David Denby has written one of the very best pieces I have read in a long time about what has happened to mainstream filmmaking. It's not that it's become a business (when has it ever not been one?), it's that the business is now one entirely of grabbing an audience by the throat and upending it and shaking it about until the money falls out of its pockets.
... If I say that the huge budgets and profits are mucking up movie aesthetics, changing the audience, burning away other movies, [others] look at me with a slight smile and say something like this: “There’s a market for this stuff. People are going. Their needs are being satisfied. If they didn’t like these movies, they wouldn’t go.”
But who knows if needs are being satisfied? The audience goes because the movies are there, not because anyone necessarily loves them. [Emphasis mine. --sy]
... Constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate [filmmaking] aesthetics. There is something more than lousy film-making in such a collection of attention-getting swindles. Again and again I have the sense that film-makers are purposely trying to distance the audience from the material—to prevent moviegoers from feeling anything but sensory excitement, to thwart any kind of significance in the movie.
... the destructive action scenes in movies now are brought off with a kind of grim, faceless glee, an exultation in power and mass: We can do it, therefore we will do it, and our ability to do it is the meaning of it, and even if you’re not impressed, it is still going to roll over you.
... The dreadfulness of many big movies now cannot be waved away on the grounds that the studios have to make them that way. They don’t have to make them that way; they just think they do. They choose this style.
Meat abounds in this article — for instance, the line about movie companies now being parts of entertainment conglomerates with far more profitable subdivisions, like video games, is extremely telling. And the lines I highlighted can be verified by anyone who has been stuck in a hotel room with a TV.
The most damning thing in Denby's piece is the assertion that we are training audiences from the git-go — which means not just present moviegoers, but future directors, screenwriters, and producers -- to assume the modes we have now are the only ones that work, the only ones that matter:
Will these constantly created new audiences, arising from infancy with all their faculties intact but their expectations already defined—these potential moviegoers—will they ever develop a taste for narrative, for character, for suspense, for acting, for irony, for wit, for drama? Isn’t it possible that they will be so hooked on sensation that anything without extreme action and fantasy will just seem lifeless and dead to them?
It parallels my own assertions about SF&F: the more we publish post-Tolkien simulacra garbage as "fantasy", or sub-Starship Troopers saber-rattling as "science fiction", the less we think anything else even exists. No one is inclined to find out why the original was written the way it was, let alone attempt to do something every bit as exciting for entirely different reasons. And when they do at last have an original offered to them, they are hard-pressed to recognize it.
Denby singles out The Avengers for much of his ire, but I get the impression he is more incensed by the fact of the film's existence than the film itself. The film itself is just a sad artifact of what things have turned into; it's not even the real enemy. And while I enjoyed The Avengers as it unspooled in front of me, it feels all the flatter in retrospect. Not a bad film by any means, but not one I want to turn to when I know other things are still waiting, and not a model for how I want all of my filmmaking to be.