is to try to make a series of small winners. To make "End of Watch." Or to make $20 million dollar movies that gross $50 or $60 million, and make a whole slate of them. And bring adults back into the game here. Because, basically, the adults are ignored -- I mean, with some exceptions, of course -- for nine months of the year. Then they’re sequestered into this three-month serious season prior to the awards. I mean, there’s a lot of interesting-sounding stuff coming out in the next 10 weeks. And I hope it’s all great, but I resent like hell that these movies haven’t been coming out all year long. And that there aren’t more of them. That would be one way out of the box of corporate marketing.

An optimist might figure that the enormous profits from these blockbusters would somehow fund, or somehow trickle down to, smaller, more serious, character-based films. Is that happening?

No, they don’t. It’s just as hard as it ever was to get the smaller, more serious project off the development table. And you hear stories all the time about people who work with, say, younger producers at a studio, like writer, director, or even a writer-producer-director package, and then they get shelved after maybe two years of work because the marketing division says, “We can’t sell this.” By which they mean, “We can’t get $40 million gross opening weekend.” And that’s the level that they want. It doesn’t trickle down. It just goes into the next super production.

So where are those smaller, more serious movies being made? Well, there are small- and medium-sized independent companies, and they make deals and get money from all over the world -- from Germany, from France, from Abu Dhabi of all places. Or they get it from a cadre of eccentric billionaires, the latest being Meg Ellison, Larry Ellison’s daughter. Jeff Skoll. I hope these people don’t lose their shirts, because they have a lot of shirts to lose. And there will always be people like that. It used to be hedge funds. Remember the slate of hedge fund investors? I think that has pretty much petered out.

So, you can say: Why am I so unhappy if some of these movies are getting made around the edges of the system? Well, yes, some of them are. But then you have people like Bennett Miller who made "Capote," or Alexander Payne who made "Sideways," or Paul Thomas Anderson who made "There Will Be Blood" waiting five, six, even seven years before getting another production. They’re spending all of their time raising money. They can’t get anywhere with the studios. And that old system -- in which they were just as interested in money as they are now -- kept John Ford and Howard Hawks and William Wyler making two movies a year. This is not a healthy business model. It’s not working for the art form, or to build an audience.

You champion a number of these independent films in your book.

Every critic does.

You have reviews of "Winter’s Bone," "There Will Be Blood," "The Squid and the Whale" and some others. It sounds like you’re saying, for independent filmmakers, it’s harder to find distribution and an audience than it was, say, in the '90s.

It’s very hard to get traction in the theaters. It’s very expensive ... To open a movie properly in New York and Los Angeles costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars, just in promotion costs. Distribution is very expensive. And the theater chains -- there are some that are very eager to have these movies -- but most of the big ones are not because the theater business is about getting the maximum number of bodies to the concession stand. That’s where the money is made. The ticket price keeps the projectors running, the toilets clean and the lights on. The money is made at the concession stand. That’s why the smallest Coke is big enough to drown a rabbit, because the markup on that stuff is fantastic. So you’re not going to take a chance on "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "Winter’s Bone," which you mentioned, or "The Squid and the Whale," which you mentioned, if it’s not going to get as many bodies as the latest spectacular. It’s just business. I’m not saying there’s anything wicked about it, but it has bad effects, so it’s hard for some of these movies to break through. Because the single theater, the downtown art house ... a lot of them have disappeared over the last 30 years. We’re privileged in L.A., New York, Boston and Chicago ... College towns have them, but the rest of the country is dependent on what’s playing at the local mall.

What do your younger film-going friends say about your cautionary argument here? That you’re looking for art in the wrong places or something?

Some have said, “Why are you even reviewing these industrial products? They’re not intended to be works of art.” And my answer is: I love big movies. I love the idea of national theater. Critics in the past have always worked on these movies, sometimes very critically, but people want to hear about them. The New Yorker is a national magazine, and 800,000 out of our 1 million subscribers live out of the New York area. And as we were just saying, they may have nothing but the local mall to see movies in. So, you have to write about them. My colleague Anthony Lane is often very funny about big stuff that he doesn’t like, and he handles them very well. I tend to take it, as you can hear, a little more seriously as a reflection on the way the art form is going. So, it’s part of our job and part of our responsibility to do it ... We’re trying to keep the art form alive. That’s what critics do. That means sometimes maybe fighting the marketplace, and sometimes going with it. It may mean pushing little movies, and it may mean discouraging big ones that aren’t clicking. There is no set policy about this, you just examine each movie and try to make the most out of it each time you get a chance to write.

