Conversation: David Denby on the Movies

BY Jeffrey Brown  December 7, 2012 at 12:50 PM EDT

The holiday movie season is upon us, a time of both blockbusters and the more serious fare that might be vying for Oscar attention before year’s end. David Denby writes about the immediate moment in his role as film critic for The New Yorker. He also looks at the much bigger picture in his latest book, “Do the Movies Have a Future?”

I spoke to him by phone on Thursday:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The holiday movie season is upon us, a time of both blockbusters and the more serious fare that might be vying for Oscar attention before year’s end. David Denby writes about the immediate moment in his role as film critic for The New Yorker. He also looks at the much bigger picture in his latest book, “Do the Movies Have a Future?” David Denby joins us now. Welcome to you.

DAVID DENBY: I’m glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, do the movies have a future? That’s a big question. The answers seems to –

DAVID DENBY: Well, they better or I won’t have a future.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s right. Your answer seems to be yes, but not necessarily a pretty one. Or something like that.

DAVID DENBY: There is a lot of activity on the side of the six big studios, which are owned by conglomerates. Those big studios, I feel, have broken their contract with the rest of us, that is they are not providing a wide range of interesting entertainment and important entertainment. I mean, only rarely do they do that, and this season is one of the times that they do that, but there is plenty of stuff flourishing with smaller and independent companies. There is a fantastic movie opening in a couple weeks, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. That was made without big studio money. Meg Ellison, Larry Ellison’s daughter, has become a backer of interesting movies.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s something you write about — some new players, I guess, getting involved. She’s one of them.

DAVID DENBY: Well, you know, she lost her shirt on “The Master,” the Paul Thomas Anderson movie which hasn’t done very well financially, but she maybe will regain her shirt with this one. I pray that these people don’t get discouraged and quit, because they are and there are other comparable millionaires who are responsible for some of the more interesting movies. The big studios are devoted to the international market, to so-called tent-pole movies that are really not for us. They are as much for Bangkok as they are for Bangor.

JEFFREY BROWN: You make the case that they are not making movies for grownups anymore. I mean, in some ways that’s nothing new. Is it a continuation of a long running theme or has something happened?

DAVID DENBY: You are right. This has been going on for 20 to 25 years, really ever since “Star Wars” was marketed all over the country and opened at 700 or 800 theaters, which now seems like a fairly small opening, and they realized they could get millions of kids — that is, 15 to 25 year olds — to go on opening weekend. That opening weekend blast has tipped the production of what gets made increasingly toward the young audience, which is only a portion of the total film audience. In other words, the whole system is bent out of shape. So you see where I’m going. You have a certain kind of movie that gets made over and over again: digital spectacles based on comic books and games and young adult fiction and so on. Many more of them than we need. Grownups, who used to be the center of movies, and most movies were made for grownups until around 1980, are sort of pushed aside, left to wonder like downsized workers until they are rounded up again October 1 and we have this brilliant fall season. And this happens year after year after year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but to the extent that there is an audience for the movies that you don’t love, I guess what I’m wondering is how much do you blame the audience, whether its an intent or just a lack of understanding of what movies could be.

DAVID DENBY: People fall out of the habit. Movie-going culture is a social culture. It’s a water-cooler culture. It’s around-the-dinner-table-conversation culture, so if there is only one movie out there for grownups you can skip it without feeling that you are going to be left out of things. If there are five, you are more inclined to go, just to be part of the swim. A lot of people have just given up the habit and drifted to television, quite rightly because as we all know television at its best is a lot better than it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: And going through its own renaissance right?

DAVID DENBY: Yeah. David Simon the creator of “The Wire” and “Treme” grabbed me at a movie festival — very insistent man, David Simon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I’ve met him and talked to him. I know.

DAVID DENBY: And said as long I don’t have to sell tickets I’ll be fine. And by that he meant that the subscription model, the HBO model where mom and dad pay the bills generates enough revenue for him to make the kind of serious work he wants to make, and he could never do it in the theatrical movie business. That tells you a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that your role has therefore changed? Or the role of the critic? Of course you are reviewing movies, do you have to lobby in some way for something better? Do you see it as more educating an audience about what’s good and bad in a way that perhaps you or others didn’t have to in the past?

DAVID DENBY: I don’t know that it’s the function that has changed too much. Forty years ago Pauline Kael certainly made a difference in the career of Martin Scorsese when “Mean Streets” came out. I think the critics this summer made a difference for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a remarkable $1 million independent film. Part of the job is keeping score, but there is an element of consumer advice. You are putting your finger on something important, which is, I think, we really have to draw attention to new talent and people who break through or someone who changes a style and does something fresh, rather than the routine product, some of which might be very skillful but doesn’t have that kind of excitement of something new. I love to bring the news about an exciting young performer or director who has broken through and done something interesting.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so bring it. It’s holiday season. Give our audience some recommendations.

DAVID DENBY: In “Lincoln,” they did something very brilliant. They didn’t make a bio pic, they didn’t make an epic, they made a movie about one month — January 1864 — in Lincoln’s life when he is trying to get the 13th Amendment, which outlaws slavery, into the Constitution before the war ends. And he does a kind of complicated double maneuver, which is to push for the amendment and to hold off the South’s desire to surrender, a morally questionable and complicated act in that crisis of one month. You get to see him as a political actor, as a man, as a family man. And Tony Kushner wrote it, our great playwright, and I don’t think Spielberg has ever done anything that has honored speech and words and character quite as much as that.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” which I mentioned earlier, which is about the long hunt for Osama bin Laden, centers on a young woman, and this is a real person who is in the CIA, she’s called Mia in the movie, which is a pseudonym played by Jessica Chastain, who has a theory that the way to find him is to track the courier who is bringing him information. That’s the way. So that’s her obsession and it’s about everything that led up to the actual raid by the Navy SEALS, which you see almost in real time at the end of the movie and its remarkably well done.

Then there is “Les Mis,” which is the big musical, which I’m not crazy about, but I think –

JEFFREY BROWN: I just saw the trailer for it the other night. It looks like a big musical. I mean, we know it’s a big musical, now it will be a big film musical.

DAVID DENBY: It’s a sung opera, everything is sung, and the camera is perched about eight inches from the mouths of these actors, who do all their singing live, but you feel like the camera is going to perform a tonsillectomy or something. It’s very lugubrious storytelling, very heavy hearted and emotional. I think the greatness of the American film musical is it’s lightness, it’s devotion to speed and jokes and personality and movement. This is the kind of thing that, well, the British have done a lot of it. This is a French one, of course, “Les Mis,” so there’s that.

There is Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40″ about Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann of the other couple from “Knocked Up,” who are reaching 40 and is very funny and has every kind of awful complication that marriages get into after they’ve reached about 15 years.

And then there is Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which is a kind of mock western and a mock tirade against racism and slavery. It’s set in 1858 partly in the West, partly in the Deep South. It’s way over the top like all of his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: You almost don’t have say that by definition right?

DAVID DENBY: Yeah. I enjoyed it more than any of his recent movies. I started out as a fan with “Pulp Fiction” and then I got completely turned off, and this a partial turn on. Christoph Waltz is in it and Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Dicaprio playing the ultimate sadistic, elegantly educated Southern grandee.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the movie season now and “Do the Movies Have a Future?” in book form. David Denby, nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

DAVID DENBY: Great to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you again for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.