Paul Fussell's 1991 BAD or the Dumbing of America quotes Mark Crispin Miller on Tim Burton's Batman: the movie's just a "cog, or chip, within a mammoth image-generating system that includes TV production companies and syndication firms, cable distribution networks, record companies, theme parks ... as well as publishing companies, major magazines, and many newspapers."
2012: David Denby identifies the same trend and presents it as alarming news in almost exactly the same language: "The worldwide theatrical gross of Iron Man 2 served as a branding operation for what followed—sale of the movie to broadcast and cable TV, and licensing to retail outlets for DVD rentals and purchase [...] By 2010, rattling around stores and malls all over the world, there were also Iron Man video games, soundtrack albums, toys, bobblehead dolls, construction sets, dishware, pillows, pajamas, helmets, t-shirts, and lounge pants."
Lamenting the corporatization of film isn't new, not even its more thoroughly listed specifics. Denby's piece makes some specific points about what mainstream filmmaking's lost, but it's mostly an unhelpful argument that could've been written, with very little minor tweaking, at any point since, say, the release of Jurassic Park, lamenting the twin evils of tentpole blockbuster four-quadrant filmmaking and CGI-as-main-point-of-spectacle.
A few specific points I emphatically agree with:
a) Inception is indeed an "over-articulate nullity."
b) "The action scenes in Gladiator were mostly a blur of whirling movement shot right up close—a limb hacked off and flying, a spurt of blood, a flash of chariot wheels. Who could actually see anything? Yet almost no one seemed to object." Gladiator is indeed terrible, and its undercranked blood spurts sparked a lamentable trend. Did it singlehandedly instigate a decade of artistic decay? Probably not.
I have to give Denby props for omitting the traditional Jaws/Star Wars bashing bit, and going straight to 2001 to single out Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns, and Moulin Rouge! as the chief offenders. But he doesn't go nearly far enough in condemning the specific manifestations of corporate laziness in a variety of other forms far beyond the summer event movie. A few starting points:
a) the assumption that, because it's cheaper to shoot in Alberta, New Zealand, Georgia, or whatever location offers the best tax breaks that filing period, audiences will be comfortable with movies that unfold in a non-place, refuse to specify the locale, and assume this substitute not-quite-reality won't disconcert anyone because America is increasingly a series of big box stores. (The braver films specify their Atlanta or New Orleans setting: the latter's post-Katrina devastation is the direct subject of Deja Vu as much as its time travel plot. Sometimes detail breaks through.)
b) Spatial coherence is at an all-time low for action movies. (E.g., this piece against "chaos cinema," whose articulation I'm not on board with but which crystallizes some general free-floating sentiments.) Sheer volume is offered to compensate: cf. 2010's The A-Team (the Stadium Arcadium of movies), mastered (cf. the loudness wars) to run roughshod over viewers. Thus also great puffs of CGI smoke to obscure the shoddy beasts within. (To save money and minimize disappointment, J.J. Abrams wisely kept his monster in almost total darkness for most of Super 8.)
c) "the continuous motion of crass conglomerate product aimed at the young has removed [...] the mysteries of personality, sophisticated dialogue, any kind of elegant or smart life, and, frequently, a woman’s emotions (think of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford) as the center of a movie. The studios have been devoted to the systematic de-culturation of movies." Maybe, but Denby identifies the movies as an instigator rather than a reflection of a culture that demands nothing more. He wants a world of sophisticated artifices multiplex audiences are, for better or worse, happily shod of for the time being.
What about arthouse/festival films (the leap isn't always made from the former to the latter)? Denby, dismissively at the get-go:
When I speak of moviegoers, I mean people who get out of the house and into a theater as often as they can; or people with kids, who back up rare trips to the movies with lots of recent DVDs and films ordered on demand. I do not mean the cinephiles, the solitary and obsessed [...] They are extraordinary, some of them, and their blogs and websites generate an exfoliating mass of knowledge and opinion, a thickening density of inquiries and claims, outraged and dulcet tweets. Yet it is unlikely that they can do much to build a theatrical audience for the movies they love. And directors still need a sizable audience if they are to make their next picture about something more than a few people talking on the street.
