Author Interviews
3:20 am
Sun September 30, 2012

The 'Future' Of Movies? Critic Says It's Not So Bright

Originally published on Sun September 30, 2012 5:04 am

According to David Denby, 1979's Apocalypse Now came "out of a movie world so different from our own that sitting through it again is almost a masochistic experience."

The New Yorker film critic clearly loves movies, but in his new book, Do the Movies Have a Future?, he argues that complex films like Apocalypse Now are becoming more and more of a rarity. Denby joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss promising directors, what it means to be a film critic and the future of film.


Interview Highlights

On a famous scene in Apocalypse Now, and why such scenes are becoming less common

"I was thinking of that great scene where, to the sound of [Richard] Wagner's 'The Ride of the Valkyries,' the helicopters come in ... [Click here to watch that scene. Editor's Note: This scene contains some violence.]

"First of all, it was shot, Rachel, in real space — it wasn't digitized. So everything had a kind of ... palpability, a force, a heaviness; all of that movement, all of the pandemonium on the ground, the explosions, everything. I mean, and now, when we do spectacle, we just have dead space, digital space, that's filled with a lot of — how should I put it — exacerbated pixels, you know, challenging each other in Nowheresville. And also the emotional complexity of that scene ... It's emotionally a very demanding, complex scene. And we very rarely get that now."

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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF 20TH CENTURY FOX FANFARE)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There it is, that sound. And I don't know about you but I love movies. The real deal, I'm talking about. Going to the movie theater, getting a jumbo popcorn with butter, of course; settling into my seat, turning off your cell phone and getting transported somewhere else by the bigger than life characters and plot lines unfolding on the big screen.

David Denby likes movies too. He likes them a lot. But in his new book, the film critic for The New Yorker wonders whether movies as we know them, have a future. David Denby joins us from our bureau in New York City. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID DENBY: Oh, I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: I want to start our conversation about your book by reading a little bit from one of the opening chapters, if you'll allow me. And you're writing about the film "Apocalypse Now." And you write that that film, quote, "comes out of a movie world so different from our own that sitting through it again is almost a masochistic experience." You go on to say that the language of the best movies then was strong enough to haunt your dreams. What did you mean by that? What's so different?

DENBY: Well, I was thinking of that great scene where, to the sound of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," the helicopters come in...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES" AND A HELICOPTER)

DENBY: ...and Robert Duvall strutting up and down on the beach, you know, with his shirt off looking like a kind of crazed Peking duck and, you know, what I'm saying? I love the smell of...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "APOCALYPSE NOW")

ROBERT DUVALL: (as Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore) I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like victory.

DENBY: First of all, it was shot, Rachel, in real space. It wasn't digitized so everything had a kind of palpability, a force, a heaviness. Now, when we do spectacle, we just have digital space that's filled with a lot of - how should I put it - exacerbated pixels, you know, challenging each other in Nowheresville.

(LAUGHTER)

DENBY: And there's also the emotional complexity of that scene and we very rarely get that now.

MARTIN: You don't see that complexity these days, huh?

DENBY: Well, it's...

(LAUGHTER)

DENBY: Well, those kind of big movies are not for us, per se. Two-thirds of the box return comes from overseas. They have to play in Bangkok and Bangalore, you know, as well as Bangor, Maine. And 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, 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 more specific than that.

But there's a certain grandeur, a certain ambition has just gone out of studio filmmaking. And they...

MARTIN: But I have to push back a little bit...

DENBY: Sure.

MARTIN: ...because you yourself, David, write: James Cameron's "Avatar" is the most beautiful film I've seen in years. And I mean "Avatar" was the blockbuster of all blockbusters.

DENBY: Absolutely, I don't want to make this categorical. I'm as seducible...

(LAUGHTER)

DENBY: ...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.

MARTIN: You also write about directors. Who right now is pushing the craft into new and interesting places, do you think?

DENBY: Well, Pedro Almodovar of Spain. At home here 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 - a 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.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So how do you see your job now? What does it mean to be a film critic?

DENBY: 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.

MARTIN: David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker. His new book is called "Do the Movies Have a Future?" David Denby, thanks

DENBY: The answer is yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes, good to know. Good to know.

DENBY: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.