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: The most interesting "B movies" now go straight to video and TV, while Hollywood makes only "A pictures" with B content--or C content. It used to be that the summer blockbuster epitomized Hollywood and now that season has stretched to 12 months.


Thomson: The "A movies" are childish in content. A lot of the best writers these days are drawn to television rather than to the movies. Because if you write for the movies, you are, more than ever, in this dreadful committee structure where you get rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Certainly there are corporate structures in television. But the volume of production is the distinguishing factor. Television has to produce a great deal just to fill the air, whereas the movies are always going for the smash hit. There was a time when the studios were very happy with a film if it made a modest profit. Now no one ever dreams of making a modest profit. They may end up making a loss, but what they're aiming at is a huge profit. It's a version of gambling, in other words.


CP: And it's not unique to Hollywood, either.


Thomson: It's there all through the culture.




CP: Are there other exceptions to the rule? Do you hold faith in the rise of documentary cinema?


Thomson: Documentary, at the moment, is more fashionable than it is deeply understood. I don't think there's a strong documentary tradition in this country; I think we tend to measure our documentaries by the gimmickry of the subject. I think the interest is just part of the notion that real life is stranger than fiction. But I still think it's a good thing that people are spending more time watching documentaries. And while the recent documentaries have been highly variable in quality, I'd still rather go and watch documentaries than any of the fiction films playing.


CP: How about fiction? Anything stand out in the last few years?


Thomson: The last few years? I think it's grim.


CP: Is [Michael Mann's] Collateral a film you find interesting?


Thomson: Not nearly as interesting as [his film] Heat. I think Collateral is pretty artificial. But Mann is a real figure--a talent. I certainly look at his films with interest. I thought Collateral was almost a remake of Heat without all the supporting characters that made it rather like an Altman film. Collateral tends to just home in on the central characters, and it's extremely farfetched and fanciful. But Mann shoots things beautifully: He shoots Los Angeles at night as well as it has ever been done. I don't know that there are too many narrative films recently that I think were important. I think Mulholland Dr. was a nearly great film. That's more than a few years ago, though.


CP: David Lynch and Michael Mann have a certain celebrity attached to them as auteurs; they've been able to retain artistic control relative to producers and studio executives.

Thomson: Absolutely. Whereas for instance--and we may differ on this--it seems to me that [Martin] Scorsese has forsaken a great deal of his authorial independence. It seems to me that he now makes films that are almost pastiche Scorsese films--not films that have the originality that his films once had. I think he was a great director at one time. But I think there has been a decline since Raging Bull. Altman can still do it, you know? And maybe one or two others. But not very many. There aren't that many directors anymore who have a personal style.


CP: Fans of some younger directors--Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson--would say that their styles are personal.


Thomson: I like Paul Thomas Anderson very much. I have great hope for him. I like Magnolia very much.


CP: What about David Fincher?


Thomson: Fincher, too, could be great. I think he's a very cold director; something has to happen there, I think. But he's certainly interesting. I'm not trying to say that we don't have talent around. We do have some talent. But last year there were some very disappointing films from some of these younger directors. Like I * Huckabees, I thought, was a forlorn picture from someone I'd had high hopes for.


CP: Forlorn?


Thomson: Yeah. And I think what's happened with [Steven] Soderbergh is pretty distressing. The danger is when these young talents come along and make a breakthrough on their own, but then buy into the system--or get co-opted into the system.


CP: How do we define that system? I'm thinking of Pauline Kael's article from the summer of 1980 called "Why Are Movies So Bad?" It's always amazing to reread that piece: It was so prescient and spot-on about the downward trajectory of Hollywood--no doubt informed at least in part by [Kael's] brief experience as an executive at Paramount. Kael probably would have said in 1980 that things couldn't possibly get any worse for American movies--but of course they have, in just the ways she noticed then: Hollywood power being in the hands of people who are not only uncreative and basically unintelligent, but who seem to want to debase the medium--people who don't even like movies. Is that where we're at?

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