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Denby on the State of Film and What it Means to be a Critic


David Denby talks about the dying breed of originality in art — I assume he’s talking about mainstream Hollywood films, which lose their local flavor because they have to be generic enough to appeal to an international audience. I don’t know that I agree with his premise but I think he’s a great writer – and I am looking forward to reading his book. He talks to Rachel Martin on NPR’s Weekend Edition and had this to say:

On how blockbusters must now be accessible to audiences all over the world, and why they suffer as a result

“Two-thirds of the box office return comes from overseas. They have to play in Bangkok and Bangalore, you know, as well as Bangor, Maine …

“The local flavor has gone out of them. In the early ’70s, there were a lot of things set in American, very specific places like Nashville, [Tenn.,] you know, or The Godfather in New York in the late ’40s, and Long Island and the city. I mean, that sense of a very specific time and place has vanished.

“Now you’re getting it in small films, particularly things that go through the Sundance process of script development, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, this marvelous film that came out this past summer that was shot in the bayous of Louisiana. You can’t get much more specific than that. I miss that. There’s a certain grandeur, a certain ambition [that] has just gone out of studio filmmaking. And they openly say they’re only interested in spectacles made from comic books and games, or maybe young-adult fictions and genre films. “

On his characterization of Avatar as “the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years,” and how that blockbuster bucked the trend

“I don’t want to make this categorical; I’m as seducible as anyone else, and what was luscious was the color. Remember all the purples and blues and mauves and oranges and colors I don’t even know the names of? But we’re talking about one great movie here, you know, that makes a really inventive use of space, and that is so rare.”

On directors who are pushing filmmaking into new and interesting territory

“Pedro Almodovar of Spain I think has the same kind of excitement and prestige around his movies the way [Ingmar] Bergman did and [Francois] Truffaut and [Federico] Fellini and so on, 40 years ago. At home, there are a lot of people who are very talented, like Paul Thomas Anderson, who did The Master; or Bennett Miller, who did Capote and Moneyball; or Alexander Payne, who did Sideways. But one of the problems, Rachel, is those people, and women too — it takes them forever to get financing.

“Tony Gilroy, who made Michael Clayton with George Clooney a few years ago — very interesting movie about a corrupt lawyer in New York who finds his soul — he told me that movie couldn’t be made anymore. That was only five years ago. It’s not that there’s an absence of talent. There’s an enormous amount of acting talent. My enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed in any way. I’m dying for a revolution.”

On what it means now to be a film critic

“[It means] to look for anything that has life in it, anywhere. If it’s Richard Gere giving the best performance of his life in Arbitrage, you celebrate that. If it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena having a rapport together in a police car in End of Watch, you celebrate that. And you try to sell those things, when they’re good, to the largest audience you can reach.”

27 Comments on this Post

  1. Knocks today’s film for use of digitial effects, says Avatar is great because of it’s pretty colors.

    Fascinating insight.

  2. I enjoy Denby’s writing most of the time except for that one review of Napoleon Dynamite. I had no idea what he was talking about throughout the piece.

  3. Christophe

    PLS STOP BLAMING THE REST OF THE WORLD FOR THE STATE OF HOLLYWOOD

    “blockbusters must now be accessible to audiences all over the world”

    THE TREE OF LIFE did three times more business abroad than in the US, I guess it should be considered more accessible to foreigners then.

    “The local flavor has gone out of them. [...] I mean, that sense of a very specific time and place has vanished.”

    Woody Allen’s films consistently generate 3 to 10 times more money abroad than in the US, yet they’re as “local flavor” as can be.

    Moviegoers watch the movies that studios serve them whether they be American, European or Asian. Of course it takes time to acclimatate to more sophisticated fare, but it is not the audiences’ fault if Hollywood feels the need to dumb down everything out of contempt for them.

  4. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    “blockbusters must now be accessible to audiences all over the world”

    THE TREE OF LIFE did three times more business abroad than in the US,

    Christophe, I won’t argue your larger point. I agree with you that broad generalizations about international audiences lead to wrong assumptions.

    But Denby specifically says blockbusters must now be accessible to audiences all over the world”

    Because blockbusters have budgets of $150 or more. The studios absolutely must make sure that those very expensive film are accessible to be understood by high-brow and low-brow ticket-buyers alike.

    Tree of Life and Woody Allen films are not blockbusters.

    If Woody Allen movies cost $150 million to make, Woody Allen would not be making movies. Because none of them would ever turn a profit.

    yes, sophisticated film audiences outside the US do outnumber sophisticated American audiences. (One reason: the USA represents only 5% of the world’s population).

  5. LOOPER was super original, while familiar, but more importantly, huge in China. :P

  6. Christophe

    To Ryan A., I certainly agree with you, I pondered taking the word “blockbusters” out of my comment, but it would have completely misrepresented what David Denby said.

    All I’m saying is that it is misleading to insinuate that somehow audiences (in America or abroad) might be responsible for the lack of intelligent mid-budget films being made, when in fact there are stil many examples of such films doing quite well at the box-office.

