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Film Critic David Denby on Christopher Nolan’s ‘Terrorism,’ Studios’ Loss of Soul

The New Yorker film critic on Christopher Nolan's terrorism, the studios' soul and his new book "Do the Movies Have a Future?" 

Superhero films and tentpole flicks geared at teenagers are ruining the movies for the rest of us — and ultimately threatening the future of the movie business.

So says longtime New Yorker film critic David Denby in his new book, "Do the Movies Have a Future?"

The book is a compendium of Denby's reviews and essays in the magazine — but it’s also a record of one movie lover’s attempts to unearth art in a film business that has become increasingly, even dangerously profit-obsessed.

“They’re not building an audience, they’re tying their fortunes to the birth rate,” Denby told TheWrap.

In the interview, he discussed his tortured appreciation for Christopher Nolan, the director often credited with mixing big budgets and big issues like terrorism in his films “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Although he liked Nolan's "Memento," he said of the Batman films, “I can’t tell if he’s against terrorism or is a terrorist, I felt terrorized myself. The plot didn’t make sense in time or space and wasn’t sequential. Acts didn’t have consequences … I don’t know what comment he’s making in ‘Inception,’ it seems to be mainly about his own working style.”

And he said he believes that the studios have won the battle by convincing the public that it can make up its own mind without the help of critics — a blow to smaller, independent films, because "without us they would die," he told TheWrap

But his main target is today's studio system.  

“I’m not sure they’re creating an adult audience with Batman and 'The Avengers' parts seven, eight, nine and 10," he told TheWrap. "After five sequels, I’m not sure there will be any interest in seeing a man and woman talking at a table, which may be the most exciting kind of drama, but you have to cultivate a taste for that kind of complexity.”

Denby believes that a trend that began some 30 years ago when conglomerates swept in and sucked up the major studios, has accelerated as Hollywood becomes more obsessed with hitting its quarterly numbers than  with sustaining a culture of filmgoing.

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“The big studios have broken their unspoken, unwritten contract with America, to offer some version of the country’s soul,” Denby said. “Instead there is more and more fantasy and more and more pixilated fighting in the dead air of digital space.”

These films — blockbusters like “X-Men” — have their appeal, Denby admitted, but he said they don't linger in the public imagination as did such older films as “Lawrence of Arabia,” which made money but also demanded a degree of intellectual engagement from its viewers.

“You would not get in the front door today with a movie about an intellectual Brit who has a masochistic streak and leads a Bedouin uprising,” Denby said. “There would be no way of financing it, and they’d be doing it digitally and not shooting in Jordan.”

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There are potential business models that could support more provocative and less overtly commercial fare, Denby said. He cites Steven Soderbergh’s suggestion that actors and directors take lower up-front salaries for a percentage of the back-end.

Although he's pessimistic about the future of movies, he does believe that the talent has never been better.

Actresses like Viola Davis and Emma Stone and actors like Ryan Gosling still excite him, and he believes that a new generation of directors like Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson have figured out how to make deeply personal films within the confines of the modern studio system.

The problem, he said, is that the Stones and Goslings lack the cachet to get their personal projects backed by a studio, and the directors he favors still face financial constraints.

“I want big movies, I want a sense of landscape and open air,” Denby said. “We’re talking about intellectualized television.”

In this froth of change, Denby feels his chosen profession is being jeopardized.

Long gone, he said, are the days in which readers would eagerly await the latest issue of the New Yorker to savor Pauline Kael’s often acidic take on the newest films. Indeed, many papers have been trimming back on reviews or eliminating their film critics entirely.

“The studios have won,” Denby said. “They’ve convinced editors that the public doesn’t care about critics. That’s a blow for smaller, independent films, because critics are the one thing sitting between a smaller $2 million movie and total oblivion. ”

It’s certainly not that there aren’t places to find film opinion. The internet has created a sprawling platform for commentary, but Denby has a low estimation of the quality of bloggers’ criticism.

“I think it’s a horizontal tower of babel,” Denby said. “The scene itself is all over place. You have erudite people who teach film and auteurists writing and then you have ignorant people tweeting ‘it sucks’ in the middle of movies.”

“It would be good if they would submit themselves to professional editing and couldn’t gas on,” he adds.