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


Thomson: I think it is. It has taken a long time for this to shake out, but I think it's the result of the studio system breaking down [in the '60s]. Back when a studio was making, say, 50 films a year, a lot of those films got made in a fairly routine way: They were vehicles for one star or another. And the hope was that they were being made by people who knew their job very well. Everybody said at the time, "Well, you've got to keep on schedule, keep on budget." But you look back at it now and you see that if people did [keep on budget], there was room for producing very interesting things. The trouble now in many ways is that every film is a one-off venture, made with intense examination, intense monetary ambition. Because there are a lot of people making every film now for whom it is the thing--the one thing they're doing--and it's got to be a huge success.


CP: It's counterintuitive to think that Hollywood was better off with more product to manage rather than less.


Thomson: In the old days of the studio system, people could say, "Well, it looks to me this year that A, B, and C are going to be the big movies. And we're obviously going to be taking a great deal of care with them. But S, T, and R--they can sort of look after themselves. And it's the S, T, and R's, if you know what I mean, that in hindsight stand up as the fascinating Hollywood films because they were not under such a microscope. Their makers were free to do interesting things: They changed the scripts, they put in more adventurous camera movements--things like that. I think that was a very healthy system.




CP: Would you say that film criticism has followed a similar downward trajectory? Have critics been told, essentially, "Forget it, Jake--it's Hollywood"?


Thomson: Well, I think they have. Critics are as vain as anyone: They like to be read and they like to matter. I think critics these days feel that their say-so is pretty trivial. Because when films are opening in the way they open now, with this extraordinary surge of promotion, the reviews are pretty peripheral. I don't think many American films, apart from the real independent films, get a lift or [a slump] from reviews. And critics know that, they feel that. And they don't like to feel unimportant. Most of them can remember that age in the '60s and the '70s when people like Kael and [Andrew] Sarris and a few others really made the film critic quite an important figure in the culture. And I think that improved the writing. Because if you feel you're being read with interest by a lot of people, then it sharpens you.


CP: Certainly.


Thomson: And another thing--to go back to those films of the 1970s we were talking about earlier. Even if you were the kind of [critic] who didn't really write about films per se--if you just wrote about their stories, their ideas--there was a hell of a lot to write about! Really interesting things were happening [onscreen]. These days--with a few exceptions--that's just not the case. An awful lot of films are so trivial, so flimsy, that they really don't deserve reviewing: The studios can just run the ads--and that's where the papers are really making their money. Do we need to read a review of the new Longest Yard? I don't think so. And film critics feel that: They feel driven sometimes to be smart-asses, making jokes at the expense of the whole medium--because there's so little to be said about a lot of these films.


CP: What do you think can or should be the role of criticism in this polluted context?


Thomson: Well, I think it's a great moment for critics to talk about the medium as a whole rather than individual films. I think there's a lot going on in the world of screens--which is a much larger world than just movies per se and it's very interesting. I mean, at the moment I would almost rather review some video games than movies--not only because more people are looking at them and because my children are looking at them, which are good reasons, but because I think they're almost more interesting.


CP: They're interactive, at least. Most films these days don't really invite one's active participation.


Thomson: Well, yeah. As far as film writing is concerned, I think there's a lot of room for writing about ideas, current trends, about the business of movies. You notice there are more and more pieces in the New York Times about how Hollywood comes to its decisions. And those pieces are often more interesting than the films that emerge from the decisions. But I don't think you're going to get great film writing again until you have a feeling of enough people being intensely moved by some really great films. Now we're back to where we started [this conversation].

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