In the introduction to David Denby’s collection Do the Movies Have a Future?, he imagines the answer, at least for the purposes of the theatergoer who likes a certain kind of quality film: “Well, maybe. Sort of. Perhaps. If certain things happen.”
I think it says a lot that the question is so big and the answer so tentative.
Maybe unsurprisingly, the gist of his opening essay is that the movies are becoming crasser, more commercial, and more frenetic, and he feels that this is definitely bad. He is made “crazy” by this, and mourns what movies use to be like, how a more adult entertainment used to rule the theaters, in a time when Oscar-worthiness was better correlated to popularity. He paints for us a picture of marketing tie-ins and branded entertainment and movies filled with too many explosions and not enough dramatic tension, and this is a world that dismays him. He takes Iron Man 2 as his example, and explains that while Robert Downey, Jr. is entertaining, the movie boils down to well-produced bang-bang without any emotional heft.
I’m with him in all of this, and in fact I’m also unhappy with popular culture in the new century. But Denby wants to make a grander argument out of his unhappiness. In this state-of-the-movies address, he develops a scathing critique of the cultural moment, one that is implicitly founded on the notion that things have gone very wrong with the art of film. It’s not enough that he himself is unhappy; like many people, Denby assumes that the thing that makes him unhappy is a symptom of a larger wrong. He may not say it outright, but it becomes plain through his extended lamentation that he considers the decline of his preferred theatergoing experience something worse than a minor annoyance.
Somewhat perversely, Denby doesn’t mention politics here, only aesthetics, which makes his stridency harder to justify. He never argues that the problem is that the images are perpetuating some conservative agenda he doesn’t like. Instead, his problem seems to be wholly about the aesthetics – he thinks that today’s blockbusters are not enjoyable, and that’s his primary objection. It’s a tough argument to make, at base, since then we just are left to wonder how terrible this aesthetic atrocity could really be and how seriously we ought to take it compared to unemployment, global warming, kidnapped girls in Nigeria, or income inequality. Aesthetics – as much as I’m obsessed with them – don’t really stand up as anything to be in arms about, or at least not on the apolitical level Denby seems to be concerned with.
The most telling part of his intro comes when Denby concedes that, indeed, good cinema is still being churned out by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Wes Anderson. Now, forced to clarify his problem with the current cinematic conditions, he explains it this way:
Not everything an artist wants to say can be said with $3 million. Artists who want to work with, say, $30 million (still a moderate amount of money by Hollywood standards) can’t get their movies made.
I feel it almost goes without saying that a man who sincerely bemoans that his favorite artists are only getting a cool $3 mil to do their work is someone with his priorities out of whack. He goes on to note with real disappointment that Alexander Payne had to wait seven years to make another movie after Sideways, which only makes me wonder if even Alexander Payne would feel so wronged for not having been allowed to make a film in that time.
The culprits in Denby’s account, unsurprisingly, are the corporate bean counters. “The studios are not merely servicing the tastes of the young audience; they are continuously creating the audience that they want to sell to,” he asserts. Later he tells us, “The audience goes because the movies are there, not because it necessarily loves them.” This seems like a mightily pat bit of sociological reasoning. Moreover – and this is just a suspicion – one wonders if Denby doesn’t want to face the reality that it may not be the studio heads who are entirely at fault here. Iron Man 2 and its ilk are made year after year because they reliably draw an enormous volunteer army of moviegoers. To condemn Iron Man 2, you have to condemn the average person’s choices, which I think Denby might as well acknowledge as long as he’s damning the cinema they choose to consume.
Rather than the public at large, however, Denby targets a smaller group, one that wouldn’t seem to have much to do with the reason that the third Transformers made $1 billion inside of a month (as Denby points out). He finds that many people, “particularly men in their late forties and younger,” don’t want to hear this talk of systemic aesthetic rot. He says they think he’s a “naive blowhard,” but in turn he believes they are the naive ones.
But who are these people exactly, and are they the reason that Iron Man 2 did well in the theater? Denby seems to mean this as a cultural critique of a younger generation, but he does so without citing so much as a blog post to substantiate his characterization of this population he’s embattled with. His portrait of the modern media consumer seems to be based on a few passing impressions of some younger folk he knows, which makes Denby’s arguments the rhetorical equivalent of beginning an essay by complaining that kids today just don’t understand. To convince us that he’s more than an aging blowhard, Denby will have to offer more than just a few idle observations about some people he happens to know.
Speaking off the cuff and with zero authority now, I’ll suggest the following: Denby loves movies and probably thinks of them as central to his lived experience, and so do I. But most people don’t; for most people, movies are just part of their lives, and their taste in movies doesn’t define who they are. That seems weird to me, but a much greater proportion of the population finds it weird that I don’t care more about the fate of the Red Sox. Humanity has effectively outvoted me on this, and barring the violation of my civil rights and ability to watch the Criterion Collection in peace, I am okay with being in the minority.