Saturday, July 7, 2018

Do the Movies Have a Future?

Do the Movies Have a Future?
by David Denby
Recommended Ages: 13+

It seems weird to criticize a book of criticism, or review the work of a reviewer, but here goes. This slightly dated book (based on material written between the 1990s and about 2011) brings together some critical essays by a veteran New Yorker film critic who has seen a lot of movie history during his career, which (like my life) started in the early 1970s. He also studied film at a university level, which adds even more credibility to his opinion. And though there are some details on which, nevertheless, I am convinced he is full of it, his major argument comes across pretty solidly: the film business, as it has been operating during the last couple decades, is killing the movies.

That is to say, it is killing their ability to bring audiences together as a community, to communicate with them meaningfully, to create emotional experiences for them, to leave an impression on them that they will think about and talk about later, to tell stories and depict images that come to life in their imagination. The film business is doing this, he argues, by devoting all its large-scale investments to crappily made blockbuster franchise/genre flicks full of meaningless fantasy spectacle, investing only meager crumbs in a few "art-house" movies, and omitting the whole middle range of quality entertainment - including whole genres that are sadly fading away. The blockbusters bemuse the eye with movement and the ear with noise, while seldom showing anything real.

Denby reminds the reader that there are alternatives, selecting examples of his own previously published (and some unpublished) articles organized by director, genre, critics, and other issues. Yes, they're just movie reviews, and I've read a lot of them by other writers; but they're very thoughtful and thought-provoking ones. His appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael was very personal and touching. His ditto of James Agee includes samples of super-intelligent prose, as well as a few tid-bits of awe-inspiring bitchiness. His review of a movie that I have never seen, and still may never see (I'm not sure I have the strength for it), actually made me cry. I kid you not. Also, I laughed out loud several times during this book. Did I mention it's a book of film criticism? Either there's something wrong with me, or David Denby has the stuff.

I thought he was wrong about a couple of movies. I agreed with his opinion about at least one film, but not with his reason for arriving at it. I thought his views about the work of at least one director, one film, and one whole school of film-making were half-baked. Criticism is, after all, opinion; everyone has one and is welcome to it. But in this book I also learned a lot about the history of film and how to watch them and evaluate them. Will I tell you which bits I most enjoyed learning about? No. You go ahead and read this book, or don't read it, and learn what you like. What I will say is that a writer who can express himself as well as Denby deserves some credit, a reasonable doubt at least, for having the ability to think clearly and, when he applies that ability to something worth thinking about, his opinion is worth reading. This book, for what its moment in film history is worth (and it's still recent enough to apply today, for the most part), is still out there, searching for readers who have the clarity of mind to consider Denby's opinion about the movie business - its past, present, and future. Perhaps by helping train those minds to see and understand what is and isn't happening on the silver screen, this book will affect the answer to the question opened by its title.

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