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Denis Villeneuve and the Future of Dude Cinema

Don’t knock grim and gloomy films, or their serious fans will come for you

One of the more perilous missions a culture critic undertakes is the probing of a film, or the greater output, from a specific kind of living male director. This category includes the architects of high-pedigree blockbusters (Christopher Nolan, David Fincher); art-house cinéastes (Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson, no relation); some legendary captains of crime and noir (from the Coen brothers to Martin Scorsese); and reflexive auteurs (Quentin Tarantino). Call them the masters of Dude Cinema.

These men have many fine movies among them, and likely some of your favorites — because they are also mainstream, award-winning figures of the industry whose work has touched the popular imagination. The other day, when Twitter users took to naming “5 perfect movies,” you could safely bet that each list had a nod to at least one.

If this signals the quality of the art, it also hints at the aesthetic consensus that builds up around material success. That is to say, money and acclaim begets more of the same, and whether you view The Dark Knight as a top-tier masterpiece of cinema probably has something to do with your belief in Hollywood meritocracy. In order to admire a movie, you have to encounter it, and everyone’s seen The Dark Knight — therefore it is widely admired, and can easily ascend to the No. 4 spot on IMDb’s list of the best 250 films.

So, why is it hazardous to nitpick Nolan, or Scorsese, or the Andersons? It’s not only because they’ve acquired the invincibility of legends within their field, along with passionate devotees, though both remain in constant effect. It is also a risk because these directors are men of a status position all but monopolized by their gender, frequently telling men’s stories and beloved by male in-groups. As a result, their significance within the medium acquires weird, masculine overtones.

It’s virtually impossible to talk about this without veering into self-parody and pissing off a decent swath of the movie-going world. See: writer Elle Hunt’s Guardian column about how, after years of men pressuring her to watch There Will Be Blood, she finally submitted and found it a mediocre effort hyped to death by dudes — the equivalent of “bad dates where I’ve timed how long it takes for me to be asked a question.”

This trope of the movies as a war of the sexes is always a clarion call to film-loving men and women alike, since they can ridicule the author as shallow and reactionary, emphasizing their own superior taste in the process. But trust me, even a whiff of disregard for a titan or classic of Dude Cinema, whether you complained of Wes Anderson’s bourgeois whiteness or joked that every boyfriend is obsessed with Blade Runner, will have Film Twitter trashing you as a sub-catatonic moron, undeserving of true art. 

With the first images from an upcoming adaptation of the space epic Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve — a now firmly established member of the Dude Cinema Pantheon — we’ve reached yet another horizon for this exhausting conversation. Villeneuve’s career has moved from grisly and disturbing fare (he’s covered kidnapping and torture, a real-life mass shooting and the violent borderlands of the drug trade) to glossy but somber sci-fi: Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and, finally, a two-part saga based on Frank Herbert’s beloved novel. Throughout, his affect has been coldly precise and quite merciless, which sets his genre work opposite the swashbuckling, kid-friendly Star Wars; this is science fiction for grown-ups, and if you don’t appreciate it, you are basically a mewling infant.

Though Villeneuve and the Blade Runner franchise were already an ideal bet for Dude Cinema, his Dune raises the ante still higher, and at a moment where it’s not actually clear the film will be released, since theaters are indefinitely shuttered owing to COVID-19. Therefore it’s possible, and apparently necessary, to argue what Villeneuve has gotten right or wrong in representing Herbet’s vision based on a handful of production stills. 

The film being either released or withheld is, by this reckoning, immaterial. The internet could forever sustain a debate between those who believe it would have been good and those who scent a failure — after all, dudes were caping for Joker before it hit screens, challenging the haters who dismissed the concept out of hand.

This, to me, is the bedrock of the Dude Cinema ethos: you stake your allegiances deeply, and you never doubt the creators, intellectual property or cinematic style in which you’ve invested. There is no falling out of your infatuations; in Dude Cinema you must be an unwavering fan for life. This militant attitude tends to jibe with some of the stereotypes around filmmakers like Villeneuve and Nolan (gray atmospheres, indulgent runtimes, faux profundity, a lack of humor and the technical sterility you notice in the “brotography” of Instagram) to erect a monolith of moodiness that casts a very long shadow. 

What little of the discourse acknowledges is just how many things can be true at once. Yes, many women like Inception and Interstellar, the latest gritty Bond reboot and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. That doesn’t stop dudes from repping these titles obnoxiously, and acting as if anyone skeptical of them has sinned against the order of the universe, simply because any negative opinion of a movie they consider “perfect” is sacrilege by definition. Yes, Scorsese has produced timeless films that aren’t about the mob. Still, it’s a huge part of his legacy, and lots of men are automatically drawn to masculine brutality, moral abnegation and spectacular death in their entertainment, judging this content to be at once more exciting and a more legitimate thematic frame than, say, the feminine yearning of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

As studios wrestle with the fraught politics of equity and representation while hurtling into a dire economic future, the ideologies and expectations attached to a given project grow intense, and they shed nuance. Soon enough, each movie is wrested away from its self-contained narrative to serve as a statement on filmmaking in the 21st century. Some dudes, as it happens, are committed to the survival of cinema that broods, with a weighty, leaden sense of importance.  

Why else should they care what people project onto an out-of-context image from Dune, or a flinty narrative of the American oil boom that debuted 13 years ago? No one is saying these stories have to be light and fanciful; the detractors are trying, instead, to explain how a bleak and despairing mode has shaded even the wildest fantasies, leaving them indifferent to the substance underneath.

These days, then, acolytes of Dude Cinema are split by their competing impulses. On one hand, they can’t stand that their aesthetic values don’t matter to someone else, or that their worship of a lofty director goes unrecognized as proof of throbbing intellect. This means they will attack, out of basic insecurity, whoever slights the Dude Cinema scene, hoping to close ranks and shield the perception that this stuff is, in fact, abundantly awesome.

On the other hand, they secretly fear a continuous normalization of their preferences, which has mainstreamed all they revere as cutting-edge, difficult or esoteric; better than the full conversion of non-believers (unlikely anyway) is the insistence that they “wouldn’t get it,” and should be left to wallow in their cheap, unmeaning trifles. The chosen few guard the altar of Dude Cinema. 

But, as with all pretension, this is bogus exclusivity. You aren’t smarter, or more insightful, for enjoying Zodiac and No Country for Old Men. And you should be able to brush off a critique of your favorite director at least as well as they do — it’s not like you shot the damn movie. Relax. I mean, look, I’m basically on your side. I’m about these movies, too. There Will Be Blood is incredible, and nothing like a dull Tinder date. I’m also not engaging with a lukewarm take of such transparent laziness. (Unless you pay me, of course.) It’s helpful to remember that art cannot be forced into or out of historic prestige. It has to exist, and endure, on its own.