Wow. David Denby must have been working on this essay about what has gone wrong with Hollywood movies for a long time. There may not be too much that hasn't been said before, but it's said in a lot of detail, and it is all convincingly argued and gives voice to many similar thoughts I have had over the years about the decline of Hollywood. One of his main themes (about how digital technology has meant many directors don't really film "spatially" any more) makes for a good extract:
It is also a drama of space. What audiences feel about characters on the screen is probably affected more than most of us realize by the way the space surrounding the people is carved up and re-combined. In John Ford, the geographical sense is very strong—the poetic awareness of sky and landscape and moving horses, but also the attention to such things as how people are arrayed at a long table as an indication of social caste (the prostitute at one end, the fine lady at the other). The best use of space is not just an effective disposition of activity on the screen, it is the emotional meaning of activity on the screen.Any regular reader will know what I am likely to say next: this is one reason why Spielberg remains an awesome director - he gives the audience an excellent sense of space; his action sequences are rarely too quickly edited and you can understand what's going on perfectly. And, to concur with Denby, Spielberg's most artificial film of all, last year's Adventures of Tin Tin, was a failure because of the technology taking away the same sense of spatial and kinetic realism that his best films have.
Directors used to take great care with such things: spatial integrity was another part of the unspoken contract with audiences, a codicil to the narrative doctrine of the scriptorium. It allowed viewers to understand, say, how much danger a man was facing when he stuck his head above a rock in a gunfight, or where two secret lovers at a dinner party were sitting in relation to their jealous enemies. Space could be analyzed and broken into close-ups and reaction shots and the like, but then it had to be re-unified in a way that brought the experience together in a viewer’s head—so that, in Jezebel, one felt physically what Bette Davis suffered as scandalized couples backed away from her in the ballroom. If the audience didn’t experience that emotion, the movie wouldn’t have cast its spell.
This seems like plain common sense. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet spatial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head.
One other incidental point near the start, which I didn't fully realise before:
In the 1930s, roughly eighty million people went to the movies every week, with weekly attendance peaking at ninety million in 1930 and again in the mid-1940s. Now about thirty million people go, in a population two and a half times the size of the population of the 1930s.I am not entirely sure about this next selection, but from my own childhood, there is a certain element of truth in it:
My friends’ attitudes are defined so completely by the current movie market that they do not wish to hear that movies, for the first eighty years of their existence, were essentially made for adults. Sure, there were always films for families and children, but, for the most part, ten-year-olds and teens were dragged by their parents to what the parents wanted to see, and this was true well after television reduced the size of the adult audience. The kids saw, and half understood, a satire such as Dr. Strangelove, an earnest social drama such as To Kill a Mockingbird, a cheesy disaster movie such as Airport, and that process of half understanding, half not, may have been part of growing up; it also laid the soil for their own enjoyment of grown-up movies years later. They were not expected to remain in a state of goofy euphoria until they were thirty-five. My friends think that our current situation is normal. They believe that critics are naïve blowhards, but it is they who are naïve.I remember sitting in the back seat at the drive in being bored by The Graduate, and falling asleep. But certainly, I think that the moderation in the depiction of sex and swearing in pre-1960's cinema certainly meant that children could be exposed to what was still "adult" cinema and influenced their feel for the medium in a positive way.
All in all, a job well done, David.