What's remarkable about this argument is how quickly it moves from lamenting that some $30 million dreams go unrealized (free market capitalism's a fickle patron of the arts) to the idea that the near-total absence of mass cultural dreams invalidates film's more obscure achievements, and their lack of mass-viewing cachet in turn weakens the very medium itself. Denby uses "exfoliating" to describe the films he marginalizes and those who love them: they're dead skin. That's fine and leaves my enjoyment of these instantly archaic objects intact.
Andrew O'Hehir picked up the baton to suggest that indeed, the kinds of films largely showcased by the New York Film Festival (Hard Art Films, pretty much) are the domain of an increasingly tiny group of people talking to themselves. This seems harmless. Art film fiends, by and large, do not crave to blow up the multiplexes and level the viewing landscape; they merely ask to be left alone to their discussions. But Devin Faraci says "with all due respect" (ahem) "I for one don’t long for the days when New York intellectual society was all about snottily standing around sniffing over an article in the New York Review of Books." Also, "movies like L’Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad, which nobody in the real world saw" never really mattered because "It isn’t like you’d walk into a bar in 1967 and hear regular people talking about Godard’s Weekend. The culture isn’t just the bow tied, wall eyed cinemagoers at Lincoln Center." Once "to be intellectually hip you had to see the smart movies, the foreign movies, the interesting movies. But unless you long for a culture of poseurs, who cares?"
I guess someone was really rude to Devin Faraci at Lincoln Center, which is too bad. This isn't really an argument so much as the dismantling of fusty straw man stereotypes and vague assertions about the awesomeness of The Dark Knight trumping film snob milestones. I have no idea why Faraci's so angry or takes this so strongly: logically, if he's won, no one cares about the gasps of the dying breed. And since there's really no conversation to be had when someone's convinced that the wanking dullness of nearly every art film is predetermined, I think he should rest easy, assured snooty weedy types aren't gunning for his terrain. (Faraci's conflation of all arthouse types into one monolithic clique is a massive oversimplification. E.g. a director I spoke to once who candidly, late at night, complained about being unable to get funding because of fundamentally commercial, hollow directors siphoning up the money - like Pedro Almodovar! There are schisms within schisms, which make interfactional debate scintillating. It's a good time to be a cinephile willing to do the work of sorting out the flood of high art cinema. That everyone doesn't feel that way doesn't frustrate me; the ability to see and discuss it, and to keep up with the dizzying flood of restorations, excavations and discoveries alongside new films is a rush. It's OK if you don't want to play! Honest. There are so many other things to talk about.)
One more thing about Denby's prognosis: there are still a decent number of worthwhile Hollywood films sprinkled throughout the year, regardless of the broader stultification. From 2011, for example, my choices for worthwhile films released to a significant number of screens, not all of which I like equally: Bridesmaids (technically inept but a real event film of the kind whose cultural centrality Denby prematurely mourns), Contagion, Drive, Hugo, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Rango, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Scream 4, Unknown. 2010: The Fighter, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Shutter Island, The Social Network, Takers, Tron: Legacy, Unstoppable. 2009: Coraline, A Christmas Carol, Star Trek, Up. You may not agree with all my choices (or omissions), but it's clear that the Dream Factory is, to some extent, still operating. It's also unfortunate that he omits virtually every other genre beyond the summer blockbuster and chosen outliers: American comedies are flooded with capable bit players in even the worst films (i.e., even a film as undistinguished as The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard has time for some indelible lines for Russ Meyer character actor Charles Napier). And there's populist cinema worldwide, some of which doesn't even make it to America, like 2008's Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which made $245 million worldwide without ever seeing these shores. There's much more to talk about.