A.O. Scott and David Denby Discuss the Fate of Film and Criticism in Tribeca Talk Series

A.O. Scott and David Denby Discuss the Fate of Film and Criticism in Tribeca Talk Series

Throughout the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival, technology website The Verge has hosted The Future of Film Live series with panel talks exploring every aspect of the film industry. On Wednesday, The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky sat down with film critics A.O. Scott of The New York Times and David Denby of The New Yorker to discuss the big question looming over 2013: Is film dead?

In the panel “The Death of Film: Answers and Arguments,” Scott and Denby shared their insightful and sometimes opposing thoughts on digital distribution, the importance of the theatrical experience, and the fate of criticism today. While Denby’s opinion on the increase of digital platforms was more skeptical, Scott remained hopeful about the future of both film and criticism.

The two discussed the benefits and shortcomings of Rotten Tomatoes and the democratization of criticism, but Denby advocated for a new kind of internet film critic website that should be “combative and have debates.” (Hey, Denby, have you heard of this thing called Criticwire?) Highlights from their conversation, which is full of wise insights on all these issues, can be found here.

Topolsky: Do either of you think film is dead?

Denby: The big studio model seems to be mainly obsessed with franchise movies and genre movies, like thrillers and debauched comedies — which of course can be very well done and can be very fun, but have pretty much assured audiences. They’re not much interested in anything else except for that bizarre period of every year, that 10 or 12 week season that begins in October and ends Christmas Day, when suddenly they’re aware of the adult audience, which has been pushed out of the theaters, and then you get a good fall season. But then we hit December 26, and since then, we’ve gone back to a kind of dreary, cyclical rhythm for the year with a lot of action movies and thrillers. And we’re heading now into a summer season of digital spectacle. That yearly cycle is wearisome and silly and I think grown ups in particular seem to have been pushed out a lot of the year and they’re not going to theaters. This is something that has to do with the nature of the theatrical experience.

Scott: I wouldn’t put quite as dire a construction upon it. Yes, it is a frustrating calendar, but it’s not as if the studios have gotten out of the business of making more ambitious work or interesting work suitable for grown-ups. They’ve just moved that business to a certain part of the year. It seems that in April it’s the death of cinema and in November it’s the golden age of cinema, and that happens every year. Let’s look at the recently completed Oscar season, which I don’t think actually is an anomaly. You had nine Best Picture nominees. Most of them had been released by major studios. Six out of the nine ended up grossing more than $150 million domestically. “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Zero Dark Thirty” — whatever you think of those individual movies on their merits or lack of merits, there’s a great deal of ambition, of creative storytelling and of interest in the concerns of a non-teenage, male audience.

Denby: I’ve been very happy with things like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Margin Call,” “The Squid and the Whale,” those movies were all made for two, three, four, five million dollars. Each one is a struggle, each one needs us [critics] for support, it certainly helps. We’ve never been more irrelevant than now or never more necessary than now. That’s the bizarre thing about being a critic. I’m very grateful for those movies, but I have to point out that the people who make them go something like five or six years before they make one. Alexander Payne went six years. The fact is, the system supported two movies a year from Howard Hawks to John Ford and Raoul Walsh. It’s a completely different environment. People like Alexander Payne have to struggle for years to get financing.

Next: Is it easier or harder to make good movies these days?

Scott: The question of the aggregate quality of movies is an almost impossible one to answer in a kind of comparative way–are movies now better than the indie boom of the nineties or during the new Hollywood of the 70s or during the classical period of the 30s and 40s? There’s no stable basis to make that comparison and it’s very easy to look longingly at the great masterpieces of the past and miss some of the ones that are right in front of our faces. But I think [the question] among audiences who want to see good movies and want to find out where they are has to do with exhibition and distribution. There are more movies being released every year and everything opens in New York for at least a week. That’s been going up by rather large increments every year, partly because of the emergence of digital platforms. If you have a movie you’re primarily distributing on VOD or streaming you put it in a Manhattan theater for a week so you can get [audiences to see it], in a way, we’re making more work for ourselves. Now theatrical distribution is more and more the thinnest part of the pyramid and we’re looking at a very rapidly approaching future where more and more stuff is coming at us. Some of it is going to be quite interesting. How it gets sorted and how people find it and watch it I think is what’s creating this kind of vertigo and panic and confusion.

