Hollywood's Phantom Menace

Thirty summers after Jaws attacked intelligent filmmaking, the question remains: Why are the movies so bad? A search for answers with David Thomson

A lot of people I know who know movies--or say they know movies--have said they don't know the work of David Thomson. And a lot of those who didn't know his work until I introduced them to it have said they think he's the best writer about movies they know. So assuming that a lot of you may not know of Thomson, I'll introduce you to him.

For starters, just think of David Thomson as the star of Movie Man--his 1967 volume, now out of print but well worth finding wherever you can. Published in the year that Hollywood movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were just beginning to reflect the coming cultural revolution, Movie Man begins by suggesting that, like "Renaissance Man," the titular term refers to one who plays a variety of roles--one who has "so assimilated the methods and effects of moving film that they are determining his understanding of the present and his discovery of the future."

Are we not all Movie Men by now? Nearly two dozen years after a movie star-turned-president seemed to recast the entire world in Hollywood's black-and-white terms, Thomson published The Whole Equation (Knopf), a prismatic view of movies as culture and politics and history. Alluding to the period when Ronald Reagan appropriated the name of a George Lucas blockbuster for his new strategic defense initiative, Thomson writes: "There were forces in America, business and political, that felt the danger of too many open, critical movies. We have not yet reversed that trend."

On the eve of War of the Worlds, which the Movie Man thought somewhat capable of reflecting our wars at home and abroad, I talked to the London-born Thomson by phone from his longtime home in San Francisco. The subject of our one-hour conversation was whether what seems to a lot of Movie Men like the End of Hollywood is...not the end of the world.

City Pages: Any summer movies you're looking forward to seeing?


David Thomson: Well, there's nothing that makes me wildly excited. But I am interested in seeing Spielberg's [War of the Worlds]. It's a story that has a lot of resonance in film history. My feelings about Spielberg are mixed, but I do have a lot of admiration for him. Sometimes he can be terrific. There's not a great deal else that fills me with wonder. But I'm sure there will be one or two films that are better than they seem.


CP: Our lack of enthusiasm is hardly surprising, is it?


Thomson: Well, no. I mean, I think what we're talking about here is a much bigger, much sadder problem, which is that the mainstream of American movies has been terribly disappointing in recent years. The question that faces anyone who loves the medium is whether this is a cyclical thing--a passing dip, so to speak--or whether there might be something much more worrying. I notice that the business itself is beginning to get quite anxious about declining attendance: There has been a big drop-off [in ticket sales] this year. And God knows how much bigger it would have been but for the final Star Wars film. If we didn't have that film--which I think gives a sort of artificial boost to the figures--the first six months of this year would be pretty gloomy. There's a lot of evidence to suggest two things--which could, in fact, be working [in tandem]: that films don't mean as much to audiences anymore, and that they don't mean as much to filmmakers anymore, either.


CP: Is there a potential bright side to that gloom? Might the decline in attendance be a sign that we as audiences are finally voting with our pocketbooks against the kind of dismal product that's being put in front of us?


Thomson: Undoubtedly, yeah. Take a concrete example: While a lot of people think that Revenge of the Sith is a quite distinct improvement on [the two previous Star Wars episodes], it's still not very good. It has been going on for too long that these films--which we know are costing the earth, and which we're having to pay a portion of the earth to see--get hyped and reviewed and talked about and yet we know they're not very good. You talk to people time and again and you find that they're coming away from movies disappointed. Now, there are a lot of good things to come out of that. People are spending more time looking at old movies on DVD--and I think that's good because it leads to a sense of the wonders in our [film] library. On the other hand, the more you acquaint yourself with older films, the more shocking the decline appears.


CP: It stands to reason that some filmmakers would benefit from the decline of Hollywood, doesn't it?


Thomson: I think [the decline] has certainly helped independent film. And I hope that sooner or later it will produce a revival of interest in foreign language films. Because there was a time in this country when there was a much bigger and more enthusiastic audience for subtitled films. So yeah--there are certainly compensating factors. But the thing that upsets me is that I retain a belief in and a hope for the films that are made for everybody: the big films that are also good films. And I do think that we are showing a lot of signs of losing the knack of how to make them.

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