Coming Distractions

Book cover
Do The Movies Have A Future?by By David DenbySimon & Schuster. 368p $27

An eloquent resounding fearful impassioned, maybe, he surely hopes so, is the answer David Denby, movie critic for The New Yorker, gives to the title question in his new collection of essays, reviews and profiles.

The major problem for current cinema, Denby writes, is that digital film-making, which allows the director to cause any fantastic image he wants to happen—from the rioting apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which he lauds, to the toys becoming fighting robots of the Transformer series that Denby calls “a thundering farrago of verbal and visual gibberish”—has taken control of the medium:

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The liberation of the fantastic has led, in less than twenty years, to the routinization of the fantastic, a set of convulsive tropes—crashes, flights, explosions, transformations—that now feel like busy blank patches on the screen. At this point, the fantastic is chasing human temperament and destiny—what we used to call drama—from the movies. The merely human has been transcended. And if the illusion of physical reality is unstable, the emotional framework of movies has changed, too, and for the worse. In time—a very short time—the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of the cinema.

These digital spectacles, devoured by the increasingly market-manipulated young, rake in tons of money and leave out what in publishing terms is called the mid-list. Talented directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) and Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) have to spend five or six years “pleading” for money to make their movies. These same movies often win Oscars, but what the studios want are the big bucks. Movies, Denby writes, that are “execution dependent,” that is, “good,” are too big a risk. Denby hopes to inspire and be part of a cinematic “insurgency” that will promote good dramatic movies again, using digital technology when needed, but not enslaved by it.

Denby’s reviews are both solid and nuanced, but he’s not afraid to express disgust either. He writes, for instance, that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” “is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony” and “a sadomasochistic revel passing itself off as a devotional film.” He doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” either: “Kill Bill is what’s formally known as decadence and commonly known as crap.”

But he can also praise the movies he loves. He writes, “The Hurt Locker is a small classic of tension, bravery, and fear, which will be studied 20 years from now when people want to understand something of what happened to American soldiers in Iraq.” And about the skeptical protagonist of “TheDiving Bell and the Butterfly,” he says, “The birth of Bauby’s soul feels like nothing less than the rebirth of the cinema.”

Denby is at his best, though, when diagnosing what ails current cinema and remembering what it was like to see movies in ornate theaters before we knew the sex lives of everyone on the screen. His deep knowledge of film lore shines in his profiles of directors as diverse as Clint Eastwood and Pedro Almodóvar. And his essays on James Agee and Pauline Kael are moving and sharp—especially the latter, because of Denby’s personal experience of being taught by Kael, helped by her to obtain a reviewing job at The Atlantic and then telephoned by her to be imperiously told he didn’t have what it takes to be a critic.

The book’s only flaws are the double-spaced introductions to each section of the book; these seemed almost an afterthought and not as well done as the introduction to the whole book. And I could argue with some of Denby’s reviews, which at times, to me, show a lack of understanding of and openness to Catholicism. But this attitude does not seem willful or hostile, merely puzzled.

Denby writes in his essay on Agee that “for Agee the heroism of the writer’s role consisted in harnessing an aggressive critical faculty...to an earnest, almost religious desire for celebration.” These words apply as well to David Denby’s writing in Do the Movies Have a Future?

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