Popcorn and Profundity

New Yorker critic David Denby hopes fantasy doesn't crowd the humanity out of film.

January/February 2013

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Popcorn and Profundity

Photo: Casey Kelbaugh

New Yorker film critic David Denby is invited to every private screening, bulb-snapping premiere and glamorous international festival, with filmmakers clamoring for his attention and precious column space. Yet Denby, MA '69, prefers to watch movies the old-fashioned way: in a darkened cineplex, chomping on popcorn, sitting next to strangers. "I'm a religious romantic about that experience in the dark," he says. "I prefer the communal ecstasies and shared boredom to the stuffy screening room experience."

An unabashed love of movie magic permeates Denby's writing, and he believes that movies have unique power: to entertain, to enrapture, to educate and even to incite change. His book, Do the Movies Have a Future? (Simon & Schuster), is both a glance in the rear-view mirror of a career and a passionate polemic on the troubled state of Hollywood. The collection covers movies from the early star system to the current digital revolution, from Joan Crawford to Clint Eastwood, from chick flicks to the 3-D thrills of Avatar. But his main focus, as the title suggests, is how filmmaking will survive the difficult transition to the digital era, when the next generation may watch movies on their iPhones and not in theaters at all.

"We are on the cusp, in the vortex of change," he says. "The technology is so amazing, and yet used in the wrong way, strips this art of all its humanity. I'm not saying that digital has to sap movies of their magic, but it can."

Denby writes that in the era of extreme special effects, movies now need to be "fantastic," in the purest sense, to succeed—a manifestation of our fantasies. Audiences expect bigger, more spectacular blockbusters like The Avengers and the Twilight series instead of the more subtle, more human stories that used to form the basis of popular films. "The fantastic is chasing human temperament and destiny—what we used to call drama—from the movies. The merely human has been transcended."

Denby calls himself a "reality junkie," meaning he is drawn to stories about real life, even if they contain an element of magic. His favorite movie of the past year, he says, is the small independent Beasts of the Southern Wild, which followed a young girl in post-hurricane New Orleans through a near-apocalyptic period of loss. "That movie was such a phenomenal effort, and only made for 1.3 million dollars, which is petty cash in Hollywood. The problem today is that the studios won't finance small pictures. They either buy and distribute the tiny films people make in their apartments, or finance superhero blockbusters. The only movie I can think of that a studio produced recently that has all the epic human drama of the great pictures of the past is The Social Network, and that was an anomaly. It had to be a movie about the Internet to become the Citizen Kane of our time."

Denby includes an essay, originally titled "My Life as a Paulette," that describes his early career under the guidance of legendary film critic Pauline Kael and how her fervent enthusiasm forever shaped him—and a generation of writers she befriended. "Those who started out in film criticism in the late sixties and early seventies . . . slowly realized that they had stumbled into a happy moment. . . . We were just a bunch of journalists, not revolutionaries, but, still, there was a spirit of insurgency in the air."

Some of Denby's insurgent spirit can be traced back to his Stanford days, which he recalled over a plate of chicken Kiev in the glossy Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria of the Condé Nast Building. Denby came to Palo Alto in 1966 to "thaw out—I was a New York Jewish boy fresh out of Columbia who needed a break" and earn a master's degree in film studies. "It was an explosive place to be," Denby remembers. A member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), he traveled in a bus to Sacramento to protest against then-governor Ronald Reagan. Vegetables were thrown. "My tomato landed only a few feet from Reagan. That was my one anarchist moment, and I would never have had that in New York."

Years on the Farm, and the encouragement of professor emeritus of communication Henry Breitrose, led him to pursue criticism—and return to New York. "I remember my byline [as a contributor to The Atlantic and other publications] was, 'David Denby writes about film from Palo Alto,' and that seemed to conjure up the image of an old man with his shawl draped around him. I knew I either had to go to L.A. to make movies, or back east to write about them."

Denby landed a full-time critic job at the Boston Phoenix. "There were so many college students there waiting to be told what films to see. I had a rapt audience. But Pauline told me I was ready for a New York job. Of course, we became rivals when I landed at New York magazine two years later, but in the beginning she was incredibly supportive." After a long career at New York (including 20 years as chief critic), he was recruited to the New Yorker, filling a seat occupied years before by his idol, Kael. Now entering his 15th year there, Denby hopes to stay indefinitely. "I'm pushing 70, and I know the magazine is skewing towards a younger generation," he says. "But I'd love to be here forever. It's the best job I can think of."

When choosing what films to review (he does 23 columns a year, splitting the weekly magazine's coverage with critic Anthony Lane), Denby says that he doesn't shy away from covering blockbusters in addition to art house gems. "Cinema is a popular art form. It should be! If it was just arty movies, a bijoux form, then it would always lose against other art forms. Can a movie live up to Faulkner, or Cezanne? No. It's populist. That's how it was born, and what made it so very exciting when it first debuted in the 1910s. I still feel that thrill every time I step into a theater."

Denby's interest in aesthetics extends far beyond film into literature and history. He says that besides the cinema, what "obsesses" him most is how, in the Internet age, young people will be able to cultivate taste and an appreciation for high art. To that end, Denby has spent a significant amount of time studying and writing about education, "his second passion." In 1996, he published Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. It chronicled a year spent reading the core curriculum along-side Columbia undergraduates. (Other works include a memoir, American Sucker, about his misadventures in stock speculation, and Snark, a protest against an omnipresent cultural tone of sarcasm.)

For his next project, Denby is revisiting literature and education by auditing a high school English class at New York's Beacon magnet school. "I wanted to see how teenagers learn, and how they acquire taste. It has to be bred in them—it doesn't come from nowhere. What moves me is, how do you create the next great audience . . . for literature, and for movies?"

Rachel Syme, '05, a journalist in Brooklyn, is working on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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