David Denby on why movies today suck. Half-interesting. The thesis is, to me, not really, the same tired complaint of the old about how movies today are juvenile and they don’t make movies for adults anymore. Not that he’s completely wrong. It’s just unoriginal and suffers from old-fogeyism.
What was interesting to me were 2 presumptions that underlie his thesis. One, that the fundamental standard that defines a “good” movie is in how it stirs the emotions, and two, that the primary force that drives emotion in movies is narrative. It’s interesting to me because I think many critics have this same viewpoint, and it helps me understand their criticism of things I personally like.
If I think about it, I think I disagree with both presumptions. Since I don’t have time to watch many movies, I’ve found that the things I prioritize in a movie aren’t emotion, but the visceral and (if I have more time) the intellectual. I gravitate towards action movies a lot nowadays. And one quibble I have with Denby is his assumption that there’s no value in that. He’s wrong. There’s good action and there’s bad action. There’s nothing wrong with valuing things on that visceral level. And movies can be judged by that standard. It’s why I love Drunken Master 2.
I also realized while reading it that I value the intellectual over the emotional as well. Mostly by being shocked in why he panned Inception. And I get it – Inception isn’t emotional, and it’s not story-driven. It’s visceral and idea-driven. Which is exactly why I like it. And why I like certain comic book movies. The best comic book movies have 2 things – good action and interesting ideas. I don’t think Denby gives either of those things a fair shake. That a movie should be judged based on narrative-driven emotion is a bias, not a given.
I think that difference is why many critics seem to love Wes Anderson movies and I hate them. I’ve always said they feel emotionally detached to me. But now I think the issue for me is actually that they’re intellectually detached. They’re all built around quirks and feelings, not ideas, and I just don’t resonate with that, or even get it at all.
Anyway, like Dave, I get why critics didn’t like Les Mis. The narrative is thin (by necessity – the underlying story is too sprawling and you can only narrate so much when the whole thing is sung). Since critics’ emotions are driven by narrative, they find the “emotional” parts treacly. I just felt differently. Emotion isn’t my primary standard for a movie. It does matter to me, but even as much as it does, I don’t think it’s driven by narrative.
I think that’s why I jive with Ebert – he appreciates and respects the visceral. Sometimes absurdly so – like he gave Speed 2 a positive review pretty much solely because it showed a boat crashing into a dock, something he’d never seen before. I think that’s ridiculous, but philosophically, the fact that a movie can be good based on the visceral experience it offers, I’m with him on that.