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: You're not saying that all popular movies need to be despairing in order to be good, are you?


Thomson: Oh, no. I'm more than happy to see a dark, despairing film one week and to see an absolute farce the next. The trouble these days is that the kind of film we used to be proudest of--the film that met a general standard of seriousness, intelligence, and sociopolitical awareness--has been all but lost. And anyone in Hollywood today will tell you that. You take Chinatown to a studio today and they're probably not going to make it. And I know that people like [Jack] Nicholson and [Robert] Towne, who were the architects of that film, are as distressed by that fact as anyone.


CP: Should we blame Lucas and Spielberg? Should we blame ourselves?


Thomson: What we've allowed to happen is the domination of the market by audiences of a certain age range. It's certainly true that Lucas and Spielberg together helped bring that younger audience into being. Now that audience determines not just most of the films that are made, but their general nature, their tone. I do think that a lot of people my age--I'm 64--have given up on the movies. The truth is that television, if you pick and choose, is a lot more grown-up and satisfying these days: HBO, for instance.


CP: If series television is addressing the important subject matter more directly than studio movies, is that because TV isn't yet designed, like movies, to reach a global audience? Certainly the movies of that '60s and '70s golden age weren't being engineered to reach literally everyone on the planet.


Thomson: I think you're right. With the inevitable breakdown of network monopoly in television, with the coming of cable and the huge explosion in the number of channels, it became inevitable that at least some of those channels would make do with a modest audience. Executives at those networks would say, "We don't have to reach everybody. We can do some things that we know are going to be offensive or difficult for some people, and we don't mind if we get a reputation for it." A very interesting example, I think, is the show 24. Now, 24 has had its ups and downs in my opinion: I think that's inevitable when you're working as fast as you are in television. But it has also been a pretty smart thriller that has really thrilled; it has hooked people. And as a viewer, you've had to work hard with it: The show doesn't make concessions to those who haven't seen the past episodes. It's shot in a way that's a great deal more interesting than the way most movies are shot today.


CP: Yes.


Thomson: And early in the second season, something quite special happened: Without any announcement of it, 24 started representing torture situations--almost taking them for granted, as if to say, "Well, come on, we all know that after 9/11--and maybe before 9/11--these things happen. Whether they should happen is an interesting argument--but they're happening and here it is." And this was way in advance of what we have begun to discover about our prisons overseas. Here was a popular series that was breaking ground in an absolutely fascinating way--showing not only the very dark reality of torture, but showing the hero of the series as responsible for it. I think that's exactly the kind of thing our movies should be doing [laughs].


CP: Hollywood dramas of the Vietnam era were brutal.


Thomson: I would love to think that someone has got a movie set in Guantánamo at the moment. Because, my God, that must be a hellhole--and also a place where so many American ideas and ideals come into conflict. But I don't think that film is going to get made. And I don't think it's because there's direct censorship involved; I think it's because the business simply says we daren't do that. Well, what the hell tells them they daren't do that? It's their own greed and it's their own cowardice.


CP: It seems odd that something like 24 is allowed to exist at all, much less on the Fox network. Even by big media standards, Fox has a political identity that would seem to run counter to this kind of social criticism.


Thomson: Yes, except I think that Rupert Murdoch is probably very much like the old movie tycoons who would've said, "Well, if it makes money, it's okay." I mean, there's a lot of political stuff on the Fox network that I find either silly or offensive. But you've got to give them credit for 24. And I think the fundamental reason why the producers of that show got away with it is that the show found an audience. If you find an audience, you can generally do anything you can think of.


CP: So even though the downfall of American movies can be traced to the rise of corporations, the problem isn't principally one of corporate control?


Thomson: I don't think it is. If you look at television, you see that it has some advantages over film--in that television production is ridiculously fast compared with movies. And if you've got a hit show, you really do turn it over to the people responsible--the writers, the directors, the producers, the actors. And their ingenuity has a kind of freedom that I think once existed in B pictures. A producer in the '40s and '50s would've said to an Edgar Ulmer [Detour] or someone directing a B picture, "Well, look, if you can do it in 12 days for $120,000, go do it." And that operation wouldn't have gotten nearly as much scrutiny or interference as a big picture. The idea was that a B picture is a thing unto its own, a race against time that requires a terrific degree of expertise and inventiveness--so it's better to just let the guys do it.

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