Via David Carr’s Carpetbagger blog, David Denby’s brilliant and occasionally frustrating New Yorker essay on the potential changes in cinematic production and distribution, “Big Pictures: Hollywood Looks For a Future.” I want to return to Denby’s essay later, perhaps in another blog entry and certainly in my book, but for now, I’ll mention a few immediate reactions:
- Denby begins with a discussion of what Nick Rombes has called the “shrinking screen,” describing his discomfort with watching a Hollywood film on a video iPod. He notes that he could never quite achieve a comfortable position in relationship to the screen and implies that watching a “big” film on the very small screen showed the limitations of the technology. But later he points out that all formats (multiplexes, art house theaters, TV sitcoms, etc) encourage certain kinds of content. I think this is already happening with modes pf direct address seen in video podcasts, videoblogging and other “small,” intimate texts that fit the tiny screen.
- Denby’s description of the effects of digitization is quite helpful. He describes in detail the experience of watching Million Dollar Baby on a high-def screen, comapring the detail offered on a (very expensive) home theater system with the film’s murkier look on the big screen (a look that resonated with me when I saw the film originally, even though I didn’t mention Denby’s review at the time).
- The article could work incredibly well in an introduction to film course as a supplement to class discussions of what Tim Corigan and Patricia White have called “the film experience.” Ranging from the movie palaces of the 1930s and ’40s through the “tawdry” multiplexes of the 1980s built in the wake of blockbuster culture to the new art houses, Denby effectively, if sometimes nostalgically, conveys how moviegoing is a shared public experience and why that is so important.
- Denby also discusses what gets lost when viewing Brokeback Mountain on a small screen. I finally caught Brokeback last night and was impressed by the film’s storytelling but didn’t find myself feeling terribly passionate about the movie. Denby’s description of watching the film, with its majestic mountain vistas, suggests why the film might have been more powerful on the big screen
- Like many media theorists, Denby imagines a near future in which all media is distrubuted through a central entertainment/media center in the home, and to some extent, convergence is taking place, but like Henry Jenkins, I’m not convinced that all media technolgies will converge into a central media appliance anytime soon (see one version of Jenkins’ discussion of the “black box fallacy” here).
- Denby also offers a good overview of some of the new Hollywood business models, noting the degree to which the studios are invested in blockbuster franchises such as the Spiderman and Superman series. But he’s also attentive to new moes of independent and specialty distribution that may make it possible for smaller films to gain a wider audience. In partciular he cites Richard Linklater’s observation that some of his smaller films never screen in theaters outside of big cities and college towns and that digital distribution could change that, allowing film fans in smaller towns to become more involved in the conversation about these films.
While I don’t agree with Denby’s essay in its entirety (I see far more potential in the video iPod than he does, for example), it’s a valuable read and worth discussing in some detail.
Update: Just wanted to point to some of the other responses Denby’s essay has been getting. Bright Lights After Dark briefly mentions the essay, and Ryan at Cinematical favorably discusses Denby’s treatment of the state of cinema in 2007, although I don’t think Denby believes it’s quite as bad as Ryan implies.
Finally, Eugene David, the One-Minute Pundit, is far more critical of Denby, in part because of his complicity with the industry in offering favorable reviews to mediocre Holywood product and because Denby favorably describes the new art house theater renovations by National Amusements, a theater chain owned by entertainment conglomerate Viacom. To be fair to Denby, he hardly seems like the worst offender in ad-blurbism (at least compared to certain other critics who are all thumbs), but I think the bigger problem here is David’s dismissal of all things Hollywood. My read of Denby’s piece doesn’t leave me with the impression that movies are necessarily getting worse (Denby praises Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain among others) but that economic, technological, and social factors are changing the kinds of movies that get made as well as changing how we watch them, a far different kind of argument than the jeremiad David describes (even if Denby doesn’t like the video iPod). Some of those changes, including teh reliance on tentpole blockbusters, are negative, of course, but I think Denby leaves a lot of room for showing how the “specialty” wings of the major studios can produce some interesting and innovative work.
David also implies that “the principal accomplishments” of the Web are The Blair Witch Project, Ain’t it Cool News, and the Snakes on a Plane hype, but I think that overlooks a lot of the truly independent porductions that are promoted and distributed via the internet, including services such as Green Cine and Netflix that allow folks who live in cities and towns without an independent video store or art house theater access to far more film titles than they might otherwise have.
One more note: John Podhoretz also favorably cites Denby’s article, echoing the observation that the internet is contributing to the decline of American movies.
Update 2: Annie Frisbie also discusses Denby’s article in relationship to a rather unpleasant experience at a Dreamgirls screening.