I have been trying to get a picture that is worth reviewing, for the last two weeks, and hereby throw in the towel.
— Otis Ferguson
The New Republic, 1935
The postwar renaissance of cinema, which reached its height roughly between 1958 and 1964, has in the past two years gone into a decline that shows no sign of being reversed.
— Dwight Macdonald, Esquire, 1966
Cinema, once heralded as the art of the twentieth century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art.
—Susan Sontag, Parnassus, 1997
Well, now what? Writing in a recent issue of The New Yorker, David Denby, film critic for New York magazine, posed a question that seems strangely endemic to the profession: “Who among us could now love ‘the movies’ as they confront the public in the media — the movies as a system of publicity and commerce?” The substance of Denby’s essay, a lament for cineaste culture titled “The Moviegoers,” is that audiences are increasingly seduced into theaters by an ever more clangorous Hollywood hype machine rather than by those thoughtful, serious critics who refuse to give empty praise to any publicist who holds out a tin cup.
“None of this is new,” Denby ceded, though he did offer that “in the past decade the selling of movies has grown both deafening and senseless.” What is new, he argued, is that there have been “dismaying shifts in sensibility and tone — a deadening of vital impulses that make good movies possible and criticism valuable.” The problem, it seems, is that the movies are no good. Not just Hollywood (which has substituted a scope of emotions with “physical excitement”) or American independent film (“a perpetual promise”), but all movies: “One must quickly add that the current French, Italian, German and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and that the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement or glamour.”
Now, I admit, up until this point, that I found quite a bit to agree with in Denby’s essay, even if I was one of those who, by virtue of a favorable review of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, had become “a connoisseur of gleaming rot.” (But isn’t that what reviewing De Palma has always entailed?) Leaving aside the decline of American cinema — a chronic and perhaps necessary complaint for anyone professionally strapped to a movie seat — I can understand what Denby means about the lack of excitement and glamour in Russian and Finnish films, though like most Americans I’m rarely afforded an opportunity to see any outside of the festival circuit. Come to think of it, Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains, about the war in Chechnya, was grim, and the working-class Finns in Aki Kaurismäki’s movies are in general rather homely. Then there’s Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director whose newest feature, Taste of Cherry, has been hailed as a masterpiece by some critics but, for Denby (writing in New York), “lacks the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of movie art.” Perhaps there is too much dust and too much talk about the meaning of life in Kiarostami’s work, and not enough of the authentic emotion you find in Ingmar Bergman, a director who at least knew to spice up his existential bathos with female nudity.
It is baffling, though, this complaint about the lack of excitement or glamour in contemporary Chinese film, which for Denby apparently means movies from the People’s Republic and not Hong Kong. He did, after all, seem to think Wong Kar-Wai held some interest when he wrote about Chungking Express in 1996 — though not quite enough to inspire Denby to review the former colonist’s last two features, Fallen Angels and Happy Together. As to the remnants, France’s Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis, Italy’s Gianni Amelio and Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, to name a handful, have each crafted some thrilling scenes. But since Denby has never reviewed a film by Desplechin or Kitano, and since the last movie by Denis he reviewed was also her first, 1989’s Chocolat, and since he bypassed Amelio’s acclaimed Lamerica altogether, it’s perfectly understandable that he chose not to mention any of these filmmakers in his essay.
Which brings me, after a fashion, to “City of Lights, City of Angels: A Week of New French Films.” This is the second year that Los Angeles audiences will be able to preview six current French movies that, for the most part, have yet to secure American distribution. The features have been selected by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and are being presented by UCLA; Auteurs, Réalisateurs, Producteurs; the French Hollywood Circle; Unifrance; and the Franco-American Cultural Fund, composed of the Directors Guild, the Motion Picture Association, the Writers Guild and the French association, Society of Authors, Composers and Editors of Music. If nothing else, this numbing catalog of sponsors makes clear that when it comes to foreign film, the background story is often as complex as those unfolding onscreen.
Last year’s “City of Lights” afforded local audiences the first opportunity to see Desplechin’s My Sex Life, or How I Got Into an Argument — which unfortunately may never play commercially in L.A. — along with Denis’ Nenette et Boni and Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan, both of which opened briefly in 1997 to enthusiastic reviews. The selection this year is not as exhilarating, but it is no doubt safe to say that the glittering future of French cinema, if not its American distribution, remains assured. It’s also safe to say that most of these six films are far more intelligent, more formally bold and visually interesting, than most of the new Hollywood and independent movies I’ve seen this year. Which doesn’t mean that Denby’s assessment of American cinema as soulless and bludgeoned by cynicism is any more accurate than his casual dispatch of foreign film.
The true subject of Denby’s essay is the declining influence of the movie critic— though perhaps the critic’s declining self-importance is closer to the mark. That is not, however, how he chooses to put it. “Film has not died,” Denby writes, “but that ornery exasperating thing film culture has been seriously weakened.” Everything, it seems, is to blame: an old enemy, television, and newer ones, such as junket goers and blurb whores, the Internet, multiplexes, video games, entertainment journalism. Young people. The audience. The studios. Late capitalism. What’s left? Well, for one, the serious critics Denby alludes to, the critics who enjoy the sort of editorial freedom that nurtures a sense of aesthetic adventure, that allows these critics to write at length about the newest Takeshi Kitano film rather than, say, the latest Adam Sandler vehicle or Krippendorf’s Tribe. Critics who, like Denby himself, can drop in to the museums and art institutes and discover, as anyone in Los Angeles can this very weekend, another world in French cinema. “One can’t simply drop into such places on a whim the way moviegoers dropped into revival houses thirty years ago,” Denby writes. Perhaps, but one can make the effort.
Back in 1966, in the last column he wrote for Esquire, Dwight Macdonald took stock of his own “accumulating lethargy toward movie reviewing.” Part of the difficulty, he said, was that he had a six-year attention span and he was in his seventh year of writing reviews. The other problems were the movies themselves (“a depressing aspect of the last two years is the falling off of the recent work of almost all the major directors”) and the development of a young, new audience “uncertain of its taste in movies.” Macdonald was a gifted crank, but probably not cut out for the grind of regular reviewing — for him, Godard after Breathless was rubbish, as too the sum total of the New American Cinema — but he was self-aware enough to venture that film, as with all art, has its ups and downs, and that “perhaps the movies will revive in a few decades or years.” It’s a sentiment that a young cineaste named David Denby, who years later would write nostalgically of foreign film in the ’60s and of American cinema in the ’70s, would no doubt have embraced.
For a review of the features in “City of Lights, City of Angels: A Week of New French Films,” turn to Calendar.