For the past five or six years, I’ve been a fairly regular reader of the film criticism of David Denby, which appears in the column “Current Cinema” in the final pages of every other issue of The New Yorker. Denby’s articles used to be the only ones in the magazine I had the patience for, fitting as they always do on a two-page spread featuring at least one large black and white caricature of an actor mentioned in the article. Ten-thousand word pieces on such subjects as Arthur Miller’s unpublished (and vaguely homoerotic!) literary correspondence with an unknown playwright fifteen years Miller’s junior who took his own life by stabbing himself in the temple with a fountain pen, or the backward regime of some small North African country and the efforts of one brave, young journalist to stir up dissent against it – these just didn’t do it for me back in, say, junior year of high school*. But I wanted to read something in The New Yorker, and “Current Cinema” was always just the thing: short, simple, and seemingly relevant – especially when I happened to have seen one of the movies under review.
Since then, my patience for the longer pieces has grown quite a bit – so much so that I now finish at least one third of the ten-thousand word New Yorker articles I begin, which I consider respectable. When I want to read about movies these days, I rarely reach for The New Yorker. But my relationship with Denby is by no means diminished because “Current Cinema” just happens to be perfect length for my visits to the bathroom.
Someone recently asked me if I’d read any reviews of a movie that had just been released. I said yes, I thought so, and recalled a trip to the bathroom earlier that week. What’d it say? the person asked. I had absolutely no idea.
And I realized then why I no longer care much for David Denby. Not only is his writing, for the most part, utterly forgettable, but the vast majority of his reviews, whether positive, negative, or neutral, leave only the inescapable impression of their author’s terrible, terrible boredom – not just with the movies he sees, but with the very task of writing about them. This is not to say that I that think David Denby has bad taste in movies, much less than he isn’t an intelligent critic. I’m quite sure he knows a lot about movies. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to care very much about any of it.
This attitude is apparent even in his tone, which I might describe as blasé. Take his recent review of “Little Children.” Here is the opening sentence: “Sarah Pierce, the thirtyish heroine of Todd Field’s extraordinary new movie, “Little Children,” dropped out of graduate school to marry an older man – a business consultant – and moved into a neo-Colonial house near Boston that he inherited from his mother.” Could the word “extraordinary” ever appear more meekly in a sentence? The superlative endorsement seems in this sentence almost matter-of-fact, lodged as it is inside tiring plot summary. Well, perhaps Denby is waiting until the second sentence to turn on the heat. But alas! Another three paragraphs follow, offering hardly an intimation of support for the judgment Denby let slip in the first line. When the explication and some cursory thematic analysis are finally complete, Denby does offer a few more restrained superlatives and a couple of sufficiently precise appraisals of themes and characters (“Field captures, for instance, the way the daily routines of child care – getting a kid into a car seat or a hat, putting him down to nap – have to be accommodated within the furious passions of adultery”), but it’s hardly enough to make me want to see the film, let alone convince me that Denby cares one way or another if I do. I haven’t seen “Little Children,” so I can’t really judge the validity of Denby’s remarks. What I can say is that if you’re going to write a review of a movie you think is extraordinary, at least try and muster the energy to pretend you’re doing something more exciting than approving window treatments.
If Denby’s tone is easily confused with that of an unenthusiastic book report, perhaps it’s because his reviews often engage with films as if they were nothing more than filmed novels. This might explain his exhausting plot summaries if not the predominantly literary manner of his analysis. Sometimes, his analysis of characters and themes is thoughtful and relevant, if not rather simplistic and even outright obvious. In a review of “The History Boys,” for example, Denby writes: “The movie advocates the limited but powerful truth-telling of poetry, as well as ordinary decency and plain speaking.” Again I must confess to not having seen the film, but Denby’s lengthy plot summary, which precedes the analytical remark, leads me to believe that this insight is hardly a privileged discovery but rather the most blatant of the film’s intended messages. Messages, indeed, seem to be what Denby is after more than anything else, and whenever he finds one, he’s eager to serve it up. Denby ends his piece on “Little Children,” with this embarrassing softball: “Adults may not be happier than overgrown children, but at least they have a chance of finding who they are.” When Denby can’t figure out the message for himself, or when he just isn’t up to spelling it out, he simply poses the questions to us, and they usually sound like teasers for especially bad novels aimed at young adolescents: “Girls, money, drugs, secrets – is he really going to give that all up and go back to a policeman’s salary?” (This from a review of “Miami Vice.”) If we grant Denby the benefit of the doubt, we might assume that these banal questions function as a kind of backhanded, cynical jab at the films themselves, or else the people making them, or – worst of all – the people watching them. And indeed this device appears with greater frequency in the movies Denby casually scorns than the ones he casually praises. Whatever the case, the questions certainly don’t add much interest, and serve only to underscore Denby’s reluctance to treat film as something more than an adapted novel, as a medium capable of proposing an entirely different set of questions.
Readers of The New Yorker are an especially literate bunch. They like reading books, and they like reading sophisticated articles about books. Maybe this is what Denby has in mind, then, when he writes about movies in this way. Readers of The New Yorker also like history, and they like reading sophisticated articles about history. Denby accommodates this dimension of the readership too. I find this tendency even more unseemly than the overemphasis on the literary aspects of film. It’s not that writing about history doesn’t have a place in film criticism. I think it certainly does. But the kind of historical writing Denby does usually comes up in the context of an argument he makes all too frequently about movies, namely that they’re not historically accurate. The worst example of this occurs in a review of “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.” After a few paragraphs of plot summary, Denby writes: “In these goings on, there isn’t a trace of the Diane Arbus who was friends with many New York artists and intellectuals of the nineteen-fifties, who obsessively studied the work of August Sander and Walker Evans, who took classes from Berenice Abbot and Lisette Model…” Denby must have a particular fondness for the historical Diane Arbus, because this imaginary filmic portrait – even the notion that such a portrait might be worth pursuing, as opposed to a strictly historical one – seems to have struck a nerve. There’s no inherent problem in thinking that history is more interesting than fiction, but it’s also not a given. Most movies about historical figures and events are “imaginary,” deforming and falsifying history in accordance with the imperatives of the director, the actors, the public, or film itself. Sometimes, the result is a movie that’s not only false but bad, even on its own terms; and if this is what Denby thinks about “Fur,” he ought to say so. Instead, he implies that the movie fails because it misrepresents an historical figure. An isolated, subjective view of the film thus masquerades as a dispassionate statement of fact.
This, in the end, is what I dislike most about Denby’s criticism: the author seems vacant and withdrawn, not necessarily from the object of criticism itself, but from himself, thus precluding the possibility of forming a meaningful relationship to the films he watches. In other words, Denby’s criticism doesn’t seem honest. It aims for a kind of elevated detachment, and nearly achieves it; but the traces of a person still linger, and the portrait I’m finally beginning to piece together is of a man who’s tired of life, tired of movies, and tired of writing about movies, but who, like so many of the lesser poets whose work often appears in The New Yorker, derives a strange comfort in his textual self-sacrifice.
Epilogue: I recently discovered that David Denby published a book in 2004 called American Sucker. Its mode is that of pseudo-confession. Reading it serves only to confirm what his criticism already made plain: Denby is a sad, sad man who wishes he could quit his day job. In 2001, we learn, Denby lost most of his money in the stock market, having impudently invested his nest egg the previous year. He subsequently divorced his wife and developed a short-lived internet porn addiction (three months).
*As far as I know, Arthur Miller had no such correspondence. I made this article up. The second one, about the regime and the dissenting journalist – that was real, and was published in an issue from mid-October, 2006.