    Also, when it comes to blockbusters, I am certain they could remain as accessible as they need to be while showing a little more ambition story-wise.

    I guess the problem lies simply in the general lack of vision and courage from studios and financiers, who believe they know better than anyone else what audiences want, when in fact they don’t really know anything, I mean, no one really knows anything, that’s why it’s such a risky business.

  7. Yeah, I don’t really see how he believes Avatar ‘bucked the trend’ other than mentioning how pretty the colors were and an interesting use of space. But to each their own. That is an interesting comment about Michael Clayton, though.

  8. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Also, when it comes to blockbusters, I am certain they could remain as accessible as they need to be while showing a little more ambition story-wise.

    We agree again. Christopher Nolan proves accessibly and complexity are not mutually exclusive.

  9. There’s one interesting point I was thinking about earlier in the year about how global American filmmaking has become, especially with the rise of overseas ticket sales being promount importance(foreign revenues counted for 64% percent of the total in 2009, 66% in 2010, 69% in 2011). Michael Mann’s mystic LA, Spike Lee and Woody Allen’s love letters to New York, John Ford’s reverence for the Utah-Arizona border, etc. Now the big American auteurs can’t wait to get OUT of the country! Tarantino’s first three movies were distinctly in LA, but after his crazy success his films only occupy Tarantinoverse of kung-fu flicks and war movies. Woody Allen can only be seen now from Paris with love, or perhaps Madrid, Spain. Alexander Payne will love to throw rocks at the little people in flyover country, sitting comfortably in his easy chair. Batman is a Welsh man and Spider-Man is now British with an American accent.

    It’s at the point that something like Beats of the Southern Wild, even beyond it’s own mythical narrative propulsion, seems like something completely foreign, a world on to itself, despite being right here in the south of America.

  10. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Interesting observations, Jeremy. Nice nuggets of insight.

    this one line baffles me though
    “Alexander Payne will love to throw rocks at the little people in flyover country, sitting comfortably in his easy chair.”

    True, Payne’s humor is dark, his satire has sharp teeth. But he’s one of America’s most sincerely humanist directors. I think he shows huge sympathy to most of his characters, don’t you? Sure, his lead characters run up against a lot of self-satisfied blowhards, but it would be false to make a movie about America where no self-satisfied blowhards lived.

    Are you bothered by how Payne depicts Nebraska? Payne was born in Omaha. Maintains strong ties to his roots there.

  11. Looper’s fantastic performance in China has to do with the fact that a part of it is set in China and it has been given a strong push there and an early release.

    David Denby does write well, but I’ve questioned his intelligence ever since he wrote this about Shame (what The Social Network is to Sasha, Shame is to me):

    “Shame” is a movie about the hell—the utter hell—of being a young, good-looking, well-employed, straight single man in New York. Most people, after all, don’t get enough sex. Michael Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan gets too much. He never stops; he heads for a men’s-room stall for a tryst with himself when he can’t find a woman. He has an infinite number of orgasms, yet feels no pleasure at all. (Exactly my problem—and yours, too.)

    Not only do I question his intelligence for so much as thinking that, I also question why he felt the need to write it, considering that it was Anthony Lane who reviewed Shame for The New Yorker. Denby just had to pitch his oar in too.

  12. Gosh, yeah, Christian Bale is Welsh. Fucking hell. I don’t even think he knows that any more.

  13. ““Two-thirds of the box office return comes from overseas. They have to play in Bangkok and Bangalore, you know, as well as Bangor, Maine …”

    Perhaps he’s forgetting that this has always been the case. Hollywood has always specialized in large, flashy, exportable product that is intended to provide high return. If it weren’t for the popularity of the French New Wave or the 60s Brit boom in flmmaking, we never would’ve had the golden 70s in the US. Denby even references foreign influence later on in the discussion, then mentions some domestic non-Hollywood types who are doing great work.

    I think there are lots of smaller US films that would do well overseas, Beasts being one, but I’m guessing that most probably don’t have the distribution budget of a multi-national.

    If you look at individual countries and their BO hits, they are usually their own smaller domestic films, such as The Intouchables in France. Audiences worldwide are smart – although they may enjoy both, but they know the difference between a good film and an event movie.

    Foreign markets go to the blockbusters because that is what N America sends them, just as that is the primary market focus at home. I doubt that the influence is the other way around.

  14. Yes, but the international box office is growing rapidly, particularly in Asia, steve. Foreign grosses are now accounting for much higher proportions of many films’ worldwide grosses. This is especially true for blockbusters. Also, a growing number of films are being made with the apparent intention of targeting the international market, the expansion of which is surely one of the most influential factors in the greenlighting of films such as Resident Evil 5 and Ice Age 4.

  15. Speaking of box office, for those who claimed that Viola Davis was a box office magnet last year with the Help and the reason why that movie made so much money, I would suggest they check this week’s BO numbers…Wont Back Down bombed with only $2.7 million from 2500 theaters, $1070 per theater average. I hope this is the end of her getting “sorry for last year” nomination story.

  16. Who was ever claiming that Viola Davis was a box office magnet? The Help’s box office success had nothing to do with her.

