David Denby on the future of film

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First aired on Q (12/10/12)

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If you've ever pored over the movie listings only to find nothing worth leaving the house for, you might share the pain of David Denby. Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker magazine, and one of North America's best-known film writers. In his latest collection, Do the Movies Have a Future?, Denby argues that fewer and fewer truly worthwhile films are being made these days, and that too many current movies leave viewers unsatisfied. He spoke with Q guest host Terry O'Reilly last week about his new book, and the future of cinema.

It's not all bad news, of course. "There are good things coming out from independent filmmakers along the sides of the industry," Denby said. But it's the major studios who wield the most influence, not the independent filmmakers. "What worries me, and what has worried everyone for 25 years since the conglomerates took over the studios, is the six big studios and what they're doing. They don't seem to me to be building an audience for the future...they give up on the grown-up audiences for nine months of the year."

Studios like Paramount, 20th Century Fox, etc., only seem to be interested in making "three kinds of movies at this point," according to Denby. There are the blockbuster action flicks ("A lot of exacerbated pixels fighting each other in dead digital space and they aren't really about anything"), family-friendly animated films (some of which, Denby admits, are actually quite good, like anything out of Pixar), and genre films (chick flicks, horrors, thrillers, etc.). "The range of subjects has narrowed," said Denby. For example, he says that a good serious dramatic movie like 2007's Michael Clayton wouldn't have a chance of being made by a major studio today. "Because the studios don't see any way of opening it to a 40 or 50 million dollar weekend."

"The blockbuster obsession has joined with the opening week bragging rights obsession," said Denby. As a result, nothing about the film imprints itself on your memory except the sensation of being excited. "If you look at people who come out of a good movie, they seem like zombies...they're trying to hold on to that image, the world," he explained. "Any good movie creates a world for you. But when you just have a lot of meaningless frenzy...you don't remember anything."

It's a terrible loss. In his book, Denby discusses how the explosion of the digital realm and the relatively cheap access to previously unimaginable special effects has chased drama and humanity off the screen. Of course, it's not always that dire, and digital effects are often used well (Denby cites The Rise of the Planet of the Apes as an example that he loved). "Good narratives depend on limitations," he said. "The hero has to be able to die. The dramatic logic in a lot of these bigger movies has been killed."

"Movies were essentially made for grown-ups until about 35 years ago," Denby said. He laments the former moviegoing experience of being a child or young adult and going to see a movie that was maybe just a bit over your head. "That half understanding/half non-understanding laid the groundwork for grown-up appreciation of movies." Denby argues in his book that a need for and appreciation of complexity and sophistication in film needs to be cultivated.

So how does Denby answer his own question? Do movies have a future? Of course they do, says Denby. "It's not as if there's an absence of talent. There's just as much talent as their ever was," he said. "It's just that the business structure now simply isn't working to maximize the talent."

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