David Denby Looks Back at the Future of Movies

At age 69, New Yorker film critic David Denby owns at least two marks of modern media distinction. He is not on Twitter, and he still gets to mete out erudite, long-form print media movie critiques. A collection of his magazine essays spanning 1999 to 2011 make up his latest book Do the Movies Have a Future?, out next week from Simon & Schuster.

At the New Yorker, Denby famously alternates on the cinematic beat with Cambridge, UK based professor Anthony Lane. Part Six of the book is also about “Two Critics” – iconic predecessors James Agee and Pauline Kael. In the piece about Kael (an amalgamation of 2001 and 2003 articles), Denby recalls how she delivered a death blow in the early 1970s via telephone, informing him that he was simply not cut out to be a film critic.

“I was a graduate student in California going nowhere fast,” Denby tells FishbowlLA via telephone. “And if Pauline Kael hadn’t taken an interest in me – and she took an interest in many, many people, particularly young people – I probably would have become a professor of film, which is of course not bad. But this has been a lot more fun.”

“When she said, ‘This is not really for you,’ of course it was a blow and I was very upset,” he continues. “But she wound up hurting my feelings and not my career. In fact, in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because if I had stayed within that circle, I don’t think I would have ever grown up. She was so powerful that you wanted her approval. Internally, you conformed to her opinions… It was sort of like, ‘What would Pauline think?’ And I think that’s a bad habit for anyone to get into, particularly a critic. So in a way, by being kicked out, I was forced to be my own man.”

“I recommend to everyone that they have a mentor and be rejected by their mentor. It’s an invaluable growing-up experience.”

Denby says that only once or twice a year do he and Lane jockey for particular titles at the New Yorker. It generally has much more to do with the rotating master schedule and which particular movies Lane can see in London.

In his preface, Denby singles one Web critic in particular – Farran Smith Nehme – for the “genuine wit” she applies to old Hollywod lore at her blog Self-Styled Siren. High praise indeed.

Another highlight of the new book is a chapter devoted to pieces by Denby about seven different directors. Everyone from Victor Fleming and Otto Preminger to Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood. The extensive 2010 piece about Eastwood is a fantastic evaluation of the Man with Many Games and reverberates anew given Clint’s recent Tampa theatrics.

“I didn’t see anything so terrible about what Clint did,” Denby observes. “In fact, it’s the one human moment that we’re going remember from the Republican convention of 2012. He wanted to do a little bit of performance art there, I think; something fresh, something original, and it didn’t quite go off. But I didn’t think it was any kind of humiliation or a disaster.”

“What he was saying was that Obama has not kept his promises,” he adds. “That is much more important to him than political positions, per se. He’s never been an orthodox Republican. He’s more of a Libertarian, even when he was mayor of Carmel. I thought it was sort of charming and silly, but I don’t know what the big fuss was about.”

“Social media will exploit and opportunistically grab onto anything that can be made to be ridiculous, even if it’s not ridiculous in context. That’s the way you get conversation going and can make derisive jokes. Clint is too big to be seriously hurt by this and I don’t think the box office for The Trouble with the Curve would have been good in any case. It’s a kind of mild entertainment and it’s too late in the season for a baseball movie.”

[Jacket cover courtesy: Simon & Schuster; Eastwood photo: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com]