The 21st Interview: DAVID THOMSON
Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)
Photograph by LUCY GRAY
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
By Josť Teodoro
David Thomson is a historian, critic and the author of several books on movies of tremendous influence, among them The Biographical Dictionary of Film, The Whole Equation and, most recently, Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films and Try To Tell the Story: A Memoir. He’s contributed to publications such as Film Comment, Salon and the Guardian. His prose remains highly distinctive among critics, at once bold and intimate, often addressing an individual movie in a context that aligns it to “the movies” as a single, vast cultural phenomenon. Even Thomson’s novels, such as Suspects, which offers interconnected cameo biographical portraits of fictional characters from dozens of movies, speak to a fearsome obsession with the cinema and an urge to consider and articulate the peculiar nature of its spell and how it reflects and distorts our world.
Thomson, born and raised in London, attended school in England with the Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, novelist and filmmaker Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and of The Conversations, a book of interviews with film editor Walter Murch. Thomson and Ondaatje remain friends, and the pair took the stage at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre for a warm, appreciate audience this past November to discuss Have You Seen…?, its selections and omissions, and the relationship between movies and literature. Thomson sat down to talk with STOP SMILING the morning following the event.
Stop Smiling: In the introduction to Have You Seen…? you characterize the choice to select a thousand films, rather than a top ten or even top hundred, as “a gesture toward history.” It’s an exciting way to approach the century or so of movies we have — but speaking in such historicizing terms also makes it sound a bit like a eulogy. Paul Schrader’s film canon from a couple of years ago, published in Film Comment, seems also to have been partly predicated on the notion that the medium is drawing toward some sort of conclusion.
David Thomson: I think anyone who’s lived for 60 years or so, and has been watching carefully, is gong to feel what I feel, what Paul feels. A rich age has come, maybe not to an end, but it has slowed. That there are not as many good films as there once was. The interesting question is whether this is the beginning of an end or simply part of a transition. Film is clearly much more international now. It also has much more to do with the media explosion. The way people watch movies varies enormously. Some people seem absolutely content to watch them in very small formats. Which troubles me. The theatrical business is waning, but the domestic use of film is increasing. I may not live to see it, but there will be extraordinary changes there. So I’m not going to say that there won’t be another great age where young people are doing great things every day. I trust the basic energy in film and its appeal to think it will go on in some form. There have been ages when people said the novel was dead, and then the novel came back in one way or another. Just as there are still people who want to write novels and read them there is an audience for film. It’s a more selective audience maybe, but it’s there.
SS: Might it not be accurate to address what’s been happening as less of a decline in great movies than in great movies that reach a massive audience, movies as a sweeping popular phenomenon?
DT: I agree with that. It’s very important to remember that for Chaplin’s generation film offered a tremendous sort of socio-political hope of there being a universal audience. Just before film began, the novel started to go through a great age of experimentation. It produced some of the novels we treasure most, but clearly they’re never going to be the novels that a huge audience reads in the way a huge audience read Dickens. The novel became tougher. And then film comes along in its wake with this prospect of a narrative form that really anybody in the world might watch. I do believe that for people like Chaplin and Griffith and Fritz Lang, that first generation, that was a wildly exciting thing.
SS: Something else that comes up in your work is the question of film’s status as art. You’ve confessed you prefer books. You confessed last night that film has, for you, been a pretext for writing. In your review of The Wings of the Dove you write: “I came to a fork in the path and followed movies rather than Henry James.” But my impression has always been that the corrupting commercial demands of the medium, its voyeuristic, carnival origins, everything you refer to in the title of The Whole Equation — these ostensible deficits are exactly the things you seem seduced and fascinated by, that perhaps it’s why you’ve devoted so much of your work to the subject.
DT: Absolutely. I’m deeply torn about it. As a kid I was taken to the movies and I thought it was just the greatest thing on earth. I still have that feeling. But as I grew older I realized I wanted to try to write rather than try to make films. That was a big test for me. But there is the showmanship, the idea of the show, the great sensation of an audience laughing in unison. I love it. I like to be in an audience like that. I think the chances of a great movie persuading Islam and the West that they really share the same world are greater than the chances of a hundred years of diplomacy. Movies can make you see people in your own light. They can transcend the training that tells you to be careful of those people because they’re not like you. A movie can convince you in an hour and a half that they are like you.
SS: One of my favorite quotes about the cinema, one I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of in arguments, comes from The Whole Equation: “the most special effect in movies is always the human face when its mind is being changed.” I found myself revising this notion in a literary sense when working through Have You Seen…? I took great pleasure in reading the opinions of a writer who’s changed his mind. You seem to have genuinely reconsidered Tarkovsky, for one, but also, just as surprisingly, Val Lewton. Do you value fluidity of opinion in film criticism or do you come by it grudgingly?
DT: I value it. It probably is an effect of age, because when you’re young you’re very fierce in the defense of your causes — at least I was — and very intolerant of other thinking. But as you grow older you see another side to everything. One of the great things this book did for me was to drive back to look at some of these films again. Tarkovsky’s a good case in point. I had not been a fan. I probably was in that school that considered his work as arty and over-intellectual. I really began to see his films better as I prepared for this book. Val Lewton, too. I hadn’t thought of him but I think you’re probably right. I don’t see the point of looking at old films again and again — from which I get great pleasure — unless you’re open to the possibility that these films may go up or down in your estimate. They’re going to change, not because the film has changed, but you’ve changed. I got into sounding off about film when I was pretty young. I didn’t know very much about the world. I know more now. It’s the helpless response to being 67. You pick up stuff. [Laughs]
SS: Does writing about film, talking about film, studying film, make the experience of movies richer, do you think? Are the movies better for having been analyzed?
DT: I think there’s a real danger in writing or talking about films in a language that’s loftier than the people who made the film would have used. Pauline Kael once said that if anything can kill the movies, academia might do it. A great deal of earnest nonsense is generated in film academia, which serves the purposes of academics much more than those of film. There are books by decent, well-meaning, smart people that I can barely read. I can’t relate to the films they are ostensibly about. For the majority of the audience from the early days, film was not an intellectual experience — it was emotional, sentimental, suspenseful, sensational. I’m afraid of that being lost. The way of talking about Hitchcock, which you sometimes find — the implication that he was simply a technician — it’s not that it’s wrong, because he was a great framer, a great visualizer. But he believed he was sending audiences on a ghost train ride. “Putting them through it,” as he liked to say. And his intention should be honored in writing about him.