You mention the role of criticism. What’s in the role of film criticism -- and the press in general -- during the heyday of movies. Neo-realism, the new wave and so on? Compared to where it is now.

When you have an insurgent movement like neo-realist cinema, you get an insurgent critical group at the same time. Same with the French new wave. Of course, they were all critics to begin with, and then they took over the industry. There was a bunch of us -- and Pauline Kael was certainly the most prominent, or the leader -- who were looking at the work of the new generation of film school graduates like Coppola and Lucas and Spielberg and De Palma and Hall Ashby and Robert Altman and so on -- well, they didn’t all go to film school, but most of them -- and saying, “This is new sensibility.” And, by the way, those movies were made by studios. Those weren’t independent films. "Nashville" was made by 20th Century Fox. "Chinatown" was made by Paramount. As were all three "Godfather" movies. In other words, they were big studio films intended to make money, and they allowed artists to work in freedom for grown up audiences. There’s a business model.

The Robert Evans years.

The Robert Evans years! It can work with the right congruence of leadership and talent. So what was our function? I think: to find an audience for some things that were a little strange. You didn’t have to fight too hard for Steven Spielberg. But Robert Altman? You did. You certainly had to try to explain what he was up to. I think, at its best, criticism can be a kind of prophecy in which you say where the medium is going. And then there’s the normal responsibilities of keeping score and pointing toward new talent. I think Pauline in particular played an important role in getting an audience for Martin Scorsese's early films like "Mean Streets." Then she had mixed feelings about some of the later ones, but she helped him find an audience and respectability early on. And many of us did the same. It was an exciting time. We felt there was something -- as the rock critics did -- subversive about pop culture at its best. There was an energy of revolt there in rock music in the '60s and '70s. And in movies, too. It was after Vietnam, it was a kind of disillusioned period. There was an acceptance of a different kind of movie making than had been prevalent in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. You could have unhappy endings. You could have discordant emotions. You could have over-laying dialogue. All of that.

A sort of new aesthetic that critics could help articulate when the old models didn’t work anymore ...

Yeah. I think an odd thing happened, and it was a lucky accident around 1967-68 -- and Mark Harris has chronicled this in his book -- the studios thought, “Well, we don’t understand this counterculture and this New Left.” They way overestimated the size of kids who were in those sensibilities, and so they said, “Let’s turn the movies over” -- at least some of them -- “to these guys who just came out of film school. Maybe they understand it. Maybe they can make hit movies.” And they gave them a considerable amount of freedom, and it lasted for about seven years. The oft-cited turning point was Michael Cimino’s disaster "Heaven’s Gate." At that point they began to reclaim control of what they were doing. That is, the studio bosses. And the conglomerates took over. And I’m personally sympathetic to some of these guys. I’ve met some of them; they’re not monsters. They want good movies, but they have to tell their bosses in the conglomerate about what’s coming out. And those guys in turn have to talk to stock analysts every quarter what the revenue flow is. But that doesn’t mean they can’t produce revenue in a different way from the way they’re doing it.

And before I said that one way out of the box is to make a slate of small winners. The other way, which Steven Soderbergh has been pushing for years, is to -- I’ll say this as briefly as I can -- reduce the upfront costs. Don’t pay actors their quota of $12 million, pay them $1 million -- which by Hollywood standards isn’t a lot of money. Pay the directors $750,000. Pay the cameraman $400,000. In other words, reduce all of your upfront costs and then distribute the entire revenue stream -- all of it -- for however long it takes as a backend according to fixed percentages. So, of course, the people who financed the movie get whatever it is -- 50 percent, right? And everyone divvies up the rest. The actors get 3 percent, and the star and the director gets his 2 percent, and so on in perpetuity. Now, if the movie is a hit, everybody is going to make -- including the agents -- just as much money, if not more, than they would by getting the money upfront. And by bringing down initial costs by 30, 40 percent, it would allow people to make more intelligent, more risky, more interesting choices. That’s been his idea for years, and he’s done with with Clooney on "The Good German" and a couple of other films. Unfortunately, none of them have been big hits.

