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A.O. Scott and David Denby Discuss the Fate of Film and Criticism in Tribeca Talk Series

Criticwire By Erin Whitney | Criticwire April 26, 2013 at 3:38PM

On Wednesday, The Verge's Joshua Topolsky sat down with film critics A.O. Scott of The New York Times and David Denby of The New Yorker to discuss the big question looming over 2013: Is film dead?
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Scott: The question of the aggregate quality of movies is an almost impossible one to answer in a kind of comparative way--are movies now better than the indie boom of the nineties or during the new Hollywood of the 70s or during the classical period of the 30s and 40s? There’s no stable basis to make that comparison and it’s very easy to look longingly at the great masterpieces of the past and miss some of the ones that are right in front of our faces. But I think [the question] among audiences who want to see good movies and want to find out where they are has to do with exhibition and distribution. There are more movies being released every year and everything opens in New York for at least a week. That's been going up by rather large increments every year, partly because of the emergence of digital platforms. If you have a movie you’re primarily distributing on VOD or streaming you put it in a Manhattan theater for a week so you can get [audiences to see it], in a way, we’re making more work for ourselves. Now theatrical distribution is more and more the thinnest part of the pyramid and we’re looking at a very rapidly approaching future where more and more stuff is coming at us. Some of it is going to be quite interesting. How it gets sorted and how people find it and watch it I think is what's creating this kind of vertigo and panic and confusion.

Denby: What worries me is that there will be innumerable outlets for films, but the individuals are going to mean less and less. That has to do with this integration of tension. There’s something still necessary and wonderful about having the opening, press parties and screenings and silly articles, everything that grounds the movies and concentrates national attention, at least for a while. I just don’t know what the equivalent of that will be when things are more and more spread out.

Scott: Don't you think people will still have the appetite to go see movies in a movie theater?

"I think [the theater] is a very special experience certainly and one that is not easily replicated by anything else."

Denby: Well, what if a brilliant little movie that's made directly for the internet comes out. How are they doing to know about it? At the moment we don't have the critical means. The distribution of criticism as well as film has to be overhauled.

[The critics were asked to compare the experience of watching a movie in a theater versus watching it at home.]

Scott: I think [the theater] is a very special experience certainly and one that is not easily replicated by anything else. There is something about sitting in the darkness, watching the thing.

Denby: One of the reasons I love movies is the immersion -- you know, when you get there and you're close enough so that the borders of the screen disappear, you’re sucked in. The erotic metaphor -- I think Susan Sontag actually used the word "rape," I don’t know about that -- but I want to be dominated, I want to be controlled by an artist and held. The way the audience for the [Tribeca] documentary about Gore Vidal ["Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia"] -- I was here last week and everyone was laughing at the same time, everyone was sighing at the same time and that completed the film.

Scott: Yes, but I don’t that that’s going away. I don’t think that will be extinguished by other ways of experiencing of those things. And indeed the emergence of other kinds of aesthetics are more tailored to that. There is actually something also that can be kind of intimate and interesting about having the thing sitting on your lap and sort of being cocooned inside your headphones.

Denby: I feel like that's more people wanting the company of images the way they want the company of music, rather than being immersed.

Scott: But I don’t think that you actually have to choose between them. I think you can choose both of them. I think that there's a certain amount of sentimentality sometimes that attaches to the priority of the theatrical experience. I am old enough to have seen a lot of great and important movies in terrible prints in horrible conditions that were nonetheless theatrical. Sitting on broken chairs, a 16mm print full of jump cuts, and now I can watch those movies from the Criterion Collection or whatever and they’re available to me to watch.

Topolsky: Is "Silver Linings Playbook" any less powerful at home?

Denby: Yeah, the dancing around in the last third, I would want to see that on the big screen. I think even small movies benefit from being on the big screen. I was just talking about the Jeff Nichols’ movie "Mud," which is opening soon. I liked it. Nichols has an ability to get very tactile impressions of natural surfaces -- water, sky, clouds, Matthew McConaughy's skin -- and it’s not the same on a small screen. And he also [shoots on] film, by the way.

Scott: It feels to me a little bit like we’re fetishizing this experience of it…it is always preferable to see the painting in the museum so you can walk up close to it and see the brush strokes. But mechanical and electronic reproduction does allow more people to have some version of that aesthetic experience. I think that that’s a very good thing. I saw "Mud" at the same screening you did and it looked very good in the screening room, where it was well sound-proofed with strong bulbs in the projector to look good. But that’s a good enough movie where I certainly would say if you didn’t get to see it, if you lived in a market that it may never get to, because it’s relatively small -- then I think absolutely you should [see it] when it’s on cable, on Netflix, or on DVD. There will be an incremental loss of aesthetic quality.

Next: Are critics still relevant today?

This article is related to: David Denby, A.O. Scott, Film Criticism is Dying, Film Critic Jobs


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