Denby: What worries me is that there will be innumerable outlets for films, but the individuals are going to mean less and less. That has to do with this integration of tension. There’s something still necessary and wonderful about having the opening, press parties and screenings and silly articles, everything that grounds the movies and concentrates national attention, at least for a while. I just don’t know what the equivalent of that will be when things are more and more spread out.

Scott: Don’t you think people will still have the appetite to go see movies in a movie theater?

Denby: Well, what if a brilliant little movie that’s made directly for the internet comes out. How are they doing to know about it? At the moment we don’t have the critical means. The distribution of criticism as well as film has to be overhauled.

[The critics were asked to compare the experience of watching a movie in a theater versus watching it at home.]

Scott: I think [the theater] is a very special experience certainly and one that is not easily replicated by anything else. There is something about sitting in the darkness, watching the thing.

Denby: One of the reasons I love movies is the immersion — you know, when you get there and you’re close enough so that the borders of the screen disappear, you’re sucked in. The erotic metaphor — I think Susan Sontag actually used the word “rape,” I don’t know about that — but I want to be dominated, I want to be controlled by an artist and held. The way the audience for the [Tribeca] documentary about Gore Vidal [“Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia”] — I was here last week and everyone was laughing at the same time, everyone was sighing at the same time and that completed the film.

Scott: Yes, but I don’t that that’s going away. I don’t think that will be extinguished by other ways of experiencing of those things. And indeed the emergence of other kinds of aesthetics are more tailored to that. There is actually something also that can be kind of intimate and interesting about having the thing sitting on your lap and sort of being cocooned inside your headphones.

Denby: I feel like that’s more people wanting the company of images the way they want the company of music, rather than being immersed.

Scott: But I don’t think that you actually have to choose between them. I think you can choose both of them. I think that there’s a certain amount of sentimentality sometimes that attaches to the priority of the theatrical experience. I am old enough to have seen a lot of great and important movies in terrible prints in horrible conditions that were nonetheless theatrical. Sitting on broken chairs, a 16mm print full of jump cuts, and now I can watch those movies from the Criterion Collection or whatever and they’re available to me to watch.

Topolsky: Is “Silver Linings Playbook” any less powerful at home?

Denby: Yeah, the dancing around in the last third, I would want to see that on the big screen. I think even small movies benefit from being on the big screen. I was just talking about the Jeff Nichols’ movie “Mud,” which is opening soon. I liked it. Nichols has an ability to get very tactile impressions of natural surfaces — water, sky, clouds, Matthew McConaughy’s skin — and it’s not the same on a small screen. And he also [shoots on] film, by the way.

Scott: It feels to me a little bit like we’re fetishizing this experience of it…it is always preferable to see the painting in the museum so you can walk up close to it and see the brush strokes. But mechanical and electronic reproduction does allow more people to have some version of that aesthetic experience. I think that that’s a very good thing. I saw “Mud” at the same screening you did and it looked very good in the screening room, where it was well sound-proofed with strong bulbs in the projector to look good. But that’s a good enough movie where I certainly would say if you didn’t get to see it, if you lived in a market that it may never get to, because it’s relatively small — then I think absolutely you should [see it] when it’s on cable, on Netflix, or on DVD. There will be an incremental loss of aesthetic quality.

Next: Are critics still relevant today?Topolsky: Are critics really irrelevant? Or is this the Age of the Critic?

Denby: There’s still something that we [critics] can do. What Tony did for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was sort of send fireworks up people’s well, but his review made a difference for a small film. For that kind of movie certainly. It doesn’t commercially make difference for what we say about “Oblivion” or “Iron Man.”

Scott: With “Iron Man 3” or last year’s “The Avengers,” these are designed to be not only critic proof but also audience proof. They generate an enormous sort of expectation. Their opening weekend is the definition of a pseudo event. And people will go whether or not they like it and whether or not critics like it just to be a part of that experience, which is not in itself a bad thing. It’s like watching the Superbowl or Oscars…I don’t know if we’re in the age of the critic, but I think we definitely are in the age of criticism. We may be in that instance not as relevant as some of our precursors. But that activity of criticism, which is the activity of thinking and talking about what we’ve experienced and trying to make some sense of it, is absolutely flourishing and increasingly vital.

