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




CP: Back to Spielberg for a moment. His last few summer movies--A.I. and Minority Report and The Terminal--have been somewhat more overt in addressing what we might call the "real world." I know your feelings about Spielberg are mixed. But do you think there's something at least ironic in the story of a guy who invents the summer blockbuster as a thrill machine with Jaws and then, around 9/11, reinvents it as a less successful alternative to what his own work has spawned?


Thomson: Sure. And I would also say that I do have some faith in Spielberg--in the possibility that there's still a brain in him that's thinking about all these things, that's prepared to see the truth and to do something different and new. I like The Terminal--much more than a lot of people do. I think it's a very interesting and affecting picture--with its use of the airport as a great metaphor. And I agree with you that in a lot of ways it was trying to address the sort of changed state of being that we find ourselves in. Whereas with [George] Lucas, it's as if he has gone away: The part of him that once made some very entertaining films is no longer to be found. I could conceive that War of the Worlds might be a very good film--even though it's certainly possible that [its star] Tom Cruise will have influenced it in profound ways. I think that if Spielberg had been in charge of...oh, God, what was it called? The weather film?


CP: The Day After Tomorrow?


Thomson: The Day After Tomorrow. I think that would have been a better film if it had been directed by Spielberg. I think that film had great potential, too. Because it's dealing with something that we know is not just a game anymore.


CP: In The Whole Equation, apropos of the blacklist, you say: "By 1947, the history of Hollywood cannot be judged properly without considering the malaise of the United States itself." Couldn't the same be said of 2005?


Thomson: Oh, you bet [laughs]. As I was writing The Whole Equation, I came to believe that the brightest days of the movies coincide with a moment where a rather naive but very energetic and well intentioned, idealistic country had its finest hour. The history of movies is so short that we're not accustomed to relating the films to the world around them--in the way that perhaps we are with buildings. We can look at architecture now and see how history was changing. But I think there may be just the same kind of relationship between changing times and the expression of popular culture. And this, I think, is a time of mounting dismay and disappointment for America. It's certainly not the case that everybody in the country feels the dismay. But I think that people who are conscious of American history and understand what the country is about--which is a hell of a lot of people, by the way--are increasingly disturbed by the things America is doing, by the specious justifications for them, and by the degree to which a large part of the population is buying those justifications.


CP: Movies used to play a key role in the national conversation--but not so much anymore. Could we at least identify some of the forces that are preventing what we'd call a critical cinema from existing now where it used to exist in the late '60s and early '70s--roughly the period between, say, Bonnie and Clyde in '67 and Chinatown in '74? You'd say that's a golden age of Hollywood, wouldn't you?


Thomson: Very much so, yeah.


CP: Those were tumultuous times, obviously--and they gave rise to a lot of great American films. You certainly don't want to have a bad political situation in order to have better movies, you know? But we have the bad political situation now and not, by and large, the better movies--not the movies that speak truth to that situation. Why not?


Thomson: Here's the example that works best for me: The burning issue in the early '70s was Watergate. The "system," if you will, had produced terrible flaws--and Nixon and the people around him were not the kind of people you could hope to see running a country. However, the country found ways within the system, within the constitution, to correct that problem. And that was a tremendous source of optimism. What I mean by critical conversation or critical discourse is that while you love your country, while you believe in your country, it is your duty to remain observant, watchful, critical of things that may go wrong--simply because that vigilance is the beginning of the corrective impulse.


CP: The films of that time, by and large, were nothing if not observant of the larger culture.

Thomson: Exactly. They were also tremendous entertainments--and you'd almost have to be an idiot not to see the deeper meaning. It needs to be said that these were popular films--Chinatown, Shampoo, The Godfather, plenty of others I could name. These were not "limited audience" films. But they were made with the understanding that the audience was prepared, for example, to follow complicated plots--where you didn't have everything revealed to you straight away. The characters were complicated, too: The heroes were highly flawed; the villains were fascinating in that you could see how their wickedness grew out of the culture. These films said that living together is difficult, that "happily ever after" is something you have to work at every day. The endings were often dark--so that you walked out of the theater with an awful lot to think about. Why should intelligent people feel that they can only walk out of a theater happy-happy-happy?

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