    Good to see the haters are still out in force…

  17. Tero Heikkinen

    Looper’s screenplay was originally partly set in France, not China. But it was changed after a Chinese company came up with a big chunk of money for the production.

    Hollywood is quite openly more global than before. Not just Europe which has walked hand in hand with Hollywood for decades. And why not? Universal Studios was founded by a German guy etc… etc…

    I think the strategy is like this. When a studio finds out that their new blockbuster is an absolute turkey, they try to save money on Domestic advertising and releases it in as many countries as possible – simultaneously – before the word really gets out. Russia is where you start at least – they see anything. In general, they have the worst taste in film in the world. This at least happened with Battleship and John Carter. Bad films, really bad films, trying to minimise the losses (which they already knew was going to happen).

  18. Paddy,
    I am not a hater at all.. But i think you missed some comments, even articles that claimed Viola Davis should have won last year also because she was the main reason why The Help made that much money at the box office. I agree with you the Help’s BO had nothing to do with her, but her supoorters said the help made that much money because of her. I know what I am talking about. So before you call me a “hater” do your homework.

  19. rufussondheim

    My theory is that people who love Viola Davis just hate Maggie Gyllenhaal an equal amount. Therefore their affinity for Never Back Down (or whatever it’s called) was neutral. They therefore stayed home so they could wake up in time to catch Up W/Chris Hayes.

  20. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    But i think you missed some comments, even articles that claimed Viola Davis should have won last year also because she was the main reason why The Help made that much money at the box office.

    Don’t feel bad, Paddy. I missed those articles too.

    The only time “Viola Davis” and “money” appeared in the same paragraph was right here. No connection between star-power and box-office was made.

    In fact, the paragraph suggests that studios should take note: casting a black woman in the lead did not prevent The Help from making a lot of money. But that’s a far cry from saying casting a black woman in the lead is the reason it made a lot of money.

  21. Jake G!!!

    This has nothin to do with the article, but I watched Moonrise Kingdom yesterday. Its one of the best films of the year. It mixes comedy and drama perfectly, and it is very different(in a good way). I was never bored once, and the acting was great. I could see it getting snubbed in the BP race just because its a small film, then again it could make it out of respect for Wes Anderson.

  22. unlikely hood

    God knows I don’t always agree with David Brooks, but this is a good response to David Denby: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/26/opinion/brooks-the-power-of-the-particular.html Food for counter-thought.

    God knows I don’t always defend the studios, but you could make a case that shoehorning foreign scenes into blockbusters actually increases the “grandeur.” Is it crazy that I go to Bourne or Inception or X-Men or Mission Impossible and feel a fun jolt when we land in Nigeria or somewhere? As long as it’s not Will Smith and Martin Lawrence driving their car over half the peasants in Cuba, I kinda like the little bits in other countries.

    Anyway, we’ve been talking about this forever…months ago when Sasha pointed out all these Brits playing iconic American roles (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Lincoln), I said exactly what Nikki Finke would say (and has been saying): the studios want “foreign elements,” because Brits know when people are British (Limeys still giggle at the thought of how Hugh Laurie put one over on Americans for 8 years of a TV show), and a nice opening in Britain cues the rest of the continent, and typically that goes from there to Asia…blah blah.

    I wish I could agree with steve50, but those 70s films he extols were hardly made for foreign audiences. Some of the major (think roadshow) 1950s films certainly were. Certainly we have extorted favorable terms for our product since the 1920s. But Denby is right that the trend is more pronounced, wrong that it is usually problematic, and also wrong about the power of particularity, as Brooks explains.

  23. Pfft I don’t feel bad. Hahaha I can’t remember the last time I felt bad about something I said / wrote / thought.

  24. Looper
    Moonrise Kingdom
    Beasts Of The Southern Wild
    Seven Psychopaths
    The Master
    The Cabin In The Woods
    Paranorman

    All original, great movies that came out of the mainstream Hollywood studio system that I’ve already seen this year. Plus many of the kind of big blockbusters that Denby knocks in his piece were actually really good this year as well. All I’m saying is he maybe could’ve picked a weaker year to write about this perceived problem.

  25. And to those who would say that’s a short list of movies, I was only listing the films I consider to be really great this year. There were plenty of other original movies I saw this year that I liked rather than loved, such as:

    Magic Mike
    Chronicle
    The Grey
    Premium Rush
    Brave
    Prometheus
    End Of Watch
    The Five-Year Engagement
    Take This Waltz
    Jeff, Who Lives At Home
    Goon
    To Rome With Love
    Bernie
    Safety Not Guaranteed
    Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

  26. my predictions for the top ten best films of the year
    LIncoln
    Argo
    End of Watch
    The Hobbit
    Moonrise Kingdom
    The Dark Knight Rises
    Beasts of the Southern Wild
    The Avengers
    Prometheus
    Jeff who lives at homme

  27. 11. Hunger Games
    12. Ted
    13. Dark Shadows
    14. The Master
    15. Arbitage
    16. The Good Doctor
    17. Side by Side
    18. Act of Valor
    19. Paranorman
    30. The Campaign

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