Denby: How is criticism going to handle if there is an enormous flow of material coming from 20 different outlets and everybody getting into content? Who’s going to sort it out? I can think of two kinds of rescue systems: There’s social media, things like the Kenneth Lonergan film [“Margaret”], which was sort of languishing and people started tweeting about it. That was a case of a social media groundswell, which eventually led to critics waking up and helping the movie. The other thing, the other rescue operation, is that we need a new kind of internet film criticism magazine, which can be less starchy than the traditional film magazines which are online, but which would be combative and have debates. If you were a young Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, where would you want to write now? Because print media are not hiring critics. There’s been a slaughtering of employment in print during the last three of four years. The internet criticism now, and this is just a structural not a critical description, is a kind of horizontal tower. We need something more centralized, a magazine that’s professionally edited where people can debate each other. People would earn a living, which you can’t do now.

Scott: I think that some of that is starting to take shape. On the internet there is a kind of coalescing around less film specific, but more generally critical organs like the LA Review of Books, or The New Inquiry, or N+1, where there are a lot of people writing very interesting cultural criticism on those sites. I think in a way it’s happening for movies, but I think one thing that’s happening that I don’t think we’ve begun to think about enough is the collapsing of all culture into this digital melting pot — distinctions between what is television, what is a movie, what is a video. The hierarchy of the division of the art forms is starting to collapse. It may not make sense for people to say in the coming generations “I’m a film critic.”

Next: The critics tackle 3D.[The critics were asked to provide their thoughts on the prevalence of 3D.]

Denby: It depends. I mean I loved “Avatar.”

Scott: You and I were on Charlie Rose talking about “Avatar” when it came out and we were both really impressed and seduced by that. I think that’s a case where it was appropriate to the story, to the scale of visual ambition. It’s not necessary a lot of the time, but I’m not willing to say it can’t be an interesting tool. I think that Martin Scorsese used it to very compelling effects in “Hugo.” I think that Wim Wenders did in “Pina.” You can never pre-judge these things. There was a certain point where there was a dogma among critics and the industry that a serious drama could not work in color, that that would make it too bright. Color was for costume musicals and if you wanted realism then you couldn’t have color. You could find that in James Agee, the greatest of all critics. I’m not willing to say that a virtual reality, an immersive experience can’t be a great movie.

Denby: I think our loyalty is to the artist and to the audience, to storytelling and dramatic arc, and humor. Technology has always been secondary. It helps those virtues.

Scott: I feel the same way about the big argument now involving digital versus film. Again, I want to trust the artist and there are filmmakers who know more than I do about what it takes to tell these stories. I think that digital technologies are an extraordinary, empowering, and exciting thing, and there are others who regard it with skepticism or horror. The only thing we’re competent to judge is what they make.

Topolsky: What do you think about Rotten Tomatoes?

Scott: It has a sort of limited utility. There is information there. It’s a poll. It’s a little bit like a survey. It doesn’t substitute, I mean criticism is not necessary. You can go to a lot of movies you can love them and be completely untouched by film criticism, it exists for people who are interested. I think there are always people who are interested in having some kind of further conversation about what they’ve
seen, finding out what someone else has thought about it. What we’re looking for and hoping for are readers. It’s not going to be everybody who reads criticism, but you hope that you’ll have your circle who you’re talking to that kind of expands.

Denby: Those who care at all tend to care a great deal. That’s always been true and it’s just as true now. I’m not bothered by the democratization of criticism. It’s part of the conversation and it’s healthy and good and people say smart things — not always but often. I wish print editors thought as we do because there’s no doubt about the devaluation of employability of critics in print with a job you could earn a living at. I don’t know what to say to kids. You meet them all the time.

Scott: Did anyone say to you — your guidance counselor or your parents — I mean, I don’t recall [mine] saying, “Film criticism, that’s a great way to make a living!”

Denby: It was never easy, but it get easier on the internet where you can establish your voice. As I say, people should give up a little of their independence and come together with a professional attitude and start a film magazine.

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