So much depends on the particular screen you're watching, according to David Thomson. He writes that, when he watched TV footage of the devastation in Japan after the March 2011 tsunami, “I saw an endless shot of empty automobiles carried in tidy, prim reverse on the flood, backing and turning corners in a multistory parking garage. I was horrified and helpless but I thought it was comic. I wondered if it was a scene from a Jacques Tati film. When my youngest son saw the second plane enter the World Trade Center tower on live television, he asked 'what movie is that from, Dad?'”
Movies changed everything. Utterly. And so have their successors – television, the Internet – which have, in turn, transformed movies. And now at the beginning of the digital revolution that will end up doing God only knows what to all of us, it is actually possible to watch a cinematic vision as vast and technologically radical as James Cameron's “Avatar” on a telephone screen just a few times larger than a postage stamp.
In the flood of new digital technologies, empty formats are being carried in tidy, prim reverse. Surely, all this is funny somehow – a Jacques Tati vision of media history and civilization itself. Movies were THE art form of the 20th century. And now, as we try to get through the pubescence of the 21st century, they're also something of a question, as the title of David Denby's terrific collection makes clear. And if movies are a question, surely then those who write about them are as dubious as any other question about a question. What chance, in such a flood, could those have who are clinging to pillars by their fingernails as the angry, black water rages around them at punishing velocity?
Every chance in the world, as these two books by America's two finest living film critics testify abundantly. In fact, I'd nominate both among the most important books of 2012.
David Denby may share critical duties at the New Yorker with Anthony Lane but as this book indicates, he isn't merely the only important New Yorker movie critic, he is likely the most important regularly appearing movie critic we have, as well as the best. In that sense, he has truly taken over completely from Pauline Kael, for whom he was once a faithful “Paulette” (as disciples were called) until quantum leaps in independence caused his semi-banishment.
Thomson is less a film critic in the indemnified regularly appearing sense than a film historian. But his reviews can be found now in The New Republic (he found “The Master” Paul Thomas Anderson's first “mediocre” film). From the beginning, he has brought the full weight and acuity of a prodigious critical gift to bear on everything he's written, along with a wild and playful fascination with all the things movies do to us. It's been said many times in many ways but universal agreement within the cinemascenti is that no movie-loving home in America should be without the newest edition of Thomson's “Biographical Dictionary of Film” as well as its newer companion book “Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.”
The titles of both these books are certainly a propos but they both tell the books' stories ineptly. “Do The Movies Have a Future?” sounds like the title of a passing Sunday rotogravure feature, not the title of the most brilliant critical assessment of movies and their cultural position you're likely to find in 2012. Thomson's “The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies” is almost as cognizant of all the other screens crowding into our current consciousness as Denby.
These are both books of immense scope, then. Denby's isn't just a collection of his New Yorker reviews and larger pieces – though that would be immense enough – it collects all sorts of extraordinary pieces for the first time including the book's introduction “The Way We Live Now” and what may be a definitive essay called “Conglomerate Aesthetics: Notes on the Disintegration of Film Langauge.”
And if that sounds as if the poor fellow is going to be droning self-righteously at his lectern and chalkboard for 300 pages while everyone in the class is passing notes, texting and snoozing openly with their heads on their forearms, that's a dire mistake indeed when you're talking about a writer this lively, this witty, this informed and this morally connected to the everyday world the rest of us live and work in. His answer to his own title question is “a resounding, trumpet-like, 'well – sort of.' Perhaps. If certain things happen.”
He is, among other things, enraged by the ways in which the major important studios have “gamed the system” by taking control of the media children grow up with, thereby creating their own consumers, “which raises an inevitable question: will these contantly created new audiences, arising from infancy with all their faculties intact but their expectations already defined – these potential moviegoers – will they ever develop a taste for narrative, for character, for suspense, for acting, for irony, for wit, for drama? Isn't it possible they will be so hooked on sensation that anything without extreme action and fantasy will just seem lifeless and dead to them? I ask; I don't know the answer.”None of which should obscure Denby's keenness in every sentence, whether it's about the possibility of premium TV becoming “the New Movies” or about his crucial critical forebear James Agee and his friend/influence Pauline Kael or about directors from Otto Preminger and Victor Fleming (“The Director the Auteurists Forgot”) to the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher or about today's movie stars (“Cruise was never an interesting actor but he parlayed pure energy and a triumphant sense of his own emerging powers, re-created in each movie, into stardom”) or about “chick flicks” and “the fate of Romantic comedy” (“Romantic Comedy Gets Knocked Up: The Slacker-Striver Comedy”).
And if you think you can get away with imprisoning Denby in self-righteous stuffiness and elitism, you need to read him on “Terrence Malick's Insufferable Masterpiece” (“The Tree of Life”) and, yes, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”)
Thomson – born in London in 1941 but long a resident of San Francisco – gives us as vehemently personal a history of “screens” (not just movies) as he can which means he can't help confessing his night terrors. Uninhibited American fantasy, he says, in its “constant struggle with the factual nature of film” fed “into the American soul” as “America hardened into empire” and “bred several dangerous fallacies: that happiness was an American right, that individuals could be free in a mass society; that American power would endure because the United States was the greatest of all nations.In such a state, he decries “the transition from movies to commercials” in our culture and the resultant apocalypse but also makes sure we know “how much I love movies and was shaped by classic American and French cinema.”
Why else would he have just given us 500 pages of the most personal and idiocyncratic history of movies you're likely to find? Even so, when Thomson has nightmares, they're as stark as they come. “So many people, from Lenin and Chaplin to Zuckerberg and Jobs have believed that moving imagery on screens might unify and enlighten the world. Isn't it pretty to think so? The screen has also distanced us; it has made us feel powerless, helpless and not there. The array of watching devices that have swept over 'cinema' in the last 30 years will spread, and of course, they are helpful and profitable –just look at the economy they have produced. Might they also be the lineaments of a coming Fascism? Don't be alarmed, it will be so much more polite or user friendly than the clumsy version of the 1930s but as deadening as the shopping malls of Americana, the nullity of so many of its schools, the unending madness of its advertising, and the stony indifference of technology.”As occupations go, “movie critic” may be an endangered species in our current digital Babel but these two books make one thing crystal-clear: the unquestioned good and even great ones have never been more important.
"Do the Movies Have a Future?"
By David Denby (Simon and Schuster)
347 pages, $27
"The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies"
By David Thomson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
596 pages, $35
Jeff Simon is The New' Arts and Books Editor.