He’s made a wide range of films over the years, not the same movie over and over again.

So there are ways out of this box if they have the confidence, and the sense, to try them. But at the moment it’s just not happening. This hasn’t been happening for 25 years. And I’m running out of patience.

We were talking about the role of criticism a few minutes ago. So as print journalism fades and critics lose their jobs across the country, are there any consequences for the movies?

I think that in some ways -- and editors don’t see it this way, obviously -- we’re more necessary than ever. Because there’s no one standing in between a $60 million production budget and us to say, “This thing might not be any good at all.” And there’s no one standing in between a $1 million production budget like"Beasts of the Southern Wild" and total oblivion, except us. So, that’s it. And certainly that movie -- I mean there was a buzz coming out of Sundance about it. But that movie was really made, I think, by A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times. And then other people, Roger Ebert and myself, the other people said, “This is really something special. You’ve never seen anything like this.” So, there you go. That’s what we’re doing at our best and most useful.

There’s a ton of stuff on the Internet. A lot of the publications now have their critics writing on the Internet. For instance, Richard Corliss, who wrote in Time magazine for years, writes almost entirely on the Internet version of Time magazine -- and at much greater length. So, it’s a shift. And then there’s a ton of bloggers and film sites and so on, and it’s all over the map. It’s a kind of horizontal Tower of Babel, as I say. You’ve got absolutely everything. Erudite film school types. Ignorant sports who, you know, Twitter a tweet, “It sucks” in the middle of the movie while they’re sitting there. You know what I’m talking about. There are people who want to get the next screening invitation and the next party invitation. And the trouble with that is ... You know, it’s fine that people want to express themselves. I don’t want to monopolize anything, and it thrives on conversation. But the trouble is there’s no center. There’s no authority in the way that Roger Ebert is an authority or A.O. Scott is an authority. There’s no center. And if we start to get a flood of inexpensively made movies coming through the Internet and bypassing theatrical distribution, you’re not going to know at the moment where to go to get an opinion that matters. And what we need is a new kind of Internet film magazine that is feisty and fun to read and combative and you can have debates.

Critical too, and not just a fanboy kind of publication.

Absolutely. Critical. And if someone took a really strong position against something, you could set up a debate. And some of these independent voices should join together and submit to professionalization, and we could produce a really spiffy ... I mean, I’ll propose as a business model my own. I don’t want to do it myself, but it would probably cost about a half of a million to get it off the ground. And I’ve spoken to independent film distributors and they said, “If it were good. If there were debates. If it had real authority, we would advertise in that.” In other words, it could become a real business. That doesn’t exist, and we’re going to need it if a lot of movies come down through the Internet in two or three years.

You mentioned rock criticism earlier. It seems like in almost every genre, there’s a golden age where popular taste and critical taste overlap. And then quality and mass popularity seemed to go their separate ways. We’ve seen it with rock and roll, too. Does it have to be like that? Is that inevitable? Is there something in human nature that makes that an eternal recurrence?

I think critics follow -- and in some occasions, hope to push or even lead -- whatever it happening in the art form. If rock becomes less creative, there’s less need for criticism of the quality of Lester Bangs or early Robert Christgau or Greil Marcus. It would be harder for them to find -- not impossible, but harder for them to find -- stuff to make major essays out of at this moment. The notion that popular music is subversive has gone away as well. Punk may have been the last movement that felt like that. And the same way that movies ... The notion that movies were subversive has disappeared.

But the kind of magazine I’m thinking of does exist in popular music. It’s Pitchfork. Their reviews are good, a lot of them. They have debates. And they give you a sense of what’s going on with a kind of scorecard, the way all critics do. But also, they write erudite and full-fledged reviews. And it is a place where, I think, music lovers go to look.

So, it can be done. And there’s one in France, by the way, in French. It just covers nonfiction in about a thousand words. And the last time I looked at it, it was lined with ads from the French book publishers. This is a viable business model; someone just has to do it.


Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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