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The 21st Interview: DAVID THOMSON
(Web Exclusive)

SS: It’s a fine line though, sometimes. I was reading an interview with Howard Hawks, whose films I adore, and I was getting a little frustrated with it because, as is the case with many directors from that period, he seemed so vehemently limited in how he saw his work, almost deliberately denying its artistic value.

DT: Hawks knew that he shouldn’t be owning up to some of the deeper meanings because it would not go down well in the film world. It’s a fine judgment as to whether you or I or Robin Wood or any of the people who’ve written about Hawks can say something that would pierce that, that would make Hawks smile and say, yeah, right, thank you for saying that.

SS: And of course it’s not Hawks’ job to analyze.

DT: No. It’s his job to create this extraordinary world that clearly you respond to and I, too. I think it’s one of the great achievements in American film. But he was of the tight-lipped, modest school of thinking which knew that you didn’t go to parties and talk about your films in the way we might talk about them now. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand that angle to them. I think his humour is wiser than he ever let on.

SS: Quite remarkably, nearly every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films are discussed in Have You Seen…?, yet with the exception of The Killing and The Shining, you don’t seem to think too highly of his body of work. You call 2001 “a lavish travesty.” You tend to champion the contributions of James Mason or Malcolm McDowell to the films, or the bits parts in Barry Lyndon, say, over the work of Kubrick himself. But Kubrick is there again and again. What is it about his work that demands such concentrated consideration despite its flaws?

DT: I think there’s something tremendously dotty and appealing about Kubrick the American giving up America. About the space traveler giving up travel. About the man open to the wide world becoming a hermit, nearly. About the man with a rather limited private life making studies about rich emotional lives. He’s fascinating. The ambition alone is awesome. In my book he’s made two masterpieces, and for me, if you make one masterpiece you’re of major importance. Some of Kubrick’s work fails, badly. But I’m not put off by bad failure. I think it’s all fascinating. It’s quite true that I’m extremely critical about many of these films, but I watch them over and over again. There is a sheer pleasure and fascination in watching Kubrick fill the screen. When he’s on, he’s amazing, and one of the great life stories in film.

SS: In The Biographical Dictionary, you characterized Kubrick as someone who becomes trapped by his own sense of loftiness, “pandering the audience’s appetite for sensation and vulgarity in the guise of importance.” That’s some oddly seductive sounding slander.

DT: [Laughs] Well, this peculiar quality is there time and again in Kubrick, this balance that slips all over the place. I think Eyes Wide Shut, which I regard as a big failure, could have been a masterpiece. And Kubrick can do things other filmmakers can’t. The scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson goes to the bar and Joe Turkel asks what’ll it be — this is one of the great moments in film. It’s about the fantasy offer in all film, with all its perils, and makes for a truly sublime moment. I think The Shining is one of the great films. And I think Kubrick is very, very dark, too. He may have been afraid of that darkness, at times.

: Are there contemporary critics who still stimulate you, help you to reconsider films?

DT: Certain people I read because I just love reading them. I read Anthony Lane because I love his language. I read Jonathan Rosenbaum although I regularly disagree with him. He’s smart in a way I’m not, and he teaches me stuff. I like Manohla Dargis quite often. I like Scott Foundas and Jonathan Romney. But there are plenty of people who are killing time, I think. It’s a wild scene these days. It’s harder and harder to sift through all that’s out there now. And there’s no editing, and at the same time a lot of good film writers are being fired by publications that simply come to the conclusion that they can’t justify a film critic. These are hard times, and not likely to improve quickly. The whole system of blogging is admirable in the sense that if a kid comes along now and wants to say what he thinks about film he’s got an outlet, whereas once upon a time he’d have had a very hard time getting into print at all. But you or I have got to read how many thousands of blogs to find him? It’s a chaotic world. That’s not to say that the good won’t come through. I retain faith that good writing will get passed along

SS: Another new book from you, Try to Tell the Story, is out in February. It’s funny, because just days ago I was reviewing about Have You Seen…? and wrote about how the kind of writing on film that you do is somehow inevitably laced with memoir. I didn’t know when I wrote this that you had an actual memoir coming out. I guess the natural question then is to ask if the reverse is equally true, if your memoir is inevitably laced with movies?

DT: It is, yes. The book covers the first 18 years of my life and it ends with my declining a place at Oxford to read history and going to film school. But there’s a good deal in it about the importance of films in my life growing up.

SS: For me, there has always been something especially compelling about film writing that says as much about the writer, and the writer’s attempts to understand the world, as it is about the actual subject being addressed. Try to explain this to a reader who turns to film critics simply because they want to be told whether or not they’ll like a movie, and it probably sounds like self-indulgence. But it seems to me that this is the sort of stuff that lasts.

DT: Well, I have certainly been rebuked at times for being overly personal and self-indulgent. I’m not unmindful of this criticism and I’ve tried to correct it now and then, but nevertheless I find this element creeping in all the time. It seems I can’t convey what films mean to me without getting at what they’ve done to me. I can’t master that objective tone that’s still offered as a model, so I have to do what I can do. One of the works that influenced me decades ago was a short book that Nabokov wrote about Gogol. As you might expect, it gradually turns into almost a novel about a man discovering Gogol. I still regard Nabokov as a master, and if he can make it work I feel more tempted to have a go at it myself. I like that kind of admission in writing, that kind of personality, and I think it’s too late now for me to do anything about it.







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