Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Future of the Movies

THIS week in Salon, I interview David Denby, one of the New Yorker's film critics. We spoke about his new book, a collection of new and old essays and reviews, Do the Movies Have a Future? here.

A few years ago, I might have told you that Denby was too pessimistic and a little stodgy. I think it's clear today that his cautionary tone is warranted. In a nutshell, he's concerned that films have been reduced to corporate marketing for children and that real artistry is becoming hard to find. Movies for grownups have never had it so bad.

And this will make more sense after you've read the Q+A, but here are some bits that Salon did not have room for.

I think there’s good criticism in every genre if you know where to find it. I guess, it seems to me, that it’s bigger than that and has more to do with -- and this is true on Pitchfork as well -- popular tastes going one way and quality going another. I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know quite what happened, but I think we could -- whatever our differences in, say, musical taste -- probably agree that The Beatles, Dylan, the early Stones -- this is all stuff that has happened before I was born so  this isn’t Boomer nostalgia on my part -- was a period where a mass audience... and maybe 50s Miles Davis and some other things... where mass taste and quality were moving forward on the same track more or less. Even though, yes, some things were overlooked. Something is changed. Not just in rock and roll, but in film and perhaps in culture at large. Perhaps there is a larger cultural explanation for this. I don’t know what it is, but it feels like that’s happened in a number of different places.

Well, it’s the way the market system works. And the way people’s tastes are developed when they’re very young, and what they’re caught by. Cultivated taste in all the arts -- whether it’s literature, painting, music, film -- gets developed slowly by steps. And that’s why I said it was so important that, when you were a kid in the 50s and 60s, you were dragged to the movies by your parents. You half understood what was going on, but it aroused your curiosity. What was all of this sexual intrigue? The psychological complexity. Why was that person in a rage? It’s partly about how young people are educated into taste. I mean, very few people have naturally high-developed taste right from infancy or being aged 7 or 8. And that’s why I’m so upset that the movie business doesn’t seem to be laying the ground for grown up taste in the future. People will just drift off to television, and quite rightly, since there is all sorts of interesting and serious stuff there. It’s a calamity. Basically, the studios have attached their future to the birth rate rather than developing an audience that will go to movies in their 40s, 50s and 60s. That’s what they’re doing and I think it’s profoundly self-destructive.

I’m going to close with an old hero of yours. Pauline Kael was a mentor of yours and an undeniably brilliant person with an electrifying prose style. But she was also a critic who gradually ignored foreign films, exposed sensation for its own sake, insulted the art house audience as well as seriousness and cultivation. How does she fit into your argument?

Personally, she had an enormous affect on me and about 50 other people. She stuck a cattle prod into my side. And she changed her mind about my talents later on, which was a growing up experience that was painful, but I think, in the long run, healthy and necessary. Yes, she disliked overly controlled, formal exercises from Europe and austerity. She preferred the vitality and the mess of American popular culture to the highly controlled European art style. Although she did certainly push the young Goddard and the young Bertolucci, and she adored Kurosawa.

All influenced by American cinema, obviously.

Yeah. She adored Kurosawa, and then that influence of Kurosawa came back onto Spielberg and Lucas and many other people. But, I think, basically, your description is correct. As she grew less and less interested... For instance, she couldn’t do anything with the Germans in the 70s.

Fassbinder, she completely ignored.

Fassbinder was just, to her mind, thoroughly unappealing. And she just felt in a terrible mood everytime she saw one of those movies, so she didn’t write about them. But she didn’t really respond to Wenders or early Herzog, either. She felt... I quote some of those reviews where she felt her strength was being “sapped.” You know, her All-American energy. She was a California farm girl, she was not going to be pushed over by these European phonies. That was the persona. So, you know, I think that was wrong and some of us feel that she went too far in demanding craziness and zaniness and that she missed out on some interesting and exciting things. But all I can tell the young people is it’s great to have a mentor, and it’s great to be rejected by your mentor. Painful as that might be. Because then you’re forced to shed some of those early influences and find your own voice and interests.

I’m teaching a criticism class right now and encouraged all of the students to pick up a critic, read his or her work, do a report and get to know it. But, the next step is to transcend the influence of Dwight Macdonald or Ellen Willis or Pauline Kael or whoever it is.

You have to read everything. You have to absorb everything good. I always tell young people, “Don’t forget that your medium is words.” The artist’s medium might be music or film or digits, but your medium is words. That means you can’t just read journalism. You have to read Shakespeare. You have to read Wallace Stevens. You have to read fiction because otherwise you’re just going to fall into a kind of jog trot of journalese phrasemaking. You’re going to date yourself very quickly, and have nothing much to say. So, you’ve got to continuously freshen the language. And the people who do that are the ones who survive. 

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