[20 November 2012]
Technology journalist Ian Betteridge has a theory of sensationalist headlines commonly referred to as “Betteridge’s law”: any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. And while Betteridge’s law has held up for a vast number of alarmist headlines, it doesn’t apply to the title of New Yorker critic David Denby’s latest writing collection, Do The Movies Have A Future? Over the course of 22 essays and reviews, Denby wants us to know that despite the proliferation of awful blockbusters, the inability of today’s movie stars to match their peers of yore, and the absurd willingness of consumers to watch big-screen movies on tiny-screened iDevices, the movies do, in fact, have a future.
They also happen to have a lot of obstacles to overcome, all of which Denby delights in exploring, testing, and occasionally puncturing with tasteful barbs. His exploration of the potential filmpocalypse works so well because he possesses three important traits: avidity, encyclopedic knowledge, and refinement.
The first two qualities are essential to Denby’s trade; a film critic must be passionate, and with such a comparatively short history of their chosen art (painting begins with cavemen, whereas movies begin with Louis Le Prince’s 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene and end with whatever’s playing at the cineplex this weekend), they had better provide plenty of context for the films they praise and loathe. Denby’s refinement sets him apart. You get the sense reading these pieces, all of which were written between 1999 and 2011, that he would rather be called a toothless critic than a crass one. After all, this is a man who once wrote a book called Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.
So, a snark-free book of criticism. Is it as entertaining as the films it analyzes? He begins his collection with a statement of purpose that perhaps overdoes it on rhetorical moxie: “I want to make appalling statements, rend the air with terrible cries (i.e., deal with the actualities of the situation), indulge end-of-the-movies fears, celebrate good and great pictures, and herald Lazarus-like signs of hope, rebirth, and regeneration.”
I’m not sure if he ever reaches such a fever pitch, but he certainly wastes no time in offering occasionally contrary but always reasonable opinions on recent filmmaking, split into subcategories like Trends, Directors, and Independent Glories. Digital theatrics and CGI should be scorned for their “defoliated” results, but can occasionally produce “sequences of great loveliness and shivery terror.” Chick flicks are “too scared of tough girls, too shy of heroism” but, in the case of something like The Devil Wears Prada, can still be “magically entertaining.”
When he generalizes, Denby is mild, mellow, hesitant to rend the air with terrible cries. When he specifies, when he allows something to pierce his reasonable armor and get under his skin, the works he crafts can be jaw-dropping. In his piece on new home theater technologies, “Pirates on the iPod / The Soul of a New Screen,” Denby first addresses high-definition with caution: “I’m not used to it yet, and in truth, I admire it without really loving it.” But when he watches Taxi Driver on a 40-inch high def screen, he’s dismayed at the loss of the “encompassing lurid rawness” that he had so adored when he saw Scorsese’s masterpiece in the theater. High def fails him, and he feels it: “It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good at all; it was worse than a diminution, it was betrayal.”
The essays are carefully culled to cover the full spectrum of cinema—everything from Judd Apatow slacker comedies to Pedro Almodóvar indies to Tarantino’s “moral callousness”—and apart from giving the reader a good picture of today’s film world (indie pictures have trouble getting funded, more explosions and less talking make movies palatable for international audiences, etc.), they also exhibit Denby’s idiosyncratic and compelling taste in movies, and in movie stars. He’s obsessed with Joan Crawford, referencing her in many essays and dedicating a biographical sketch to her alone. He’s a sucker for “story and character” over “sheer effects and sheer movement,” but makes room for modern popcorn-munchers like Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The best nuggets of his insight sneak up on a reader when least expected. Like when he denotes the essential rule of all rom-coms, from the most classic to the cheesiest: “Romance becomes romantic comedy only when there is delay.” Or when he advocates for the typecasting of young starlets because “it makes an easy, involuntary communion with a star possible for the audience.” Denby is an emotionalist. This essay collection puts him forth as someone unabashedly interested in the emotional experience, in the easy communion of watching movies. It makes for a great read simply because it puts him on our side. He’s not a lofty intellectual, lobbing prescriptive reviews from on high; he’s sitting next to us in the theater, chuckling, wincing, and sniffling, too.
His penultimate essay is the most personal; in “Pauline Kael: A Great Critic and Her Circle”, he pays tribute to the legendary film critic before reflecting on his own role as a member of Kael’s circle in the ‘70s: first as a pet, then as an outcast. Denby was her avid acolyte— a “Paulette”, according to certain snarky critics of the time—before being unceremoniously dumped by the mercurial Kael.
He has fully recovered: “If growing up is partly a matter of building strengths out of the bitterness of disappointment, I can’t blame Pauline for not giving me the praise I wanted.” The measured maturity of the essays in Do The Movies Have A Future?, along with those delicious moments of pure emotional reaction, should earn Denby plenty of praise. So yes, it is as entertaining as the films it analyzes.