It' s fitting that this first blog post of the new year should deal with a topic near and dear to my heart: movies and what will become of them.
I just this morning finished reading David Denby's most recent (and most excellent) book, DO THE MOVIES HAVE A FUTURE? (2012). Denby, film critic for THE NEW YORKER magazine, has assembled a collection of essays and reviews here rather than an extended narrative thesis but what he has to say about a variety of film related topics is all extremely well written and well thought out. His measured evaluation of Clint Eastwood's career as both an actor and director was of particular interest to me as I have always been a huge fan and admirer of Eastwood.
But to address the question posed in the title of the book, Denby argues that the multi-million dollar tent pole/franchise films (based on YA novels, comic books and toys, among others), cost so much money to make and, in turn, generate so much profit for the film studios, that there's not much money, space or desire to try and make mainstream films that will appeal to the average adult moviegoer. Oh sure, there are still independent "art" films but they exist at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum. Denby's argument is that there's no middle ground of films anymore. It's either a giant, bloated CGI whiz-bang or it's something small and character driven.
The role of a film critic is also questioned in the book. With the demise of print and the rise of online media, almost anyone (and everyone, myself included) can be a critic. Denby argues that many critics now serve more as PR people for the studios, helping to promote the latest blockbuster more than serving the needs of the film going public by informing them of what's good and bad at the local cinema.
He also makes a very cogent argument that digital effects have changed the very language of film. In a GI created fight/chase/action scene, things whirl past our eyes so fast that it's often impossible to tell what's going on. In the old days (not that long ago), fight scenes were directed and edited with a sense of space and spatial relations. You knew where the protagonists were in relation to each other and their surroundings and could follow the action no matter how fast paced. Now, a CGI shot can last for a matter of seconds and by the time you figure out what was in that shot, you're dozens of shots down the road.
Denby argues that these special effects behemoths are like thrill rides at an amusement park. While it's happening, you're impressed, thrilled and awed. The next day, you really don't remember much about the experience because there's no emotional connection to the characters and the story you just saw. And this is not going to change. Filmmakers will continue to use CGI not because it makes for better storytelling and character development. They will use it because they can.
He also notes how the audience for films has become increasingly fragmented and specialized, a phenomenon in accordance with the ways movies are consumed in the 21st century. There are so many platforms, so many delivery systems that the common experience of going to a movie with your friends and neighbors, of most people seeing the same films and having the same cultural points of reference are a thing of the past.
The conclusion of the book offers a few glimmers of hope for the future including such possibilities as mumblecore becoming more mainstream and the use of CGI to create real characters with emotional depth and resonance as seen in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (a film Denby really likes).
What DO THE MOVIES HAVE A FUTURE? doesn't provide is a manifesto, a blueprint for revolution and change but that's not the point of the book. In his essays and reviews, Denby offers much food for thought and, like all good film books, makes me want to watch even more movies with a new and fresh perspective.